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.
I chatted with Scott about his new book, The Library at Mount Char, and more.
Kristin Centorcelli: The Library at Mount Char is one of the most original and inventive books I’ve ready in a long time. What inspired you to write it?s
Scott Hawkins: Thanks! There wasn’t really any one thing inspired it. As much as anything, the story I came up with was an artifact of the writing process itself. When I’m looking at a blank page, the first thing I do is try to imagine a situation that is inherently tense. For instance, say a guy goes out for a jog and gets attacked by a whole bunch of dogs. That was one of the first scenes I wrote in Mount Char.
Once I had the “attacked by dogs” bit on paper, it begged the question of how the guy got away. To answer that question and hopefully keep things interesting for the reader, I made up some unlikely rescuers. That in turn led to the question of how the unlikely rescuers got to be in a position to do the rescuing. And what happens after?
A lot grew from the core image of the jogger getting attacked by dogs.
As a side note, that particular core image was something that actually happened to me. I was out jogging one day in a neighborhood in Rome, GA that bordered a small forest where a lot of feral dogs lived. The dogs took issue to me being in their territory, I guess. Maybe half a dozen of them chased me for a couple of blocks. Probably they were just trying get run me off, but there were a couple seconds where I had to at least entertain the notion that I was going to be eaten alive on my little jog through the suburbs. True story.
Anyway, once I’ve got my half a dozen core scenes, I lay them out and shuffle them around and try to think of ways they might become a narrative. For instance, as originally conceived, one of the opening scenes was a neighborhood picnic that went wrong But in the final version that scene ended up near the end of the book.
KC: The focus is mostly on Carolyn and Steve, but what supporting characters did you particularly enjoy writing?
SH: Erwin was a lot of fun. He just sort of rolls off the page. He’s kind of a walking middle finger—you can put him in any situation and he will find somebody to irritate. That’s fun.
Another one I really liked was Margaret. She was my favorite Librarian, honestly. In my mind she was a super nice kid. Through no fault of her own, she got badly broken in the pursuit of someone else’s agenda. I always thought of her as the conscience of the story—not so much a conscience for the other characters, but for me as the writer. What happened in the story overall has to be important enough to make what was done to Margaret be worth it. Plus she was so dark—that was kind of fun too.
KC: What is your writing process like? What kind of research did you do for the book?
SH: I start work pretty early most mornings, three or four a.m.–whenever the coffee kicks in. I work in MS-Word, and jot notes down through the day in spiral notebooks. I try to get 1500 words a day, minimum, but when things are rolling I work until I more or less drop.
I mentioned earlier that I don’t write scenes in the order I think they’ll be read. When I’m going from white page to rough outline, I just make up scenes. I don’t pay a whole lot of attention to character names, and at first I don’t worry about making the same character be consistent from scene to scene. For instance, in some early versions of Mount Char the character Steve was more of an action hero in a couple of scenes. I eventually replaced Action Steve with Erwin, as needed, and let Amiable Schlub Steve take over. I figure the most compelling version of any particular character will eventually shine through.
Once I’ve got 50,000 words or so of scenes with some life in them, I start trying to arrange them into a narrative. I don’t use literal index cards, but that’s kind of what’s going on in my head. Then I write the connective tissue—text that is necessary for the scenes to flow together. Once that’s done, I let it sit for a week or two, then go back and start rewriting, polishing, trying to flesh out characters, trying to make everything more tense. This is the fun part, as far as I’m concerned.
As far as research—for actual places and objects, I make an effort to be factually accurate. I spent a lot of time tracking down pictures of the antechamber to the Oval Office. There was an Apache helicopter that I wasn’t sure could have a mounted loudspeaker. A buddy of min who’s in the Army pointed out that Glock handguns do not have flickable safety switches, so I switched Erwin’s sidearm to be an HK. Stuff like that.
A lot of the mathematical hand-waving that I did in Mount Char was just from stuff I picked up here and there, reading for fun. I read a lot of popular science stuff.
KC: What did you enjoy most about writing The Library at Mount Char?
SH: There was a period of about three months where I had just done the first assembly of random scenes, and the story was starting to feel alive to me. I got swallowed up. All I could think about was Mount Char. I was getting up at four in the morning to type for twelve hours, then collapse and do it again the next day. That was the best summer of my life. When writing is going well there is absolutely nothing better.
KC: What authors have inspired you the most, in writing, and in life?
SH: Stephen King was a biggie, both because I really enjoy his work, and because of the stories he tells about his early days. There are a couple of interviews where he talks about living in a single-wide trailer and writing in the boiler room with a typewriter balanced on his knees. I thought about that a lot. It took me something like thirty years to get a piece of fiction published. By the time you’re in your second or third decade of total failure, it starts getting tricky to think up reasons why you should keep at it. A lot of times when the alarm would go off at 3 a.m. I’d be like “well, you lazy shit, at least you’ve got your own office. Now get up and get to work.”
KC: If you could experience one book again for the first time, which one would it be?
SH: That would have to be The Stand. I read it for the first time when I was about fourteen. Nothing before or since has hit me that hard. It’s a big part of the reason I wanted to be a writer. I’ve read it at least a hundred times.
KC: What are you currently reading? Are there any books that you’re looking forward to this year?
SH: The most recent book I finished was a nonfiction piece called The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace. Right now I’m reading The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins. She’s no relation to me, in case anyone was wondering. There’s one coming out in a couple of weeks by Austin Grossman that I’m really looking forward to. It’s called Crooked, and it’s about—I love this—Richard Nixon, a misunderstood hero, who is saving the world from some sort of supernatural apocalypse. I really enjoyed Grossman’s last book, Soon I Will Be Invincible, and I’m kind of a Nixon history buff. I have high hopes for this one.
KC: What’s next for you?
SH: I’m working on a book that’s sort of a noir detective story, or at least in that general ballpark. It’s got a non-traditional detective investigating a ghastly crime committed by a figure who’s half myth, sort of a Peter Pan/elemental type. Except he’s meaner, at least on the surface. Then about halfway through it gets really weird.