Autodidact: self-taught


An Interview with G. W. Dahlquist

by V. L. Craven

Several years ago I reviewed G.W. Dahlquist’s first novel,  The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters . It was released in the UK in instalments and is now being re-released in ebook instalments by  Penguin UK . The first two chapters are £.98 with £.49 per chapter afterwards. The publisher has also kindly provided a free paperback copy that will go to a lucky reader. (See below for details)

In anticipation of the new release, I had the opportunity to ask the author a few questions:

Glass Books Volume One

The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters was more of an experience than just a book–much like the glass books themselves. Aside from covering several genres well, it could have been a graphic novel–for adults–or a pretty spectacular video game. (The cosplay outfits would be incredible!) Have there been any offers to turn it into a graphic novel or comic or video game?

When The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters was published in the US, Random House made a phone-based game to coincide with the release, but something very small. It was a time when publishers were really trying all kinds of tangential strategies to attract readers, but elements of the book were just grafted onto existing, generic mechanics. Not to knock the people who made it – they didn’t have resources to do much more – but even people who liked the book wouldn’t have been interested. Over the years there’s been occasional talk of a game, or a graphic novel, or the books being adapted for a television series, but none of it especially serious. Of course, I agree with you that it would be incredibly cool, and think the structure of the books is perfectly suited for television.

Glass Books and the two follow up books are set in a Steampunk 19th century; have you always been interested in the Victorian era or was it that those characters simply had more stories to tell? What other eras are you interested in?

I’m interested in history in general – right now I’m reading Michael Grant’s Lives of the Caesars – pretty much any time. I’ve written plays about the Byzantine empire and about 17th century Spain, both of which did require a lot of research. The setting of Glass Books came from two impulses: first, that 19th century Europe’s grappling with the morality of imperialism raised a lot of echoes for me with present-day America, and second, that the mid-19th century is when literature explodes with all these different genre stories. So often books – if they dip into genre – are one kind of story, romance, mystery, adventure, erotic, historical. It seems obvious that in life all of these things overlap, and the 19th century setting gave me a nice access point to take the material in these different directions more or less at the same time. All of that said, of course, the trappings of the time were alluring as well. Who wouldn’t want to write about steam-powered alchemy? But history often shows a rougher overlap, from one face of a society to another, the juxtaposition of Celeste Temple’s fortune coming from a slave-worked sugar plantation with her determination to fight for justice for herself and her friends, for example. Those sorts of disconnects are all around us now, too, but people in a given moment are pretty schooled to look the other way.

Glass Book by AngelusNoir

Glass Books by Angelus Noir on Deviant Art

The world that the three books are set in is so massive–how much preparation did you do beforehand?

To tell the truth, very little, which probably sounds glib. I’ve always read a lot, I’ve traveled a bit, and the books’ world is made of elements that I feel like I’ve had in my head for decades – which probably sounds glib, as well. But it becomes a different thing when you’re not describing London or Amsterdam or Budapest, but your own city that’s never, over the course of three novels, even given a proper name. There are certainly parts of the books that follow from specific locations – the journey to the Vandaariff tomb in The Chemickal Marriage is based on Highgate Cemetary in London, for example – but it’s important to me that the books are seen as modern fictions, not any attempt to recapture a specific place or time. And many parts of the book, large and small, have contemporary influences – the blue glass comes from my experience with computers, as the prevalence of Dutch names comes from living in New York. I did work to make things as period-accurate and consistent as possible (during the editorial passes for The Glass Books , my editor flagged the mention of available mango on Miss Temple’s island, and I did some digging to find that, yes, the Portuguese brought the mango to Brazil in the 1500’s and was satisfied the fruit could have made it north to her non-Antigua in the next 300 years), but the spirit of what was going on was always more important. Mostly I established the basic geography of the place, social and physical, and then fleshed things out as I went, with a lot of revision. This was also enhanced by the process of writing three books set in the same world. Each new book provided opportunities to revisit places and ideas that I might have only had time to treat briefly the first time, but from a different angle – in the way the class divisions one sees in The Glass Books are explored through the ‘decapitated cabal’ in The Dark Volume , and refracted by the civil unrest running through The Chemickal Marriage.

Which is all only to say that there are writers who cover walls with charts and post-its and index cards, who draw maps and time-lines and family trees. I am not one of those writers.

Glass Books Trilogy

Have you seen Black Mirror ? It’s a drama from the U.K. (but airs worldwide) about the way technology is separating us from our humanity when it’s meant to be bringing people closer to one another. In the third episode of the first series, the characters all have implants that allow them to relive any moment of their lives and share any moment with other people, if they wish. It’s similar to the glass books in that memories can be rehashed for good or ill, allowing people to wallow in one emotion or moment rather than moving forward in life. I was wondering what your thoughts were on that episode (if you saw it) in relation to the glass books; or, if you didn’t, your thoughts, on how technology has changed how we relate to one another i.e. people used to have friends, now they have Facebook ‘friends’, that sort of thing.

