Irene is a librarian who can include in a day’s work, mechanical centipedes, lethal remote controlled alligators and airship pursuits over the roofs of an alternate reality London after an elusive mastermind in the company of a private detective with a distinct whiff of Sherlock Holmes.
Genevieve Cogman discusses the thrilling mayhem that is ‘The Invisible Library’.
Where did the whole idea come from?
The idea of travelling in a library that’s linked to multiple worlds is not really my own to start with. Most famous is Terry Pratchett’s L-Space (short for library-space where large quantities of books create portals that can be accessed using the innate nature of all libraries). There are also plenty of other fantasy libraries in books and some role playing games. The idea is not new.
When I was younger and hanging about in libraries, it was a nice daydream to believe that you could open the door in a library and go somewhere else. That there was somewhere different outside. Somewhere special. So it may have only been a daydream, but some daydreams stick.
You’ve read a great many fantasy novels.
I cut my teeth on Sherlock Holmes and the Lord of the Rings when I was about seven years old. I had The Hobbit as a bedtime story before that. I graduated to Ursula Le Guin (which you may recognise in the language of the Invisible Library), Jorge Luis Borges, Star Trek, Blake’s Seven, Sapphire and Steel, The Avengers (the classic series with Steed and Emma Peel).
You have quite a bit of experience writing for role playing games (RPG) this must have helped with the complicated world of the Invisible Library?
It does. Quite often in the RPG I was working with required background detail to the worlds. So I wrote about the cities, the cultures and so on.
World building is something writers wanting to create a fantasy or science fiction novel do have problems with. Do you have any advice?
You have to try and create a background that’s interesting, but you don’t want to force everything down a reader’s throat. It is useful to leave a few clues here and there so that the reader can see you’re hinting at something deeper and the reader can try and makes guesses about the background.
I did have fun with it and in Prince Mordred’s Private Academy for Boys at the beginning I named the houses there after some of the enemies of the Round Table, such as Sir Turquine and Sir Bruce sans Pitie. It seemed logical that a school that was founded as Prince Mordred’s Academy was not going to be celebrating Sir Galahad.
You want to make the world interesting, so it helps if you can describe it in a few easy strokes. You don’t have to build up every bit of it that you’re not using at that moment. Also you want to throw in some interesting bits that you don’t explain fully, at least at the start, so that you can give yourself room in the future to expand.
When you walk into any place in the world and any culture, there are going to be things going on in the background and no one’s going to be walking up to you and explain them to you. That part of how we see and experience life.
When Irene walks into Vale’s world, she doesn’t necessarily get everything explained nor does she want to have everything explained. She’s just focusing on the bits that relate to her, which I think is what most human beings would do in that situation.
How much rough work do you do behind the scenes to help you think about the world you’re creating before it actually goes on the page?
It depends on how much is going to be relevant to the actual story I’m dealing with. If it’s a case of the layout of the British Museum or Victorian London, then it’s fairly easy for me to simulate because I have a long-term reading association with Sherlock Holmes books. So I take out some of my favourite tropes and throw them at the story.
I haven’t actually spent much time thinking about who’s ruling England in that world at that time, because I didn’t need that at the moment.
In some cases I have had to look in some detail into a city’s history and location in order to try and give the reader a feel for it. Which is something I’ve done in the next book. That did involve quite a bit of research in my local library and bookshops or even on the internet looking up maps.
It’s something that I do in bits of time, here and there, with books on hand to refer to, just in case I need to work out the geography of a place.
Do you do all this before you begin to write the book?
I didn’t at the beginning because of where Irene was. But I was researching certain aspects of Vale’s (Peregine Vale, fifteenth Earl of Leeds and a Sherlock Holmes-style detective) world at that point. Then she got there then I had the books to hand and I was looking up the details as I needed them.
How do you pull together all your research, store and keep track of it?
For the books I own, it’s bits of sticky paper and also a file on my computer with some of the details that I might lose track of. Or there will be bookmarks in my browser. Also there will be details copied out of books from the library.
To what extent do you use electronic resources?
At the moment I haven’t needed to do as much research as I did for the RPG where I had to draw on all the material from an author’s books. Then I used to have huge files and had to use number tracking to keep control of them.
You have a lot going on in the way of action and different creatures. How did you avoid the problem that many fantasy novels have of throwing too many different elements in?
I tried to avoid having too many things that were out of theme. Vale’s world is steampunk with a bit of magic, in a Victorian setting that happens to have a Sherlock Holmes character in it.
So I tried to keep things contained within that world. Then Irene and Kai are their own people with their own characteristics.
If you were to have too many competing worlds at once I think it would be too much. Even in Dr Who there are only one or two different cultures in any one story, or you end up overegging the omelette.
What I really enjoyed was that fact that you had moments of great peril containing a great deal of humour. Take the attack by the remote controlled alligators, which was gruesome but hilarious at the same time.
Among my many influences I’m also fond of manga and anime, and classic Hong Kong movies like the ‘36th Chamber of Shaolin’. In that sort of setting, just because you’re having an action piece doesn’t mean the humour stops. I wanted to give the impression that while Irene might be in danger, she and Bradamant (her fellow and senior librarian) and Kai are competent enough to deal with the danger unless it’s really severe.
What is the experience like of being editing?
This is something where the role playing game writing has been useful, because I am not unfamiliar with getting things back with red ink all over them. I also do a great deal of writing in my current job writing reports and documents where the same process takes place.
While I can’t say I enjoy being edited I recognise that it’s something that’s necessary and it has improved the book a great deal.
Because you have now been edited, has it changed the approach to you writing in any way?
I have become aware of some faults in my writing that I’m trying to correct, for example spending too much time in Irene’s head thinking about things. The editing has helped to reduce that and tighten things up quite a bit. But at the same time I still want the writing to have my voice.
Why was Irene having so much internal conversation?
I think this was partly because of how I saw the character. She does spend a great deal of her time undercover and is not used to having someone else around to make sarcastic remarks to.
Some bits did get cut while others got turned into overt conversation and some bits got left in.
This where it’s useful having Kai, because he’s fairly new on the job, so he is a convenient person to have around to explain things to.
Are you someone who writes the story out all in one go and then goes back into it?
I did just start writing The Invisible Library and kept going. In the beginning it wasn’t particularly planned out and I just went through it and it became more planned as I was working in it. Then when I finished the first draft I went back and tightened it up and tried to make sure that the plot worked and that there was more connection from beginning to the end.
Kai was originally there in the beginning. He turned up in the second chapter to say to Irene ‘I’m your new apprentice’. Vale, the detective, was there from fairly early on. Irene is a proper Sherlock Holmes fan and I like placing her with one of her personal heroes and then finding out he wasn’t as convenient as one might think. He goes around making judgments on her which he’s not supposed to do. Your hero is supposed to admire you. Although he eventually begins to realise that Irene is a useful colleague, although it’s rather like Batman trying to cope with Catwoman.
Do you have other projects you’re considering outside of the ‘Invisible Library’ series?
I have got vague ideas, but at the moment I have so many deadlines with the next Invisible Library books I have no time to do anything else. But it has been a great encouragement knowing that people want to read it.