Thomas Willeford is a steampunk writer, artist, maker, and owner of Brute Force Studios. He served as a judge on the TV gameshow Steampunk’d, and his work appeared on television in the Steampunk episode of Castle with Nathan Fillion, and he is a contributor to Bruce Boxleitner’s Lantern City.
Below is our 2015 interview with Willeford from M. Leigh Hood.
Steampunk is mad about mad science. Add a good hat, some gloves, and you’ve got a mad scientist. And if mad scientists have a monarchy, Thomas Willeford is definitely on the throne – and if not, he’s made his own bigger, better throne (with flame throwers). Maker, writer, and purveyor of fine and fancy things, he is a man of eminence in the steampunk community.
In the mean time, he took a break from building the world to have a chat.
Hood: It is frankly impossible to run a search online for anything steampunk without coming across your work. Are you blushing or strutting?
Thomas Willeford: Honestly, a bit of both. I wouldn’t make the things I make if I wasn’t proud of them. You will never see the stuff that’s not worth showing. I occasionally kill those…with fire. At the same time, I am very humbled by people’s responses to my pieces and my books. When someone makes a piece from one of my books and shows it to me, I have occasionally had to hold back tears.
Hood: You have degrees in Physics, History, and Art, which obviously sets you up for steampunk in a big way, but how did you find the subgenre in the first place?
Thomas Willeford: I’m old enough to remember just after the original television series Wild Wild West hit the screen. I loved it, even back then. I discovered “modern” steampunk in 1988 with the game Space 1889. The back cover of the RPG manual says:
“Everything Jules Verne could have written.
Everything H.G. Wells should have written.
Everything A. Conan Doyle thought of but never published – because it was too fantastic.
Everything you need for the adventures of the century.
Science-Fiction Role Playing in a More Civilized Time.”
This dragged me kicking and screaming from being a Victorian/Goth, rocketing me into steampunk. I practically bullied my D&D group into playing Space 1889 with me. Most of them were not impressed. Back then, there were about 11 steampunks in the whole country.
Hood: How has the rise of steampunk in mainstream culture impacted the mad science at Brute Force Studios?
Thomas Willeford: Absolutely! Funny thing: I occasionally see articles talking about steampunk having “jumped the shark” or “crested”. If it’s going down in popularity, why am I up to my butt in it? I tried to semi-retire recently and I’ve never been busier. Television shows, production companies, theatre productions, and an incredible music video or two have approached me to make props and accessories for them. I still have three publishing houses asking me to write more books…in my copious spare time.
Hood: You take your work seriously and it shows. Not only do you share products of impeccable quality, but you also take your role as a global citizen very seriously. How do you operate a socially responsible business in an economy based on predatory sourcing and production?
Thomas Willeford: Your question sounds like “Why aren’t you outsourcing to third world countries and stealing other people’s designs?” Let me tell you: it’s really, really hard. The only way to stay ahead is to come up with new and honestly, more complicated ideas all the time. I have to keep these things too hard to cheaply reproduce. Then, every year or so, I need to drastically change the design. This is how fashion designers stay ahead. A small but powerful cross-section of consumers still wants quality and originality. I also source all of my materials from suppliers where I can have a reasonable expectation of the workers being treated fairly. I’ve worked with my hands all my life, so I know the value of people who can do that and I want to continue to support the people who actually make things. The hardest part of this is living by rules that other people have no interest in following. It’s like the Wild West out there: people will directly steal your design and rationalize it in a second. This used to drive me crazy, gnashing my teeth and staying up all night. I have a huge urge to land on each and every one of them like an asteroid on dino butt but no matter how much I fight it, I will always be outnumbered. I’ve had to be satisfied with knowing that if someone’s copying me, that means they’re always behind me.
Hood: From a historical standpoint, how do you see steampunk in the contemporary arts scene? In another hundred years, what do you think professors will have to say about it?
Thomas Willeford: “Steam-what?” Movements come and go. There are loads of movements that no one’s ever heard of. I think steampunk has such incredible potential but people’s Wal-Mart mentalities could easily crush it. The culture of instant gratification and cheap goods is an anathema to the growth of a maker-based subculture.
Hood: And now for my favorite question: with more money than you could ever need, and more time than you could ever spend, what would you choose to build?
Thomas Willeford: Are you kidding?! I would build another giant robot, of course! It would be at least 25 feet tall this time, fully articulated, and animatronic. There would, of course, be a cockpit with a seat custom made for my large, yet surprisingly firm buttocks. I mean, seriously, is there anyone who doesn’t like giant robots? Oh! And flame throwers.
For more about Thomas Willeford, check out Brute Force Studios. You can also follow via Facebook or Twitter. If you’re interested in meeting the gentleman, be sure to get tickets for this year’s Symposium!