I haven’t seen Black Mirror , only because I’ve been distracted with other things, but I’ve been aware of the praise the show’s received and am eager to watch it this summer. So, not actually speaking of Black Mirror at all, I do think science fiction (at least on television or in a movie), tends to move quickly when it talks about technological jumps like this, without always taking the time to work through how everyday life would be changed (there’s a great interview with William Gibson where he shakes his head about how in Neuromancer he got cyberspace right, but didn’t think of cell phones). In our own present, I think there’s much more change happening in terms of attention spans and social vocabulary, the distraction of an eternal present, than in the tech itself, and that these social factors will have longer-term impacts than we can currently see. The circumstance of six people sitting around a table together, completely ignoring one another, all of them engaged with data streams from somewhere else in the world – an utterly common sight, these days – would be unimaginable to anyone from 100 years ago, and probably terrifying. What else is invisible to us now, relative to that century ago? We’re in a world where most 12 year old boys have seen more naked women than Casanova did in his entire lifetime. How that sort of raw data-flood changes concepts of beauty, of desire, of tolerance, of fairness is exactly the sort of shift that’s hard to grasp about the future. I say this being personally outside most of this experience. I’m not on Facebook, don’t use Twitter, don’t have a smartphone, mainly because I just don’t feel like I have time, and don’t want the time I do have to be chopped into even smaller increments of distraction.

So, yeah, actually I find the present shock (to quote Douglas Rushkoff) of social media pretty pernicious, not that it’s going anywhere.

Hungarian Version of Glass Books

What are you working on right now?

I’ve just finished a follow-up novel to my YA book The Different Girl , which was published this year by Dutton/Penguin. The new book is called Second Skin , and while it’s not a direct sequel, it takes place in the same world and so fills in a number of questions left unanswered in the earlier book. Second Skin is about an illiterate girl from a scavenger community in an environmentally compromised part of the world who, in the wake of a shipwreck, finds a priceless prototype of new technology. The owners of the prototype come to collect their property, only to find the prototype has imprinted on the girl’s DNA, and so they carry her away along with it, to a high-tech world of wealth and privilege, as alien as the moon.

What immersive book/series would you recommend to someone interested in such a thing?

Since I mentioned him above, I’d certainly recommend William Gibson’s first three books, whose plots are inter-laced: Neuromancer, Count Zero , and Mona Lisa Overdrive . Especially in the case of Neuromancer , it’s impossible to overstate their influence on popular culture. I’d also recommend the first series of Amber books by Roger Zelazny, five volumes starting with Nine Princes in Amber . He did a second series later in his life, which are perfectly readable, but mainly for fans. The first series, though, is a wonderfully inventive fantasy adventure. Lastly, since he’s just passed away, I want to recommend the Culture novels of Iain M. Banks. These are really the best science fiction being written today, in my opinion – thoughtful, political, funny, thrilling, and crazily sharp. The books can be read in any order, though I’d suggest one of the earlier entries – The Player of Games or Consider Phlebus – to start.

Croatian translation of Glass Books

Is music part of your writing routine?

I write in cafes for the most part, and always listen to music – loud! – with headphones. I tend to listen to the same thing a lot when I’m working on a particular project, like a soundtrack. When I was finishing Second Skin I played the entire Beatles catalogue in sequence, day after day. While picking up a new project this last week I’ve been listening to the first four terrific records by the LA punk band X. It varies, but there’s always something in my ears.

Aaand, some fun ones:

Coffee or tea?

At home it’s tea, but when I’m working, it’s always coffee, usually a double-shot americano with half-and-half.

Cats or dogs?

I grew up with both, and definitely enjoy being around dogs when I can be, but I live in New York and having a dog here is difficult, so I’ve pretty much become a cat person. Right now I have two cats, brother and sister, adopted from an animal shelter 11 years ago and going strong.

Gryffindor or Slytherin?

I hate to say it, but probably Ravenclaw.

Do you still fence or have you taken up less (or more) dangerous activities?

I still fence, though not as much as I’d like, as the guys I fence with have shifting work schedules and family commitments that eat into the weekend. Which may be as well, since the bruises seem to heal slower each year!

Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions!

My pleasure – thank you for asking them!


Contest details: Send an email to with the subject: Glass Books and only your name in the body of the text. Entries must be received by midnight EST July 1, 2013. A name will be chosen using a randomiser. The winner will be announced  July 1.

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