The Library at Mount Char is one of my favorite books of 2015, and I sat down with author Scott Hawkins to discuss languages, dogs, and homicidal librarians.
Christina Ladd: What had you picking languages as the focus of your book?
Scott Hawkins: Part of it was my academic background in computer science, so I spent a lot of time thinking about natural language processing back in school. That’s just something that has always stuck with me – it’s something I thought a lot about it at the time, and it colored everything I did after that. Now, it hasn’t had a whole lot of practical application in terms of my day job. Most everyone these days wants websites and not natural language processing, but it’s still something I think about.
The idea that the language that you speak colors what you can think about was something that was deeper in the original idea for the book than ultimately ended up in the final product, but that was one of the starting places for it. This Pelapi language was 60,000 years old and if you learned that as your mother tongue, then you would be able to think about things and concepts that would not be easily available to modern language speakers. But the flip side is also going to be true as well, that these Pelapi speakers would not have any real framework for thinking about things like cell phones and internal combustion engines and modern stuff like that. So they could raise the dead, but they don’t know how a car works. Some of that ended up in there, but it wasn’t the focus I was originally conceiving it as.
Those were delightfully hilarious passages, by the way. So when you talk about these deeper languages and deeper concepts, what do they look like?
Well, it was going to be more that the system of magic—although in the book I kept saying that it wasn’t magic, but I wasn’t trying to make a serious stab at a new technology—the magic system would be based on the idea that they just thought differently. When I was doing research for the book, I was reading about the rainforests in Brazil, and how they occasionally find these tribes that are isolated and have not had any contact with the outside world, and then some of these guys will come to the cities looking for work, and they don’t have any concept for cell phones, for electricity, for television. It’s like magic to them. But presumably, they could think about things that looked like magic to us. That ended up in there, but it never was quite the focus of the book the way I thought it might be.
There is a sense that, as you become immersed in the narrative, you realize that there is a very different sense of “normal.” Instead of people saying, “we’re doing all this cool stuff and we’re so impressed with ourselves!” they’re very scarred, fragile human beings.
I liked that, too. Nobody thinks about their life being magic. Whatever you do, you get used to it after however long. People who fly fighter jets—for me that would be, wow! I’m flying a fighter jet!—but to them they’re probably just like “oh, god, do I have to go to work today?”
Exactly. So of all of the practically named but impractically skilled characters, which was your favorite to write? It doesn’t have to be one of the siblings.
Michael was pretty fun to write. I’ve got a lot of dogs, I’m a big dog guy. With him I could do the dog perspective, the animal perspective, which was sort of fun and easy. Erwin was a lot of fun. You put Erwin in a room with a straight man and Erwin kind of writes himself. He’s a walking “fuck you” to whoever’s in the room with him. But my favorite character was probably Margaret. I really enjoyed Margaret. She was just so dark. Like the girl from the ring, if you were talking to her.
She was creepy! But I think the creepiest for me were actually the inanimate objects. Like the bull, but also the poker, and the crucifixion pens—all the torture instruments, basically.
The bull was literally the worst thing I could think of. As it was originally written, the way they were told not to study outside their catalogues was just that Father gave them a stern talking to for about a page and a half. That was the first draft, but as I was going through and trying to spice up things in the second draft that had not really been my focus, I came to that and wondered what I could do that would be really horrible. That was where the bull came in, and it took off a lot more than I thought. It was a very vivid scene, and it colored the rest of the book.
Did you end up doing a lot of revisions?
Oh, gosh, I do dozens, if not hundreds of revisions—close to a hundred, at least. The book as it was published was close to 120,000 words, but there’s probably 250,000 on the cutting room floor.
Well, some of that was variations on the same scene. The first chapter, I did probably eight or 10 variations, and the first chapter as published was originally going to be the second chapter. It was originally going to open with Steve and Carolyn in the bar. That came pretty easy, but I had a hell of a time getting the second chapter (which ended up being the first chapter), where Carolyn goes back. I spent dozens of revisions on that, tried a million different things and none of them were working—until. So, as originally conceived, they were all going to be standing alone against some nebulous, otherworldly threat, coming in from space or somewhere—something besides them was going to be the antagonist. But I couldn’t make it work, because every time they got ‘on screen,’ they would talk about how much they liked each other, and they would hug, and it was just boring. Then I decided they hated each other, and the whole book just took off.
Do you have siblings?
I do, I have three. But we get along fine!
There were some parts with them that were very extreme, but they still had very organic interactions.
Yeah, you’re taking normal human interactions and turning it up from five to 10. That was what I was trying to do with really everything about the book.
