Book Reviews and Scott Hawkins Interview

Unshelved Book Club

This week's Unshelved Book Club features books about a high school student in love with a teacher, an encforcer who can cut off water supplies, the murders of three Civil Rights activists during Freedom Summer, the scariest librarians you'll ever read about, an annual dinner party, and Avenger and S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Black Widow.

Scott Hawkins, who wrote the genre-defying and ultra entertaining The Library At Mount Char, which features the aforementioned scary librarians, Gaiman-esque supernatural beings, a reluctant action hero whose movies I demand to see, and a few scenes that may turn you off barbecue forever, agreed to answer a few of my questions. If they seem random, come back after you’ve read his fabulous book and you’ll understand why I had to ask what I did. But I encourage you to read on, especially if you like dachschunds.

Are you wearing a tutu right now?

You know, I seriously considered getting a tutu in response to this question—you can buy a nice lavender one for $34.95 on amazon. I was I was thinking maybe I’d wear that, some Army jungle boots, and a houndstooth sport coat. My wife would take a pic and you guys could post it with the interview. Chuckles would be had.

Then, a couple of days ago, a Facebook buddy of mine just posted one of those “share this to show second graders how far and how fast things spread across the internet” pics. I sat there for a good long time thinking it over. I think just this once I’m going to err on the side of sanity.

Why are you so afraid of librarians? What did we ever do to you?

I love librarians, and pretty much anybody who works with books. Part of the idea for Mount Char came from talking with a lady named Barbara Gordon at a writing workshop. She is herself a librarian, I believe. Anyway, for whatever reason, we were talking about the super-duper wholesome image of librarians you tend to see portrayed in movies and whatnot. She said something along the lines of “I wish just once somebody would write about a bunch of librarians who were homicidal nut jobs.”

I went “hmmm.”

Describe the worst taxi ride you’ve ever taken.

The worst taxi ride was also in many ways the most awesome.

My first international trip was to Rome in, I think, 2000. I booked through a travel agent. Part of the package was that somebody would pick you up at the airport and get you to a hotel. So when I got out of customs there was an Italian dude waiting for me with a Mercedes--a very nice car, and that year’s model. It was also slightly dented here and there. I didn’t think much about that at the time. It’s also worth mentioning that the guy was obviously irritated about something.

Gasoline is vastly more expensive in Italy, so people tend to take public transport a lot. The ones who do drive tend to be on scooters or in two-seater Minis, something like that. When we pulled out onto the main road, that Mercedes looked like an aircraft carrier in a bay full of ski boats. And our driver knew this.

Every time we got to one of those roundabouts that Italy uses at intersections instead of traffic lights, the guy would just sort of plough in. People either got out of his way, or he hit them. I’m not exaggerating. The first time he bumped somebody, I thought “oh, crap, there’s a twenty minute accident report, and here I am with jet lag.” But no. That is not the way things are done in Italy, apparently. He didn’t even stop. He and his victims just exchanged “vaffanculos,” which I believe is Italian for ‘excuse me,’ and went about their business.

By the time I got to the hotel, the driver was in a great mood. I guess he just needed to blow off a little steam. It was very Hollywood.

How many dachshunds would it take bring down a lion in its prime?

Just one.

They call him El Taquito. In the mid-1980s he was the most feared assassin in the employ of an amateur pharmacist based in South America. It is said that he killed many lions. Perhaps that is true. The only one I know of for certain was Felipe.

Felipe and El Taquito grew up together in the barrio, drinking at the local cantina and dabbling in the usual childish scams—smuggling, car theft, ransom of minor officials, that sort of thing. Eventually, they came to work for a man I will call Patron. The lion Felipe was widely regarded as the brains of the pair, so he went into ‘special projects’—electronic countermeasures, some work on an experimental submarine, perhaps other things. I do not know.

El Taquito, though—that little dog was burdened with a savagery beyond his stature. His value to the organization as an enforcer quickly became obvious. In time he became one of Patron’s most valued confidantes and, eventually, part of the family. He married Esmerelda, Patron’s cousin. He loved her deeply—I know. I tended bar at their wedding. I saw them dance.

I also saw the way Felipe watched them as they danced.

But the lion and dachshund remained friends. Though they both became very wealthy, they stayed true to their roots, and their friendship. They were often seen at the local cantina, drinking through the night. Even today I can hear El Taquito’s laughter--surprisingly deep for such a small dog—mingling with Felipe’s roar against the background of the rising sun. Those were happy times for them, I think.

Eventually Patron overplayed his hand—a matter of a missing attorney general—and was forced to go into hiding. Felipe stayed in the city to orchestrate electronic counter surveillance. El Taquito accompanied his mentor to the jungle hideout, leaving the beautiful Esmerelda in the care of his most trusted friend.

No one knows precisely what happened next. Some say that Felipe was arrested, that his courage faltered when confronted with the prospect of a lifetime spent in a Yankee jail. Others say that the lion’s love for his friend’s wife drove him to madness. Perhaps it was simply that Felipe’s skill with electronics failed him. Whatever the reason, Patron’s jungle hideout was discovered. That night, it was raided by hundreds of men--the Army, the police, even the Yankee special forces. Explosions lit up the sky for miles.

