It was a dark and stormy night (no, really) when, at the Motherwell public library, we had a chance to meet and interview author Mike Carey. And a true gentleman he is.
After a mesmerising reading from The Girl with All the Gifts, his sixth and latest novel (plus two he co-wrote with his wife and his daughter), and an interesting Q&A session (part of what he said there will be integrated in this interview), the 55-year-old Liverpool-born former teacher and author of X-Men: Legacy, Ultimate Fantastic Four (both or Marvel), Lucifer, Hellblazer, Neverwhere (both for Vertigo) and countless other series has accepted to spend some time answering to our questions.
Q: How does The Girl with all the Gifts compare with your previous work, in comics and novels?
It feels like a new departure, in a lot of different ways. It’s a different voice, a different narrative style (present tense, for one thing), and that seems to have been reflected in the very different reception it got from readers.
And the process was different too. I first wrote Girl as a short story, then I kept on coming back to it. I was convinced that there was more there: more to Melanie’s story, and more to her world. So finally I asked my publisher Little, Brown to change out my contract so I could write it as a novel. It was hard at that time for me to think about other projects, which is usually a good sign.
When I take a step back I can certainly see the continuities between Girl and my earlier novels. It’s not as though I suddenly started to write Westerns or something. And a lot of the preoccupations are the same as in my other writing. The difference is in the feel of it, intangibles like mood, tone and voice.
Q: Like your five Felix Castor novels, Girl is set in a post-apocalyptic England; why did you make this choice?
Well, actually the Castor novels are set soon after the apocalypse, if you want to call it so, or anyway after something incredibly momentous happened: the dead have come back to earth. It’s not exactly a zombie apocalypse, as most zombies and ghosts aren’t really bothering the living (the were-creatures and the demons are a different piece of cake altogether), but still. Girl is instead set one generation after the apocalypse.
This is something that makes it slightly different from most post-apocalyptic novels. Sure, there’s some set hundreds of years after the events: think of Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde, when they don’t even remember exactly what happened, it’s just “The Something That Happened”.
Anyway: for those who remember the 1980s… all movies, all songs, all talk was about the nuclear apocalypse, we felt constantly threatened by it. And I feel that it’s the same nowadays. There is he economic crisis, that I don’t feel is going to be over any time soon; the environmental issues; the wars… so, really, it is a product of our environment.
Also, it’s interesting to work in a post-apocalyptic world because when the apocalypse happens everything else, the wars, the environment, the job that we have or that we can’t find, everything falls apart, and what is really important comes through. When civilisation falls, school’s out forever.
Q: Are the themes and conflicts you explore in this novel similar to the ones you’ve employed in the past or is it a completely new style for you?
I think they’re broadly similar. The things that obsess me don’t change all that much.
It’s hard to talk about the themes of your own work, because in the end the story is the story and it speaks for itself. What you actually said matters, what you thought you said or meant to say really doesn’t. But I think I often write about family, and specifically about parent-child relationships. Obviously Helen Justineau is not Melanie’s mother, but their relationship is a quasi-parental one all the same, and the contradictions of parental love are a strong theme in Girl.
It’s also a story about alienation and fear, about the ability, or inability, to objectify somebody else as just a monster, just a threat. That feels like a big issue for me as I look at the world around me right now. Objectification is rampant. Immigrants, the poor, ebola-sufferers in Africa… they’re not people, they’re just problems. And our politicians positively encourage that kind of thinking. Lord Freud’s description of the disabled in the labour market as – effectively – damaged stock, that’s a point on the same highway that leads to Caroline Caldwell vivisecting children.
Q: Why is Girl attributed to M.R. Carey rather than to Mike Carey like all the rest of your work?
It was a decision taken by the publisher. They felt that I needed to move away from the Felix Castor books, that I’m definitely not ashamed of but that weren’t too successful, so they decided to give me a very transparent pseudonym, something similar to what Iain Banks did with the novels he signed as Iain M. Banks. So they asked me what my middle initial is – my middle name is James, so it became M.J. Carey.
Then, one day, actually after some copies had already been sent to the printers, I came out of a meeting with the movie producers – yes, Girl is also a screenplay and the movie rights have already been purchased – and received a panicky call from my agent telling me that there already is an M.J. Carey writing books. No problem, I thought, but then they told me that M.J. Carey writes bondage erotica. You’ll understand that the title The Girl with all the Gifts would earn some unintended meaning there… so they just went for M.R., that’s all.
