Today Scott Hawkins stops by Fantasy Literature to talk shop. We discuss writing, language, literary influences, and summer cocktails. One lucky U.S.-based commenter will win a copy of Hawkins’ debut novel, The Library at Mount Char, which I absolutely loved.
Jana Nyman: What drew you from computer sciences to writing fiction?
Scott Hawkins: It was the other way around. I more or less always wanted to be a writer, at least from the time I was twelve or so, but I knew the odds of success weren’t good. I hoped I’d have whatever it took to keep going, and the luck to get published eventually, but I didn’t think it was smart to bet on it. In a lot of Stephen King’s early interviews he talks about how he was living in a single-wide mobile home and having to choose between paying the phone bill or buying medicine for the baby when Carrie sold. That didn’t sound like a lot of fun to me. It crossed my mind to study something like journalism, but it seemed like if you were writing as a day job, you might not want to come home and do fiction. Computers struck me as a complementary skill set, and that turned out to be true.
I like working with computers. I think programming exercises a different part of the brain than the one you use for storytelling and sentence composition. And I can also eat out occasionally. So it worked out okay.
There are so many complicated scientific theories which are hinted at or employed within The Library at Mount Char: string theory, quantum physics, loads of high-level maths, etc. What kind of research did you do, and was it difficult to translate that into layman’s terms for the reader? Or, since those areas of study are outside of Carolyn’s catalogue, did that make it easier for you?
I didn’t do a lot of scientific research specifically for this book, but about half of what I read is non-fiction. All the little nuggets of “hmm, that’s interesting,” that you stumble over when you’re reading tend to pile up in the subconscious. When I wrote the first chapter of Mount Char, I had just finished a biography of Paul Dirac called The Strangest Man, so I mentioned Dirac. I’m a big fan of Richard Rhodes’ histories of the Cold War, which led me to track down some superfast — like, nanosecond fast — photographs of nuclear detonations taken by a guy named Harold Edgerton. His images are amazing. Some of them kinda-sorta ended up in the book. Also I took a lot of math in school, which tends to color your way of thinking about the world.
I thought you did a great job of integrating the core concept of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis without bogging the reader down in exposition or technical jargon. Language — its study, its theories, and the way people view the world as a result of the words they speak — is so crucial to the events within The Library at Mount Char. How did you come to the decision that a character like Carolyn would be the driving force of the novel’s conflict, as opposed to someone like David, who is very much a character of action?
First off, thanks! Glad you liked it. To answer your question, Carolyn being more of a brainiac and less of a killing machine was a very conscious decision to play to the strength of the novel as a medium.
I think every medium of storytelling — movies, plays, comics, whatever — has types of stories for which they are best suited. Imagine trying to convey a Guillermo del Toro movie, Pan’s Labyrinth or something, using only text. All those exotic monsters would be tough to describe. It would end up being a huge pile of pages, and I bet any two people who waded through it would still end up with different pictures in their mind. Imagine trying to convey the sword fights from Kill Bill using only text. It’s the wrong medium for the story.
Plays and movies are great for conveying emotion through dialogue — the actors can put little nuances in there that a writer can only hint at. But plays aren’t much good with special effects or car chases. Graphic novels are an interesting hybrid of film and novel — you can do internal action that you can’t do easily in a movie, but you can also convey a visual sense that’s tough to get across with pure text. On the other hand, they’re terrible if you need a soundtrack. “2001: The Graphic Novel” did not have the same impact as the film. You get the idea.
Getting back to Mount Char specifically, my thinking is that if you want to tell a story that is about sword fights or air combat, then novels aren’t the ideal choice of medium. But novels are a great medium for communicating nuances of thought. So it works to have a hero like Carolyn who does most of the fighting with her mind.
That’s not to say that you completely dispense with visual detail, or don’t have action scenes but, again, I try to play to the strengths of the medium. When I went visual I tried to stick with simple, easily identifiable shapes that could be communicated with a few words: “lion in the suburbs,” “a black pyramid,” “the Milky Way.” For action I wanted to use quick moves that could be summed up in a sentence or two. “X stabbed Y.” “Z’s head exploded.” I tried to focus on stuff that can’t be done more vividly in the movies — smell, little details that the eye lands on. When characters hear stuff, I try to characterize the sound using words that serve the story. So, like, “the drums rolled down the hall like the pulse of an angry giant,” instead of “she heard drums.”
As far as the linguistic angle, I love those lists that pop up on Facebook every now and then of stuff you can say in German, or whatever, that you can’t say in English. There are always a few neat ones. I liked the idea of being able to make up words for these exotic emotions that you’d still sort of recognize. At one point I was going to name every chapter after some newly-named emotion, but that kind of fizzled. It seems like a really fertile field to work in, but I never came up with much. I think the only one that really worked was ‘uzan iya,’ the moment when the heart turns to murder.
As far as Sapir-Whorf, when I was doing academic computer science, I focused on natural language processing. It’s just something from my background that colors my way of thinking about the world.
