Tuesday, May 10, 2016

The Clockwork Nightingale, Mini Interview & Excerpt

I'm thrilled to share this series of posts with you. As mentioned last Tuesday, I'll have mini interviews about a story in the anthology Gaslight & Grimm that will be coming our way at the end of May.

Please join me in welcoming this weeks author, Jean Marie Ward, to the blog!

M:  Welcome Jean Marie. It's wonderful to have you by the blog today.

The title, “The Clockwork Nightingale”, caught my eye as it sounds like it would be beautiful with the bird's song. Did any song or music help influence the story for you?

JMW:  Thanks. I’m so glad the story caught your eye—and your ear. Since the story focuses on a singer and her mechanical competition, it’s not surprising “The Clockwork Nightingale” grew a soundtrack while I was writing it. The pieces most important to the plot are:

“Streets of Laredo”
Norma by Vincenzo Bellini and Felice Romani
The Pirates of Penzance by W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan
“The Moon” from The Planets by Gustav Holst
“The Erlkonig” by Franz Schubert
Finally and most crucially, “La Marseillaise” (aka “War Song for the Rhine Army”)

Writers often talk about how a piece surprises them, and this was certainly true for “The Clockwork Nightingale”. I thought it was all about subverting Hans Christian Andersen’s poisonous misogyny by celebrating a woman’s voice, her agency and her mobility. (Take that, “The Little Mermaid” and “Red Shoes”!) But when I sat down to write, it turned out “the Girls in the Basement”, as Jenny Crusie calls them, were having a major side conversation with one of my favorite movies, Casablanca. Anytime you can’t figure out what music is playing in the background, call up something from Max Steiner’s score for Casablanca, and you’re good.

M:  Could you share what your story is about?

JMW:  “The Clockwork Nightingale” tells the story of would-be opera singer Genny Teil. Genny made a devil’s bargain with saloon owner Big Roy King, signing away twelve years of her life in exchange for a life-saving operation. For seven long years she’s honored that contract, singing for the miners and roustabouts who frequent Big Roy’s Empire Saloon. But Big Roy wants to claim her body as well as her voice, and he’s not above committing fraud or violence to achieve his ends. Genny’s future, her very life, is balanced on a knife’s edge.

Then he walks into the bar—Shiro Shimatsuga, the love Genny gave up for lost. But Shiro hasn’t come to save her. He’s brought Big Roy a new toy: an automaton with the voice of an angel, the very thing Big Roy needs to break Genny’s contract and take her by force. Genny’s not about to let that happen, even if it means breaking her clockwork heart.

But she doesn’t know Shiro has one last card to play.

M:  What drew you to tell this particular story?

JMW:  As you may have gathered from my first answer, I’m not a Hans Christian Andersen fan. But by the time I arrived at the Gaslight and Grimm party, all my favorite Grimm stories had been claimed by other authors. Then the anthology’s co-editor, Danielle Ackley-McPhail, suggested casting my fairy tale net further afield. Andersen’s “The Nightingale” immediately sprang to mind. The story is practically Steampunk as written. It revolves around a marvel of early nineteenth century technology, a wind-up bird whose song rivals the real thing. In addition, its theme, the conflict between the natural and mechanical world, is pure Steampunk. Finally, it has the singular advantage of having a less than wretched ending—a rarity among Andersen stories.

I also relished the idea of moving the serving woman and the Japanese ambassador (who presents the mechanical nightingale to the Chinese emperor in the original) to the front of the story. Andersen’s stories routinely punish women for their talents and ambition, and he owned all the nineteenth century’s prejudices about the inherent superiority of white European males. So I set myself the goal of subverting all his tropes in a single story. I like to think his bones have been spinning in their grave ever since I wrote the story’s end.

M:  What steampunk item did you use in the story that you would love to have?

JMW:  It’s not so much something I want for myself, but something I’d love to exist. The world of “The Clockwork Nightingale” is one in which magic co-exists with nineteenth century science, machinery and technology. Shiro is what’s called a magicanist, an artist/engineer whose work combines both magic and technology. “The Clockwork Nightingale” of the story’s title is almost entirely mechanical, a wondrous creation of pistons, gears and tiny, folded steel energy cells, which store and disburse electrical charges like a battery. But he made his reputation by crafting elegant, enameled brass prosthetics for individuals injured in local conflicts. Thanks to the batteries he invented and Territorial physicians’ ability to magically transmit neural impulses along certain types of wires, these prostheses provide full functionality for missing limbs and are only slightly heavier than flesh and bone. Prosthetics in our world have come a long way, thanks to computerization and improved materials, but we still can’t provide functionality, comfort and beauty in a single package. I’d like to think we soon will, but that day is not yet here.

Oh my! This sounds like a magnificent story! Thank you Jean Marie!

An Excerpt from The Clockwork Nightingale

based on The Nightingale


Shiro tugged the snowy cuffs of his shirt. He pressed a pair of studs on the doll’s back. Pistons sighed. The corset’s side front panels lifted on short metal rods. Matching elbow joints folded the panels over the center of the corset. Hissing softly, the panels settled flush against the line of beads marking the corset’s center front.

The operation exposed oblongs of stretched black mesh. Genny whistled softly. As if the Nightingale wasn’t loud enough already, Shiro had incorporated covered horns, like the ones used in speaking tubes, to further amplify her voice. It wasn’t the doll’s movements Genny had to worry about; it was the volume.