If we can loop back for a second, you have dogs, too. You seem, from the dog scene, to really hate dogs, because a lot of dogs died very horribly, and a lot of cats lived very dramatically.
[grins] Okay, where that’s coming from…this was the fourth book I’d written. The third book was totally from a dog’s perspective. There was maybe one human character, but the whole thing was a Watership Down sort of thing. I didn’t want to do that again, so I purposely made the dogs the bad guys. From the first scene where Carolyn sees the dog and it makes her nervous, I wanted to get on paper right off the bat that this was not from a dog point of view. But actually, the dogs that were physically described in the jogging scene were in fact my dogs.
Well, I love the dogs—I work with a dog rescue. I have a houseful! I have zillions of the little guys. But my editor thought so too. He asked me, “you have dogs?” [laughs]
So setting aside the human or quasi-human characters for a moment, what was your favorite creation in the story? Was it the dogs? The walking iceberg?
Nah, the iceberg came later, it was one of the last things that went in there. Favorite creation, hm… I liked the library itself. It had nice mystical juice. I liked the completely unassailable monolith it had going on toward the end, when it’s just there, and it’s huge, so big it’s messing up tectonic plates, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it! Kind of a Godzilla vibe to it.
So I am a librarian, and I’m curious where that comes from. I would personally love to be in a library that shifts tectonic plates, but it’s also terrifying. Did you maybe have a bad experience with a librarian once?
No, no! Again, it’s completely the opposite. I was at a writing workshop in 2006 or 2007 with this lady named Barbara Gordon—
That’s awesome. [NB: Barbara Gordon=Batgirl]
—and she’s a librarian. I was working on the dog story at the time, and this wasn’t even a glimmer in my eye, but I was talking to Barbara, and she was talking about how librarians are always portrayed in popular culture as bookish and mild, and she said, “just once I’d like some homicidal nutjob!” And I jotted a note down and thought, “homicidal librarians. Let’s do that.”
On behalf of the librarians I work with, thank you. It’s nice to have better role models.
I was pleasantly surprised by how many librarians said, “yes, we need this.”
Yes, judging by my coworkers, we need it very badly.
[laughs] I love libraries. Growing up, bookstores and libraries were always my favorite places. The town I grew up in—Aiken, South Carolina—I didn’t realize at the time how weird this was, but there was this huge robber baron mansion that had been donated to the city, and they turned it into a library. It was a mansion with bookshelves in it! I have nothing but positive memories about it, and libraries in general. I was playing against my own natural inclination again.
What would be your catalog in that library, then?
Oh, I wouldn’t last long. They’d have killed me off early. But I think the mathematics and cooking section, I think that was Peter’s. Computer science is a lot of mathetmatics, and I like to cook, so that would have been my inclination—but you would do what Father told you.
Which catalogue is most against your type, then?
Medicine—I’m no good at the life science.
It’s interesting that you don’t pick the War catalogue or the Death-Horror catalogue, or the languages, since those loom so much larger in the book.
So I did a little boxing in school, and I was terrible at it, but I did enjoy it. The Death-Horror stuff, well, I watch horror movies. Getting murdered every day wouldn’t be what I would pick, but it’s not entirely anathema to my personality.
One of the things I found really interesting was the Carolyn was not the most shining-knight-good character. But there are characters who are much worse. There isn’t really that typical fantasy good and evil dichotomy, or healing and harm dichotomy. What you seem to be setting up is a dichotomy between War and Language. Do you see that as a fundamental division?
For me it was more about shades of grey. I was actively trying to stay away from the good versus evil. I really do believe that everybody, even the very worst people, have some good in them, and even the very best people have some deep darkness in them. It’s just human nature, and in fiction I want some balance in that. Originally, David was a mustache-twirling villain—I took this out for the final, but I really did have him twirling his mustache. He had a little Fu Manchu. But it was too obvious. But Mrs. Mcgillycutty—he had a soft spot for the old lady who made him muffins.
Carolyn—the protagonist, certainly, and the moral focus of the story—I like the ambivalence. I liked the idea that absolute power corrupts absolutely, and she’s struggling against herself as she’s struggling against others. I thought that was more interesting. I like a little moral terror. She was in danger in losing herself as much as the battle.
As she’s struggling with herself, all of the focus seems to be on the language—in her plans she’s speaking “American,” and she’s speaking Pelapi—and it’s so interesting to me that she’s still such a terrible communicator.
That’s a good point. Yeah, that was not a conscious thing. She didn’t really know what she herself meant in a lot of ways. She was so removed from herself.