I loved the concept that the sun and moon are far more than ordinary celestial objects, and I really appreciated the nod to Oda Nobunaga. Were there any world mythologies or histories that you wanted specific allusions to, and why? Were there any that you wanted to add, but didn’t?
This was another conscious effort. I wanted to stay away from established mythologies. Bear in mind that when I was writing this I didn’t have an agent, much less a publisher. Just about every mythology I could think of had already been tapped by someone more famous than me. I didn’t want to appear to be piggybacking. The X-Files touched on everything at some point, vampires and werewolves are well-serviced in popular fiction, Hindu mythology is making inroads, and so on. I figured that if I wanted to stand out in the slush pile, I needed to make up something entirely new. So I tried to capture the spirit of all these myths without really using any of the specifics.
But the same time I love the way myths tend to have the same sort of feel regardless of what culture they came from. I was trying to capture some of that flavor, the primitive Gods that people made up to account for inexplicable natural phenomena.
All that said, there are a couple of explicit nods. Probably the single biggest one is to William Hope Hodgson’s novel The Night Land. The term Monstruwacan is from that book, I talk about a “black pyramid at the end of time,” and there are Silent Ones plodding around. There are a couple of nods to Lovecraft. Deep Ones are mentioned, and there’s a painting of “angry calamari.”
Probably the closest thing to a real mythology reference came from the Pacific islands. The guys on Kiribatii have a story that Nareau the Great plucked out his eye and made the moon. I heard about this in a great book called Getting Stoned with Savages, by J. Maarten Troost.
As far as Oda Nobunaga, I took Japanese in school, and I read a little bit of Japanese history. Honestly, I just like the way the guy’s name sounds. It rolls of the tongue, don’t you think? Also, my wife has some sort of mental block where she can’t pronounce it right, which gives me the giggles.
By the end of The Library at Mount Char, every detail matters, and there are no plot threads left dangling or stones unturned. Even the title carries layers of meaning! How was the initial seed of the novel different from the finished product, and did you end up cutting a lot of material during your writing process?
Yeah, I cut a ton of stuff. The book as it was published was something like 125,000 words. When I was getting set to assemble the first draft I counted up everything I had written, just for grins. There were around 370,000 words of raw material, which is just nuts. The first chapter took me forever to crack — I had 70,000 words of different versions of that one chapter alone. There are entire novels less than 70,000 words.
As originally conceived, the novel was going to be the librarians guarding the world against an outside threat. That didn’t work at all — they didn’t do much besides tell one another how fond they were of each other. Every so often they’d have a group hug. I figured out as soon as I started typing that this was a mistake, but it took me ages to realize that the way to fix it was to have them all distrust and/or dislike one another.
Beyond that, there was a lot of stuff that felt good when I was writing it, but when I read back over it, it was just bad. I tried to write an origin story for Father, how the third age ended — there’s about 17,000 words of that on my hard drive somewhere, but it’s pure crap. I had ten pages of Erwin in Afghanistan that never went anywhere. I had maybe 10,000 words of Steve talking about a Buddhist monk. Get to the point, Steve.
Other stuff read okay, but it got cut because it didn’t fit or didn’t advance the story.
I think it’s a mistake to have a blueprint that you stick to religiously. If something takes off when you’re writing, let it take off. If something isn’t working, don’t force it. I originally planned to have a whole bunch of little scenes of people in solar observatories around the world noticing that something was up. I sketched out a couple of them, but they just didn’t work. I didn’t want to do a lot of childhood flashbacks, but I wrote a couple and it felt like they had real juice, so I let them run.
Nobununga originally played a much bigger part in the third act. I wrote a nice scene of him and Michael aimed at the end of the book, but I couldn’t figure out anything for him to be doing between the time he walked onstage and his climactic moment. I ended up killing him off much earlier than I had planned. Stuff like that. Be flexible.
Is the mention of “President LeMay” a reference to Curtis LeMay? He was definitely the kind of person who would think that nuking an American neighborhood was an appropriate response to a perceived threat.
You don’t miss much, do you? Yup. That’s exactly who that was. Curtis LeMay was an actual guy, an Air Force General. Richard Rhodes, the nuclear historian, talks about him a lot in his books. LeMay ran Strategic Air Command in the 1950s. He believed that the U.S. Government was squandering its nuclear advantage, so he did a bunch of stuff to try and provoke the Soviets into a nuclear war. He was one of Kennedy’s advisors in the Cuban Missile Crisis. If memory serves, he was in favor of bombing Cuba. It turned out that the Cubans already had missiles on their soil, and also the launch codes. If Kennedy had taken LeMay’s advice, Cuba almost certainly would have retaliated with nuclear weapons.
LeMay is not my favorite person. I like the idea that Father did something ghastly to him.
What books or authors do you count as influences, and why?
Stephen King is the biggie. With the exception of the baseball book, I’ve read everything he ever published. I’m probably most influenced by his early stuff, ’Salem’s Lot, The Shining, The Stand. I’ve read The Stand at least a hundred times, the other two only slightly less.
