All Men of Genius was a book that really stuck with me, in part because I enjoyed it so much. Also because I really respected Rosen’s new take on a period in history that has been written about again….and again…. and again. I thought, when I read his book, that I’d love to interview him. Lucky me, Tor eventually contacted me and asked if I’d be wiling to do just that. I jumped at the opportunity!
Also, I need to congratulate the author on the success of his wonderful book and the release of it’s paperback form. He’s really managed to smash into the speculative fiction pool gracefully, successfully and memorably. Not a small feat.
About the Author
Lev AC Rosen is the author of the critically acclaimed All Men of Genius, which was an Amazon Best of the month, on over a dozen best of the year lists, and has been nominated for multiple awards. Publisher’s Weekly says it “puts a steampunk spin on the Victorian comedy of manners while sneakily critiquing the gender biases of both genres.” The Onion’s A.V. Club declares that it “slyly examines the psychology and the aesthetics behind the act of human invention,” and Locus Magazine says it “mixes genres with fearless panache.”
At 22, Lev’s short story Painting was the inaugural piece for the ‘New Voices’ section of the renowned Esopusmagazine. He has written articles on steampunk, postmodernism, and writing for numerous blogs, including booklifenow and tor.com.
Lev has studied with David Young, David Walker, David Hollander, and many people not named David, including Mary LaChapelle, Ernesto Mestre-Reed, Paul Lisicky, Whitney Otto, Arnost Lustig, Brian Morton, Joan Silber, and Dan Chaon. He received his BA from Oberlin College and his MFA in Creative Writing from Sarah Lawrence College.
Lev is originally from lower Manhattan and now lives in even lower Manhattan, right at the edge. He teaches creative writing, and is hard at work on something new, he promises.
Lev is currently represented by Joy Tutela, of the David Black Literary Agency.
Onto the Interview
First things first, you live in Manhattan. I hope you survived Sandy with minimal destruction.
Yes, thank you. It’s a fun story. We got married on the 27th, the day before, and we live waaaay downtown, right by the water. The place we got married was just a few blocks away, so we got married, and it was beautiful! And then we went home and the storm hit, and we watched the water from our window – it flooded the streets outside completely. We had a moat. There are some photos on my blog. It was crazy. Then we had to go stay with my old roommate for a week, until water and heat and power came back. But we’re lucky; we were, for the most part, fine. Lost some stuff in basement storage, had to stay with friends. But we didn’t lose our house or anything. There are still people without power, living in shelters. It’s awful.
When you aren’t writing, what could someone typically find you doing?
I watch a lot of TV. More than is strictly healthy, I suspect. But it’s a great way to listen to stories without reading – and reading can be dangerous if I’m deep in the writing of something. Someone else’s voice gets in your head… but TV for some reason doesn’t usually stick like that with me. I also love crafty projects, so I make sponge cutouts and print on clothes, and I dye stuff. Now I’m trying to make a belt out of my grandmother’s old lampshade (The one thing in storage that survived Sandy. The lamp is gone, but the lampshade remained). And, of course, I live in NYC. There are plenty of things to do here, museums, bars… etc.
Your website says that you’ve written numerous articles about steampunk and postmodernism. What is it about steampunk and postmodernism that interests you so much?
I think steampunk is a form of postmodernism. I mean, there are many interpretations of post modernism (which makes sense), but the one I most ascribe to is the idea that it’s about showing every point of view as valid, about combining lots of voices, about taking things from this person and that person and this time period and that time period and mixing them all together to create a piece of art. Steampunk is about taking things from the past and the future and pieces of metal and steam and welding them all together into something. So to me, steampunk is about showing lots of different viewpoints and voices. I know not everyone agrees, but that’s why it appeals to me.
You have an MFA in creative writing. While many authors don’t have degrees in creative writing, you do. I’m interested in how your study in creative writing has helped your writing. What has your degree taught you that you couldn’t have learned without it?
I loved getting my MFA. The big thing it gave me was time to write and people to workshop with. You can write all you want, but if you don’t learn to workshop – and I mean a real workshop, not just showing it to your mom who says its wonderful or to your friend who says “this needs work” and you get defensive and never show them anything again. You need people who get together, sit down and say “how do we make this better?” I cannot overstate the value of that. And the fact that some of those people are published authors who know the industry and can give you advice and talk to you about your voice and your weaknesses… that’s what I couldn’t have done without. It’s not required, by any means, but it makes you confident and I think it really pushes you forward and it gives you a community.
Has anything about the publication and reception of All Men of Genius surprised you? Is there anything that you’ve learned about being an author since having your book published and reviewed so much?
To never look at Goodreads. Seriously. Or, if you do, to first go find your favorite book and read some 1-star reviews of it (that’s advice from Mary Robinette Kowal, and I highly recommend following it). Everyone is going to react differently to your book – some won’t have any idea what you’re trying to do, some will and will hate it, some will and will love it. But you need to learn not to take it personally, even when reviewers choose to interpret things about you from your book. Although, in all honesty, those are usually so filled with assumptions that they end up being hilarious. I was a little surprised as to how people reacted to the sex in the book. A lot of people assume because the protagonist is 17 and the cover is young looking that it’s a YA novel. It is not. It’s got some elements, certainly, but it is not intended as YA at all. And some people feel sex toys and gay people and men who are sexually attracted to older women are all perverse. So that surprised me a bit. Just cause I sort of feel like sex is sex, and it’s usually pretty weird.