She’s so closed off, yet her catalogue is so focused on openness. A lot of the languages she ends up thinking about aren’t about communication—a lot of the words that she finds important are ones that are from dead languages, things that aren’t communicated anymore. Do you feel like that has a basis in the languages you “speak,” because they’re computer languages?
Every now and then you’ll see a list on facebook or something of untranslatable words or words we should have in English, and I love those. In Japanese there are these great proverbs that, literally, make no sense. There’s one that means “three years on a stone.” What that actually means is that if you sit on a stone for three years, your body heat will warm it up, and it’s the Japanese way of saying “if you apply yourself for a long enough time, even if it’s very difficult, eventually you’ll get there.” I liked the idea of having a lot of dead or made-up languages sprinkled throughout, but the only one I came up with that I actually liked was the uzan-iya, the “moment when the heart first turns to murder.”
And the heart coal!
Oh, yeah. I don’t know where that came from, but that was a nice image. I like that image. [considers] Oh, god, now I sound like a jerk.
You’re allowed to like your own work.
So it sounds like you’ve gone through a lot in the writing process—a lot of drafts, a lot of made-up words. What would you say the most important thing you’ve learned is?
There’s so many… I’m 45 now, and I’ve been writing since I was 12, and this is the very first thing I’ve ever sold. Basic comprehensibility is important, all the way up to the thing I’ve learned most recently. It’s that it’s very easy to get very confusing very quickly. With this book, you’re bouncing around in time, and where they are geographically, and all this other weird stuff, so you have to be very explicit about anchoring things in time and place in very plain language. I tend to not want to be very obvious about it, but I go in the opposite direction and make it impenetrable, incomprehensible. For me, basic clarity has been a struggle my whole life.
Because it’s fantasy, part of the challenge and part of the fun for readers is suspending disbelief. They like being a little at sea in the first part. I like that, certainly, but not everyone loves it, and I need to give enough clues so that a moderately attentive reader can figure out enough to get by on in the first couple of pages. Finding the right balance on that is really tricky for me.
Who would you say your inspirations are for that or any style?
I read a lot of Stephen King. I think I’ve read everything he’s published with the exception of the baseball book, some of it dozens or hundreds of times. I’ve read The Stand probably a hundred times. I read a lot of Thomas Harris, the guy who wrote The Silence of the Lambs, although that wasn’t my favorite book, I liked Red Dragon better. Lately, I’ve been skewing more toward nonfiction. Richard Rhodes does Cold War histories and nuclear arms race histories. His prose style is really top-notch. The Orphan Master’s Son just blew me away. Oh man, it’s a dark book, like an emotional sledgehammer every two pages.
The ones that I study I really study. Thomas Harris has a really good way of doing a bad guy. Francis Dollarhyde was just a terrible, wretched human being, but you also felt bad for him because he had this horrible upbringing. There was a balance between scary monster—he literally was a monster—and pity. That was a technique I was interested in.
When you say you study, do you use certain methods?
I copy it out by hand. I’ve read Red Dragon 20 or 30 times at least, and I’ve copied the whole thing out by hand. Someone in a writing class told me it was a useful exercise because it forces you to think. If you’re writing it out longhand, it forces you to think about why the writer made those choices at that time. It forces you into the headspace of the author.
Whoa! So that’s your research process, but what’s your writing process? How do you carve out time, where do you go?
It’s changed recently. When I was doing Mount Char, I was getting up really, really early, like two or three in the morning. I have all these dogs, and they’re in benign mode that early, not keeping us safe form the squirrels. I’m also a morning person.
Once it was rolling, I was working probably 12 hours a day. The bulk of the writing of it was done in three months. Then another six months after that of re-writes. The third act as it’s published is very different from the original. My wife hated the third act, so I re-wrote it completely.
Do you mind sharing what the original ending was?
I don’t mind, but I don’t remember it that well! [laughs] There was more of a romantic element with Steve and Carolyn. They didn’t end up together, but they did have sex once, and my wife hated that scene—apparently they don’t do romance very well. This is coming from my wife. Ouch.
Originally there was this thing called the Black Catalogue, which Father handed over as the final token of Carolyn’s ascension. The Black Catalogue was the one that showed you how to change the past, and she made it so all the other librarians had only ever been normal Americans. In one of the scenes, which my wife also hated, Maggie and Big Dave came over and brought a casserole to their new neighbor, Carolyn.
