Decoding the Mysteries: An Interview with Scott Hawkins, Author of The Library at Mount Char

I admit it: as a reader I've become jaded. It takes a lot to move or excite me, and I drop many books after 50 pages. When I began The Library at Mount Char, I thought at first that it was going to be a standard thriller. Instead it ended up being one of the most imaginative, darkly funny, and crazy novels I've read. Scott Hawkins's white-hot creativity is one of a kind, and I can't wait to see where he goes next. So of course, I asked him if I could interview him for the Huffington Post, and he generously obliged. Here you'll find behind-the-scenes revelations as well as personal ones about Hawkins's journey to becoming a published author.

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The Library at Mount Char is a work of incredible complexity. How long did it take to write, and did you know, starting out, that it was going to be such a vast project? Were there any particular ideas that got you started?

Most of what made it into print was written in two big bursts. The first one came in July-September 2012. Over about three months I turned maybe 30,000 words of loosely related scraps into a first draft. My wife read it over Labor Day weekend. For the most part she liked it, but she HATED everything after the big showdown between the protagonist and the main antagonist. That part used to have a lot more to do with the Black Catalog, which lets you change the past. She felt like that was a cheat in a variety of ways. She was right. So, I did a major rewrite of the last 1/3 of the book in 2013, and that's more or less what ended up in print.

That said, I'd been noodling around on elements that were later used in the book for a good long while. I think the very first glimmer of the idea hit in something like 1993--I had an idea for a short story about a gruff old Navy guy and his adopted daughter that kinda-sorta evolved into the Father / Carolyn dynamic.

I'm very much a pantser rather than a plotter. In the initial stages, I just try to come up with a couple of decent scenes and character sketches and worry about how they fit together later. I like to see what grows. For this book, the core scenes were:
· Some Woman asking Some Guy if he wanted to break into a house
· Some Guy (not necessarily the same one) goes out for a jog in the suburbs and gets attacked by dogs
· A neighborhood picnic that goes horribly wrong, possibly involving the aforementioned Some Woman and Some Guy.
I think it stopped being a folder full of doodles and started being a novel when I made one particular connection. I liked the "guy goes for a jog" scene because I'm a sucker for surreal suburbs. But I hadn't figured out a good reason why it should exist.

I was working on something unrelated, trying to figure out how not-especially-physical Carolyn could plausibly kill this guy who's the ninja god of special forces pro wrestling. At the time I was thinking maybe she could play David and the tiger Nobununga off each other--that would be plausible, potentially, but it didn't feel like it would be satisfying to read.

Then it occurred to me that maybe I could try a con man angle. I love David Mamet's stuff, and The Sting. I'd also written a (very bad) book along those lines previously, so I felt like it was something I at least knew how not to approach. The more I thought about it, the more I liked the hide-the-spare-magazine-in-plain-sight gag, so I did a draft of that scene. I saw a way to write it so that some of the lines have a slightly different significance when you know what's really going on. I thought that was fun. Also, it gave me a reason to put in the guy-goes-for-a-jog sequence. That was probably the point at which I started to feel excited about the story. Things took off after that.

I think it's fascinating that a compelling, multi-faceted character like Carolyn could evolve over time from "Some Woman"! It shows what an involved process writing a novel can be.

Yeah, that's the fun of it, don't you think? I mean, every character starts as a blank page, as does every plot and so on. To me the best part is when something resembling a narrative starts to emerge from all the disparate pieces. Carolyn had to have an emotional arc, obviously, but it wasn't clear from the outset what that was going to be.

My original thought was that it might be something like "find the strength to conquer," but that felt a little boring. Everybody has seen Rocky, you know? I thought it might be more interesting to have her start as a sort of human wrecking ball but then gradually rediscover her humanity.

One interesting thing to me about seeing it published is the sizable minority of readers who find it difficult to relate to Carolyn, or find her completely unsympathetic. I always felt like she was more tragic than anything else. Terrifying, yes, but she's also very much a prisoner of her own will. The worst part is she doesn't seem to realize it.

The Father/Carolyn dynamic is--twisted, to say the least. Many aspects of this book are jaw-droppingly transgressive or just shocking. It's a book of extremes, and I'm not sure if it takes courage to write something this extreme, or indifference to what people think--or both! What do you think?

This question makes me feel like I'm swimming in deeper water than I realized. Transgressive, huh? Yikes!

I did consciously set out to make it operatic, a notch or two above what people might encounter in real life. But I guess to a large extent I didn't worry about people's reactions because I thought the chances of it actually seeing daylight were slight. At the time I wrote Mount Char I had been consistently failing to get any fiction published for a little over three decades. To put that in perspective, Ronald Reagan had just gotten shot when I collected my first rejection slip. That's a long time to fail at something. I mean, yes, theoretically the idea was to have other people read it, but I wasn't really holding my breath.