The biggest thing, though, is how little actually changes. You still gotta get that next book out, you still need to keep writing and publicizing and working. Being published doesn’t make your career as a writer different or easier. It’s the same as before, you just have a book out now. And something to show for it when people ask what you do (although, worth noting, half of them will instantly assume your self-published and then look down on you for it. These people get off on making you feel small. Avoid them. The people who excitedly say “that sounds fantastic! I can’t wait to read it!” are the ones to keep around).
Publishers Weekly says All Men of Genius “puts a steampunk spin on the Victorian comedy of manners while sneakily critiquing the gender biases of both genres.” That’s quite a lot to accomplish in one novel. How did you manage to balance all of these different elements? Were you ever worried that some elements would overpower others?
Well, Publishers Weekly is very kind. I don’t know exactly what I did, but the book is very long, so that helped me get a lot of stuff in it. And yes, I was occasionally worried some stuff would overpower others, or that those moments I spent in the minor characters’ heads would be seen as extraneous, but I wanted to keep to the Victorian method of storytelling, and they enjoyed long books, and they loved omniscient because it let them show all these different points of view. And admittedly, these points of view were almost always of wealthy white people, but I thought it would be fun to use that technique to show the thoughts of the people who normally didn’t get a voice in the Victorian novel. So I went with it. A lot got cut before it was done.
An obviously important element of All Men of Genius was your ability to push gender and sexuality boundaries. These issues are obviously important to you. Were you ever worried about how readers would receive your book with so many pushed boundaries in it?
It’s funny – the answer to this is like the “what were you surprised by?” question, because, well, this. I didn’t think I was pushing much of an envelope. Women deserving equal rights? Gay people existing? Sex toys? All this seems totally normal to me.
There’s a seemingly constant, avid discussion among bloggers and authors about whether or not authors can accurately write characters of the opposite sex. With all the pushing of gender and sexual boundaries that take place in All Men of Genius, I wonder what your take on this argument would be?
Of course they can, provided they remember that people of the opposite sex are, in fact, people. It means allowing yourself to get into someone else’s head, no matter their sex, sexuality, background, skin color, etc., and saying “Okay, how is this person? What made them like this? What are experiences a woman might face that a man wouldn’t?” I think many authors are unwilling or unpracticed in doing that, and so you end up with women who are just men with breasts, or women who are clearly just there to be foils for men. But that’s the important thing to remember about writing any character; what has the character experienced that makes them who they are? And if you don’t think about how gender, race, sexuality, etc. influences that, then you’re not being imaginative enough, or you’re scared of acknowledging these differences for some reason.
One of the things that really impressed me with All Men of Genius was how much the protagonist, Violet, loved learning and was passionate about her inventions. She had to overcome some huge gender obstacles to be in a place that allowed her to flourish, which made her journey even more touching. Along with this, you had to create a Victorian world and make Violet’s struggles believable in that context. How much research went into all of this? Were you ever worried about how believable her plight would be?
I studied Victorian lit in college, along with creative writing, so I did a lot of research. I have a lot of books on clothes, manners, etc. So in answer to the question about how much research: lots and lots. As for how believable her plight was, I wasn’t concerned. This was how it was at the time. Women usually didn’t receive higher education. It was changing, but the more prestigious schools were changing slowly, and I thought to myself, what if there was a character who needed them to change faster? Who deserved it? Victorian society was extremely repressive for women; all those bodice rippers you see where an upper crust lady does all sorts of naughty things and then gets in trouble – total fiction. A woman couldn’t get away with having lots of sex with random men before marriage, she couldn’t be seen naked, she couldn’t walk around alone without getting in trouble. It’s easy to romanticize the era and talk about lady adventuresses, and if you read a lot of steampunk you might be inclined to imagine a lady adventuress on every corner. But it wasn’t like that. Exceptions, like Ada Byron, occurred, but usually after a lot of hardship and their lives weren’t great towards the end. So I wasn’t worried about her plight being believable. I just knew I needed to show history.
I can’t help but wonder how you came up with many of the wonderful steampunk ideas that you fill your book with. Do you have any inspiration you’d care to share? (I realize this question is totally cliché, but I just had to ask.)
I don’t have any particular inspiration, honestly. I read stuff on the web and when an idea hits me, I write it down, and then I work it into the steampunkness. Sometimes I knew I needed an invention to do a particular thing, so I work backwards. But I had as much trouble coming up with Violet’s end of the year project as she did. I knew it would probably have to fight and that it would have to give her a hiding space to change clothes. But I struggled with it a long while before I came up with the now seemingly obvious choice.
Do you think you’ll stick with steampunk, or would you eventually like to venture into other genres?
I love the world I’ve created, but I’m already on to other genres. I don’t like to limit myself, which I’ve been told isn’t great for my career (people seem to think readers are unwilling to follow authors from place to place), but I’m steampunked out. On to something else. For now. But I’ll be back.