Last week I posted about reading (and enjoying) The Library at Mount Char. Author Scott Hawkins was kind enough to answer a few questions for me, providing (among other things) some thoughts on fantasy libraries, a recipe I can’t wait to try, and advice for librarians engaged in power struggles at work. Thanks for the great answers, Scott!
I think of it as fantasy, but ‘speculative fiction’ works too. I was a little surprised to see that some people think of it as ‘horror.’ I mean, that’s fine, think of it however you want, I just wasn’t expecting it. I knew that there were horror elements, of course, but I miscalculated the degree to which some people found them disturbing. I thought I had the horror dial turned up to maybe 5 or 6 out of 10, but based on the reactions it seems like it was more a 7 or 8.
I’m a sucker for fantasy libraries, so I knew as soon as I saw the title of this book that I would be reading it. Can you talk a little bit about the library in your book? What does it share with the classic libraries of fantasy, and how is it different?
My notion of magic libraries is mostly colored by A Wizard of Earthsea. To me, the library is where you go when you’re done with flashy b.s. and ready to start being a grownup. That’s where the work happens. As far as differences, my library probably skews a little darker than the average. You probably wouldn’t find the Bruce Campbell version of the Necronomicon at, say, Hogwarts, but I could see it in Mount Char.
Although The Library at Mount Char is your first novel, you’ve been writing fiction for some time, correct? Can you talk about your journey to publication?
I was one of those kids who always did good in English class without trying very hard. I read a lot, my grammar was okay, surely that’s enough to make me a writer, right? Turns out, no. Not so much.
I started writing fiction when I was maybe ten or eleven years old. I was going to do a novel about Superman. I got maybe three pages written, in pencil on a spiral notebook before I gave up. A couple years later, when I was thirteen or fourteen, I started sending out short stories to magazines. I did that off and on through high school and college. I never sold any of them. The closest I came to success was one encouraging note, from Algis Budrys.
I wrote my first novel when I was just out of college, in 1994. It was a crime thriller. It was pretty godawful. About the best you could say for it was that I finished, and it was novel length. I shopped that one around for a while, then started on a science fiction piece. It too was a mess, but a longer mess. It had a couple of interesting ideas, but I hadn’t quite learned how to string scenes together in a way that made sense to anyone but me. I finished it and shopped it around. I got one request for partial from an agent.
Around that time I noticed an ad for “writers wanted” on a database site that I was visiting for my day job. I said ‘hmm,’ and sent in a proposal. Sure enough, they signed me up. For the next couple of years I wrote half a dozen computer books for Pearson PTR. That was a good exercise in that it got me through the publication process for the first time, but technical writing doesn’t have much in common with the writing of fiction.
I was also intermittently working on my third novel. There was a web site called iPublish backed by Time-Warner that was sort of the American Idol of fiction. You submitted short excerpts, and your peers voted on it. Editors took a look at the stuff that was highly rated. At least a couple of successful authors came out of that—it was a long time ago, but I’m fairly sure that Scott Sigler and I swapped critiques at one point.
Anyway, an editor at iPub named Paul Witcover, himself a fine novelist, signed me to my first-ever fiction contract. I delivered the manuscript in fall of 2001. Time Warner shut the whole division down about two weeks later. All contracts became null and void. Paul helped me out as best he could—I’ll always be grateful for that–but the manuscript just wasn’t ready.
I got all butthurt and went off to do something else for a while. But a couple years later I took the manuscript out and rewrote it, workshopped it, all of that. I queried twenty-three agents and got eight requests for the full manuscript. Three agents went out of business while they were considering it. Three just passed. Two of them passed, but said “send me what you come up with next.” All the agents who passed said the same thing—“I can’t sell this, it’s too dark for an animal story.”
I couldn’t tell you exactly what changed, but this was the point where it finally dawned on me that I really needed to up my game. Up until then my attitude (only slightly overstated) was something like “I’ve put in all these hours, aren’t I entitled to a contract by now?” No. It’s just a tough, tough business. Remember that little passage that was maybe not so good, but it set up the great scene two pages later? No one is going to make it to the great scene until you fix the little passage.
So I bought every book on writing that I could find, going to workshops, reading editor and agent blogs, hanging out on online writer forums, anything I could think of to get better. Picture a training montage from an eighties movie, except with more typing.
In 2011 I went to a workshop called Taos Toolbox, held by two big names in the field—Walter Jon Williams and Nancy Kress. That was where things finally started to click.
Can you talk a little about the process of writing The Library at Mount Char? Did it come easily, or were there particular challenges involved with this novel?
Once it got rolling it came pretty easy. But it took about two years of false starts before it got rolling.
What ended up being published as the first chapter was originally the second chapter. The book originally opened with chapter two, the first line of which is “So,” she said, “do you want to break into a house?” It seemed like an intriguing scenario. Guy meets strange woman, they break into a house together, wackiness ensues.
That was fine as far as it went, but I had absolutely no idea where to go next. I thrashed around on chapter two for something like six months. I’ve got at least ten major variants of What Happens Next, and most of those ten have a couple of different drafts. I added it up once and it’s around seventy thousand words.
Then finally one day it all clicked. “Carolyn, blood-drenched and barefoot, walked alone…” et cetera. After that I was off to the races.
