Hello, all! Just this week I had the opportunity to speak with Scott Hawkins about his fantastic fantasy novel The Library at Mount Char. If you haven’t read it yet, and enjoy science fiction or fantasy novels with a violent twist, you should go read it right now! The Library at Mount Char is definitely a book that stands apart from the rest – the characters are foster siblings raised by a god-like figure they call Father, who has taught them to wield powers that baffle the humans they (rarely) walk among. When Father disappears and an impenetrable shield pops up around the Library itself, each of the siblings tries in his or her own way to solve the mystery of their father’s disappearance. However, one of the siblings knows more than he or she will admit, and is plotting against the others in pursuit of an unknown goal.
Scott works as a software engineer for Intel. He and his wife live in Atlanta, where they spend much of their time playing Olympic-caliber fetch with their large pack of foster dogs. The Library at Mount Char is his first novel.
The Library at Mount Char has always seemed to me like the result of these larger-than-life characters moving around in a world that is smaller than them. Did you have a specific vision for each of the characters, or did they just emerge from the writing process?
Most of what ended up in the final draft emerged from the writing process. I don’t work from an outline. I usually don’t have any idea where a story is going to end up. I basically spend the first X months of a book just slapping random scenes on the page. I write these without any real idea of how (or if) they are going to fit into the finished product and keep at it until I see some sort of pattern emerging from the muck.
For context, with Mount Char the core scenes were:
1) Steve and Carolyn at the bar
2) the one where Steve goes for a jog in Garrison Oaks
3) the neighborhood picnic at the end
When I wrote the original draft, I didn’t know who Steve was, didn’t know what he was doing in the neighborhood…I just thought it would be cool to have a guy out jogging who got mauled by dogs in this sort of boring suburban setting.
The process isn’t very efficient. I throw away a lot of pages, maybe 2/3 of what I write. But I feel like it gives the book a sort of unpredictability that might be tough to manufacture using a top-down approach.
Anyway, during this stage I made up a lot of random Librarians and random catalogs as the needs of the scene dictated. Michael and Jennifer are both composites of half a dozen minor characters from the rough-draft stage. David was always a bad guy, but I think he was called something else in a couple of other scenes. Et. cetera.
In terms of major characters, Steve probably changed the most during the writing process. At one point, he and Erwin were one guy—there are drafts where Steve was a super-competent ex-military type. He was originally the one who (MAJOR SPOILER) shot David in the face. But while I was working on other chapters, the relationship between Steve and Carolyn started to incorporate the notion of the heart coal. That really took off, and it didn’t work so well if Steve was yet another hardened killer. I also thought there was some comic potential in having an inept schlub get thrown into a meat grinder of demigods with severe personality disorders. So I ran with that angle.
But I still needed someone to shoot David. The way Erwin came about was I pulled all the action-movie tropes out of Steve and funneled them into a separate guy. That was a pleasant surprise. Erwin was soooooooooo over the top he was just a blast to write.
On the other hand, the dynamic between Carolyn and Father was probably there from the beginning. To me, the evolution of their relationship was the emotional core of the book. I wasn’t really thinking about it in those terms when I set out, but after I had a couple dozen scenes on the page, that seemed to be a common thread. So I tried to accentuate it and make it more explicit.
Last but not least, Margaret was a late addition to the manuscript who never changed much. To me, she’s the ethical core of the book. Father’s philosophy seemed to be, essentially, that you can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs. I wanted Margaret to illustrate some real-life consequences of that level of callousness. Father utterly ruined a sweet, innocent little kid so that she (Margaret) could later serve as a moral warning to his special snowflake Carolyn. Is that okay? I don’t know. On the one hand, Carolyn is now a warmer human being who will protect us from the Barry O’Sheas and Q-33 Norths of the world. On the other hand, imagine going back to adoption day and trying to explain what’s about to happen to Margaret. I don’t know how I feel about that.
That makes so much sense! All of the librarians (Carolyn and Margaret especially) felt a little to me like small children trying to do big, adult things – like their upbringing with Father left them brittle rather than truly strong. I am curious – with so much being cut by the end, surely there were some parts that stuck around longer than others. Was there anything that ultimately had to be cut that you were especially attached to?
There really wasn’t much. I’m of the opinion that if something can be cut without sacrificing the story, it should be cut. The hard part is recognizing what you can get rid of, especially when you’ve put a lot of time into writing it.
