A prolific writer of comic titles including Batman, Fantastic Four, X-Men, Hellblazer, Lucifer and 2000AD, Mike Carey is also a successful novelist with five adventures starring supernatural detective Felix Castor and more recently the acclaimed The Girl With All The Gifts. Attending the Edinburgh International Book Festival on the afternoon of Wednesday 13th August, he was kind enough to sit down with us to discuss his work and career.
Geek Chocolate – Your latest novel is The Girl With All The Gifts; it’s quite a departure from your earlier novels in that, to my mind, it was consciously aimed at a younger readership, though the subject matter is certainly not necessarily suitable for children. Why the shift in demographic?
Mike Carey – I’m not so sure that it’s a shift in demographic so much as it’s a shift in the trajectory on which I was approaching the genre material.
I think that the short answer is that I came to Girl having written the first of two collaborations with my wife Linda and our daughter Louise, while we were planning the second of those collaborations, The City of Silk and Steel and The House of War and Witness, respectively, so I was writing with a young woman in her late teens and a middle-aged woman, and I was writing stories where most of the protagonists, most of the point of view characters throughout, were female.
When I came out of that, sensitised to my own default options in an unusual and quite exciting way, I was deliberately trying with Girl not to recapitulate things I had done in Hellblazer and the Castor novels, to tell a story which was unashamedly genre but which was also strongly character based and built particularly around Melanie, the ten year old girl, because for once, and it’s not always that way by any means, the conception of the character of Melanie came first and the story accreted around her.
GC – It’s also been published as M R Carey rather than Mike Carey; was the change in moniker simply to establish this as a different strand in your career, as no attempt was made to conceal your identity?
MC – It was a decision that my publisher took and I think it has a very simple motive behind it which is they saw this as a book which had crossover potential, a genre book which had appeal to non-genre readers and they didn’t want it to be read in the context of my other work. It was as simple as that. They wanted readers, and to a certain extent buyers, to approach it with an open mind, so giving me that very transparent pseudonym erected a kind of Chinese wall between Girl and the rest of my work.
I’d already had experience working under a pseudonym, I did two novels as Adam Blake, two mainstream thrillers where the intention there was to position me as a Dan Brown-alike, and it didn’t work all that well but it’s becoming much more the norm now for writers to have multiple pseudonyms designating different strands of work or different readerships or series, even.
GC – Traditionally, there are two types of zombie apocalypse; the supernatural, or at least unexplained, revival of the recently deceased and the viral where there is a rapidly spreading infection, but here you’ve taken a new approach, and one which I imagine involved a lot of research to get the details right. How did you come up with the idea of Ophiocordyceps unilateralis being the vector of the fungal apocalypse and how much did you have to push it to behave as the story required, or was it disturbingly cooperative from the out?
MC – To address the first part of that question, the idea of having a fungal plague rather than a viral one was a side effect of writing the movie at the same time as writing the novel. They both grew out of a short story, Iphigenia In Aulis, and I pitched the novel and the movie at the same time, and on the movie the director Colm McCarthy was quite keen to nail down the vagueness that he saw in the short.
In the short story I talk about a virus but it’s all quite waffley and up in the air and there’s no real sense of what the virus is doing, there’s no real definition, no real clarity even of whether the hungries are undead or just ordinary people who are infected, and so Colm said “Get your story straight, Carey.”
So I went away and I had a thought about it. I had watched about two years before David Attenborough’s Secret Life of Plants and I remembered the Ophiocordyceps sequence in that which had the stem growing out of the ant’s head, which is utterly terrifying. So I thought – that’s what I’m going to do. And I’ve since discovered that there’s also a game, The Last of Us, which uses the same premise. I still haven’t played it, although I now own it.
But, yeah, Cordyceps is brilliant because it is utterly terrifying when you look at its lifecycle. It’s pants-wettingly scary, and it’s not unique because there are thousands of these organisms which are mind control fungi, mind control nematode worms, I think there are viruses as well, parasitic creatures that will hotwire your nervous system and get into the driver’s seat.
So I didn’t have to change much. Obviously the idea of jumping the species barrier and then the genus barrier and so on is a little far-fetched, but apparently there are creatures like this, organisms like this, that effect mammals, the one that affects cats that one in three humans has, what’s it called?
Linda Carey – Toxoplasmosis?
MC – And it does affect people and they’re now discovering that it does influence our behaviour. For example, humans who are infected with Toxoplasma gondii are much less risk averse. They will do stupidly dangerous things without thinking about it.
GC – You’ve brought him up already, I presume this is the same Colm McCarthy who directed The Bells of St John on Doctor Who last year and the film Outcast which he co-wrote with his brother Tom.
MC – It’s very well along. We have a budget, we have distribution deals in place, both domestic and foreign, we have a casting director, we have firm offers made to three of the leads. I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop, but things are looking very, very good.
I met Colm through a producer, Camille Gatin. I was working on her with another project which was a movie based on a sci-fi novel and we lost the rights to that, and so I showed her Girl and said “we could do this instead,” and she was very enthusiastic, and at some point in that process she introduced me to Colm who is a good friend of hers, and Colm came on board and was very, very active in the development process. So it was that chain of encounters, really.