You are also the author of several books on computers. Do you see any connection between writing fiction and writing non-fiction?
Beyond the fact that they both involve keyboarding, there’s not much resemblance. Writing a technical book is exactly like writing twenty or thirty term papers in a row. With computer books, there’s also a lot of lab work. You need to actually run every single command or procedure you’re describing. It’s not especially difficult, but it can be exhausting.
Writing a novel is a lot more complicated. First and foremost, you have to think about mechanical stuff—how do I make scene X entertaining but still convey information? What’s the best way to make character and plot amplify each other? There’s a good bit of self-hypnosis, or maybe method acting, that goes into writing from a character’s point of view. It’s all-consuming. A lot of times I’ll be in the shower or whatever and the little bit of dialogue that I couldn’t quite make work two weeks ago suddenly comes to me. I carry a notebook around so I can jot stuff down. But it’s a lot of fun. When it’s going well, there’s nothing I’d rather be doing.
What’s next for you in terms of writing projects? (I know a lot of people are begging for a sequel!)
I am giving serious thought to a sequel. I’d like to, and there does seem to be a good bit of appetite for one. That said, it’s not a slam dunk. There are a lot of problems that would have to be solved in order to write a sequel that would be satisfying. I’ve got a general idea about who could be the antagonist, and I think I’ve figured out a solution to character arc. The problem I’m chewing on now is that the original book was structured so that successive surprises got revealed one after another, like peeling away like the layers of an onion. I think a proper sequel should probably keep that up. The problem is, I’m not sure if I can do that and still be consistent with the first book. If I can figures something out, I’ll probably go ahead. If not, it’s probably best to just leave the story as-is. I would like to though. I miss those guys.
Right now I’m working on something entirely unrelated. It’s along the lines of “Mike Hammer investigates school shooting committed by Peter Pan, discovers all is not as it seems.”
What do you read? Do you read across genres?
About half of what I read is non-fiction. I read a lot of political memoirs and histories, especially the sixties and seventies. Pretty much everybody who worked in the Nixon White House wrote a memoir, and I’ve read most of them. I’m a sucker for military books, Navy SEALs, snipers, Army special forces, all of that. I get my Walter Mitty on. Disaster analyses are another big one—I’m fascinated by the way complex systems fall apart. For a long time I read airline crash analyses. Lately it’s been more the 2008 financial crisis—for some reason I just cannot get enough of that stuff.
As far as fiction, I’ll read anything by Stephen King, Joe Haldeman, John Varley, Charles Stross. William Gibson is someone I study. I really liked We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver—that was a brilliant book, but pitch black.
I also do a lot of comic books—Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Warren Ellis, J. Michael Straczynski, Garth Ennis, Frank Miller, Mark Millar. It’s a fascinating medium, and doesn’t get enough respect.
Do you have any advice for real-life librarians stuck in power struggles?
Any job is going to have politics. I’ve only ever worked at one place that didn’t. I think the smartest course is to do your work and try to stay out of it as much as possible. Try to make yourself above criticism. Do a little more than your share. Be honest about deadlines. Help out if you are able. Volunteer for the shit jobs. If your boss accidentally gives you credit for something someone else did, make sure to correct them—especially if this happens in public. Be more than generous when sharing credit. Be honest with yourself and always take blame for things that were your fault. Never, ever slough the blame onto someone else for something you did wrong. Never pick a fight.
If you do all of the above and still find yourself in a pissing match, it’s generally going to be with someone who just thrives on conflict. You may find it helpful to identify and bond with similarly wronged people. Often you’ll find that together you can look out for one another’s interests.
Alternatively, you might just go get another job. Life is too short.
Your website indicates that you enjoy cooking. Could you share a recipe? (A link is fine if you prefer the more complex stuff!)
Sure, love to! This isn’t my recipe, but I make it a lot. It’s not hard, and it’s an approach to chicken that I haven’t seen very often. It’s from the book North African Cooking by Hilaire Walden.
Moroccan Stuffed Chicken
- 1 large chicken
- 1 ½ red onions, chopped
- 3 Tbsp olive oil
- 2 tsp ground cinnamon
- ½ tsp saffron threads, crushed
- salt to taste
- 2 ½ cups water (approx.)
- 2 tbsp honey
- 2 ¼ cups couscous, cooked
- 3 tbsp raisins
- ½ cup sliced almonds
- 2 Tbsp orange juice
- 2 Tbsp oil
- 1 pinch ground cloves
- 1tsp cinnamon
- 1 pinch nutmeg
- salt and pepper
- Cook the couscous. When it’s ready, add the rest of the stuffing ingredients and mix them up.
- Fill the cavity of the chicken with the stuffing. Unless it’s a really big chicken, you usually have some stuffing left over. The stuffing that cooks with the chicken is much better than the stuff that’s just blended, so I like to really pack it in.
- Heat some oil in a pot just barely large enough to hold the chicken. Add the onions and cook until softened.
- Stir in the garlic and spices.
- Add the chicken to the pot and enough water to go about half way up the chicken. Bring to a boil, Reduce the heat to medium low, cover and simmer for 30 minutes.
- Drizzle the honey over the chicken and cook for about another 45 minutes.