Rewriting History

Cherie Priest takes real people and places on a different journey

By Erica Jenkins

Novelist Cherie Priest talks with a fast-paced, animated frankness. She doesn’t write fairytales, and she’s not here to sugarcoat things.

Since graduating from UT Chattanooga with a master’s degree in rhetoric and professional writing in 2001, Priest has written more than 12 novels. Her most well known is a steampunk-genre novel, Boneshaker. While steampunk may seem unfamiliar or obscure, audiences have seen it in action in movies such as 20,000 Leagues under the Sea and, most recently, the Sherlock Holmes franchise.

Filmmakers also are looking to turn Priest’s Boneshaker into the next steampunk hit, purchasing the rights to bring it to the big screen. Set in Seattle, the novel features a boy who sets out to clear his father’s name by entering a walled-off city of zombies, the product of his father’s invention, the Boneshaker.

Prior to Priest, steampunk novels were set only in Victorian England, but she made a bold move and pulled the genre across the Atlantic Ocean to Seattle. While many initially dismissed her novel from the steampunk genre for its atypical setting, Priest stood by it. After all, Priest says, steampunk is about rewriting history. “There’s been a systematic writing out of a lot of people (from history books), but that doesn’t mean they weren’t there,” Priest says. “Steampunk is a way for people to say, ‘I was there.’”

Priest credits her experience at UT Chattanooga with helping her to write consistently and succinctly. “Writing is like almost anything else–the only way to improve is to keep doing it,” she says.

Priest likes to use real people and settings for her novels. She regularly digs through local lore to find an area’s most colorful stories. Case in point is Civil War spy Maria Boyd, a character in Priest’s novel Clementine. “By the time the war was over, she had been married, left at the altar, widowed, in and out of three prisoner-of-war camps and a spy for Stonewall Jackson,” Priest says. “And she was probably still a teenager.”

She also has used Chattanooga’s Moccasin Bend Mental Health Institution, which lies atop a Native American burial ground, as a setting. Readers can expect more Chattanooga settings in future works, as Priest returned to the area a year ago from Seattle. Now she lives in a 100-year-old home in an area full of Civil War history. Maybe it will inspire her next novel.