Genevieve Cogman is the author of The Invisible Library: a magical series of tales about a dimension-hopping librarian adventurer and her faithful sidekick. Book one, The Invisible Library, and two, The Masked City, are available for purchase today. Look for the third volume, The Burning Page, in January 2017.
UNBOUND WORLDS: My local library was always a magical place, with each book a doorway to a new world. However, in The Invisible Library, the magic is all too real. How did you first come up with the idea for the series? Did it come all at once, or did it take some time for the concept to solidify?
GENEVIEVE COGMAN: I’ve had the idea of a library that’s linked to multiple alternate worlds for a long time now, but it wasn’t my own to start with. There’s Terry Pratchett’s Unseen University library (and Librarian), and there’s the Library of Dream in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, and the Library of the Archangel Yves in the In Nomine role-playing game (and in its French original, INS/MV), and no doubt others too. I’ve always liked alternate-worlds stories, and the idea of a linking library worked perfectly when I began writing the story. The chaos/order background also has many originals — Michael Moorcock, Roger Zelazny, Louise Cooper, the Exalted role-playing game … Though it did take a while to work out my personal take on the subject for the Invisible Library stories. I admit that I started writing it first and I worked out the full details as I went along.
UW: Real-life librarians often have to wear a lot of hats: researcher, fact-checker, guide. Research and fact-checking are actually big parts of any real-life spy’s job. Your hero, Irene, is both a librarian and a spy. It’s not that far-fetched, if you think about it. What’s a typical day like for Irene? Not so typical?
GC: On a day when Irene doesn’t have an urgent assignment, but is just trying to maintain her current identity and do her job as Librarian-in-Residence, then she’d probably split her time between “maintenance work”. She does freelance translation work, she keeps up to date with current book sales and auctions in the world that she’s in, she sets up a spare bank account and background identity in case she needs to go on the run, she takes some exercise, she practices her languages. And she plots future thefts. Planning how to remove a book from a vault in the Bank of London is excellent practice for Kai, though perhaps not something that she wants to discuss in front of Vale.
A typical day when on assignment and actively hunting down a book, or in deep cover preparing to steal it, would probably involve a combination of research and covert operations. So it’s difficult to describe that: she might be going through old book catalogues in a library or museum or bookseller, or working as a maid, or posing as a foreign visitor or religious pilgrim or secret police…
And she reads, of course. There’s always time to read.
UW: I don’t want to spoil anything, but Kai isn’t who – or what – he seems to be at first glance. He’s powerful, but he’s a supporting character, and seems to have developed a fandom all his own. Any chance that you’d write a series or one-off novel about him?
GC: I don’t have any immediate plans to give him a one-off novel or a series, though it might be interesting to go into his past a bit. There are some reasons (which might come out in book 4) about why he was placed under his uncle’s guardianship rather than staying at home.
UW: Your fae aren’t exactly nice creatures, at least from a human perspective. As a Brit, you must have heard something about faeries growing up. Did you grow up with any of the old faerie mounds, rings, or rocks anywhere near?
GC: I’m afraid not. I read lots (and lots and lots) of fairy tales and fairy stories, but I never had anything like faerie mounds or rings near where I lived. The closest that I’ve come might be the old statue of the Gran’mère du Chimquière in Guernsey. My father’s side of the family comes from Guernsey, and my family used to go there on summer holidays to stay with relatives. There was still a tradition when I was a child that people going past it should leave flowers.
UW: One of the coolest things about your series is that Irene gets to visit alternative realities where history worked out differently than it did in our world. Do you enjoy the opportunity to play what-if?
GC: Absolutely. It’s such fun.
UW: The Invisible Library stocks different editions of the same works from different realities. As a former writer of fan-fiction, the idea of the same stories told different ways must be kind of exciting. Are there any parallels?
GC: Some of the books that the Library collects are the same stories told in different ways, but others are completely new stories – either in the sense that they’re in a similar vein to existing ones in world X but just didn’t exist in that world (such as all the ones from Watson’s famous tin dispatch-box), or ones that deal with the same character or setting, but from a different perspective or with a different ending. When old Librarians finally retire to the Library, they do enjoy being able to sit down and go through all the different variants of their particular favourites.
UW: Are there any books that you love enough to seek out all the different editions of it from across the multiverse?
GC: I’m not sure. I still have so much to read in this world! I would be curious to see what other worlds had made of the Arthurian legends — after all, we have quite a wide spectrum on that subject in just this world alone. I’d also like to read more Father Brown stories, if there are worlds out there where G.K. Chesterton wrote more of them than he did here.
UW: You worked on a series of role-playing game properties before becoming a novelist. I can imagine that both tasks require different skill sets, but did you learn something from one that you could apply to the other?
GC: I think I learned a lot about writing as a job from doing freelance role-playing game writing. Working on assigned tasks, and to a deadline, and following outlines — and accepting edits and trying to produce something better as a result. I also got practice in worldbuilding, and in considering the full implications of background information which I was putting into the work. The sort of situation where the writer puts in a minor point of detail or culture, and then finds that they’ve accidentally unbalanced the whole background. (“But if character X or culture Y can do Z, then why haven’t they just defeated their enemies/taken over the world/come down with plague/etcetera…”)
UW: I read that you wrote a couple of books before the Invisible Library series. Do you have any orphaned manuscripts in a desk drawer somewhere? Will we eventually see any of them?
GC: They were earlier works than the Invisible Library series, and to be honest I don’t think they were as good. If I ever did anything with them, I would want to seriously revise them first. But I do still have the copies of them on my computer, yes…
UW: Intentionally or not, the title The Invisible Library evokes more than one meaning: For some, their local library is invisible. There are those who would argue it doesn’t have a place in a digital society. Do you have any thoughts on that?
GC: I absolutely believe that physical libraries are vital to society, whether or not the society has become “digital”. Even if we were in a world where everyone had access to electronic reading devices all the time, and could summon up any book that they wanted on those devices — which we aren’t quite, yet — I would still believe that physical books had a place, and that it was important to have places which stored, protected, and shared those books. Even the most efficient or attractive online website can’t match the experience of being able to physically look at a shelf of books, to take them down and open them, and to discover something new. Whether it’s for non-fiction research, or for fictional pleasure, physical local libraries offer people a place that is designed to help them to find the knowledge they want, and to allow them to discover new books.
Libraries are celebrations of books. They’re created to shelter and to share books. I believe that they will always have a place in any society.