Colm is amazing. You mentioned Outcast and his Doctor Who work but he’s done Ripper Street, he’s done Sherlock, Endeavour, pretty much all the great British television drama of the last five or six years, Colm’s been involved with. And I thought that Outcast was an amazing low budget movie.
GC – It was filmed in Edinburgh, the premiere was at the Cameo in the Edinburgh Film Festival four years ago.
MC – Right, because it didn’t get much of a cinema release at all. I think he had a problem with his distributors and it went almost direct to DVD. It has some of the flavour of the best Sandman issues for me, situating the supernatural and the horrific so firmly in the everyday that it becomes ten times more terrifying.
GC – You mentioned it briefly earlier. There is a long period between a finished novel landing on an editor’s desk and it hitting the shelf of the bookshop; during that time the game The Last of Us was released, also featuring Cordyceps; that must have been irksome.
MC – It was irksome when I finally discovered it but fortunately it was a very late stage in the process when I was finally told about it. I keep meaning to play the game, Camille has played the game, the producer on the movie, and she says it’s wonderful and also that it doesn’t overlap too much with what we’re doing, although it does have a tough, badass mercenary teamed up with a young girl. The iconography is going to be similar. But you can’t get away from it to a certain extent. You write genre fiction you’re working in the zeitgeist territory.
GC – Some of the passages of the book reminded me very much of John Wyndham, The Day of the Triffids in particular, and from me, that is high praise –
MC – It’s high praise from me, too.
GC – And …28 Days Later. Were either of those touchstones in any way, or were you conscious to avoid those comparisons as much as possible?
MC – They have to have been percolating in the back of my head. I grew up mainlining John Wyndham. He was a huge influence on me in my late teens and early twenties when I first started to write sci-fi. And …28 Days Later, which course is a rewrite of Day of the Triffids itself, is also one of the great zombie texts for me. I wasn’t consciously imitating them, but I’m sure they were in the DNA of Girl.
I’d also like to say that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is less obviously in the mix in Melanie as a monster and as an innocent, and that moral equation is part of what the novel is about.
GC – It’s certainly a departure from your Felix Castor novels in that it has moved from the supernatural to a very scientific approach, in who the characters are and what is left of the world they live in. Did you consciously try to set it as far apart as possible, or was it a story which just came to you?
MC – It was just a story that came to me, just very serendipitously. I’d agreed to contribute to a themed anthology, Charlaine Harris and Toni Kelner do these books once a year, the theme is always something banal and innocent like “family holiday” or “do it yourself,” and this year it was schooldays.
I said I would write a story for it and then I sat on my hands for four months and nothing came, or everything that came was just a bad Harry Potter ripoff, and then I just woke up one morning with the image of this little girl writing an essay, and the essay was “what I’m going to do when I grow up,” but she’s a zombie, so she’s never going to grow up, and nobody has told her.
I wrote the short in four days, and for two of those days I was touring in Norway, so it was like it was in my head, whole, and I just had to get it out, and then I felt like the story wasn’t told. In the short, it ends with the fall of the base, so it’s about eighty pages into the novel, I think, and it ends with Melanie and Sergeant Parks fighting back to back against the junkers while the rest of the children and the teachers are evacuated. It’s this beat of mutual respect between the adult and the child, but it felt like it wasn’t earned, it needed to be a long way further on in the story.
I went to my publishers and said, “can I write this as a novel, even though I’m contracted to write a completely different novel?” and they grudgingly said yes, though I think they’re happy with how it came out.
GC – Although for ease of location within a bookshop you are expected to label novels with sometimes misleading specificity, in the early Castor novels at least the supernatural elements were, if not incidental, but they weren’t the direct driving force, they were quite traditional, gritty detective novels with a flavour of the uncanny. I would imagine that would have been a harder sell to a publisher than an out and out fantasy which is at least a clear genre, particularly for Orbit, who are a genre publisher. How were they with that plan?
MC – I had one big secret weapon on my side when I was pitching the Castor novels and that was I was pitching to Darren Nash, who was a huge comics fan and particularly a huge fan of Hellblazer. I was writing Hellblazer at the time, so I just said “it would be a little bit like this, it would have this flavour.”
Obviously it starts out as Hellblazer but it becomes something different. It really becomes be trying to do Raymond Chandler, but with an exorcist instead of a gumshoe. And it did cause problems – not at Orbit, Orbit were very supportive of it, it has caused problems in terms of its stocking in bookshops, its labelling, and its finding an audience. I think it’s one of the reasons why the series, although it’s sold respectably, it’s not been a stellar success.
GC – For a while there, the supernatural detective novel was quite the thing, with Harry Dresden, Peter Grant, Anita Blake and John Constantine, some of them across multiple media, the marketplace was becoming increasingly crowded. Do you feel Felix ran his course or do you think you may one day want to return to a supernatural caseload?
MC – I definitely feel there’s at least one more Castor novel to be written, because although the fifth novel wraps up a big arc, it wraps up the whole Rafi Ditko/Asmodeus storyline, there is an overarching mystery in the Castor novels which is “why?” Why are the dead rising now? Why are they rising in so many different forms? What’s going on?
