Interview: G.W. Dahlquist on The Glass Books trilogy
1 July, 2013
One of my favourite series, The Glass Books trilogy by G.W. Dahlquist comprising The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters, The Dark Volume and The Chemickal Marriage, has just been made available as e-books by Penguin. The trilogy follows the adventures of three unlikely allies, Miss Celeste Temple, Cardinal Chang and Dr Svenson, faced with a diabolical enemy who is trying to take over the country and enslave the citizens in an alternate neo-Victorian world.
I loved the books and was lucky enough to pose some questions to G.W. Dahlquist. Enjoy!
1) I loved The Glass Books trilogy and was a little heartbroken to say goodbye to the characters. Will there be any further adventures for Miss Temple, Cardinal Chang and Dr. Svenson?
I mean, never say never, but right now I have no plans to continue with them. Who knows, maybe sometime I’ll want to write short stories about events earlier in their lives, or a novella about events after the end of The Chemickal Marriage, but for now I’m caught up in other projects. I did carry those characters around in my head for about 8 years – they were a very regular part of the day, if that makes sense – so to set them aside was a little like moving house. But as someone who has also recently moved house, it’s usually healthy to shift things around every once in a while.
2) What were your inspirations behind the characters and plot for The Glass Books trilogy?
More than anything, the books flowed from a lifetime of reading: reading both proper history, and historical, social-tapestry novels, but also all sorts of more plot-driven novels that we associate with the 19th century. So many genres erupt out of that world: deductive mysteries, speculative science fiction, romances, adventure, exploration, erotica – it seemed like a natural thing to put a contemporary spin on those styles and try to wrap them all together. The main characters flowed very much from the action. That I started with Miss Temple was probably spurred by being American, by my interest in the clash of New World and Old. I’m interested in tarot cards, and one way of thinking of the major arcana cards is that each the opposite of the one that precedes it (e.g., if the Magician is consciousness, the High Priestess is intuition). This is sort of how I think of how Chang and Svenson took form, each one in some crucial sense the opposite of the narrator who’d come before. I certainly didn’t plan them, they just took form based on what else had started to happen.
3) It seems as though you had as much fun writing the books as we had reading them. Could you tell us a little about your writing rituals and what kind of research was involved in completing the books?
I had a very good time writing them, the first one probably most of all, since it was written for no other reason than to entertain myself. I try to write every day, for between 4 and 6 hours. I usually work in cafes, drinking lots of coffee and listening to music pretty loud on headphones. I’ll listen to the same things, or the same musicians, again and again while I’m working on a given piece.
I didn’t do very much research to start, on any of the books – as I said, they’re really the product of years and years of reading. Some of this is because I’m not writing about a particular, existing city, or a particular stated year. This is a fictive world, deliberately. I’d like readers to be caught up in what’s happening, but I’d also like them to see that what’s happening has been made, that they’re reading a story written now. That said, I certainly checked a lot of specific facts about language, and about science and the commercial availability of various things. Equally, sections of the books are very much inspired by particular places. The Iron Coast in The Dark Volume echoes where I grew up in the Pacific Northwest of the US, for example, as the journey to the Vandaariff tomb in The Chemickal Marriage is indebted to a tour through Highgate cemetery in London, and the Royal Thermae in The Chemickal Marriage carries the influence of the Szechenyi baths in Budapest.
4) Did you know how the books and the trilogy was going to end or did you create the story as you wrote?
I did not know how each book would end before I wrote it. My mode of writing comes from writing plays, where I think it’s useful to very much understand the world of the play (or the book), and the ideas one wants to attack, but not necessarily work out the plot itself, or not in such detail. My plot outlines are generally along the line of a hand-written note, “S meets FX. River.” Which is to say, what I don’t know is the actual dialogue, the actual nuance of the scene, because for me those roll into one another in the moment. In the case of The Glass Books, there’s a murder that’s discovered in the first chapter, whose solution figures rather prominently in the climax – but I didn’t know exactly who’d done the murder until about half-way through the last chapter. Of course, that kind of decision-making necessitates a lot of rewriting after the fact, but I think that the choices you make having been steeped in a book are more informed and less imposed than choices you make at the very beginning, when you frankly don’t know very much about the who and why of that world.
I didn’t write The Glass Books with any sequel in mind, and when the idea was broached by my editor I wasn’t sure, but soon enough I began to think about new possibilities for the characters, how the different locations at the start of The Dark Volume could bring out new parts of their personalities, and I became quite interested in pursuing the story to another stage. With The Chemickal Marriage, while I knew there would be a third book to finish things, I spent a lot more time thinking about how that world had changed and needed to change still before beginning to actually write. But for all that additional time, I wrote the book in the same way, keeping myself in the dark, or at least with one eye shut, knowing that there would be ample time to revise.
5) Please tell us about some of your favourite books and authors.
My favorite authors include playwrights, like Harold Pinter and Samuel Beckett, and novelists like Nabokov and Faulkner. I’ve always read a lot of science fiction, and particularly like Philip K. Dick, Roger Zelazny, and Iain M. Banks. I also read a lot of mysteries, mostly older authors like Ross McDonald or Georges Simenon. The last five books I’ve read have been Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon, Zazen by Vanessa Veselka, The Roman Emperors by Michael Grant, and Today We Choose Faces by Roger Zelazny.
Thank you very much G.W. Dahlquist for taking the time to answer these questions and in so much depth. I will be checking out some of Gordon’s favourite books and am looking forward to re-reading The Glass Books trilogy. If you haven’t tried them, then I strongly urge you to – they’re mad, bad and deliciously subversive.