She retreated upstage, trying to get behind the horns without spooking the crowd. For the first time in all her years at the Empire, she thanked the Saints for the perpetual glare of the Empire’s mage-bulb chandeliers. The bright lights shining on the gaming tables meant there was no need for footlights. Stout metal casings shielded the mage-bulb spotlights suspended between the battens. Their glass wasn’t as thick as the exposed bulbs of the chandeliers, but at that height, they should be safe.

“Please, turn to the song index at the back of the book, and read out the four-digit number next to ‘Nera’s Death Scene’,” Shiro said.

After seeing what a pair of beads could do, it came as no surprise that the flowers on the Nightingale’s corset served as dials. As Roy read each digit, Shiro twisted a different blossom on the back of the corset a corresponding number of petals to the right. Fascinated in spite of herself, Genny couldn’t help but keep track: two, four, nine, one. Did each of the flowers, leaves, beads, and spangles govern a different function? No wonder the doll’s instruction book was so thick.

Shiro called for silence. After a quick shuffle of feet and the scrape of a few chairs, the room quieted. Even the off-duty sheriff’s deputy manning the gun check turned to the stage.

With a crisp flick of his arm, he presented his creation, exactly like the magician she’d compared him to. He pressed a white button between the automaton’s shoulder blades and stepped back, somehow managing to draw level with Genny without glancing in her direction. She willed herself not to cover her ears.

“Woe!” the Clockwork Nightingale shrieked. In high C.

The crystal champagne glasses on Big Roy’s table exploded in a hail of slivers. Sharp citrus fumes of champagne joined the odors of beer, sweat, and drying wool rising from the main floor. Roy started to swear, changed his mind and forced out a laugh as the bartender and waiter girls ducked under the bar. The mirrors shook in their frames, but withstood the blast as well as the thick, everyday barware. Not so the watch faces of the patrons near the stage.

A railroad engineer Genny knew by sight shouted at Big Roy: “That was my papa’s watch, you son of a bitch!”

That’s what she thought he said, at any rate. Thanks to the horns, the Nightingale’s voice was big enough to fill the largest theater without sacrificing clarity, pitch, or the miraculous sweetness of its tone. Genny had never heard the aria sung so musically, as if some celestial instrument had been given human voice, or a siren had taken her melody to land. Eventually even the angry engineer succumbed. His eyes glazed with awe.

Only one aspect was lacking: the music had no context. Nera was being burnt at the stake. The infamous trills were her death throes, echoing the rising flames. Yet the Nightingale’s voice registered neither the agonies of the fire nor the exultation of martyrdom. The stage directions called for Nera’s chains to “miraculously” fall away in the middle of the aria, permitting her to clasp the flames in a final, symbolic embrace. But in the absence of emotion—or anything holding her down—the abrupt transition from singing stock to flailing arms looked more than a little ridiculous.

Meanwhile, the trills went on and on.

The reaction started with a quickly muffled snicker from somewhere near Roy’s table. Soon there were more. Not many. The automaton’s performance was a true marvel, worthy of the applause that greeted her final note. But it wasn’t programmed for passion, and as for dying, it couldn’t manage that at all.

At Shiro’s command, the automaton retreated upstage. Genny minced forward, eyes as wide and girlish as her ruined make-up allowed.

“Oops,” she squeaked in Soprano C, minus the Nightingale’s glass-shattering force.

A few people tittered nervously. Big Roy snarled, “What the hell are you playing at?”

“I’m not playing.” She pretended to pout. “That’s the first note of my song.”


About the Author:
Jean Marie Ward writes fiction, nonfiction and everything in between, including novels (2008 Indie Book double-finalist With Nine You Get Vanyr) and art books. Her stories appear in numerous anthologies, such as The Modern Fae’s Guide to Surviving Humanity, The Clockwork Universe: Steampunk vs. Aliens, and Tales from the Vatican Vaults. The former editor of Crescent Blues, she co-edited the six-volume, 40th anniversary World Fantasy Con anthology Unconventional Fantasy and is a frequent contributor to BuzzyMag.com. Her website is JeanMarieWard.com.

Order Gaslight & Grimm now:
Release day, May 29, 2016.


  1. Replies
    1. Thanks for joining us, Blodeuedd. Hope you enjoy the book when it's *finally* released. (User stares balefully at waving editor. Why isn't she editing or something?) ;-)

  2. I keep seeing this one around! :)

    1. LOLOL...we're tenacious that way ;) And really, REALLY excited about the book. We're so glad everyone else seems to be too :) Thanks for reading!

    2. That's good to hear, LilyElement. It means our strategy for taking over the world is working. ;-) Seriously, thanks for reading. I hope you'll enjoy the book.

    3. That's awesome to hear LilyElement! Hope you are liking what you see too. :) Thank you for visiting.

  3. What an interesting concept. I like that it became a way to get back at HCA. I really enjoyed the interview and the excerpt. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Thanks for reading, Jaclyn. I agree, Jean Marie did a fantastic job!

    2. Thanks for reading, Jaclyn. I agree, Jean Marie did a fantastic job!

    3. Thanks, Jaclyn. It may be petty, but I like happy endings in my fairy tales, and HCA so often, so brutally disappoints. Thanks for the kind words Jaclyn. I hope you'll enjoy the finished story--and the whole anthology. Teasing aside, all the writers, the artist, and our editors Danielle and Diane did a great job.

    4. Wonderful to hear Jaclyn! So glad you enjoyed the post. :)

  4. Thanks to everyone who read and commented! I'm commenting here so I can get follow-up notifications--and hopefully respond faster. And thanks again to Melissa for giving me this opportunity.

    1. Jean Marie, I'm so glad you agreed to the post. It's a wonderful sounding story and my pleasure to have you by!


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