I was desperate to keep the conversation going because I had been charged with writing a short bio on her, and nobody really knew that much about her past. She was my only source. As small-talk I jokingly asked her whether the image on the cover for book Steampunk Sourcebook was her portrait or self-portrait. The withering silence radiating from the telephone receiver (yes, I was on a dial phone) let me know that I had just committed an incredible faux pas in the eyes of the good Professor.
A long pause ensued, then, all seriousness:
"You should know that the women in my family stopped smoking pipes several generations back–about the time we were given the suffrage", she said. I was non-plussed, I had no idea what she was talking about. Pipe? what pipe? I scoured the cover looking for someone smoking a pipe. No one was smoking a pipe. Was she toying with me in her Professor Moriarty-ish way?
"Um, what pipe are you referring to, Professor?" I asked.
Again, just silence. Then, "Nevermind."
In this quick sketch you can get a sense of what's its like working with the Professor. She's brilliant, a little touchy, sharp-tongued, enigmatic, occasionally wrong. Turns out she was looking at the Steampunk Sourcebook cover on the website:
I was looking at the actual bookcover:
—different covers, different pictures. She thought my reference to the pipe-smoking woman on the cover was a dig directed at her because she grew up in the hill-country of Arkansas—some sort of a 'Mammy Yokum' type thing…
Well, Prof. Waldrep hasn't been terribly communicative since then, so regarding the story behind the collection, I'll just have to rely on my memory and my keen sense of embroidery. Let's see, what did she tell me all those years ago….
I believe that the idea came to her while she was riding on the Long Island Railroad to Dover's state-of-the-art campus in Mineola, NY. At the time I don't think that she actually knew what Steampunk was, nor had she even heard the term. Typically, while riding the LIRR she would speed-read pulp novels—an addiction she had acquired while pursuing a Ph.D. in Comparative Athabascan Languages, at Northwestern University. But on this day she was distracted. Sitting across from her was an attractive young woman clad in a fantastic and intricate ensemble, quite unlike what one usually sees being worn heading east on the Island. The Professor was at a loss to put a name or a phrase to the style. It vexed her. She'd spent years as costumer in NYC theater, yet her encyclopedic memory could assign no name for what she saw before her eyes.
She leaned forward, "Excuse me Miss, I was just admiring your outfit. I don't think I've ever seen anything like it. It's marvelous-where did you find it?"
The girl replied that she hadn't found it, she'd made it. And that it was 'kinda a steampunk thing…'
That was it, the hook was set. Prof. Waldrep grilled that girl like some sort of a fish in a fish metaphor. The train stations flew by: Mineola, East Williston, Albertson, Roslyn…Oyster Bay—and then the train stopped, but not before Prof. Waldrep's head was filled full of bold, crazy, new ideas. She rode the return train back to Mineola in a contemplative silence, a brown study, as it were.
The next few weeks were spent researching this new passion with a ferocity unmatched since the third year of her Doctoral work in Numismatics, at the London School of Economics. All other work was pushed to the side—Women Illustrators of the Golden Age was nearly forgotten!
However, what was to emerge from this complete and utter immersion was one of the world's most renowned experts in the discipline of Steampunk—Professor MC Waldrep; and in her hands she held the evidence of her genius—Steampunk Sourcebook.