The only scene that I really sweated was the bit where David comes to visit Carolyn in her room. That one I straight-up agonized over. That sort of thing really is overdone, especially by male writers of fantasy fiction. I wrote, I think, five different versions ranging from "something else happened" to "as horrifying as possible." I finally concluded that it worked, and that not doing it would be sort of a cop-out. David was a horrifying guy.

As far as the Father / Carolyn dynamic, part of that came from the relationship between me and my dad. I want to emphasize here that my dad was a good man, he was absolutely never abusive or anything like that. But he was sort of hard to get to know, even for adults, and he didn't have a natural rapport with kids. I remember one day when I was maybe twenty-two, he made some sort of really dry wisecrack. Like, bone dry. And I realized two things: it was hilarious, and it was pretty typical of stuff he'd been saying all my life. I just never quite got it before. So I started listening more carefully, and I realized that Dad, who'd always been sort of an enigma to me, was actually a really funny guy. This was a genuine revelation, and after that I kind of looked back over all the stuff that had come before and reevaluated.

One of the things that made me laugh most was when I finished the book and read your bio, and saw that you've done extensive volunteering with rescue dogs. Given that there's a scene in the book that involves a very graphic fight against different breeds of dogs, I found this hilarious for some reason. You obviously love dogs, yet wrote a scene that is not exactly affectionate towards them. Did you ever feel guilty writing that scene?

Ha! No, my conscience is pretty clear. Just to clarify where some of that came from, my third (unpublished) novel was told entirely from the point of view of dogs and wolves. It wasn't quite hysterical animal rights propaganda, I don't think, but you could see the hysterical animal rights propaganda camp from there. It was a good exercise, but I decided I wanted to do something different in Mount Char. So I decided dogs would be the bad guys this time.

I probably shouldn't say this, but it's even worse than you may realize--the dogs in that neighborhood jog scene were based on my actual dogs. When I started writing the scene, I used made-up dogs. But there were so many I had trouble keeping it straight in my head who was biting what, so I switched to visualizing using dogs I could remember. So, like "okay, Momma Dawg is latched onto Steve's right arm, while Scooter is tearing at his Achilles tendon and..." I think we had six dogs in-house at the time, which was enough for a respectable mauling. I've got an actual Bernese named Thane, with the heterochromatic eyes and everything, but he's more goofball than fiendish mastermind. He's bad about chewing up my pillow though.

The dogs and I are on good terms. Most of them are in the room as I'm typing this. Everybody except Clyde--he's upstairs keeping an eye out for enemy squirrels. We all play ball every afternoon around 4:00. When it gets close to time they all start following me around. If I even get near the little basket where I keep the balls they go absolutely nuts. We have fun.

Mount Char has been called "urban fantasy" but it really seems like its own wacky entity to me. What are some books that inspire you?

Wizard of Earthsea was my first foray into fantasy, and I still think it's exemplary. That book works on pretty much every level, but these days I'm mostly in awe of the use of language. Le Guin could make a grocery list sound wise. I go back and reread that every couple of years.

Stephen King was a biggie when I was growing up. I absolutely loved The Stand--for me that was one of those books where you're just completely transported by the story. I've read it probably a hundred times.

I got introduced to Annie Dillard for a class in college. I remember just being floored by these little one-two punches of imagery she'd use. She'd set something up in the first third of the piece and then bash your brains out with it in the last couple of paragraphs. That's a neat trick. She's still someone I go back to and reread when I feel like I need to be shamed into writing better, or at least working harder. "Total purity or death," and all that.

I also love reading anthologies. That's always fun--every year somebody new blows the top of my head off.

What are your plans now that Mount Char is a hit? What's next?

I'm almost done (I hope) with a novel that's unrelated to Mount Char. An insane pretzel billionaire named Bob is interested in learning more about a school shooting, but he's not having much luck. All of his investigators keep disappearing. So, in the spirit of "to catch a thief" he hires a fry cook named Jackie, who is herself accused of a youthful massacre, to look into it. Wackiness ensues.

I'm shooting for kind of a Humphrey Bogart vs. Peter Pan vibe, but we'll see how it comes out.

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Scott Hawkins lives in Atlanta with his wife and a large pack of foster dogs. When not writing he enjoys woodwork, cooking long and impractical recipes, and playing fetch with his dogs. He works as a computer programmer. The Library at Mount Char is his first novel.

Ilana Teitelbaum's writing has appeared in the Globe and Mail, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and Salon. Her epic fantasy debut, Last Song Before Night, was published in October 2015 by Tor/Macmillan under the pen name Ilana C. Myer.