The Great Library Author Rachel Caine on Her Atomic Childhood and More


Book Covers, Penguin Random House. Author Photo: © Robert W. Hart

For years, Rachel Caine has thrilled readers with the Morganville Vampires series. Her new series, The Great Library, explores a world where the Library of Alexandria never burned, and unscrupulous scholars protect its contents with fearsome automatons. I recently spoke with Caine about the real-life inspiration for the monstrous metal guardians of the books, and much more.

UNBOUND WORLDS: Is it true that you were born in White Sands, NM? That’s where the Trinity nuclear test took place, the results of which would change the world forever. Did you live there long? Do you have any family that worked on the base? Any interesting stories?

RACHEL CAINE: Oh, so many interesting stories! Of course, most of them are classified. Also, I was a baby.

I wasn’t born there by chance … my mother was, early on, a civil service secretary to scientists like Wernher von Braun at White Sands, and my father (who was US Army) worked there as well doing the missile countdowns. My parents actually met at White Sands.

There are only a very few children born there on base, so I’m lucky like that!

UW: You’ve been writing fiction since you were 14 years-old. I could just barely sit long enough to compose a paragraph at that age. Do you recall anything in particular that might have first inspired you to put pen to paper? What made you stick with it?

RC: I remember two things: one was getting super frustrated with a TV show (“Space: 1999”, for you ancient nerds) and wanting the story to come out differently. That’s the first time I sat down and deliberately wrote something just for my own pleasure … and I loved it so much I wrote a second story, this time forgetting about the “Space: 1999” characters and adding my own original people into it. (I will say: it was bad. So, so bad. But a start!)

The other thing that happened around this same time was a teacher assigned us a classroom exercise, to write a story around a sentence prompt. I still remember the sentence: “The clock struck twelve and everything changed.” I was so intrigued that I ended up writing an incredibly strange (for the time) story about an old Western town, two gunfighters walking out to duel in the blazing high noon sun, only instead of guns, they drew wands, and it was a wizard’s duel. This was, er, 1976? Somewhere around there. So quite a bit before Harry Potter made it cool.

The great thing was the teacher got very excited about my story and encouraged me to keep writing in a notebook I handed in once a week. I didn’t know it at the time, but she would leave the notebook for other teachers to read in the lounge! I had an audience. Glad I didn’t know it, or I’d have been afraid to continue.

I think from there on, it was the sheer joy of telling myself stories. I occasionally wrote for friends (or for bullies, which was a great way to get them to leave me alone) but otherwise I didn’t show it to anyone or try to get published until much, much later. After college.

UW: The destruction of the Great Library at Alexandria is one of those stories that just feels like a punch to the gut to every reader. Thousands of years later, and we still can’t seem to let go of what might have been. You’ve taken one version of that and run with it. Can you talk a little bit about the new series? How did it start?

RC: Pieces of what became the Great Library series came together from dozens of scattered stories … in one half-finished story, I’d started this idea of an army with its own massive complex, on hire to the most powerful organization in the world. In another, I had someone who collected books despite the laws against it. In still another, I had a group of magic-users trapped in a tower, forced to live out their days with only each other for company.

It wasn’t until I had this strong image of someone in black scholar robes walking through a riot carrying a pile of books, with fighting all around him and no one touching him, that I began to see I was on to something. That was the central image (which later became the Battle of Oxford in Ink and Bone).

But mostly, it was driven by the research. The more I did, the more I found … all the hundreds of lost libraries. The lost mechanical inventions of the ancient Greeks, including automata. The secret histories of alchemy. And, most importantly, the fact that the Great Library was built for politics as much as knowledge … it was meant to reflect glory on the Pharaoh, and of course, in those days when books were hand-copied, having all the books meant having all the power. So it really influenced the way I saw the Library developing, if it hadn’t been destroyed.

UW: The Great Library‘s protagonist, Jess Brightwell, runs afoul of the library and ends up in its crosshairs. One of the institution’s most fearsome tools is its army of automatons. I love robots, golems, and that kind of thing, but I’m curious: What made you choose them for the story? What’s the scariest thing about an automaton to you?

RC: Automata are the most amazing thing I discovered. There’s a very credible account of a temple designed by the great inventor Heron (also known as Hero) of Alexandria (sort of the Da Vinci of his time) that was interactive with its worshippers … run by clockwork mechanisms, pressure plates, steam and sand displacement. The automata of the ancient world were so advanced, in fact, that some used string for programming language, so the code was more knitting than typing. How elegantly cool is that?

Imagine, then, if all that fantastic pool of knowledge had been well preserved and built upon by people like Da Vinci (who in fact made plans for an automaton lion) … marry it to alchemy, and you have a semi-magical, semi-mechanical creature that has no pity or mercy.

That’s pretty magnificently scary.

UW: Alchemy allows the library to put its information in other hands, but readers are strictly forbidden from owning their own copies. I can’t help but to wonder if there’s a parallel here with current debates regarding digital rights and media use. Was this intentional?

RC: Absolutely intentional. I wanted to talk about the technology of books … the fact that we take them much for granted, when in fact, the printing press was such a critical development in human history, because it allowed for the preservation and mass distribution of knowledge, that it changed everything that came after. Electronic delivery has expanded and accelerated that wave of change … but in some ways, they are a bit in opposition.