Q: Will there be a sixth Felix Castor novel?
Yes, after I’ve written two more M.R. Carey books I’ll start working on the sixth and last Felix Castor novel. We still don’t know why the dead rose right now… and what happens with Juliet, a succubus that was raised in the first novel, The Devil You Know, to kill Castor but then realised that if she doesn’t kill him she doesn’t have to go back to hell…
Q: Moving on to comics – what is the comic/graphic novel of yours you look most fondly back at?
It’s hard to pick just one, but if you put a gun to my head I’d have to say Lucifer. That was the first ongoing comic book I ever wrote, and it was where I learned how to do it – first of all by pastiching Neil Gaiman and then by striking out and developing my own voice and style.
Just before I started work on the monthly, Neil said to me in a phone conversation that writing an ongoing book was an amazing mixture of planning and serendipity, and you could only really discover how it worked by actually doing it. He was so right, on both counts.
I wrote Lucifer for the best part of seven years, and in that time I went from an enthusiastic amateur to… well, somebody who broadly knew what he was doing. It was an exhilarating experience. Just wonderful. And of course it introduced me to Peter Gross, which was one of those creative collaborations that changes the course of your life.
Q: And how was this collaboration with Peter Gross born?
I started working on Lucifer with a penciller and an inker who really didn’t enjoy working together. After only a few issues, they both left. I felt that the project was dead in the water, when I was put in touch with Peter. Initially he was reluctant, he had just come out of a fantasy series, The Books of Magic, and didn’t really fancy to take on another one, but then we clicked and never looked back.
Q: What and who was your inspiration in taking on Lucifer?
The biggest inspiration for Lucifer is the most obvious one – Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman. I sometimes refer to Lucifer as being a sequel to The Sandman, which is loose and sloppy talk. It’s not that at all. It’s a free-standing work that takes place in the same continuity as The Sandman and takes its launch point from characters and situations defined in The Sandman.
But structurally, too – in terms of its storytelling – you can easily see how strongly it’s indebted to Neil’s writing. I used the same device that he used – which has become ubiquitous now – of interspersing longer arcs with self-contained one-off stories which turned out not to be self-contained at all but wove their way in and out of the main storyline. And of course I benefited from the amazing mythology he’d created, which incorporated all existing mythologies and religions into a coherent whole.
If I read the Six-Card Spread arc of Lucifer now, I’m actually embarrassed by how strongly it cleaves to Neil’s voice, Neil’s use of captions, Neil’s use of intercutting. It was only with issue 4 of the book, Born with the Dead, that something clicked and I started to write as me.
Q: By the way, staying with Lucifer: why does God look like G.K. Chesterton?
He doesn’t! He’s supposed to be Captain Mainwaring from Dad’s Army. Also, Chesterton is already in The Sandman as Gilbert, or Fiddler’s Green, as you prefer to call him. But yes, I do see the resemblance.
Q: Moving on: is there a comic series you’ve never worked on that you’d like to work on?
I usually mention Doctor Strange at this point, but I did finally get to write a Doctor Strange prose story, so that itch has been at least partially scratched. And I got to go back to X-Men for the graphic novel No More Humans, which leaves me for the moment with no X-verse projects clamouring to be written.
I’d really love to write a short or one-off set in the world of Joe Hill’s Locke and Key. That was such a wonderful series, and so imaginatively rich. It feels like you could go on exploring the universe Hill created for decades and never repeat yourself.
Q: So, who is the artist you’re more comfortable working with?
This answer never changes from one decade to the next. My two go-to guys as far as comics work is concerned are Peter Gross and Mike Perkins. They’re both amazingly talented, and amazingly versatile, but it goes beyond that. They’re both artists who actually spur me on to write better work. I seem to kick into a different gear when I’m writing for them, and the creative synthesis is more complete – unless that sounds pretentious, in which case I’ll just say they’re great guys who draw like killer angels.
Q: Is there any artist you never worked with but you’d really like to?
