KIRTIDA GAUTAM HOSTS THE INTERVIEW OF SCOTT HOWKINS
Other Authors who host interviews for the series
Rasana Atreya, Neil D'Silva, Devika Fernando, Aindrila Roy, Debashish Irengbam
Scott Hawkins is born in Idaho in 1969, grew up in South Carolina. He graduated from the University of South Carolina with a B.S.C.S. in computer science in 1991 and an M.S. in 1993 and works as a computer programmer. He’s been a member of Absolute Write since 2006. Scott has also been deeply involved in keeping Absolute Write’s server running for close to ten years now. He lives in the Atlanta suburbs with his wife and seven dogs. The Library at Mount Char is his first novel. He has also written several technical books.
It wasn’t really any one thing. When I’m working on a new project, I tend to just jot things down—scenes, character sketches, whatever—until I have half a dozen snippets that feel like they’re working. I don’t worry too much about narrative flow or even making sense until much later. In the initial stages I just want stuff that’s interesting in itself.
I’ll be a little vague here to avoid spoilers. In the case of Library at Mount Char, the core scenes were one where a guy goes out for a jog, a neighborhood picnic that went bad, and a guy meeting a strange woman at a bar. I truly didn’t have much of an idea of how to string them together, or even what order they’d be in, but each scene felt lively in itself, and I figured I could come up with some way to string them together. What ultimately became the story sprang from trying to figure out a way to string those three scenes together.
So, like—what is this guy doing in the neighborhood? Why him and no one else? What happened after they left the bar? Stuff like that. I try to keep the reader interested first, then go back later and make up plausible reasons why stuff happened. Well, semi-plausible.
2) Do you follow the same process of writing a Novel and technical books? If not, what is different about writing a Novel? Please tell our reader more about your writing process.
They don’t have much in common, at least for me. A computer book is very similar to an academic research project. First I read everything I can on the subject, then I set up a lab and start experimenting for myself. It’s a lot like writing twenty or thirty term papers in a row. That can be rewarding in its own way, but it’s not the sort of thing I would do for fun.
Novels, when they’re going well, are much more fun to write. I talked a little bit above about how I get started. Those initial stages can be a lot of work, and sometimes frustrating. It’s also very time-consuming. I usually throw out more than half of what I write. But once I’ve gotten past that and have the story and characters sorted out in my mind, I get very immersed in actually putting it on paper. That’s really fun. At that point there’s really nothing I enjoy more.
It’s simple but hugely valuable. She’s not a writer herself, but she’s an avid reader. She doesn’t give detailed feedback, she just looks at my stuff and gives me a “thumbs-up” or “thumbs-down.” She’s ruthless, and she doesn’t mince words. She’s literally thwapped me on the head with manuscript pages a couple of times. “This sucks! Fix it!”
If I can get a scene past her, I’m pretty confident that it’s working. It’s not necessarily going to be for everybody, but I’m confident that at least I won’t embarrass myself too badly by sending it out into the world.
4) I have heard that you have a playlist for The Library at Mount Char. Can you tell our readers, how music helps you in writing?
I be happy to tell you, but I bet it’s not in the ways you expect. I’m really not a very musical guy. I’ve got almost no aptitude for it, and I don’t even listen to it much. When I’m in the car driving by myself I keep the radio off. Most of the stuff on my iPod is audio books. All my musical friends say that what I do listen to is garbage.
The thing is, though, I’ve got a lot of dogs in the house. They bark every time the neighbors slam a car door. They bark at squirrels, deer, and the cat that hangs out on the front porch. They can be very persistent. So a lot of times when I’m working I put headphones on to drown out the noise.
I’ve also found that having one song play over and over when I’m working on a particular scene helps get me in the mood—kind of a conditioned response. I will never be able to hear Dead Man’s Party without thinking of the big showdown about 2/3 of the way through the book. I’ve probably heard that song more times than Danny Elfman at this point. I’ve got at least one for each chapter. If I ever want to get into that frame of mind again, all I have to do is put on the headphones.
There wasn’t a whole lot. That’s the beauty of writing fantasy—if you need a fact, you can just make it up.
I did spend a bit of time reading up on uncontacted tribes, or at least trying to. The problem is with isolated tribes is that there’s really not much to say about them. There are some guys called the Sentinelese that have an island in the south Pacific. Whenever anybody tries to land there, they attack, so people tend to leave them alone. If anybody discovers oil on the island I’m sure we’ll learn more about them, but as it stands we don’t know much. They’re not really hurting anybody.