Many people assert that everything is digital, but the vast storehouse of printed human works has not been digitized. It exists on paper, and it’s a funny thing: books are not dependent on central organization, like servers. They’re copies, existing as individual entities. Ebooks, governed as so many are by DRM and at the mercy of programs to decode them, are much more centralized. You lease an ebook, in many ways; you can’t resell it, for instance, because it’s not a physical product. And, as we’ve found out, if the rights-holder wants to destroy it, they can remove it from your reading devices fairly comprehensively.

There’s also a wonderful art that goes into creation of a bound book … everything from printing to perfect binding to covers to cover art. There’s a weight and presence to physical books that I really enjoy, as much as I also enjoy convenience and ebooks.

So I wanted to talk about how in a world where ebooks (i.e., Blanks and their contents) are controlled by the Library, physical books are an act of real rebellion and sedition. The Library doesn’t own it, and can’t control it. And for them, that’s dangerous.

UW: By controlling the flow of information, the library gets to write history to its liking. In this way, it is like our own media. Do you ever worry about that? Do you hope readers will ask these kinds of questions?

RC: I think history is written by the winning viewpoint, always, which is an interesting and constant war we see every single day around us (and has, in fact, been happening throughout history). There’s a fine line between fact and propaganda, and often it’s just in which facts are chosen to put forward, and which are forgotten. Yes, I worry about it, but we live in a world where people are always reading, researching, and retrieving the forgotten pieces of history, which I find very comforting.

I do hope readers will look around them and question what they hear, what they know. In many ways, we live in a sharply divided culture, and the only cure for that is knowledge and understanding.

UW: You’ve written seven series of novels, along with loads of stand-alone books. The inside of your head must be a pretty crowded place. How do you keep up with all of the characters and plot lines? Do you work on multiple novels at the same time?

RC: Yeah, it’s pretty crazy in there. I’m very good at compartmentalization, thankfully, but you’re right … 50 novels and bunches of short stories do tend to clog up the storage space.

I tend to focus solely on one project at a time as far as drafting goes, which helps me pull free of the last project so I can come back to it (when edits arrive) with fresh eyes. I’m basically never “off work,” because I have a near constant drumbeat of deadlines. Which is great, and also terrible for your physical endurance.

In series terms, I try to re-read the entire series before starting the next book in … which causes a problem when the series is, say, Morganville Vampires, which has 15 books to get through and keep in your head. I’m not that great at building series continuity bibles because, well, my schedules, and the few times I’ve tried to hire people to do it the costs have been prohibitive (and they’ve given up). So I try to keep the continuity as much as possible in my head. Not always possible.

UW: In your Morganville Vampires series, the protagonist, a college student, lives in a small community in Texas ruled by the undead. Small towns can be tough places for outsiders and new arrivals. Did you experience any of that growing up?

RC: I grew up a military kid, so I was always the outsider, always the new arrival, until my father retired from the military as I was entering 7th grade. So the first six years of my school years, I was always coming in alone and without friends (as I had no siblings).

I went to school in El Paso the last few years, which allowed me to settle in and make friends, but since we lived out of town in the desert I also had the remoteness and desolation of far West Texas around me. I think it made a big impression. I always wondered, when we traveled through those tiny, isolated towns, what kept people in them.

Vampires, apparently!

UW: Morganville Vampires was opted for a television series, but ultimately ended up as an online series. I think that’s astounding, personally, because it means that fandom is more powerful than ever. What is it like for you as a creative person to be living in a time when this kind of thing is even possible?

RC: It’s truly amazing. Morganville was optioned from about 2008 on, but never quite got made in traditional media, and in 2013 we decided to look into doing the web series. Kickstarter was a logical place to go, but again, we really didn’t know if there’d be enough support to make it happen. WOW, there really was … we raised $80,000 for the web series through fan contributions, and got another $80,000 in matching funds via the fine folks at Geek & Sundry productions, who also hosted the show on their YouTube channel in first run. We did a full, professional production on it, with a cast and crew of almost 50.

What’s even more amazing to me now is that the DVDs and Vimeo streaming of the show continue to consistently sell, every week, all over the world. I fulfilled orders just last month to China and Sweden, and almost half of our audience seems to be international, which is why we took the step of subtitling in so many languages.

It’s an great time to be a creative person. The rise of crowdfunding, Patreon, self-publishing and YouTube has made it possible to reach huge numbers of people, and tailor content in ways never before possible. I’m not saying it’s easy, because it isn’t, and I think it’s very important to use every strategic avenue to support your work as you go (especially the wonderful advantages provided by professional industry publishing, which have strengths that I definitely wouldn’t do without) … but if you’re like me, fascinated by all kinds of creativity, what a great time to be in the business and use one approach to support the others!

UW: In addition to being a very prolific writer, you’re also an accomplished musician. What do you play? You must have met some interesting people in that line of work. Did I hear that you performed under John Williams?

RC: I was a very serious classical musician from the time I was about fifteen until well after I graduated from college, and yes, I did play in a lot of groups and orchestras! I was fortunate enough to play with John Williams twice, and the great Henry Mancini as well. Peter Nero too, who is another fantastic composer. I played clarinet, so I did everything from German band music to jazz to classical ensembles and orchestras. At different times, I played in the Lubbock Symphony, the Dallas Wind Symphony, Houston Symphony and in pit orchestras for touring musicals and ballets all over Texas. I even backed up touring rock bands!

I miss it, but I don’t miss the four hours a day of practicing I had to do in order to keep playing at that level! (Instead I devote that time to writing. I think it’s a good trade.)