Monday 1 August 2016

A Conversation with Mike Carey

Mike Carey was born in Liverpool, England, in 1959 – describing his young self as "one of those ominously quiet kids... [who] lived so much inside my own head I only had vestigial limbs". As a child, he maintained an interest in comics, writing and drawing primitive stories to entertain his younger brother. He studied English at St Peter's College, Oxford before becoming a teacher. He continued to teach for 15 years before moving on to writing comics.

M. R. Carey is an established and prolific British writer of prose fiction and comic books. He has written 
extensively in the field of comic books, completing long and critically acclaimed runs on Lucifer, Hellblazer and X-Men. His ongoing comic book series for DC Vertigo, The Unwritten, has featured repeatedly in the New York Times' graphic novel bestseller list. His superhero series Suicide Risk, published by BOOM! Studios, has been nominated for two Harvey awards. He is also the writer of the Felix Castor novels, and (along with his wife Linda and their daughter Louise) of two fantasy novels, The City Of Silk and Steel and The House Of War and Witness, published in the UK by Victor Gollancz. He writes mainstream thrillers as Adam Blake, and as M.R.Carey is the author of the bestselling novel The Girl With All the Gifts which has been adapted into a movie. The world premiere of Scottish director Colm McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic thriller, starring Glenn Close, Gemma Arterton, Paddy Considine and newcomer Sennia Nanua, will open the 69th Locarno Film Festival this Wednesday, 3rd August.

We’d like to thank Mike for taking part in A Conversation… and send our congratulations for the forthcoming film and the books and more books. When Mike was a guest at last year's Finchley Literary Festival; some of the Greenacre Writers auditioned for Girl. Lindsay Bamfield as Miss Justineau and Rosie Canning as Melanie - though unfortunately they don't appear in the film. However, GW are looking forward to seeing the film when it reaches the local cinema and will organise a special Zombie film feast. 

Tell us of your journey as a writer

It’s been very exciting and very unpredictable. I never really had any kind of a career plan, I just wrote whatever felt right to me and said yes to every opportunity that came up. Probably that lack of planning is the reason why it took me so long to get anywhere, but it’s also why I’ve done such a wide range of things – comics, novels, short stories, screenplays, radio plays, game scripts and so on. There’s a poem by Theodore Roethke that includes the line “I learn by going where I need to go”. I’ve tended to work like that. I’m not sure I’d necessarily recommend it, but it’s made for a really interesting career. That is, if what I do counts as a career.

I started out writing reviews and articles for comics magazines. Then I pitched some stories for comic book series and got them commissioned, working my way through indie publishers in the UK and the US before I was finally offered a mini-series by DC Comics. For the next decade of my life, comics were what I mostly lived and breathed. I wrote literally hundreds of scripts – for Lucifer, Hellblazer, the X-Men, the Fantastic Four, The Unwritten. And then at a certain point I started to write novels alongside the comics. With very varied success, it has to be said, but I really enjoyed what I was doing and I gradually got more and more confident in terms of experimenting with different kinds of storytelling, different approaches and voices.

Probably the breakthrough moment was when I collaborated with my wife Linda and our daughter Louise on two fantasy novels. Co-writing allows you to see into your blind spots. It’s a very rewarding exercise in that respect, as well as being enjoyable in its own right.

How do you see your role as a writer and what do you like most about it?
I think storytelling is one of the most amazing things you can do, and to do it for a living is an enormous privilege. Storytellers entertain and enrich us, allow us to live in counterfactual worlds. And they hold mirrors up to the real world that help us to understand who and what we are.

What I love most is being able to have an emotional impact on an audience – to make them happy or sad or thoughtful or amused. It’s a kind of magic. There’s no other way to describe it.

Have you ever created a character who you dislike but find yourself empathising with?

All the time! I think that’s absolutely key to good writing. You have to write everyone from the inside, and see their point of view. Even if they’re monsters and their point of view is indefensible.

