Here’s the text from my talk at the Indiana Library Federation Conference. Thanks to Indiana Humanities for the opportunity.

“DREAMING OF A BETTER WORLD” aka How Pimp My Airship Came to Be

Back in 2009, a horror writer wondered why I kept talking about my latest story, “Pimp My Airship,” because it was such a departure from what I usually did. I’d spent the previous ten years building my reputation as a horror writer, having already published a couple dozen short stories by that time. But I sensed, even then, that this story was the beginning of something new for me. A new direction. A new potential. Because I was looking to write something new.

Now some of you know how the story “Pimp My Airship” came into being. It began as a joke on Twitter. I didn’t know much about the steampunk genre. Folks dressed in Victorian clothing and there were a lot of gears … that was about it. Enough to make a joke on Twitter: “I’m gonna write a steampunk story with an all-black cast and call it ‘Pimp My Airship.’” That was it. That was the post. I was ready to move on but then a half dozen editors reached out to me for me to send the story to them when it was finished.

I’m never so published, especially then, that when an editor asks to see work that I’d pass up the opportunity. But I knew that I needed to do more research on the genre.

Steampunk is weird to explain. It’s a retro-futuristic subgenre that mixes future technology and aesthetic designs with culture inspired by the 19th-century Victorian era. Basically, imagine alternate histories where future tech is powered by steam. Think H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

So I began reading a lot in the genre, mostly short stories. The anthology Extraordinary Engines and the VanderMeer’s anthologies, Steampunk and Steampunk II. After several dozen stories, I couldn’t escape this feeling that this genre had this weird … unspoken longing. Like it looked by to the good ol’ days … without people that looked like me. It was like a subgenre with a near systematic erasure of black people.

And I was like … “I can’t do this.”

But I really wanted to send something to these editors. So I popped in some Parliament-Funkadelic and began dreaming. I got caught up in their mythology, starting with the Star Child and the idea of a Bop Gun, and imagined an alternate history. One where America lost the Revolutionary War and remains a colony of England. I’m also a British citizen. One where Jamaica is its own world power. My mom’s a Jamaican citizen. One where black people are in the world and a part of the culture. I’m, uh, black.

I began telling the tale of three conspirators:

A lay-about named Sleepy

A professional social agitator named 120 Degrees of Knowledge Allah

A rogue, female scientist named Deaconess Blues

United to free the Star Child, a popular social activist and community organizer, from prison. Three of my favorite characters I’ve ever created.

The story was published in Apex Magazine. Its editor, Jason Sizemore, was a huge champion of the original short story. I originally sent it to him for an anthology he was editing because Apex was on hiatus. He wrote me back and said “I’m rejecting this story because it’s too good for this anthology. I’m bringing back Apex, let me publish it in there.” 

The story was well-received. Um, really well-received. Requests began pouring in for more stories. Hang on, let me back up: there was one critique, a constant in many of the reviews. Folks kept saying that I’d crammed a whole novel into a short story. People wanted to see more of the world. Well, two things:

-One, I do the same level of world-building work for a short story as I do a novel

-Two, they were only paying me for a short story. So that’s all they were getting.

But the requests came in which gave me the excuse to build out the “Pimp My Airship” world a bit.

            -I wrote more about Deaconess Blues and her history at Oxford University

            -I wrote about Knowledge Allah and his involvement with his activism

            -I wrote about the Star Child, first in a Jamaican steampunk novelette, then in my novella, Buffalo Soldier

Soon I had over a dozen stories, novelettes, and novella … but I never wrote about Sleepy.

A few years ago, not long after Buffalo Soldier sold in 2015, I began thinking about what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I was in a sales job, in my early 40s, and I had given myself permission to dream about possibilities for my life. I wanted to make a difference. I wanted to make my community a better place. I wanted to make my world a better place, leave a legacy worthy of my children.

But I’m just a writer.

I was talking about making a major leap from my job to re-create my life with purpose and intentionality, but the only recent thing on my resume, my main skillset, was being a writer. I had no idea how to go about leveraging my gift for the benefit of community, no idea what a possible job or future could look like—and mind you, none of this process made my wife, mother of my two children, nervous at all—so I did what I always do when I’m unsure about things.

I wrote.

Now you have to understand that I write for me. I’d never tried to turn a short story into a novel before, so it was an interesting experiment.

Thus I returned to the world of “Pimp My Airship.” Particularly Sleepy. I wanted to work some things out in my head and Sleepy was the perfect vehicle. I was inspired by my friend J.J., a poet and rapper. Watching him with his gift, not even realizing how gifted he was.

At the same time, I was looking at what kind of art-based work was going on in my community. a journey that took me through Second Story to The Learning Tree to the Kheprw Institute.

Mirroring Sleepy’s journey, starting in a spot where you’re comfortable in life. Got a 9-5, bills paid, and can do a little thing of his own at night at a poetry spot. You know, life was comfortable. That “I gots mine” mentality.

Only to have your world intruded upon and expanded by the reality of the system that controls the pillars of your world:

-redlining

-over-policing

-predatory capitalism

-poverty criminalized

-mass incarceration

-Given the context of turn of the century Indianapolis to add the weight of history to the lens of viewing those issues.

-Being opened up to the reality that the world is bigger than “the I”—that there’s in fact a “we,” your community—that puts “the I” in context.

-What it means to examine your gifts, use them to find and define your voice, and organize into a chorus of voices that can leverage change.

All while having a fun romp.

Because I gots jokes. This entire journey began with a joke and the name of the book is still Pimp My Airship. And while I want to make you think, the other part of my job is to entertain.

Can I tell you a secret? This book was never supposed to be published. Like I said, I write for me. Once it was finished, I put it in a drawer. I’d just signed a two-book middle grade book deal and was mid-doing the work of what would be a three book science fiction deal. In 2018, I was a co-host of the podcast Writing Excuses. On one episode, I was asked about the strangest hero’s journey I’d written. So I talked about Sleepy.

He’s a dude who just wants to be left alone so that he can enjoy his little corner of the world. Every character has to have a motivation, a goal, some thing they are trying to achieve or work toward. Well, Sleepy just wants to get high. And I won’t let him. I keep piling ever increasing obstacles in front of him just to keep him from getting high. Criminals underworld. The Klan. Riots. Prison. Giant robots. You know, the usual.

When the episode aired, my inbox started filling with people asking where they could get the book. I couldn’t just say “in my drawer,” so I reached out to Jason of Apex Books. He’s my friend, but I also respect his taste as an editor. It was a weird conversation.

I said “as a friend, I need you to look at some pages and tell me if I have something worth revisiting to get it into publishing shape.” And I sent three chapters.

He said “Yes you do. I’ll take it.”

“You can’t just call dibs on stuff.”

“Well, I’m about to announce that this book is coming out in May, so you better start working on the re-write.”

We were now friends. We could negotiate like that. Plus, I secretly wanted the project to land at Apex to bring things full circle. I wanted to write something that would excite him as much as the original story had.

He called dibs in October of 2018. Pimp My Airship was published in May of 2019. And the whirlwind around this book hasn’t stopped.

I have to say, I’m pleased with how the book has landed with readers. And it has been recognized. It’s changed my life in a lot of ways, took my writing in a different direction, but the key was in why I wrote the book in the first place. The journey started by giving myself permission to dream.

When you have a clear picture of what you want to work toward in the future, you can create a roadmap to begin those first steps in the present. Figure out what your gifts are, what you’re passionate about, and live your life in light of that. Be a part of a community that you can dream alongside. One who holds you accountable. Who sees your potential and keeps pushing you to be the best version of you.

In the end, that’s what Pimp My Airship is about.

Thank you for listening.