Warning: This interview contains some spoilers for M R Carey’s book The Girl With All The Gifts.
With an impressive writing career in comics, as well as a growing sideline as a novelist and screenwriter, Birmingham Review caught up with Mike Carey at Waterstone’s in Birmingham City Centre – talking about his new novel, Fellside, his previous novel and soon-to-be film, The Girl With All The Gifts, his comics, heaven, hell, and how ‘we think we live in the real world’.
Olly MacNamee (OM): I like the multiple perspectives you present in The Girl With All The Gifts. Is this a narrative technique you adopt in your new novel, Fellside?
Mike Carey (MC): It is, although in the first draft it was a single point of view.
OM: Was that Jess, the prisoner at Fellside?
MC: No. Actually it was Sylvia Stark, a very minor character in the novel; an evil, obsessive nurse who tries to kill Jess right from the outset. I chose her because she’s tangential to the story, someone who is looking onto the tragedy that unfolds and a tragedy she doesn’t understand, or her own part in it. But it didn’t really work because it forced me to talk around certain things, and delay certain reveals, so I recast it with multiple points of view. Yes, it’s the same kind of storytelling device as The Girl With All The Gifts, but it isn’t in the present tense, like Girl.
I was very concerned not to do a follow up to Girl; the same kind of flavour, the same kind of storytelling. I wanted to branch out a bit and it is a very, very different book. Fellside is a ghost story and, as such, the balance between the real world elements and the fantastical elements is different in Fellside. If you take away Alex, the ghost, Fellside is a prison narrative – in some ways reflective of other classic prison based narratives, with familiar character types such as Harriet Grace, the woman who runs all the rackets in the prison, and Dennis Devlin, the corrupt warder… What I wanted to do, also, was to say something about the present state of British prisons.
Private prisons, sadly, are the future because they are so cheap compared to the public alternative; it takes it off the government’s books and places it into the hands of corporations who pick up the tab. The cost of such as system is that you then get the perverse incentives of Capitalism kicking in. You are talking about companies whose product are prisoners, and so they can only increase their profit if they either have more prisoners or if they keep their prisoners for longer. So these companies will be lobbying the government to change the law, to put more people in prison and for longer time too.
OM: Were you aware of these issues before researching for Fellside?
MC: It’s part of the reason why I chose a prison setting, although there were lots of other reasons too. For example, claustrophobic settings, I love them. I love settings where a small cast of characters are forced to interact with each other. The military base in The Girl With All The Gifts is another such place, Fellside even more so. From a dramatic point of view it’s irresistible.
OM: Fellside is a thought-provoking novel. Is this something we could do with more of in comics? After all, your work on the Vertigo comic Lucifer looked at the notions of free will, whilt your other Vertigo comics’ series, The Unwritten, looked at the very nature of reality itself.
MC: Well, when I come up with an idea, it’s always characters and a setting first, and then I build the story. I’ve learnt the hard way over thirty years, for me it’s the only way that works. If you start with the story you end up with two-dimensional characters, you build the story around the characters. So I’m never consciously thinking of themes that my story will address.
Having said that, I don’t think you can write without it coming from your perspective, from how you look at the world around you. In The Unwritten that is an exception, as we definitely set out to write a story about stories and the extent to which stories are the only things that really matter. Ambrosio says in the first issue that stories are the only thing worth dying for. We have a more radical position even than that: stories are the only thing there is. We think we live in a real world, we don’t. We live in stories about ourselves in the story of the real world. There is a lot of psychological research to suggest that the self, our sense of self, is a narrative.
OM: Of course, our first lessons in morality come from fairy tales and folklore when we’re just toddlers. Your Lucifer is based on concepts explored by Milton in his epic narrative poem, Paradise Lost. And whether William Blake wanted to create a hero out of the Devil in his book, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, he did. What is it about character of Lucifer that draws writers to him?
MC: I think Lucifer is powerful figure because he’s got such a wide range of possible meanings. I think that all myths that survive do so because you can apply them in so many different ways to life and your own life.
Lucifer starts off as the adversary to God, the embodiment of the darker impulses in our nature. The moment you do embody him the more he becomes attractive and glamorous. You are thinking, ‘actually, he’s pretty cool.’ Milton does not set out to make a hero out of Lucifer in Paradise Lost. He’s supposed to be the bad guy but he’s the most interesting character in the story. In Books 6 and 7, the War in Heaven, it’s basically heroic fantasy with Lucifer the big guy holding the biggest sword, like Conan. You end up rooting for him.
OM: Finally, it was announced recently that the TV series of Lucifer will be renewed for a second season. You’ve written the screenplay for the film adaption of your novel, The Girl With All The Gifts – would you be interested to write the odd episode of Lucifer?
MC: Damn straight. I would totally do that and do my damndest to sneak in a story from the comic book series. I think American networks will go with known American writers with proven track records, but you never know.
M R Carey’s Fellside is available now in hardback, whilst his previous novel, The Girl With All The Gifts is available in paperback. Mike Carey’s comic book work is also available as trade paperbacks.
For more on Mike Carey / M R Carey, visit http://mikeandpeter.com