A good example would be Caroline Caldwell in The Girl With All the Gifts. She’s very easy to hate. She kills children and forgives herself. But from her point of view she’s the hero of that story. She’s working to save the world, and she’s done the sums in her head. A few dozen deaths, or a few hundred, or a few thousand, to save untold millions and give the human species a chance at survival. She feels absolutely justified. And when I wrote her scenes I wanted the reader to be able to see that point of view. There’s no point in writing pantomime villains unless you’re writing a pantomime.

Last year, GW organised #diverseauthorday. What has been your experience of writing about diverse characters?

I think it’s a very important thing to be aware of. I write speculative fiction, almost without exception – fantasy, horror and sci-fi – so I’m often writing characters who belong to non-human races or who have attributes that take them way outside the human norm. But it’s astonishing and distressing to see how many stories in these genres still take the white straight guy as the standard of normality. I try very hard not to do that. When I started out I found it easier to write male protagonists (Lucifer, John Constantine, Felix Castor, etc) but even in those books I tried to create a kind of balance by building supporting casts that were dominated by women. And then when I started to write stories with ensemble casts I tended to put women in the lead roles. I also tried to include characters of different races, and to recognise that there’s no such thing as normal when it comes to sexuality. There’s just a spectrum.

Rhetoric aside, you can only write from one perspective – which is to say your own. But you can think about your own default settings and consciously interrogate them. Monochrome fictions are sort of a sad act in the genres I write in. What, you’re trying to imagine magical or alien realms and you can’t even get past your own parochialisms? All alien races have binary gender, binary sexuality, patriarchal power structures? You might as well be writing for Mills and Boon.

If you could be transported instantly, anywhere in the world, where would you most like to spend your time writing? And why?

Southern France. Stunningly beautiful countryside, great food, a gentle pace of life, endless opportunities to stop and smell the roses. The few times I’ve been there I’ve come away feeling refreshed and energised. I don’t think I’ll ever retire, but if I ever got rich I’d rent a villa in Provence for six months or a year and write an entire novel there.

What is the one book you wish you had written?

That’s a very tough question. I’m going to say Watership Down. It’s got that quality that lets you read it again and again and never get tired of it. And it immerses you utterly in its world.

What advice do you have for would be novelists?

There are three things that seem to me to be really obvious and really essential.

First, you can’t write if you don’t read. You’ve got to LOVE reading, and read endlessly. You’ve got to care about story. Your own voice starts out as an amalgm of the voices you’ve read and loved.

Then you’ve got to write. And you’ve got to really keep at it. Writing is a lot of things, but at its heart it’s a mechanical skill – like riding a bike or knife-throwing. You get better at it by doing it. You hone your skill. You can’t expect to be a literary genius straight out of the box.

And finally you’ve got to get opinions. I talked earlier about seeing into your blind spot – it’s something you really need to try to do. Read your stuff aloud to other people, or get them to read it and critique it. Join a writers’ group, or shamelessly exploit your family and friends (either way works). Honest opinions are like gold. By contrast, people who tell you you’re amazing aren’t worth all that much. You already know that, right?

What are you currently working on? What can we look forward to reading?

I’m working on a screenplay for my most recent novel, Fellside. And I’ve just submitted a new novel to Little Brown called Bedlam Bridge. It’s similar to The Girl With All the Gifts in some ways – it’s post-apocalyptic sci-fi. But it does its own thing. And I’m writing a comic book for a French publisher, Glenat, which is an epic fantasy with a political edge. It’s called Highest House, and Peter Gross is doing the art.

Who is your favourite literary character from childhood and why?

Probably Arrietty from the Borrowers books. I loved her courage and her curiosity. And I loved the way things that were familiar to me became strange and wonderful when they were seen through her eyes.

You can follow Mike on Twitter: @michaelcarey191
Thanks to Mike for the review copy of Fellside.

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