In the 1880s, a brick wall encircled downtown Seattle. A safety measure, the wall was 15 to 20 feet thick, in places rising as high as 200 feet. Inside, zombies ran amok. Or, that’s what we’re told in Boneshaker (2009), local author Cherie Priest’s multiple-award-winning “alternate history” steampunk novel. At 35, Priest is at the top of her game—producing an astonishing amount of addictive, wildly imaginative work.
At press time, she was completing her 12th book, Hellbent, the second (after Bloodshot) of what she calls her “aggressively trashy urban fantasy” titles involving vampires in leather pants. As with each book, she tracks her word count daily via the “word meter” on her rigorously maintained blog. “I need to write 2,000 words a day,” she says. “But a good day is 4,000.” The metrics are necessary because she’s also committed to writing two more books in her five-novel “Clockwork Century” series, of which Boneshaker was the first. The fourth, Ganymede, is due to her editor in November. Did we mention she also works part time as a writer/editor for horror and suspense publisher Subterranean Press?
Born in Florida, Priest grew up with a penchant for horror and fantasy stories—perhaps because her mother, a Seventh-day Adventist, promised that the Second Coming could happen any minute. “I was always waiting for the other shoe to drop,” she remembers. Though her mother did not want such books in the house, Priest’s father (after a divorce) sneaked in volumes by writers such as Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft, which she consumed like stolen candy.
After attending college in Tennessee (bachelor’s in English, master’s in rhetoric), she combined her love of horror with her keen sense of place and wrote the acclaimed Eden Moore Southern Gothic trilogy—Four and Twenty Blackbirds (2005), Wings to the Kingdom (2006), Not Flesh Nor Feathers (2007)—about a girl who communicates with Civil War–era ghosts.
When Priest’s husband landed a job at Amazon in 2006, the couple headed west. Around that same time, she was gaining an interest in steampunk, which embraces Victorian visions of the future à la H.G. Wells and Jules Verne. Priest found Seattle to be the center of the perfect steampunk storm. “It’s a literary city, the weather makes it easy to wear Victorian layers, and there’s a strong culture of DIY and recycling.” (Steampunks are known for sewing old-fashioned-looking garments out of thrift-store finds.) What bothered Priest was that steampunk seemed to be largely a fashion movement centered on accessories, such as aviator goggles and lace-up boots. “I wanted to give a why to the style,” she says. “The trappings needed to be symptomatic of an underlying world.”
Thus, Boneshaker was born. New to Seattle when she began the book, Priest immersed herself in city lore, becoming an Underground Tour junkie and haunting area cemeteries. “Seattle’s true history is stranger than I could make up,” she says. Well, maybe. (In her version, Chief Sealth’s daughter, Princess Angeline, is a cross-dressing ninja.) Clementine, the follow-up to Boneshaker, was released in July and sold out before it hit shelves. Her anticipated third Clockwork Century book, Dreadnought (featuring Clara Barton, an undead Mexican separatist and a steampunk Texas ranger), publishes this month. “Seattle has been very good to me,” Priest admits. “I’ll take the lack of sun. It’s a good trade.”
CATCH HER: Dreadnought readings: 10/5, 7 p.m. at University Book Store; 10/29, 6:30 p.m. at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park