On December 13, we had a visit from author Maurice Broaddus, who shared his thoughts on worldbuilding with us. Maurice is an accomplished author with some really terrific ideas. We focused primarily on two universes he had created: the Knights of Breton Court series, which retells King Arthur tales in our own world (specifically Indianapolis, IN), and a steampunk universe he has explored in several stories including "Pimp my Airship" (Apex Magazine) and "Steppin' Razor" (Asimov's).
Maurice explained that the Knights of Breton Court series came to him in part because he'd been working with a homeless teenager ministry, which sent him to a whole side of the city he'd never seen - under bridges, in undeveloped land and abandoned buildings. It was a new world for him. He was teaching writing seminars with teens and giving them a chance to re-imagine themselves as Princes and Princesses of the streets, and the idea started to come together. He said what was most terrifying about the stories was not the monsters, but the real life terrors.
He ended doing more research than planned. He wandered into areas of town taking notes on a clipboard, trying to understand the milieu and understand drug culture. He also watched YouTube videos of gang member initiations in Indianapolis. There is a surprising amount of stuff out there for research because people like to videotape themselves.
He also did extensive research on Arthuriana, including watching Excalibur and spending a year devouring everything King Arthur he could get his hands on. He also spoke to expert friends. He wanted to spend with some of the less well-known knights, not just the main ones. He included poety and comic books in his research (e.g. Camelot 3000).
Broaddus uses a very interesting prose style in the books, and I asked him whether it was deliberate. He said it was, and that he'd struggled with it, trying to be authentic to the characters but not making it impenetrable to readers. One of the dangers of slang is that it quickly becomes obsolete or outdated.
He had a great time with naming the characters.
He also mentioned that the writers' group that helped him with the books generally divided into two groups: white people with experience in Arthurian legend, and black people who weren't really into fantasy. Thus, they had very different experiences with the reading and were able to give him different perspectives on his work.
I asked about Merle, the scraggly white guy who is this universe's Merlin. Maurice said he wanted to reverse the magical negro stereotype, so he decided to make Merlin a "magical redneck."
Che asked how he worked the monsters into modern Indianapolis. In this world, magic is accepted. Maurice said it was something of a metaphor for homelessness, because if you know it's there, you see it; otherwise, you don't. This is a community with insider secrets, like the fact that there is a dragon under the apartment building.
At this point we switched over to talking about his Steampunk vision. Apparently these stories were born from a random suggestion he made on Twitter that he was going to write a steampunk story with all black characters and call it "Pimp my Airship." Before he knew it, five editors had asked to see the story! He dived into research by reading the Steampunk anthologies put together by the Vandermeers, but his immediate feeling was that he couldn't do anything like that because he didn't see himself in this genre. "Where are all the black people?"
From there he moved over to asking "What is a Steampunk universe for me?" He looked directly at colonialism, and created a modern Indianapolis where there is an Overcity and an Undercity, allowing him to explore class issues and tell different kinds of stories.
I remarked that the language used in the steampunk universe was strikingly different from the language used in the Kings of Breton Court stories. This is something I always find interesting, given my linguistic background, and it seems that he's as attentive to his prose as I am reading it! He said he had great fun with the language here. He described his background as being half Jamaican and half American born in London, so he really got into exploring the possibilities with language use here. He said that in steampunk generally, people tend to talk a certain way, but he wanted to take on the idea of code switching, where people speak differently for work than for friends, etc. How would that work in a steampunk universe?
Though he has done a lot of worldbuilding, you only get a small glimpse of it in each story, so he's goe back and explored further with 6 stories, 4 still unpublished (but somebody publish them because I want to read them!).
The back history of the steampunk universe is fascinating. The idea is that America never split off from Britain, and this allowed slavery to lasted an extra 100 years until automatons were designed that could do the work. That is one of the most interesting aspects of the universe for me: this world feels thoroughly steampunk, and yet modern at the same time. Another aspect of the world is that Jamaica was never colonized. He writes stories in part to work through and explore different social issues.
Maurice has two other worlds that he's also working on: one in ancient Africa, and one futuristic society where the church and military become one, leading to evangelistic colonialism.
He says that worldbuilding is his favorite part of writing, and I can believe it! There is so much cool here. He has a background in horror, and that clearly helps him in not shrinking away when things get rough. He explores difficult issues in frank and unblinking ways.
Maurice, thanks so much for being on the show and hanging in there through the technical difficulties I had (which have been edited out of the video, don't worry!). It was fascinating to hear about your work, and a delight to meet you.
Here's the video for more of the details: