Sitting Down With: Kevin Steil

All Photos are courtesy Kevin Steil

Salutations, friends – I had a short sit down, virtually speaking, with Kevin Steil, the mastermind behind the Airship Ambassador site, www.airshipambassador.com – and he graciously allowed me to pick his brain over a few virtual cups of virtual coffee; the results of which we share here now with you.

Doctor Fantastique’s: Kevin, though a lot of our readers may already be well acquainted with your site, a lot of people might not know how it all started. Would you mind sharing a bit of the history there – how did the whole site begin?

Kevin Steil (pictured at left): Airship Ambassador started as a steampunk blog just over a year ago. When I left the Nova Albion 2010 convention, which had some great guests and panels, I felt pretty energized and wanted to be more involved in the community somehow. I felt I had something to say, and a blog was a good way to put those ideas out into the wild. Katie Casey at Steampunk Magazine read my blog about Steampunk as Rebellion and passed along the information to their readership. There were almost 1,000 views that day alone.

After that, I was devouring everything I could find about the steampunk community, and in turn, I started having more ideas about what I could do and what I wanted to do.

That led to the Airship Ambassador website itself, which went live at the end of August 2010. First it was just a listing of all the steampunk links and sites I had found around the internet, as a way of aggregating all that information in one handy place and sharing it with everyone.

Then each section starting growing. The Literature page listed all of the steampunk books and authors I came across; the Media page had more links to videos, podcasts, games and music. The Gallery was a big one that I broke out of the Media page, showcasing artists and their steampunk work.

Now, it all keeps growing and the there is a flood of ideas but not enough time for me to work on everything. Maybe I need a League of Ambassadors to help out.

DF: A League of Extraordinary Ambassadors, maybe? Heh. It’s great to see how busy a really timely and excellent idea can make you, but it’s great when it’s something you obviously love doing. In fact, just where did it all begin, this love of all things Steampunk?

KS:  All of it started for me when I first saw Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea as a kid, and it remains one of my favorite movies and stories. I loved the design of the Nautilus, the idea of that futuristic, anachronistic technology in the 19th century, and who doesn’t love a secret base of operations? The idea of that kind of freedom and exploration because of knowledge, that level of ‘cool’ and the creativity was very inspiring and empowering when I was young.

The movie and story has remained a constant fixture in my life. There are several versions of the book on my shelves, several formats of the Disney movie, and the two 1990’s TV movies, one with Ben Cross and the other with Michael Caine as Captain Nemo.

My next exposure to that kind of story was The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling. I had been reading Gibson’s cyberpunk works like Neuromancer, and thought, “Wouldn’t it be great to have this kind of story but in the Victorian era?” and lucky for me, just about a month later, The Difference Engine was released.

Skipping forward almost fifteen years, the internet helped find steampunk groups, Victorian clothes and genre books, but there still wasn’t much out there. There were individuals with interest, an occasional book which caught my attention, but generally, nothing cohesive, and I put it all on the back burner of interests while other projects and real life took the lead.

Kevin and Jake Von Slatt at Steamcon 2.

Then came Jake Von Slatt and Datamancer’s keyboards and other tech items. The creativity was impressive and it got me started on seeing what might be out there again. There were more books, some movies of possible interest, and eventually, I found the notice for Steamcon in Seattle. It was right in my backyard so I had no reason to not go. I went to some panel every hour that first year, eight hours on Friday and Sunday, ten hours on Saturday. I was totally hooked and loved that there was finally an outlet for me to explore.

DF: You make it sound inevitable – more like a hurricane than the butterfly – but it’s funny how prevalent Steampunk elements are, once you know what you’re looking for. It’s even in the TARDIS now! But what about folks just curious about it – what one thing would you recommend for people looking to dip their toe in the Steampunk pool?

KS: Oohhh, just one?

DF: Okay, fair enough. Let’s go with the full spread, then.

KS: When explaining to people what steampunk is, I use 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea or Wild Wild West , the tv show and the movie, so they can get a feel for the idea of the high tech – low materials concept of steampunk.

For more recent books, I’d suggest Boneshaker by Cherie Priest, The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack by Mark Hodder, and Boilerplate by Paul Guinan and Anina Bennett

Set in an alternate 19th century history, they have the tech, action, adventure, mystery, intrigue… They are all different, but all fun to read.