I studied the hell out of Thomas Harris’s books, Red Dragon and Black Sunday in particular. About midway through Red Dragon there’s a chapter where Harris talks about the childhood of the bad guy, Frances Dolarhyde. I once wrote that out long hand. That’s a surprisingly useful exercise. It kind of forces you into the writer’s head space — the choices they made about what words to use where, forces you to think about why they might have done it that way. And why did he put that chapter there, right after Will Graham examines the massacre scene? Hmmm. I love the way Harris writes these bad guys that you still feel sort of sympathetic for — Hannibal Lecter, obviously, but also Dolarhyde and Michael Lander, the sorta-bad-guy from Black Sunday. Dolarhyde is probably my favorite.
Joe Haldeman is another biggie. He’s got a way of kind of dancing around the emotional impact an event has on a character. He manages to get the point across without rubbing your nose in a lot of obvious language. I really admire that. Haldeman is himself a Hemingway scholar, so that’s probably an indirect influence. I just wasn’t a huge Hemingway fan, though.
For the last ten years or so I’ve been swinging more literary — Annie Dillard in particular, but lately a guy named Adam Johnson as well.
A feature of our Author Interviews is that we ask authors about their favorite cocktail recipes — either as they relate to the author’s creative process (as a relaxation aid while writing, for example) or something involved with their work. Are there any drinks which you enjoyed to reward yourself for making progress with the manuscript?
I accidentally invented a summer drink that I like. I was trying to remember what went in a Caipirinha, and I flubbed it. A real Caipirinha is made with a Brazilian sugarcane rum called cachaça — it has to be cachaça, don’t substitute Captain Morgan or whatever — limes, sugar and ice. You quarter a whole lime, squeeze it out, and shake it in with the other stuff, peel and all. It’s got a limey-pulpy thing going on that I quite like.
I still the original, but I think I like my mistake better. I got the cachaça and limes right, but I used simple syrup made from raw sugar. I squeeze out the limes as before, shake with crushed ice, then pour in club soda. Those are really good when it’s hot out.
For the most part I’m a beer guy. My dogs have gotten conditioned to the point where when they see me crack a Bud Light they know it’s time to play fetch.
One last question: Is Petey okay??
As it happens I’m working on a short story that answers that very question.
The short will go up on my web site, for free, at some point in the near future. I know exactly what I’m going to do with it, and I’m about half finished with the writing, but I’ve been swamped with stuff related to the book launch and haven’t had a chance to finish. But to answer your question, [highlight here for a spoiler] Petey is okay. He hooked up with a nice lady who’s looking out for him [end spoiler].
I am absolutely thrilled that you care enough to ask.
As a dog owner, I was very concerned!
Thank you so much for your thoughtful answers, Mr. Hawkins. I look forward to reading more from you!
Readers, comment below for a chance to win a copy of The Library at Mount Char, out now from Crown Books. U.S.-based addresses only, please.
I just picked this up yesterday. Can’t wait to read it.
I hope you like it!
I loved this book, and I love Mr. Hawkins’s description of the revision process. And he completely faked me out… I had him pegged as a cat person (lions in the suburbs) in spite of Petey.
The interactions between Naga and Steve made me think Mr. Hawkins was either a cat person or a big-dog person.
This book sounds …different. So many people I respect have said they loved it that I know I’m going to read it eventually. Why not sooner?
“Different” is a really good word for this book. It wasn’t anything like what I expected, but I mean that in the best possible way.
I have been wanting to read this book! Great interview!
Thank you! All credit goes to Mr. Hawkins, though. His answers were fantastic.
I can’t believe you caught the LeMay reference. It was such a tiny little throwaway gag.
If it was important enough for you to mention, it was important enough for me to notice!
Sounds like a great read! Thanks!
Fantastic interview, thanks so much. I just posted my own review over at farbeyondreality.com.
Thanks, Stefan! I like your review, too.
I just went and read your review, Stefan. I think you captured the strengths of this strikingly original work.
It sounds like a really interesting premise; I’m in!
Stefan, thanks for the link to your review — this sounds like a book I’d REALLY love to read! I’m putting my name in the hat, otherwise, I’ll have to ask my local library to get this asap.
Sounds like a fun interview, Jana.
I enjoyed reading Mr. Hawkins’ thoughtful responses. I can tell I’m going to love this book, not only from the interview, but also because I know I’ll love anything that Jana, Marion and Stefan all like. I’ll be reading the audio version.
If you don’t love this book, I will eat my third least-favorite hat. :)
Moving up on Kindle queue! Great interview!
Thanks, Bill! I think you’ll really enjoy the book.
Oh I so Want!
This sounds wonderful. I’m putting it on my list to track down.
I simply have to pick this book up.
This sounds all kinds of awesome
Sounds interesting and well thought out.
Just got my copy of The Library at Mount Char. I’m excited!
Janet, if you live in the USA, you win a copy of The Library at Mount Char!
Please contact me (Marion) with your US address and I’ll have the book sent right away. Happy reading!
Whee!!! This is a book I’m really looking forward to reading, thank you!!!