Surely no one could escape such a massacre. We all believed this.

But a month after Patron was gunned down in his jungle hideout, El Taquito walked through the doors of the cantina where he and Felipe had spent so many happy nights. Somehow the little dog had gotten away with his life. Perhaps it was that he was just a f-ing dachshund--that threw a lot of people.

When El Taquito saw Felipe, his oldest friend, sitting in a corner booth with the beautiful Esmerelda, he said nothing… but he snarled. Seeing this, my blood ran cold. The little dog’s fangs were not so long as Felipe’s, but they were very sharp.

I am a simple man. Realizing what was to come, I found urgent business in the cellar. It was fortunate that I did—I survived, but the barmaid was not so lucky. She, at least, died quickly. As for Felipe…it was many hours before the screaming stopped. I pray to God that lion received good value for his betrayal, because he paid more dearly for it than any creature I have ever known. The Devil himself would have puked, seeing what was done to him.

El Taquito is older now. The fur of his muzzle has gone gray. He still drinks at my cantina, but he seldom laughs as he once did.

And he always drinks alone.

Who is your favorite action movie actor from the 80s or 90s? What’s your favorite line from one of his films?

This is a tough one. To me, a top-notch action hero line is more about the buildup and release of tension than the line itself. Schwarzenegger is an obvious choice, but a lot of his one-liners were more eye-roll than badass. Plus Schwarzenegger just looks like he’s always on the verge of shooting someone. I think I’m going to go with Clint Eastwood, both for his overall body of work and for one particular scene.

Unforgiven isn’t my absolute favorite western —- it was ‘deliberately paced,’ as they say -- but there’s one moment in it that I think really stands out. When the movie opens Eastwood is a middle-aged has-been gunfighter. He’s got little kids. He’s trying to turn his life around. Against his better judgement he goes up north to try and kill some guy for a bounty. It didn’t go well—he spends 90% of the movie getting his butt kicked. By the third act I was wondering if maybe the point of the movie was that his whole reputation was just hype.

Then Eastwood finds out that they killed his best buddy. He rides into town and sure enough, there’s Morgan Freeman in a coffin on the porch of a saloon. Clint just kind of nonchalantly walks in to the saloon and kills the owner. Sheriff Gene Hackman starts sputtering about how Clint just shot down an unarmed man. So Clint said, very matter-of-fact:

“Well, he’d best arm himself if he’s going to decorate his saloon with my friend.”

And you just knew everybody in that room was about to get seriously dead. For me that line was like watching the angel of darkness stretch his wings. It made the whole movie work.

Does absolute power always create an absolute lack of empathy?

Interesting question. If you’re talking about human-type thought processes, I think I’d have to go with ‘yes.’

I read somewhere that the average person can comfortably remember the state of no more than seven variables at once. This was in the context of some sort “computer programming best practices” paper. The point was that if the list of parameters you passed into a function was longer than seven elements, you should abstract it somehow—collect related parameters into a data structure, or something. If you let the parameter lists get too long, your code will be difficult to maintain. The human mind just can’t think about the individual elements of sets that aren’t very small.

So, if human-type intelligences are obliged to consider large sets of things in some abstract way, it follows that any person who is in charge of millions of people is necessarily going to have to think about them in terms of named groups. It also seems to be true that the mind’s empathy mechanisms don’t work very well when applied to abstractions like named groups.

Say you’re having lunch in the park, and you see a dirty, bloody kid, maybe eight years old. He’s eyeing your sandwich. You talk to him. At first he’s too shell-shocked to say much, but you eventually drag it out of him that he hasn’t eaten in three days. His parents got blown up along with his little sister, his dog, and his house while he was out back playing with his Tonka truck.

I think that under those circumstances most people would be inclined to at least split their sandwich with the kid. But when you start thinking about abstractions like ‘Bosnian Serbs’ or whatever, it becomes a lot more comfortable to just go on eating your lunch. It’s the way the human mind works.

There’s also this thing called Dunbar’s number that shows up a lot in anthropology. The idea is that there’s a correlation between the size of the neocortex and the number of people with whom you can maintain stable interpersonal relationships. The thinking is for human beings that number is about 150. Anybody outside your personal 150 is, to a greater or lesser degree, ‘other.’

Who is the most frightening character in Gaiman’s Sandman (or anywhere else)?

Gaiman sometimes threw little one-issue side stories into the main body of Sandman work. One I particularly liked was “Dream of a Thousand Cats.” It was about this sort of kitty evangelist who was traveling around the country trying to get all the cats of the world to have a synchronized dream about a world where they were people-sized, and people were housecat sized. The theory was that if he got enough cats to have the same dream, it would come true.

I do not think that a world run by housecats is a world in which people would thrive.

When you barbecue, do you like your steaks bloody as hell or burnt to a crisp?

My actual, honest-to-god preference is medium rare, with a nice char. ?


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