When it comes to artists I’ve never worked with, I love the work of the French bande dessinée artist David Beauchard, who mostly writes and draws as David B. He wrote and drew a really dark trilogy of fantasy stories, Le Jardin Armé, and then told a very similar and closely related story in a much more kid-friendly form as Les Chercheurs de Trésor for Poisson Pilote. Both versions were amazing, and I’d really love to do a book with him.
Q: There is a parallel between Felix Castor and John Constantine, with them both being Scousers living in London. But so are you: how much of yourself is there in those characters?
I slipped a lot of my own experiences into their backstory. It’s most noticeable in the first Hellblazer arc I wrote and in the one-off called The Gift – and then in Castor it comes up most strongly in the fourth book, Thicker Than Water, where Castor goes back to Liverpool and visits old friends and foes.
More generally, a lot of the characters I write are broadly based on people I’ve actually met. Seldom played straight, though – usually they’re composites or exaggerations or have been altered in other ways.
There are two good reasons for dipping into your own past like that, I think. One is that I think it adds a sort of force and authenticity to your writing. The other is that it helps you to keep backstory straight if it’s your own backstory!
Also, I set most of what I write in areas I know. The places Felix Castor visits in the novels are mostly the parts of London I lived in. There’s only one thing I really made up, the Charles Stanger Care Facility, a kind of a psychiatric hospital where Rafi Ditko, a friend of Castor’s who got possessed by a demon (and Castor feels guilty about that), is held. In that area there’s no huge buildings like the one I describe there. And, oddly enough, one day a man told me that he drives past it every day going to the office.
Q: What do you think of the movie and TV universes the comic industry has recently crossed into?
I think there’s a lot of variation there, in terms of quality and imaginative realisation. I love it when it’s done well. The recent Guardians of the Galaxy movie, for example, was hugely entertaining – as was Days of Future Past. But there are a lot of bad and uninspired comic book movies out there, and generally I don’t seek them out any more unless I know the director or I see a lot of solid reviews.
One problem with the movie franchises is that they don’t seem to be able to handle continuity in any way that makes sense. Their own continuity, I mean, not the comic book continuity, which is irrelevant. You’ll get two or three movies in a row where a character is played by the same actor and the same director is at the helm – and then suddenly there they are scurrying back to the origin story again with a different actor and director, as though they’re afraid to get more than a couple of movies away from it.
As a result of that, you don’t get the dense and complicated interconnectedness that you see in the comics. Which means that there are certain riffs you can’t play, certain types of story you can’t do – and paradoxically, they’re the bigger and more epic ones. The only movie to get into that territory and acquit itself well – brilliantly, in fact – was Joss Whedon’s Avengers.
Q: As you did and do write for the screen – would you consider and would you enjoy working on any of these projects?
Yeah, I’d do it like a shot. I find adaptation really interesting and satisfying for its own sake. And if it was a book I loved, that would be an amazing thing to get to do.
Q: Last one, I promise: who is your favourite character to work on and who is the favourite character you created?
The second of those questions is easier, so I’ll tackle it first. Probably my favourite character out of my own creations is Elaine Belloc, the schoolgirl in Lucifer who discovers that she is – not to put too fine a point on it – God’s granddaughter. She’s introduced very early on in the series, in issue 4, and she was there right to the end, so I wrote her a lot. I enjoyed writing her because I had a very strong sense of her voice, partly because she was based on my daughter Louise. And I think she has a really satisfying arc, which ends with her (spoiler warning) taking over the throne of Heaven after both God and Lucifer have walked away from it.
It’s much harder to pick on a single favourite who’s not my own. I tend to steer towards characters who I really want to write. When I was on X-Men, for example, I picked a crazy team made mostly out of disused D-listers, because they were the characters I had a feel for and felt it would be fun to put together.
Gun to my head, again, I really enjoyed writing the Reed Richards and Sue Storm of the Ultimate Fantastic Four. That’s far from my most popular book, but something about that precarious, unlikely romance between two uber-intelligent teens who’ve both got more power than is good for them really appealed to me. In the course of my run I broke it down mainly so I could build it up again, and I had them being reconciled – fairly passionately – just as I left the book.
But ask me again tomorrow and you’ll probably get a different answer…
We thank again Mike Carey for dedicating us some of his time to discuss his past (and future) work, and we would like to wish him the best of luck in his future projects.