To the left is an image of co-authors, Chris and Jen Sugden. To the right is a digital mock-up image of the GSFF edition of their book, High Vaultage.

Author Q&A: Delving into Alternative History with Chris and Jen Sugden

In 2017, husband and wife duo Chris and Jen Sugden launched the Victoriocity podcast, following a start up private investigator agency in 19th century England. But this isn't the Victorian England we're familiar with - the Industrial Revolution took a very different turn with an engineer-army led by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, electricity being cast through the sky from a tower on the Isle of Wight powering the strangest mechanisms of the city and, possibly our favourite element of this book, a Queen Victoria who has had her consciousness uploaded to a robot to continue her reign past a regular human lifespan. All in all, an alternative history with the strangest sci-fi twists.

With no doubt there'd be a novel's worth of content, this led to a whole new adventure for Archibald Fleet and Clara Entwhistle taking the form of High Vaultage.

 

1. Where did the idea for the concept of Victoriocity come from?

[Chris] The original idea (almost 15 years ago now) was to write something set in the city of ‘Even Greater London’, a vast, technologically advanced Victorian megalopolis that had spread across the southern half of England. There were a few immediate influences: Jen was studying Victorian sensation and detective literature, and I was studying Science and Technology Studies and reading a lot of classic sci-fi, as well as some of the Victorian sensation books Jen had stacked up. So those ideas intermingled to suggest an alt-Victorian story. The idea of the never-ending growth of London must be in part because we are both from the north of England, and wanting to represent, in physical scale, the strangeness of London’s dominance over the rest of the country. I had the city idea and one of the key protagonists, Inspector Fleet, but I was not ready as a writer back then to tackle it, so I shelved it. Years later, Jen and I had been writing together for some time, and we picked it up as an idea to develop together as an audio drama podcast.

[Jen:] The idea of starting Victoriocity as an audio drama specifically came during our second run at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival with our comedy troupe. We’d started out writing comedy for live theatre, which is enormous fun but it also takes a huge amount of work to write and develop a live show only for it to be performed a few dozen times. An audio drama podcast seemed like the logical next step: it was still scripted like theatre, but allowed for us to reach an audience across the world who could listen at their leisure. As Chris says, when we had the idea to turn our hand to scripted podcast fiction, we realised his idea for a detective mystery set in the world of ‘Even Greater London’ would work very nicely, and, well, here we are.

[Chris:] I will add that it was Jen’s idea to complement Fleet with the sunny, new-to-the-city journalist Clara Entwhistle – and their dynamic is the heart of these stories.
 

2. What was the writing process like, moving from an audio drama podcast to a novel?

[Chris:] They’re both interesting in different ways. In audio, it’s extremely dialogue-heavy, and you have sound effects to build the surroundings. And you have more or less no direct sense of the characters’ thoughts: it’s all indirect, from what they say and don’t say. That’s interesting because it’s how things are in life: we don’t know what the people around us are thinking, we can only infer it from what they say and how they behave. In prose, you can go right into their minds and contrast their thoughts with what’s happening around them, which feels like cheating! And the timing of events is completely different – you read that a window has shattered rather than simply hearing it, for example. We’re writing a humorous detective thriller, so moment-by-moment timing is crucial, both when you’re trying to make someone laugh and when you’re trying to make them fear for the characters. It’s been a lot of fun to play with the different techniques of these different media – it’s like playing different musical instruments (I imagine!). You just play with what each does best.

[Jen:] It’s been really fun to transition to a new medium and learn more about the strengths of each. As well as being able to dive into the inner lives of characters more, the world-building has also required a different approach: in audio, a lot is achieved through our incredible sound designers, but in prose we get to flesh out the details through description. But in terms of the overall art of writing together, much of the process has remained the same. Just as with the podcast, for the novel we plotted the story, decided locations, and developed the characters and their arcs together. We then split the writing into chapters and write these separately, before passing over our drafts to each other for editing.

3. Do either of you have more of a connection to or influence on a particular character?

[Chris:] We both write all of the characters, but no doubt we find different connections to them all. Fleet and Clara I’m sure represent some aspects of our personalities, with, respectively, their weary acceptance and enthusiastic embrace of novel, fantastical surroundings, which we all oscillate between to some extent. Detective Chief Inspector Keller – who reluctantly engages Fleet and Clara to investigate matters beyond Scotland Yard’s capacity – is fun to write because he is such an extreme: he’s totally out of place in the city, demanding unreasonable survival skills of everyone he works with, and is utterly bewildered by Fleet’s failure to anticipate and fend off frequent dangerous encounters. There is something primordial about the way he thinks of the world, which makes for constant tension as he pushes his detectives, harshly, along the right path.

[Jen:] As Chris mentioned, the suggestion to create a pair of protagonists, rather than having one central protagonist, came from me, and I proposed Clara Entwhistle, the lady journalist and detective. Because of this I do feel a real affinity with her. She’s mostly modelled on plucky lady detectives from largely forgotten nineteenth-century detective fiction such as Wilkie Collins’ Valeria Woodville in The Law and the Lady (1875), or Miss Gladden from Andrew Forrester’s The Female Detective (1864), but there are definitely elements of my personality that creep in: particularly her desire to be friends with everyone, taking too much on, and her tendency to leap before she looks! Chris and I also perform a lot of improvised comedy, which relies on distinctive characters, and those often tend to find their way into the book or podcast series: e.g. screeching coffee shop owners (me), or morose and lonely pathologists (Chris). But, overall, as our work is edited by both of us, most characters are influenced to varying degrees by us both.

4. If there was another period in time you would bring this concept to, when would it be and why?

[Chris:] There’s plenty to keep us busy in this period! A similar question though is what is happening beyond the waters of the United Kingdom. There’s a cold war of sorts with Prussia, and at this time the USA was growing into a superpower. Both are very interesting… but there’s still a lot of ground in Even Greater London to explore!

[Jen:] Oh, good question! I think, for me, I’d be really interested to see what 1940s Los Angeles would be like. I’d love to write a film-noir-inspired version of our world. But first, we have another Fleet and Clara mystery to finish!

 

A note from the authors:

For anyone who's read High Vaultage, we hope you've enjoyed it! If you're after more from Inspector Fleet, Clara Entwhistle and the world of Even Greater London, there are multiple seasons of the audio drama Victoriocity available for free on all podcast players for you to sink your ears into – including our third season which we are currently in the middle of. And, as a bonus for GSFF members, we're giving away our Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Even Greater London, an in-world guide to some of the things and places of the city where High Vaultage is set. The encyclopaedia assumes some prior knowledge of the story world and so is definitely best read after reading High Vaultage, or listening to Victoriocity, or both, but whenever you'd like a copy just email jensugdenauthor@gmail.com, mention you're a GSFF member and you'll get a PDF of the encyclopaedia sent back to you. Enjoy! Chris & Jen

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