‘The Closest Thing…To His Usual Loin Cloth’
When Julian Pavia at Random House/Crown tells me he’s got something I might look at, I pay attention. He’s Andy Weir’s editor and sent me Weir’s The Martian during the run-up to its release. I recommend you read it before the October release of the film. You’ll get a lot more from it if you have a sense for the book’s complexity and scale before you see the distillation that Drew Goddard’s screenplay creates for Ridley Scott’s team.
Pavia, meanwhile, has put me on to another one.
To do a little comparative Pavia parsing here, The Martian is outward-facing. It’s a harrowing space opera set on a far-off planet that sees its characters as mostly noble. You’re not sure that anything is going to go right for stranded astronaut Mark Watney. But not for one minute do you worry that the “take me to your leader” types are going to show up. Little green men need not apply. The story’s challenges are physical not metaphysical. Watney (played by Matt Damon in the film) is dealing with potatoes and energy supplies and rocks.
Meanwhile back on Earth, The Library at Mount Char is not facing out, no. It’s looking at you, kid. In a weird-ass way. It wants to burrow down inside to where your scarier things are lying around and you maybe should have locked them up.
Carolyn had explained to the others that they would need to wear American clothes in order to blend in. They nodded, not really understanding, and set about rummaging through Mrs. McGillicutty’s closets. David chose the tutu because it was the closest thing he could find to his usual loin cloth. Carolyn thought about explaining why this was not “blending in,” then decided against it. She had learned to take her giggles where she could find them.
And the most important part of that bit to catch is “not really understanding.” There’s a lot of “not really understanding” in The Library at Mount Char. To be named for and set in a place that catalogs things, it is full of “not really understanding.” And well worth the confusion. You’re in Heartland America, just off Highway 78, worried about what might be on the next page. What’s more, you’re so at home here that you won’t be catching a lot of things until near the end — and I’m not going to mess it up for you, don’t worry. Jade staircase. Amethyst floor.
Gods In Stage Blood
A lot of references have been made to Neil Gaiman’s best work, American Gods, in regards to Hawkins’ debut. There’s definitely good reason for that. Meta. Way meta.
But also gory. Way that, too. In fact, in an interview with his longtime writing-site buddies at AbsoluteWrite (he’s been a member since 2006), Hawkins concedes — as he did when I spoke with him — that he somehow didn’t foresee how gruesome some of the material would seem to readers. He said to AbsoluteWrite:
I’m surprised by how strongly the advance readers have reacted to the violent scenes. That was a blind spot on my part. Violent scenes just don’t bother me at all, not in movies and certainly not in fiction. To me they’re sort of like Christmas decorations—they help set the stage, but they’re pretty much emotionally neutral. The evidence indicates that that is not in line with majority opinion. My agent had me tone down a couple of scenes before we submitted it to editors, and my editor had me tone down a couple of others. I figured that if they both agreed the violence was a problem I should probably listen, but I was privately a little worried that the end product would be hurt by being too watered down. That was a miscalculation on my part.
I’m not fond of gut buckets, myself. And you’ll see us discuss this in our interview below.
If there’s anything that puts me off about Hawkins’ remarkably eloquent, densely observed world, it’s that part. I wish he’d reconceived this element of the book not least because it makes you think you’re on Elm Street. You get the feeling that he’s doing an artful job of not quite getting to nightmares and chainsaws. And to his credit, he does manage to sidestep the tawdry commedia of those desperately exhausted tales.
But you’ll notice how frequently this book is cited for its originality. That’s not wrong, it’s right. The violence, alone, sometimes pulls down what otherwise could have truly soared. Hawkins told me that he has some qualms when he thinks of one scene, himself. Think of that “char” word and keep an eye out, you’ll find it when smoke gets in your eyes. And I admire Hawkins for being so upfront about not foreseeing the effect of the violence and for talking with me and other interviewers about that.
I’ve held off on writing this interview for a bit after talking with him because I’ve been looking for a way to get at this problem succinctly. I think it’s this:
The real genius lies in how Hawkins isn’t delivering that same-old anything, and he’s at his best when you’re not worrying that zombies are on the way. A character in the book mentions a concept called “regression completeness” and explains it:
It’s the idea that however deeply you understand the universe, however many mysteries you solve, there will always be another, deeper mystery behind it.
Exactly. Violence is not so mysterious to us, it’s old hat. It’s the rest of the work that makes Hawkins’ creatures so fresh.
‘You Can’t Make Stuff Like That Up’
Never mind, I put the grotesquerie down to the fact that Hawkins is a computer programmer. You know how they are. What’s more, Hawkins and his wife Heather and “a lot of dogs” live outside Atlanta. Having lived for many years in parts of the residential wilderness that can be found in that neck of the woods, I can probably forgive him more easily than most.
We had a great conversation. Hawkins is a lot of fun to talk with and — much like Josh Malerman, whose Bird Box was one of last year’s most significant debuts — Hawkins is refreshing as a singular, intelligent new voice in the aspirational-writerly herd.
Much better sense of humor than most, too. Near the end of his novel:
“What did I do?”
“For a living?”
“Actually, you were a librarian,” Father said. “The American sort.”
She snorted laugher. “Seriously?”
“Cross my heart. You can’t make stuff like that up.”