The fourth and fifth novels mention something called “the great project,” and there’s a point at which Juliet, the Earthbound succubus, is prepared to kill Castor rather than let him find out what the great project is. And that’s what the sixth novel would do, it would explain that, and I think it would also have to explain on a more personal level what happens to the ghosts that Castor banishes, because the first ghost that he banished was his kid sister.
The sixth novel would be looking at those two big question marks and I do intend to write it, it’s just that at the moment I’m M R Carey rather than Mike Carey and the contract I have at Orbit calls for two more novels, certainly not sequels to Girl but hitting that same sort of feel of genre elements in a not overtly genre package, if that makes any sort of sense.
GC – It does. Speaking of John Constantine, you spent five productive years on Hellblazer; when you created his life and his world; how did you consciously differentiate Felix from John?
MC – It was difficult at first because my head was full of John, and if you look at Devil You Know, Felix has a lot of John in him in that first book and it wasn’t until the end of Devil You Know and into Vicious Circle when I began to differentiate him and it’s largely because, whereas John’s world is huge and sprawling and baroque and there are many different kinds of supernatural entity and there’s the whole infrastructure of heaven and hell, and the hierarchies of heaven and hell, Castor’s world is more self-contained in that there’s one mechanism that’s working through all these different phenomena, all these manifestations.
A ghost that haunts its own flesh becomes a zombie, a ghost that animates animal flesh and sculpts it becomes a were-creature, even the demons, as we find out in Thicker than Water, have some link to humanity, although I can’t talk specifically about that because it’s a big spoiler. So it’s more a “by this one impossible thing, and all these things follow from it” situation.
GC – To many people, their only knowledge of John Constantine is in the shape of –
MC – Keanu Reeves?
GC – Keanu Reeves, which is possibly the most terrifying thing imaginable, but later this year with David S Goyer writing and producing, fresh off The Dark Knight Rises and Man of Steel, Dog Soldiers’ Neil Marshall directing the pilot and Matt Ryan in the lead who at least is physically right for the part, are we allowed to feel at least cautiously optimistic?
MC – I’d like to think so, yeah. Matt looks great and in the course of the pilot starts to sound great. Initially his accent is kind of wobbly but it’s getting there towards the end. But more importantly, he has the character beats in a recognisable configuration. It feels like John.
I think in some ways they’re oversimplifying it in the way that pilots do in order to sell the core message, but I think the series is going to be… I’ll certainly be watching it with high hopes.
GC – Skipping from DC to Marvel, another two major titles you had long associations with were The X-Men which this year astonishingly rebirthed itself on the big screen with Days of Future Past, in true comic style wiping out the utter bungle of The Last Stand and next year The Fantastic Four will also undergo a massive cinematic overhaul. Briefly – I stress briefly, for these are huge topics – with your experience on writing both, do you feel The X-Men are back on course and what key lessons do The Fantastic Four need to have learned if they are to join the premiere league?
GC – It has some problems but you don’t care because you’re having so much fun.
MC – Yeah. I’m going to be buying the DVD and I’m going to be wearing out the fast forward and rewind to watch, for example, the Blink sequences at the start, the Quicksilver sequence when they’re freeing Magneto. It’s gorgeous stuff and conceptually very clever.
GC – I think they put Evan Peters in one scene only because they knew he would just steal the film.
MC – It’s astonishing when you look at it back to back with X-Men 2, you can see that becomes Bryan Singer’s audition piece for Days of Future Past. All of the scenes map onto scenes in Days of Future Past, but they’re all better. In a way, all the scenes in The Hobbit map onto scenes in Lord of the Rings but they’re worse.
I haven’t seen the Fantastic Four movies so I’ll have to take the fifth on that one. I have seen Guardians of the Galaxy, though. I really enjoyed it. I question why Peter Quill needed to be a sexist arsehole, but that aside, I think it does everything else right.
GC – Did you feel that?
MC – They’re at pains to have him talk about a girl who he slept with in order to get information from, the “I’m sorry I’d forgotten you were here” when his girlfriend turns out to still be in the ship.
GC – I can see that, but I also think it could have been anybody down there, it could have been just a friend down there, and he would still have forgotten –
MC – Because he’s that kind of a guy.
GC – He’s just that kind of a guy.
MC – I love Chris Pratt. I love him in Parks and Recreation, so it was great to see him take the lead. Someone in a review described it as “the best Star Wars movie since 1980,” and I can see exactly what they meant.
GC – Considering in the prequels you knew everything was CGI and, yes, so is everything in this, but it just looked so much better. All the cast were fantastic. Vin Diesel’s got one line and he’s brilliant – how does that work out? Mike Carey, thank you so much for your time, it’s been brilliant to meet you.
MC – Thank you, and likewise.
Thank you to Mike for his time, the Edinburgh International Book Festival and Gemma Conley-Smith of orbit for their assistance
Since the interview was conducted, it has been confirmed that the leads of The Girl With All The Gifts are Gemma Arterton, Glenn Close, Paddy Considine, Anamaria Marinca and Dominique Tipper