For instance, I spent something like three weeks working on backstory about how Father and Nobununga (the tiger) and Mithriganhi (the kid on the platform thingy in the library who Carolyn killed near the end) overthrew the Emperor of the third age. Briefly, Father started out as a plucky rebel in the Star Wars/Flash Gordon mold. He was also a lot nicer back in those days. The problem was that he vastly overestimated his own skills. When the big rebellion came, he basically got his ass handed to him. But Nobununga—who was sort of the chief of the palace guard–decided that Father, whatever his faults, was at least somewhat better than the emperor. I spent weeks on that, and only two lines made it into the book. (“From the east, thunder” and “He must have been quite a character to go around smiting Father”) That stung a bit, but it was absolutely the right decision.
It’s like in the movie Die Hard. Remember how Hans Gruber was trying to steal bearer bonds? I bet in at least some of the early drafts, we had a two minute explanation where Holly (or whoever) explained to Ellis (or whoever) what “bearer bonds” are. I don’t think that’s common knowledge—I certainly had to look it up. The writer needed to know that tidbit. How else are Hans & co. going to get 640 million out of the building? That’s like 9 pallets of hundred dollar bills. It’s a couple of tons of gold. The power was out—you can’t take the elevators. For any normal kind of money, it was going to take like 300 trips up and down the stairs. The writer needed to figure it out, if nothing else for peace of mind.
But it wouldn’t have helped the story any. All you really needed to know was that bearer bonds are a kind of money. So it got cut.
Similarly, I needed to know a lot of librarian backstory, if only to get the tone of the character interactions right. I had to write it, but large chunks of it did nothing at all to move Carolyn’s story forward. So it got cut.
Most of it I don’t regret.
Since you asked, though — I do sort of wish I’d found a way to work Margaret’s bedroom in there. It was only a couple of paragraphs. The reasoning for that cut was that the book was already teetering on the edge of “too bloody for general audiences.” Those paragraphs would have been the last straw for a lot of people. Ever wonder what she did with all those severed heads?
That makes so much sense! Backstory and worldbuilding can be so interesting – in that way I often envy J.K. Rowling – I feel like with Pottermore she found a really clever way to give us some of the details of her world without cramming it all into the original published text. With all of that material that you cut, you must have a ton of small details like that. In a perfect world, how many books do you think you would want to write about the librarians? Can you see yourself ever putting out a “guide to the world of” like some authors have?
Tough question. I go back and forth on whether or not to revisit the world. I’m sure I could come up with something, and I imagine there’s enough of a base to make it publishable. But I don’t want to do it just as a cash grab. How many times have you read or watched a sequel and walked away wishing they’d left well enough alone.
As I see it, the core problem is that Carolyn’s character arc is more or less complete. There’s not really anywhere for her to go but down, and no one wants that.
That said, it’s crossed my mind that maybe not everyone sees Carolyn’s ascension to the throne (as it were) in the same it-was-all-for-the-best light that she does. Margaret, for example, might be forgiven for being a tad bitter. There might be something I could do with that, but I haven’t decided whether to pursue it.
The example I always use here is the Road Warrior. That movie was HUGE when I was a kid. I watched it about a zillion times, and no one was more excited than me when a sequel calle Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome came out in 1985. Unfortunately, Thunderdome sucked so bad it damn near killed the franchise. We had to wait another 30 years for Fury Road.
So I guess my answer is that if I can come up with something that feels like a fair and necessary continuation of the story, I’ll keep going. If not, it’s probably best to leave well enough alone.
I have, however, promised to do at least one short story in the Mt. Char universe, and I will fulfill that promise. I’ll start as soon as I’m done with the book I’m working on, which shouldn’t be too much longer. The working title of this one is The Lost House of Bramble Wood Lane. It’s unrelated to Mount Char in terms of character, but it’s similar in that it’s a dark fantasy set in the modern world.
I’ll definitely be looking forward to seeing that one come out! I know quite a few readers that would love to see more from you. I am curious – in what ways has publication affected your writing? Is writing any easier or more difficult now that you have something published?
In most ways it’s easier, but there’s a couple of new challenges as well. I’m not complaining, mind you—this is dream-come-true stuff for me.
On the plus side, I cannot overstate how big a deal it is to have access to world-class publishing professionals. My agent and editor really are the best in the business. Historically, I’d go to writers workshops and conferences in hopes of getting five minutes with people like this. Now I can send an email. That is absolutely huge. You literally can’t buy that kind of help.
For instance, all the little minor villains in Mount Char – Barry O’Shea, Q-33 North—were the result of a suggestion by my agent that we needed more background info about the librarians world. She was absolutely right, and I think their inclusion helped give depth to the story.
Another one is that before I submitted, I was super-worried about the book being too long. I spent a ton of time and effort trimming for length. When I was done I would have sworn on a stack of bibles that I cut absolutely every single thing that could be cut, but my editor took one look at the manuscript and he was like “this scene isn’t doing much—I think you can trim it.” (There was a longer version of the scene where David, Carolyn and Michael were rescuing Dresden and Naga from the douchebag rapper) And in fact he was right.
