In this week’s Author Spotlight, we ask author Megan Arkenberg to tell us a bit about her story for Fantasy, “Lessons From a Clockwork Queen.”
I was drafting another short story and needed a title for an imaginary comedy of manners about a bankrupt heiress and her wholly unsuitable husband. After coming up with “The Clockwork Bridegroom,” I found myself picturing a young girl—too young to be the comedy’s heroine—creeping up the stairs in the early morning to wind up her husband. Somewhere between that mental image and the first written page of “Lessons,” the husband became a queen, and I knew there was an assassin lurking in the staircase’s shadows.
I thought the morbid scenario ending with Bethany’s death, and its morbid warning about carrying all one’s eggs in one basket, might be all there was to the story, and I set the draft aside. But for the rest of the day, I kept thinking up more intrigues and inconveniences to which a clockwork queen and her winding girls would be susceptible. Lodestones, unsuitable spouses, sibling rivalries, trolls…
“Lessons from a Clockwork Queen” has an interesting structure. Every section ends with a brief moral. (“And that is why…”) This, of course, ties into the title of the story. Which came first: The title or the structure? Why structure a story around lessons?
The story began with Bethany, her unfortunate demise, and the first lesson. At the time, I was pretty sure the story would be called “The Clockwork Queen.” Then, as I added more about the aftermath of Bethany and Violet’s assassination, I added the other lessons to tie the new sections back to the first one. Then I changed the title.
As the story went through revisions, I reworked some of the lessons (and sometimes changed them back again!) to be sillier and less predictable. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was tempting to fall back on “true love conquers all,” “don’t try to deceive your lover because your true character will always be revealed,” “don’t over-rationalize love,” etc. These morals are still pretty obvious in the stories about Cassia and Violet, Henry and Iris, and Isaac and Cassia, respectively, but I hope the stranger lessons assigned to them leave more room for interpretation—or are more entertaining, at least!
Let’s talk a moment about worldbuilding: How did this fairy tale world come to be? Did it develop organically? Or did you have the world in mind prior to writing the story?
The world definitely emerged as I wrote the first draft. Though I had some vague ideas about who or what would appear in each section, the settings and anchoring details were a complete surprise. I didn’t know the kingdom of the clockwork queens had a stationer’s guild until they declared a holiday and their master stationer married a male Cinderella!
This is very different from how I normally write and worldbuild; the setting is one of the few things I’ve always pictured vividly before I start drafting. It was fun and exciting to write this story without worrying too much about fitting each detail into the imaginary world—but I have to confess that one detail bothered me endlessly. In a rather nonreligious story, should Abigail really be standing godmother for Mephistopheles’ children? But the idea that nonhuman creatures might have humans as their version of fairy godmothers was too tempting to pass up.
I’ve read a few of your stories that have involved love affairs with clockwork items. (“The Celebrated Carousel of the Margravine of Blois” which was also published in Fantasy Magazine comes immediately to mind.) When asked about clockworks in our previous spotlight, you declared: “For me, clockwork is about rationality, empiricism, cause-and-effect, and that’s the association I was reaching for in ‘The Celebrated Carousel of the Margravine of Blois.'” Would this statement apply to this story as well? Why or why not?
“Lessons” is cause-and-effect run amuck. Everything about it, the title, the structure, the words “if” and “then” and “so” popping up in every paragraph, pretends to be a long chain of logical outcomes. The queen died, so the councilors bought a new queen; the new queen was beautiful, so she needed a husband; the husband collected postage stamps, so three sisters fought over him. Of course the outcomes aren’t really rational. Each section is like a little gear turning the next, which turns the next, until the penultimate gear is turning the first gear, but in the opposite direction!
I couldn’t really escape my association of clockwork and logical cause-and-effect. It even appears explicitly in the text: “Clockmakers are by nature quite rational, and [Isaac] was even more rational than most.” But in this particular story, the logic is dream logic. It carries one section into the next, but falls apart when the entire picture is taken into account.
Why do trolls always require tolls?
Poor trolls and their mispronunciations. I imagine they used to talk about “troll bridges” to humans, who thought they were saying “toll bridges” and began to pay in order to cross. The trolls were a bit confused at first, but they decided it was much nicer to demand tolls at their bridges than to continue storming well-armed castles to hold princes and princesses for ransom, which was their original source of income.
As to the particular toll in the story, I wanted to give the troll some goals and desires of her own. She isn’t greedily hoarding gold; she just wants to build herself a house and sew a nice silk suit. And she’s open to negotiation. I hear an adventurer once gave her an entire orchard of apples, and that adventurer now has the equivalent of an I-Pass [an electronic toll collection system – eds.].
Your publication list keeps growing and growing. Congratulations! What do your fans have to look forward to in the near future?
My big exciting news is that “The Celebrated Carousel of the Margravine of Blois” will be appearing in The Mammoth Book of Steampunk next year. The idea of being on the same table of contents as two of my heroes, Catherynne M. Valente and Caitlin Kiernan (and many other talented writers), makes me inarticulate with glee.