Years ago I read an article about some Brazilian tribes from the amazon that got displaced by deforestation. These guys have basically been living in the Stone Age their entire lives, but then all of a sudden they’re in downtown Sao Paolo. Everybody was talking on cell phones, ordering pizza, that kind of stuff. That had to do a number on your head. That article wasn’t research, exactly, but that may have been one of the things that sparked the idea for the book.
There was a religious aspect to the book, obviously. I didn’t do a whole lot of reading specifically on that topic when I was writing, but I’ve read quite a bit about religion over the years—I got Greek and Roman in school, Christian stuff from my mom, I picked up a bit of Hindu lore somewhere, and Polynesian stuff from somewhere else. I tried to think about the things that they all had in common. They all do seem to be scratching the same itch.
For instance, a few years ago I was reading about angelology while researching a previous book. There are only a half-dozen or so angels named in the Bible, but in Catholic tradition there are probably a couple of thousand. Somebody must have felt a need for them to invent that many.
I noticed that the angels had a lot of similarities to modern superheroes—there’s Uriel the fire angel, and Barnabas the ice angel. Maybe there’s another one that has adamantium claws, like Wolverine. I remember a set of liner notes in some medieval manuscript speculating about whether the Metatron could beat up the Archangel Michael that would sound familiar to any comic book fan. If memory serves, there was even something analogous to trading cards the young monks would pass around the monastery.
So with Mount Char I was trying to come up with a new mythology that scratched the same itch as the others without borrowing explicitly from any one of them.
6) What kind of books you like to read in general and what kind of movies you like?
I grew up reading a lot of science fiction and fantasy. I still do, but I’ve also branched out in my old age. I’ll buy anything by Joe Haldeman, Ursula Le Guin or Stephen King. I don’t write a lot of short fiction—it’s a different skill set, and I want to stay focused on novels—but I love to read it. I’ve got most of the Gardner Dozois annual Year’s Best anthologies, and I love Ellen Datlow’s fantasy anthologies.
That said, these days about half of what I read is non-fiction. I like non-fiction books about complex systems falling apart—disasters, basically. At one point I read a lot about airplane crashes, but it turned me into a white-knuckle flier, so I stopped. Financial disasters are interesting, so I got a lot of reading pleasure from the 2008 debacle.
There’s a book about the collapse of Enron called Conspiracy of Fools that I absolutely love. I’ve been through it at least half a dozen times. I read all of the Richard Rhodes histories of the Cold War. Dark Sun is a favorite. I’ll buy anything by Michael Lewis. I was kind of hoping for a bumper crop of nuclear doom books after the Fukushima thing, but evidently the Japanese don’t revel in postmortems the way we do. Or maybe the books just haven’t been translated yet.
As far as movies—I love them. I go to the movies almost every weekend. If you can’t get me and the wife to buy a ticket to your flick, you aren’t really trying. I’ll go see pretty much anything with an effects budget, all the fanboy stuff. You probably could have guessed that from reading Mount Char.
Less stereotypically, Remains of the Day is one of my all-time favorite movies. I was amazed at how much I liked the Reese Witherspoon movie Wild—no disrespect to anyone involved in making it, mind you, but the ads for it didn’t make me feel like part of the target demographic. One day I checked it out on pay-per-view and I loved it.
7) Please tell us also about your future work.
Right now I’m working on one that’s got elements of noir mystery and fairy tale wrapped up in a science-fiction premise. Imagine Humprey Bogart in the Maltese Falcon was instead a slightly crazy middle-aged woman who is prone to killing sprees. The premise is that she gets hired by Dr. No to investigate a school shooting that may have been perpetrated by Peter Pan. Then it gets weird.
I do! This is something I don’t remember hearing said much, and I really wish I’d had more people clobber me over the head with it.
If you’re one of those people for whom language comes easily, you may actually be at a disadvantage in trying to make it as a novelist. All those years of easy A’s in English class and good standardized test scores may have given you a false sense of security. It certainly did me.
I had kind of gotten in the habit of thinking in terms of “good enough.” As in, “this scene isn’t really working, but the next scene kicks so much ass it’s probably good enough.”
There is no “good enough” when you’re trying to get a novel published. Maybe if you’re Shakespeare or somebody like that, but for mere mortals such as myself, it is never going to be okay to let anything slide. I’m bad at evaluating my own work—it all seems good to me, you know? I finally got it through my head that if I spot a problem, even a small one, it probably means that whatever I’m looking at is actually a trainwreck.
These days I’m trying to train myself to be completely unforgiving. The flesh is weak and all that, but that’s the goal.