On the flip side, there are also some new challenges. Have you ever heard the saying “you have your entire life to make your first album, but about a year to make your second?” There’s some truth to that. A lot of what went into Mount Char was derived from my previous three (unpublished) novels. The first one, for instance, was about a burglar with a heart of gold. The execution wasn’t quite there, I still liked the basic idea of the character. You can see a lot of it in Steve. For the book I’m working on now, I had less of that sort of thing to draw on.
Time pressure is a factor as well. This one has taken me longer than I thought. That’s not great, but my feeling is that it’s better to be late than bad. (My wife, God love her, has pointed out that we can still have both. 🙂 )
So, on the whole it is in fact, everything I ever hoped it would be. But, being human, I can always find something to gripe about.
I can imagine there would be a little more pressure now! I am curious about the reading that you do – are there any writers or books that you particularly admire, or hope to emulate?
Oh gosh—so many. In terms of sheer page count, Stephen King is probably my most studied writer. When I was a kid, books were harder to come by, so I tended to read my favorites over and over and over again. I’ve read The Stand over a hundred times. Reading Salem’s Lot (which was about a writer) was probably the first time it occurred to me that you could write books for a living.
In college, I went on a big Thomas Harris kick, especially Red Dragon. Harris has a knack for making villains that are at the same time legitimately scary and also sort of sad. That was something of a revelation for me. He’s also got a beautiful, crystalline prose style. He’s not just slapping words on the page.
I think Joe Haldeman’s work is really interesting. He apparently writes his books by hand. To me that’s like the guy who walked between the World Trade Centers on a tightrope–you can’t easily go back and rewrite when it’s ink on paper. I’m very much a word processor guy, but I think the pen-and-ink-by-lantern approach colors his writing in some interesting ways. I’ve noticed his sentences tend to be short, and the story arcs seem cleanly plotted if perhaps a tad vague on the first few pages. I wouldn’t necessarily want to try it that way myself, but I love his stuff.
I have in fact read more or less everything I could get my hands on by Neil Gaiman. I make a real effort not to be consciously derivative, but if my story lines or mythologies sound similar to his sometimes, it’s probably not an accident.
In college, I got forced to read an essay called “The Moth” by a woman named Annie Dillard for some class. To this day, that’s probably the piece of writing that I admire the most in terms of technical skill. I’ve been a fan of hers ever since. Thank you University of South Carolina for pushing me outside my comfort zone.
One that really impressed me lately was The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson. Holy crap it’s dark, but there’s an emotional sledgehammer about every five pages.
Last but not least, Popular Mechanics published an annotated transcript of the crash of Air France 447 that I think is the tensest piece of writing that I’ve ever read. You know how it’s going to come out, but every time I read it, just want to scream at the page. “THE PITOT TUBES ARE FROZEN OVER! YOU’RE IN A STALL!” My hands get sweaty. I’m trying to figure out how it does that.
That’ll give me a few to check out! I have had Stephen King on my TBR for a long time at least. Neil Gaiman is a favorite in my family for sure. He is actually coming to our town to speak in the fall, and we are really excited! So I’m curious – how do you find the books that you read? And do you tend to prefer new releases, or books that have been out for awhile?
Honestly, book bloggers are a big part of it. I’m twitter buddies with a lot of folks like you, so if I see the same title popping up over and over I’ll usually check it out. My to-be-read pile is huge though—two full bookcases at this point—so even if I buy a title with the best of intentions, there’s no telling when I’ll actually read it.
I do a lot of my “reading” on audible—going to the gym, cleaning house, whatever. That tends to be more non-fiction, I think because it’s harder to follow nuanced plot lines when you’re dealing with mild hypoxia on the treadmill. A perennial favorite of mine is disasters. So, like, Enron, the 2008 financial crisis, Chernobyl–that sort of thing. Basically everybody who worked in a bank wrote a book about the 2008 financial crisis. I read dozens of them. If I read a non-fiction book I like about subject X, I tend to binge on other books on the same subject. Last year (2017) I read a lot half a dozen about Stalin.
I love to go to bookstores and browse. A lot of what I pick up comes from that. Bookstores are really relaxing to me, and I get some good random stuff that way.
I don’t know that I have a preference for new releases versus older stuff. What I actually read is probably slightly skewed to newer stuff because of the publicity campaigns that accompany a new book, but it’s not really one of my selection criteria. Generally when I hear of something that piques my interest what I do is read the first page. If I like that, I flip to the middle somewhere and see if I like that. If it passes the test, it goes in the cart.