T. L. Huchu brings ghosts, Zimbabwean magic, and mystery into an alternate Edinburgh in his new novel, The Library of the Dead, on sale 6.01.2021. But how did he go about creating a new type of Edinburgh? Check out his article here!
By T. L. Huchu
I don’t actually know who first said, “’All great literature is one of two stories; a man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town,” but I believe they were talking about the writers, not their fictional characters. See, I believe there are two types of authors, and I fall in the latter group, the stranger who came to Edinburgh fifteen-odd-years ago. I did not know then I would fall in love with the city and end up writing about it. Not Edinburgh as is presented in tourist brochures, but a different version, perhaps even a truer version not bound by the linear progression of time but an expression of multiplicity, duplicity, and the generalized sort of multiple personality disorder which marks any great city.
In 2005 I was a ditzy student stepping off the train at Waverley Station. I didn’t know the station was named after Sir Walter Scott’s novels. Neither did I recognize the gothic structure of the Scott Monument looming in the fog as I stepped out onto Princes Street. If it’s true that the world’s a stage then I didn’t know that in that moment I was being written as a new character in a city with a rich history, which I had yet to appreciate. My part, that of the wannabe writer, is pretty much a cliché in such a literary place, but I embraced it all the same; after all, it had worked for J. K. Rowling, Charlie Stross, Iain M. Banks, et al.
I never thought I’d write about Edinburgh. What more could anyone possibly add about a place so thoroughly represented across different media? When I had the idea for The Library of the Dead I intended to set it in my home town of Bindura in Zimbabwe. But the more I thought about the story, the more I realized I needed a slightly larger canvas for it to play out. Edinburgh was an obvious pick, because while it’s not the biggest city in terms of size, it has a lot of temporal depth, intriguing histories waiting to be unearthed and repurposed. Crucially, it is a city with spectres ’round every corner, and, since my main character Ropa Moyo is a ghostalker, that was the clincher.
Every writer will tell you ideas are two-a-penny in this game. The real grind, the craft, comes in the artistic decisions one makes in order to convey a suitable narrative that encapsulates that concept. I knew the Edinburgh I would write about would not be the quaint, enlightened, touristy version she is painted out to be. Dig into the history, this is a brutal place, the site of battles, murders, riots, torture, witch-hunts, religious persecution and much else besides. The present feels safely disconnected from that history, doesn’t it? We have a clear sense there is a “then” separate and distinct from “now”. But what if I removed that cognitive filter so that past, present and future clashed? The result would be an earthquake, tectonic plates crashing into one another, unleashing danger and chaos. Some people have described the book as dystopian, but it is really a third world Edinburgh in which certain things work but others don’t, intermittent power supplies, electric vehicles next to horse drawn carts, science and magic, ghosts and villainous villains and unlikely heroines, the blurring of the neat boundaries we draw up in order to make sense of the world.
I had the distinct sense in writing The Library of the Dead that a sort of call and response was going on. That the city was co-author to the work and I was reacting to the elements she threw my way. These often came in moments of serendipity that altered the course of the narrative. When I tramped through graveyards in the Old Town seeking an entrance to the eponymous Library, I happened across a stunning circular mausoleum that happened to be the resting place of the great enlightenment philosopher David Hume. Where before he’d not factored into my thinking with relation to the novel, now I saw how central his ideas would be to Edinburgh’s magical society, which I named the Society of Sceptical Enquirers. The city is so rich in history, a history waiting to be subverted, that I often found the hardest part was stopping it from completely overwhelming the narrative I was crafting. At some point you have to say, “Nope, this is my story, we’ll do it my way,” else you’ll end up with a door stopper that’d make Tolstoy blush.
I also discovered I could alter the cityscape, bury a secret library in the heart of Calton Hill in the city centre, turn the grand villa Arthur Lodge on Blacket Place into a proper house of horrors, refill the Nor Loch in the city centre, resurrect the Victorian slums the city used to have and reimagine them for the future. In a way it felt as though if my time in Edinburgh had altered me, I could respond by changing it too, perhaps even changing the way some people see it.
All these elements came together in the telling of a story about a young girl from a slum on the outskirts of Edinburgh who has to find missing children, the victims of magical crimes no one else in the city seems to care about. It’s a story of courage and determination against the odds. And I also hope that it’s a rollicking romp which subverts the reader’s expectations and assumptions of the city and Scotland in general. Isn’t that what strangers are supposed to do to our sense of place in the world? We are just getting started on this journey. The Library of the Dead will be followed by Our Lady of Mysterious Ailments, and with each installment I hope to dig deeper into this place’s soul.
T. L. Huchu is the author of The Library of the Dead, hitting shelves everywhere 06.01.2021.
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