Q&A with Scott Hawkins,
author of the library at mount char
Carolyn and the rest were not born librarians. Once upon a time—it seemed long ago—they had been very American indeed.
The Library at Mount Char is an ambitious book that impressively blends entertainment and humor with good writing and big questions—no small feat for a debut novel! Upon reaching the end, I wanted to go back and re-read it anew with knowledge of how it all pans out. Given the huge number of books I want to read and the limits of a human's lifespan, trust me: this is high praise. I was thrilled to have the chance to ask Scott Hawkins some questions about how Mount Char came together, where his characters might go from here, and and how some people, in Google's old parlance, embrace the idea: "don't be evil."
Victoria Fullard: We’ve all heard the phrase “absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Characters in The Library at Mount Char are given opportunities to wield incredible, world-altering power and respond in very different ways. What do you believe allows some people (or at least some of your characters) to remain essentially good, even in the face of that power?
Scott Hawkins: That’s a tough question, and I’m not even going to try to dance around spoilers in the answer. Reader be warned.
I’m a big believer in personal choice and personal responsibility, but there’s also a part of me that feels like a condescending prick every time this sort of topic comes up. It’s easy for me to say things like “well, I think that to a large degree the life that you have is determined by the choices that you make,” while I’m sitting in my non-war-torn suburb in my prosperous nation. Possibly I’ll go out and see a movie later today, I haven’t decided. I’m sure the impoverished kid reading this in the ghastly slum of <wherever> will take all sorts of comfort in the wisdom of my words.
To answer your question, I think that Carolyn ultimately made a conscious choice to err on the side of not being a jerk. It’s that simple. She could have been a much bigger asshole than she was, but she chose not to be. Probably that choice was influenced by a lot of things — genetics, upbringing, prior experience — but it was also a choice. It was explicitly stated in the book that David, under the exact same circumstances, didn’t do as well.
So, to the degree that Carolyn put herself into a position where she could make choices, and then went on to make the good choice and not the bad one, I think she is to be congratulated. Yay Carolyn.
That said, I also believe that it’s a little patronizing to imply that everyone has the same opportunity to make choices. That’s where Margaret comes in. To me, Margaret is the soul of the book. By all accounts, she was a nice kid, but she never really had a chance. Father straight-up ruined Margaret, on purpose, so that his speshul snowflake — Carolyn — could be warned by Margaret’s example on the way to making this excellent, morally uplifting choice that she ultimately made.
So I think some people simply make gentler and wiser choices than others. But it’s also important to not be born as one of the Margarets of the world.
VF: The Library at Mount Char has been classified as a “horror” book in some reviews. While there are some horror elements, it is also a philosophical and religious exploration, a love story, a fantasy novel, a mystery, and more. Given that this book defies easy categorization, what advice do you give writers who are pitching or promoting books that are not easily summed up in an elevator pitch?
SH: Whew, this one’s a lot easier. The short answer is “focus on story.” If your pitch doesn’t describe a story that sounds interesting, nothing else will matter. If it does, nothing else will matter.
A lot of people gripe about queries and pitching. (I myself spent 30 years griping about queries and pitching.) Distilling a hundred-thousand-word book into a couple of lines is an agonizing exercise. The skills required aren’t really the same as those required for writing a good novel. But I also think there is some value to the exercise. At some point, someone is going to have to write a cover blurb in hopes of selling your book to the general public. The pitch process is the first step of that. It forces you, the writer, to identify these intriguing points of your story and frame them in a commercially usable way.
So, here’s my advice:
Also, if you’re writing a query, I really, really believe that white space is important. Agents are looking for reasons to reject, not reasons to request. I’m pretty sure that “this writer sent me a wall ’o text” is at least one strike against you. Maybe two.
VF: Much of the editing process is deciding what to leave out. What did you cut from the final draft of The Library at Mount Char? Were there alternate endings you considered?
SH: Again, spoilers abound. You Are Warned.
I cut a lot of material, close to twice as many words as were was eventually published. Mount Char as it was published ran about 125,000 words. That was distilled down from a first draft of around 155,000 words. If you count alternate versions of chapters, deleted scenes, and the alternate ending, there were around 350,000 words total.