DF: Those are some great choices! It’s always good to see the old Wild Wild West television show get some love. I need to pick that one up on DVD. What book are you currently reading?

KS: Books, plural. I really need to finish one before starting another, but sometimes I’m just in the mood for something different.

Kevin and Nick Valentino at Steamcon 2.

Right now, there’s Ekaterina Sedia’s Heart of Iron, due out in June; Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences by Philippa Ballantine and Tee Morris, and wrapping up Thomas Riley by Nick Valentino.

DF: I met Nick at this past Steamcon – great guy and a very good book. So, shifting gears, let’s talk about the site. How’s the site treating you? What are some of the behind-the-scenes things you can share with our readers?

KS:  The Airship Ambassador website gets about 60 unique visitors a day from all around the world, so it’s still getting started, I think. The United States and Canada are the biggest sources of viewers, but people have come from just about every country, including Djibouti, Romania, Serbia, and Guatemala. While there are news headlines and events listing updated daily, it’s really a giant reference site. Hopefully, people are finding it as a helpful way to locate a website or resource they need for their own projects and interests.

Before Airship Ambassador, the only thing I had was a Geocities free site for a personal page and some plant and landscaping interests. Both are long since gone, though.

DF: Seriously, wow! That’s a very impressive spread of visitors! Sometimes, the global randomness of the internet makes me a bit queasy, but it might just be motion sickness. So the big news is that Airship Ambassador now has its own bookstore – that’s a pretty bold step. How did this all come about?  

KS: The idea came up when I was developing the whole website last year. It just took time to get everything in place to make it a reality. In addition to supplying steampunk news and information to people, I was thinking about what else could I help provide to people. I love to read and watch movies, so a bookstore seemed like the natural choice for me. I had looked into the Amazon Associates program but it didn’t meet my needs. Maybe some people make it work for them but after nine months, no one bought anything through that method on  Airship Ambassador.

Ultimately, I contacted another entertainment distributor who could meet my goals. The first step is the online bookstore, but next is being a vendor at steampunk conventions and events, among other things. It took a fair bit of effort to get through all of the details, but the bookstore went live mid-April.

DF: What kind of things are you doing to get the word out?

KS: There’s a lot of word of mouth, but the first pieces really are the blog and website, Twitter and Facebook. Next up is contacting all the local groups around the US and ads in convention programs, not to mention attending the conventions and events. A great deal of time is spent every day looking for steampunk news and information, it’s practically a second job for me. I’m constantly reading and searching the internet. One thing I’ve learned is that there really are so many resources, sites, and articles that it’s hard enough to track them, let alone find them in the first place. Some new groups struggle to get their name out to local people to attract new members, online sites and blogs don’t show up on everyone’s internet searches, and even some of the ‘big names’ which I think of as major contributors to the steampunk community sometimes get a blank look from people when mentioned in conversation.

Certainly, not everyone knows about Airship Ambassador, and while I’m working to get the word out more so that more people can make use of the information, I know that word-of-mouth can be the best way to let people know. I’m an information junkie and want to share everything I find with everyone. Being on several mailing lists, online forums, and Facebook groups help, but there’s still so much more information out there that I don’t know about and want to. Just in the last few months, people are starting to send me information, which is immensely helpful. That’s a broad hint and invitation – if you have any steampunk information which isn’t already on the site, please send it to me.

DF: We’ll be sure to pass your invitation along!  Sounds like you’re going to be fairly busy. But how about a teaser – what kinds of things do you have in store for the AA site?

KS: My general plans are for more of everything! More information, more interviews, more events. There are so many people I’d like to meet, events that I want to attend, and topics I’d like to discuss and learn more about. There are many more ideas than I have time for, unfortunately, and I’m finding my own limits in just how much I can do in a day.

DF: Probably a good bit of advice for all of us. And that’s as good a place as any to wrap this up. We here at Doctor Fantastique’s wish you the best with the new bookstore – and now that I know we’re both up here in the same part of the country, you and I need to go grab a coffee sometime! Like, an actual coffee.

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Kevin Steil is the creator and site admin for www.AirshipAmbassador.com, and a long time fan of all things Steampunk. You can follow him on twitter at @airshipembassy or read his site’s blog at http://airshipambassador.com/aa-blog.html. The site’s book store is linked from the main site, or you can click here.