Of course Hawkins did make it up, and in an intensive period of some three months of heavy writing, he tells me, “with a long tail on each side.”
With wife Heather acting as his best and toughest reader, Hawkins has produced the most assured debut I’ve read since the Malerman.
‘What Do You Think You’ve Written?’
Having been pretty tough here on Hawkins — especially for a literary debut I like a lot and recommend you consider for your late-summer reads — I’m going to report our chat without explanation for things I’m asking. That way, I’ll avoid spoilers but can touch on some elements you’ll recognize as you read.
I started by asking him the unkindest question of all. But I asked it because there’s quite a range of debate around what this book is and says.
Thought Catalog: With all the varied reactions out there, what is this book about in your mind, Scott? I love to ask authors this: What do you think you’ve written?
Scott Hawkins: Good question. (Laughs.) So for me, the emotional core of the book is a child’s relationship with their parent. It’s derived somewhat from my own relationship with my dad.
I’d like to emphasize that my dad was a great guy. I don’t have anything bad to say about him. But we didn’t really connect a whole lot when I was growing up. It wasn’t like we fought, but we just didn’t connect. But I remember a day when I was 22 or 23, I think we were cooking, and he said something hilarious. And I realized that…it had never occurred to me what a funny guy he was. It had gone right over my head.
And I looked back and re-evaluated our entire relationship with the man, based on this single really dry one-liner. And you can see this in the book, in the later stages, when Carolyn re-evaluates her relationship with the father. That was for purposes of making an entertaining story a lot more colorful than my relationship with my dad. But to me, that’s the emotional core.
Everything else sprang up from that, to a large extent.
TC: The cast of characters around Carolyn. Are they drawn from life?
SH: Michael, the brother who’s tied in with animals, has a lot to do with me, honestly. I spend a lot of time with my dogs. Erwin is very loosely based on a buddy of mine from school. He’s absolutely brilliant, a PhD and a lieutenant colonel now.
TC: Is story first for you or is character first?
SH: Character. Definitely. But not even character, more like mood. A moment. In this case, it’s the dawning revelation that everything Carolyn thought about her relationship…was wrong. And I worked backward from that.
TC: I think you’re successful with that, you get it across to us. I did find the violence…remarkably rococo. Were you ever worried, “They’re going to think I’m doing zombies?”
SH: I kind of had some of the reactions you did. A lot of the horror tropes these days have been pretty well serviced by other folks. From a strategic point of view, I was writing all this from the vantage point of no agents, no editors, and I wanted to stand out in the slush pile. A story that didn’t utilize a lot of standard tropes struck me as a good way to get people’s attention. I don’t even think of this as horror.
I was very consciously trying to avoid anything with a common name that someone famous had written about.
TC: What’s your main influence? Who do you find impacts your vision?
SH: I was a real big Stephen King fan in my formative years…Just about everything he wrote before about 1990, I’ve read at least a dozen times. I didn’t have a whole lot of books to myself growing up. The ones I did have I’d read over and over.
Lately my interests have been getting more literary, I’ve been reading a guy named Adam Johnson, who I think is phenomenal. The Organ Master’s Son.
It’s an absolute emotional sledgehammer about every other page.
And I’ve got a to-be-read pile about five years deep.
TC: You’ve been interested in the Sapir-Whorf theories of linguistics, right? And in the book, the library is full of various catalogs of knowledge.
SH: I spent a lot of time studying natural language processing, ’87 through ’93. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is that, to a certain extent, the language you think in determines what you can think about.
TC: And as an author, your voice has to accommodate our language so we can understand what you’re trying to say, and yet you’re working with some pretty reachy outer limits of conceptualization here. Is there a moment you can remember that was especially tricky for this in the book?
SH: I had some practice. My third book was told entirely from the perspective of a wolf. It got me used to how to phrase different concepts, gave me some language muscles by the time I got to this book.
TC: Something like in David Wroblewski’s The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, some of that is from the perspective of the dog. And in Mount Char, you’re talking to us about the perspectives of librarians, with catalogs of knowledge we don’t have, and Carolyn’s focus on languages we don’t know.
Was mythology a part of your younger life, too?
SH: The main thing that caught my eye in the third book was a lot of reading I was doing on Christian angelology in the Middle Ages. Young monks would have arguments…when you read the details on them, these angels sound like superheroes. A fire angel, an ice angel…much like in modern comic books.
There was a spark there for me for Mount Char.
TC: I get this, I’m a minister’s son. Church all my childhood in South Carolina. Charleston.
SH: Me too. My mother worked at a church her entire life in South Carolina. Aiken.
TC: We had cousins in Aiken. They were Presbyterians. We thought they were pretty exotic. And as I was reading your material, I was sitting in an American context, and I was reading a kind of pantheon of your own, of superheroes, right?
SH: Inasmuch as, say, Superman and Hercules are are drawn from the same well, yes, introduced by the same spiritual need, only in a modern context.
TC: Is this material you could return to? Or did you wear it out for yourself?
SH: I could definitely go back. The problem is more structural. By the end of the novel, Carolyn has reached the end of her arc.
TC: And I appreciate that we get a feeling of completion with this book, not that we’re waiting for a followup.
SH: I’m hoping to get something on the next novel that’s different but similar enough that people will want to read it.