There was indeed an alternate ending. Pretty much everything after Carolyn and Steve enter the Library used to be different. I’m pretty sure my wife is the only one who’s read the old version. She just straight-up hated the old way. Absolutely despised it. When she read it she got mad and wouldn’t talk to me for a couple of days. She’s normally really good natured.
HUGE SPOILERS. NOT KIDDING.
It’s been long enough that I’m sort of cloudy on exactly what happened in the old way, but it had a lot more to do with The Black Folio, the catalog that Father hands over to Carolyn near the end that lets you change the past. The first big difference was that rather than Carolyn resurrecting Father, Father brought himself back. It turned out that the reason he’d been killing Margaret every twenty minutes was so that she could serve as a guide back to the living world.
Another big difference was that the way Steve turned into the sun was that Carolyn took him to bed and did her little time-freezing trick at the Special Moment. Finally, at the end, Carolyn used the Black Folio to remake the past. When she was done all of the other librarians had had normal lives. There was a scene at the end that I kind of liked where “Maggie” (a housewife) and “Big Dave” (a high school football coach) drop in to bring their new neighbor Carolyn a bundt cake. I thought it was hilarious.
My wife’s specific objections to this were that having Father bring himself back undermines Carolyn’s agency. She stops being the doer, and starts being done to. This is a painfully good point, I think. I’m actually sort of embarrassed with the old way. She also said that the sex scene was so bad that she literally could not tell it was a sex scene. She kind of patted me on the head and said “don’t try to do romance, dear. You’re not good at it.”
In addition to that, I cut a bunch of scenes that just weren’t working. Steve had a 10,000-word speech on Buddhism. There was a scene where Erwin earned his Medal of Honor — it was, weirdly, very boring. The scene with Carolyn and Steve in the restaurant used to be totally different and a lot longer — they got stuck in traffic and one of Barry O’Shea’s monsters ate a random kid, who Carolyn then resurrected. I kind of liked that one because it showed what life was like outside the Library when the sun went out, but it broke the momentum of the narrative.
A lot of the rest of it was just dot-here, comma-there type of cuts. I was under the impression that having a manuscript longer than 110,000 words was a near-automatic disqualification for a first-timer, so I was killing myself trying to get it down to 110 from 155,000. Amusingly, one of the first things my agent told me after she became my agent was that the 110k-limit is malarkey. Still, the cutting was a good exercise. I noticed that in a lot of paragraphs I’d say the same thing a couple of different ways. In the Big Trim, I went through and picked my favorite of the bunch. Everything ended up being much tighter. Going forward I’m going to make a point of cutting 10% from every finished draft.
VF: You’ve indicated that a sequel may be in the works. What can you tell us about that follow-up?
SH: I’d be interested in doing a sequel, but there are some problems. For instance (SPOILERY SPOILERS HERE) at the end of Mount Char, Carolyn has what I’ve heard described as the Superman problem. She’s so overpowered it would be tricky to find a worthy adversary. I think I know a way around that one. She’s also completed a pretty significant character arc, so it’s not immediately obvious where she’d go next. That too probably has a solution.
To my mind, the trickiest problem is that Mount Char has a whole bunch of successive reveals that make you kind of question everything that went before — the story itself has “regression completeness.” I think a sequel should probably continue to do that, or at least something close to it. The difficulty is that writing those reveals is pretty tricky — I spent a lot of time rewriting previous scenes in such a way that they made sense both before and after the Big Reveal. It’s tricky to get the wording just right. My concern is that since The Library at Mount Char is already published, everything in it is set in stone. So, I wouldn’t have that luxury.
At the moment I’m working on a novel unrelated to Mount Char, but when I’m done with this new one I’ll probably take a look at a sequel to Mount Char and try to decide for sure one way or the other. If I think I can write one that wouldn’t be disappointing, I’d like to try. If I can’t figure out a solution, I think it would probably best not to force it. (I’m looking at you, Hellraiser 12.)
That said, there will definitely be at least one Mount Char short story forthcoming. The reason I took sooooooooo long getting back to you on this Q&A is that I’ve been working on that for the last couple of weeks. It’s going to be a free download from my website. I’ll announce it on all the social media places.
VF: Fill in the blank (hopefully in an unexpected way): People who like ________ should read The Library at Mount Char.
SH: Big Trouble in Little China. I think they’re fairly close in tone — a little horror, a little comedy, a little action, a little romance, all blended together in a big pot of “what the @#^! was that?”