Anyone who's ever attended a Cherie Priest reading knows that the Q&A session is the main event. The local sci-fi author speaks with the urgent, nerdy energy of someone who has spent a lot of time on internet message boards—the word "epic," the phrase "You're doing it wrong," the use of "win," as in "full of..."—and she has a refreshing, unguarded whatever-goes honesty that you almost never hear at book readings. She'll talk royalties and sales figures and insidery publishing information to anyone who shows an interest. In almost all of her promotional photos, Priest wears elaborate Victorian clothing and top hats, but when we meet for coffee at Victrola, she wears a relatively understated Wonder Woman T-shirt and a cardigan, though her hair is still bright Kool-Aid blue. She freely admits that she's made only $10,000 this year off her breakout sci-fi novel Boneshaker, which is why she still needs a day job.
But everyone figures it's just a matter of time before she leaves the day job behind forever. Boneshaker wasn't a debut (in fact, it was her seventh book), but it basically launched a new career for Priest. The novel—about a mother looking for her teenage son in 1880s-era Seattle, in a world where the Civil War just kept dragging on, where dirigibles dot the sky and zombies (here called "rotters") are starting to scrabble to the surface—was the last book in a contract with Priest's publisher Tor, and nobody was expecting much from it. The book sold out second, third, and fourth printings in quick succession, becoming the kind of word-of-mouth success that authors dream about. Suddenly, she's a decade-in-the-making overnight superstar, headlining science-fiction conventions, earning hundreds of column inches of mainstream press attention, and spearheading steampunk—more about this later—as a literary movement.
Boneshaker was the first in a series of connected novels called The Clockwork Century, about this alternate-history United States, plagued by zombies and aeronautic pilots. (The books overlap characters and plots, but you don't strictly have to read them in order. Priest cites Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels as an influence; you can read them singly, but the experience richens with every book you read.) Boneshaker was born out of Priest's love affair with the Underground Tour in Pioneer Square in particular and weird historical facts in general. You get the impression that in another life, she would have been the coolest history professor you ever had as she bubbles along about the importance of New Orleans in the Civil War or the role of warfare in technological advances, her hands flitting about like hungry birds. Priest gets really angry when she hears a misinterpretation of history; she still fumes over the time she asked a fourth-grade Southern history teacher (a self-described "army brat," she lived all around the South before settling here) about why the textbook was all about old white men. "Did women do anything?" she asked. The teacher's response: "No, not really." She's still blown away by the casual dismissiveness. "But it's half of the people. Half of the people are ladies." She goes on a tear, listing women who played important roles in Southern history before concluding about the teacher, "He was a mean old man, and I didn't like him."
As much as she adores history, it's obvious that Priest's first love is sci-fi; she's a true nerd, putting lots of thought into why people love reading about airships and monsters. When asked if she worries that the bottom is going to drop out of the zombie or steampunk market, her immediate response is, "Of course," but she makes an impassioned defense of both. She came at steampunk, she says, "from an elder goth angle." She was attracted to being a goth by the "theatrical sadness" inherent in the lifestyle, but now "I'm 35 and I'm not sad anymore, but the desire to be theatrical, to play dress-up, doesn't go away."
Steampunk "overlaps really nicely with the makers and the DIY movement," she says, saying that we all have phones mass-produced in China and we can "see ourselves from space on them, but God help you if you drop them in the bathtub." The love of "durable tech" that is handmade and beautiful, she says, is a "reaction to planned obsolescence," to the thin, fragile screens that are taking over our lives.
Priest ties that in to her interest in zombies. Zombie fiction, she says, "is not just descriptive; it's prescriptive. When the grid goes down, when civilization goes away, how do we survive?" But at the heart of it, she admits, "zombies are fun." She refutes people who complain about the steampunk trend or the prevalence of zombie fiction in modern-day sci-fi: "Those people are not having fun, and we do not want to play with them. There is nothing punk about allowing other people to tell you how to participate in your hobby." If her fans are having fun, she says, "that's winning. I'm glad to see that kind of winning."
The most common complaints about Priest's writing are that passages can become aimless and that she repeats words artlessly ("astonishing," say, crops up every other page for a few dozen pages, before disappearing from the book). Most of these complaints can be sourced back to the fact that Priest is an exceptionally fast writer. On her blog at www.cheriepriest .com, she keeps a running tally of the number of words she's written every day (a good day is well over 2,000 words), how close she is to the finish of her current book, and how many words she has written over the year (at the time of this writing: 233,120). And she's writing, as she puts it, "without a net." When she sits down to write a book, she knows how it will begin and how it will end, but she basically figures it out as she goes along, one word at a time. It's a literary tradition that goes back at least as far as the pulps and dime novels of the 1920s and '30s, and that coarseness critics find in her books is not so much a flaw as an indication of the book's roots.
And with every book, Priest uses the pulp-writing style more and more to her own advantage. Her newest novel, Dreadnought, is by far her best yet. Dreadnought tells the story of a Virginia nurse named Mercy Lynch who must travel to Tacoma in the middle of the protracted mess that is Priest's Civil War. Along the way, Lynch encounters a dirigible crash; giant human-operated, steam-and-gas-powered battle robots; and the war train that gives the book its title. It's a propulsive, breathless read, an action movie that tears across the country, stopping just long enough to take snapshots of the race and gender politics of the time, to put a human face on history.
There's plenty of action, but the real heart of the book comes when Lynch jumps in as a combat medic during a long battle sequence. Most novelists would keep their eyes squarely trained on the bullets and valor and drama of the fight, but Priest follows Lynch from injured soldier to injured soldier as she provides stopgap measures to try to save their lives. It's a brilliant passage, focusing as it does on the men who have suddenly reverted back to the mewling boys that they really are, turning to a woman for comfort and guidance in their time of need. Priest reveals Lynch's character through action, and her story feels like an important one: honest, real, and meaningful. By any metric, that's good writing. And then Priest almost immediately turns from this intense scene to a gory, operatic battle between humans and zombies. You can almost hear her giggling as she pounds it out on her keyboard.