Another bad element was that **SPOILERS** Carolyn did not resurrect Father, Father brought himself back. It turned out that the reason he had been killing Margaret every 20 minutes for however many years was that she got a little bit further back on her own each time, so he followed her back to the living world and resurrected himself. He was waiting for them inside the library after the big showdown David. But I like this a lot better, I agree with my wife that it needed improvement.
The idea of getting a casserole from those two is particularly terrifying.
I like Dave! I like that he was this big goofball—he was going to be a gym teacher.
A blood-spattered, tutu-wearing maniac is how I remember gym teachers in elementary school, so I can see that part.
Yeah [laughs]. Well, the point being that Father had wrecked all of them. All the librarians had been ruined by this. They were all sacrifices in the training process for Carolyn. It seemed mean-spirited. I felt bad about it, I felt bad for Michael—in that draft, there was no one coming back. So I wanted Father to resurrect them. But it kind of undid the whole story. None of the stakes meant anything anymore. It took the legs out from the story you had been reading for two or three hundred pages.
When Father comes back, he’s a much milder, more sympathetic version of himself. In creating his successor, he’s just so evil, but he seems to have regained some of his humanity. Did you have any plans to continue his story?
We’ve seen the last of Father. Father has gone on to his greater reward. I have no plans to revisit him at all.
I had previously tried to write a little bit about the end of the Third Age, when he and Nobununga and Mithragani usurp the Emperor, and that ended up on the cutting room floor. It was 15,000 words and nothing happened.
We would be certainly be curious to read that. But it sounds like you do have more in the works for Carolyn and this world.
Yeah, I do. But right now I’m working on something else. It’s a fantasy set in the modern world. It’s more along the lines of a noir fantasy, like The Maltese Falcon or The Big Sleep, but with fantasy elements. They’re investigating a school massacre committed by someone mythological, like a Peter Pan. Yeah [laughs] it’s supposed to sound weird. I think it’ll probably work, ultimately, though.
I don’t know whether there will be a sequel to Mount Char. I would like to. I really enjoyed writing those characters. I have some ideas for where the story would go, but I’m not sure I could make it work. I could come up with 80,000 words of something and put it out, and anyone who bought the first would buy the second, but that’s not cool. It should work. And Carolyn has this overpowered problem—she’s got the Superman problem. Who does she fight? And the first book had a nice character arc. Where does she go from there? I think I’ve got that one figured out, but the first book had these successive reveals, like layers of an onion, and that took a lot of delicate balancing. That I’m not sure I can do in a second book. You want to have surprises, but I’m not sure I can pull that off and still be fair to the first book. If I can figure out a way to do that, I would like to do that. I really miss Carolyn and Erwin and Michael. But I don’t want to come right out and say “yes! I will do a sequel!” and then ten years from now it’s still not working.
I am working on a short story that will go up on the website very soon now. It’s more librarians and Carolyn. It’ll be a freebie.
It seems from the acknowledgement and your time at different workshops that you’ve had a lot of input on this book. Do you feel like you work better with collaboration, or do you work better alone?
I’m a big believer in not talking about a story when you’re writing it. If you talk about it in detail, and they like it, you’ve received the gratification—in your head—for the idea, and you kind of let it drop. Certainly don’t talk about it in any detail. But once it’s gone out, you as the writer need to shut up and listen to what people are saying about it. If one person tells you something, that’s the person’s opinion, but if you hear the same thing from two people, you need to think long and hard about that thing. I make a very conscious effort to listen to feedback. I write it down, record it.
I’m also very lucky in my wife—she’s not a writer but my God she’s a good beta reader. She can’t tell you how to fix something, but she can tell you exactly, “page 17 paragraph three isn’t working,” and she is not one to mince words. It’s a good symbiotic relationship. She’s very candid about her opinions and they’re worth listening to.
I’ve also got writer buddies from workshops and email lists. It’s a good community of writers.
Do you have anything else you’d like to talk about with regard to the book or what’s coming up next for you? Hopes and dreams?
Hopes and dreams are honestly fulfilled at this point—I can’t believe how well this has gone. It’s hard to overstate how long 30 years of not succeeding at something is. That was a big day, when the book sold. And since then, it’s been fantastic. The reception has been really positive—not everyone likes it, but not everyone likes anything, and the people who do like it really like it. It’s just been a dream come true. I feel very fortunate to have gotten this far.
Every now and again you see people in the writing groups asking “how long until I get rich?” [winces, laughs] Maybe you should look into investing or something. You don’t go into this for the money. You go into this because you want to write stories. Every writer at one point was a big reader, and they want to write something that people want to read. It seems like, with this book, a lot of people enjoy it. And that is just great. It’s just fantastic. So I’m a happy guy.