Rachel Caine is the bestselling author of more than 45 novels, including the popular Morganville Vampires series, so it comes as no surprise that her new YA novel, Ink and Bone, is a thrilling fantasy about the incredible power of books. It's set in a world where the Great Library of Alexandria never burned, but instead became a governing body over all knowledge. Personal ownership of books is forbidden in this magical world, but young Jess Brightwell has been brought up in the family business of distributing black market books.
What inspired you to write Ink and Bone, with its strong focus on themes of the control of knowledge and censorship?
It was an interesting journey! I started this story many times over the past 10 years, and just couldn't find the “hook” to make it interesting and different until I realized it really was, at the core, about libraries, about the Internet and paper books, about content and who owns it. Of course, those are huge subjects for a YA novel, and I wanted to do them in an entertaining and suspenseful way . . . and in my research, I realized that the Great Library of Alexandria had been built from some humble (and not altogether legal) beginnings. The idea of collected libraries that allowed the general public to enter them wasn't always either a common or accepted thing, and in building on that, I discovered how to tell the story and the world in which that Great Library never disappeared.
What do you believe is the greatest power of books? Do you think their role has changed—or will change—as our society evolves with the Internet, allowing greater dissemination of knowledge?
The fascinating thing about books is that we forget the controversy of books. The scandal when the printing press was first used for something other than reprinting of sacred or scientific materials. The uproar over the advent of “novels” (which literally meant “new fiction”) instead of instructive stories with moral messages. Books have always fascinated and tempted, and from time to time (particularly in the 1850s through the early 1900s) they were also seen as just as destructive to “good work habits” as drinking or drugs. Libraries, after all, were compared to “gin shops and brothels” in the mid-1800s, because they were seen as making novels readily available to the public, which allowed them to neglect their duties, isolated them and “eroded their morals.” (Sound familiar? It should! We have the same kind of moral panics periodically about whatever is new and popular . . . like the latest popular video game.)
The Internet presents an interesting challenge. It does disseminate information . . . and misinformation. There's no curation and no validation, and in that sense the Internet is more about data than knowledge—since knowledge has some kind of intellectual rigor behind it. It also presents the question of who owns information. It's a huge issue, and one we'll be wrestling with for generations to come. If information should be free, what does that look like from an economic and creative standpoint? It's all very interesting, and a bit frightening.
What do you find so fascinating about the Library of Alexandria, rather than creating a brand-new library (or other controlling organization) for this world?
It has a mythical significance to modern readers. I've seen t-shirts that say, “They got the books in Alexandria, they're not getting mine!”—it's the reader equivalent of “You can have my gun when you pry it from my cold, dead hand.” Western readers have collectively chosen that particular library as a symbol of lost knowledge, even though there are many other libraries as great (or possibly even greater) that were lost before it, and after.
So the resonance of that institution was something that I felt could really give the book energy and grounding.
What do you love most about worldbuilding? What are the greatest challenges?
Creating the alternate paths are a lot of fun; you start to consider which events would happen, which wouldn't, which discoveries would have been made or even suppressed, and which political events would or wouldn't happen. You can spend a huge amount of time creating an incredibly detailed world, if you're so minded; I try to do as much as I can but I limit the amount of time I spend on it, because first and foremost, I want to tell a good story. So the story has to remain paramount.
The challenges really are more about how much of the worldbuilding can you include without bogging down the story, or making it confusing. It takes a lot of work to get that balance even close to correct.
What’s one “banned” book you think everyone should read?
I remember the one that really changed my life was I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou. It's banned on some lists, not on others, but it broke my world open in a way that nothing had before.
Honestly, I look at banned lists as “must read” lists! A book wouldn't be on the list if there wasn't something in it intense and powerful enough to incite controversy . . . and as readers, we shouldn't only stay in our comfort zone. That's not where personal growth happens, or where we learn more about the world and ourselves.
Did you have a favorite library when you were a teen?
My favorite library was the little Bookmobile that visited our neighborhood way outside of El Paso when I was a teen. It was stocked with maybe 500 books, and I'll bet I read at least two-thirds of them, if not more; just the fact that it arrived every week and I could check out a new stack was amazing. My school library was also where I found a lot of joy, especially in the “Boys” section. That was where they put all the cool adventure books.
What can readers expect next?
Book 2 of the Great Library will launch Jess on a new battle against the higher-ups within the Library, and plunge him and his friends into even more peril. More battles, more suspense and, most of all, more about the Obscurists and the Iron Tower, which we'll see from within as well as without. You'll also see a deepening of the bonds between Jess, his friends and their mentors. It'll be a tense, dangerous journey full of adventure, feelings and—always—books.
Thanks so much for letting me visit and talk books!