Saturday, 27 September 2014

Author Visit: MR Carey

If you missed it, folks, I set up a 'Weird Things...' Book Club over on the 'Weird Things...' Facebook page, and our first Book Club read was The Girl with all the Gifts by MR Carey - a dystopian novel which could have been the book baby of Never Let Me Go and The Walking Dead. I thought it was bloody marvellous. So, I got in touch with MR Carey (or, as he's known to his pals: Mike), and asked him if he'd like to do an interview for the blog, answering questions sent over by you. Mike's a lovely chap and he said yes, he would. So, here we are. He's got some bloody good answers, too. (Apologies if your question isn't below; there were so many submitted!)

Make a cup of tea, pull up a seat and have a read. :) xx

Hi Mike! Welcome. Tell us, how have comics influenced your writing?

I think it’s fair to say that comics taught me how to write!

When I started out trying to write novels, I never got anywhere because I never had the slightest idea how to structure them.  I wrote these big, shapeless, sprawling things – narrative soup – but had no idea to wrestle them into any kind of a structure.

With comics, you don’t have that luxury.  In most cases your page count is pre-defined, and it’s totally rigid.  You have 22 pages, or 20, or (if it’s 2000AD) 5, and within that you’ve got to get in, tell your story, and get out on a resolution or a cliffhanger.  So you find yourself budgeting pages very consciously.  You become a miser, counting your beats and sharing them out with great care and attention.  And once you become proficient in doing that you can take advantage of the freedom the novel form gives you, rather then drowning in it.

When did you start writing?

I honestly don’t remember.  It’s just always been there in my life.  I’ve got school exercise books from the 1970s in which I wrote heroic fantasy and sci-fi “novels” when I was a kid.  Probably the earliest of those I still have date from when I was twelve or thirteen, but I’m pretty sure there were others before that.

I wrote and drew comics back then, too.  My younger brother Dave and I made comics for each other, each of us creating a set of characters and then taking turns to write new instalments of the story.

But I started writing full-time in the year 2000.  That was when I gave up teaching and jumped into the freelancing lifestyle.  Before that I was writing around the edges of a full-time job.  Going freelance was liberating and terrifying.  The first month when you don’t get a pay cheque after years of being in a proper job… you feel like you’ve just abseiled into the Grand Canyon.  But it’s worked out very well so far.  I’m touching wood with my left hand as I type that with my right.

What's your favourite genre/medium to write in?

Currently, probably prose – but it changes.  For many years comics were my comfort zone because I knew them inside out.  The first novel I wrote as a grown-up, The Devil You Know, started out as a very tentative affair because I really wasn’t at all sure that I could do it.  But I got more confident as I wrote, and by the time I got to book two, Vicious Circle, I just cut loose and had a great time.

But the great pleasure is mixing and matching.  Every medium is a tool kit for telling stories, and every tool kit is completely different.  Being allowed to work in so many different media at the same time is exhilarating and incredibly rewarding.  If there was some way to do that and still have time to eat and sleep, I’d have the perfect life.

Where did the idea for TGWATG come from?

Bizarrely, it came from having to write to a specific brief, instead of dredging an idea up from my own subconscious.  I’d agreed to write a short story for an anthology – part of an annual series edited by Charlaine Harris and Toni Kelner.  The thing about these collections is that they’re always themed, and the theme is something very innocent, deliberately banal – home improvements, family holidays, things like that.  This year the theme they’d decided on was schooldays. And having said I’d contribute, I hit the buffers.  I sat there for four months staring at a blank screen.  I couldn’t come up with a single worthwhile idea.

But then about two weeks before the deadline, I woke up with an image in my head.  It was a little girl writing an essay in an empty classroom. And the title of the essay was “What I want to Do When I Grow Up”.  Only the twist was that the girl was never going to grow up because she was already dead.  

The whole story grew out of that – out of Melanie as a character, and the process by which she comes to realise who and what she is.  I wrote it in four days (I was actually at a comics convention in Norway for most of that time) and sent it in, and when the book came out it was very well received.  But I had the feeling that the story wasn’t quite finished yet.  I wanted to revisit Melanie’s world and find out more about both it and her.  So I asked my editor at Orbit, Anne Clarke, for a meeting and pitched the novel-length version of the story.  And Orbit commissioned it, even though that meant rejigging a fairly complicated contract that I’d signed.  I think Anne could tell that I wouldn’t be good for anything else until I’d written this book.

What was the journey of discovering a possible botanical source behind the story? (As so many of these stories are simply "Biology scientists did something silly and let a monkey escape the lab" and yours is not.)

It was really a case of building a strong through-line to that ending – to the scene where they get to the wall and Melanie makes her choice.  I needed a rationale for the plague that would allow us to have those beats, which meant among other things that the pathogen had to be visible.  In the short story it was a virus, but a virus really wouldn’t do.  Then I remembered the David Attenborough footage of the ants infected with Ophiocordyceps.  It was utterly terrifying, and it seemed to be a perfect fit for the story.

Then I did a little reading around and discovered just how widespread these mind-control pathogens are.  Each species of Cordyceps only targets a single species of ant – but there are hundreds of species, with more being discovered all the time.  Cordyceps is a specialist, but it’s a very versatile and resourceful specialist.  So I switched from a virus to a fungus, and never looked back!

Since then I’ve read some much more disturbing things about parasitism in nature.  Parasites may be the most numerous types of organism in the entire biosphere.  They certainly make up for the bulk of the world’s biomass.  And some of these mind-control organisms, such as Toxoplasma gondii, do target mammals.  Scary stuff!

Would you survive a zombie apocalypse?

No, I wouldn’t make it out of the opening montage.  I’d be the guy who remembered at the last moment that he’d left something crucial behind in his house or his car, and I’d go back and get eaten.  Cut-away to my distraught wife saying “What could have happened to him?  He said he’s just be a moment…”

Seriously, I have absolutely none of the skills that would allow me to survive after the fall of civilisation.  I can’t change a car battery, strip down a machine rifle, make wholesome meals out of hedgerow, anything.  If the apocalypse comes, I’m a puff of smoke.

What are your thoughts on some of the other "Starts with Z and rhymes with Kombi" stories out there?  

I love me a good zombie movie – and we’ve just lived through a kind of golden age.  The Romero sequence, especially Land Of the Dead.  28 Days Later.  And weirder fare such as the magnificent Zombieland and Warm Bodies, which I thought was terrific despite its silliness.  I confess, I haven’t read much in the way of zombie prose.  I picked up Pride and Prejudice and Zombies because it seemed like such a great premise, but I felt like it needed more Jane Austen touches.  More social satire to justify the genre-crossing.

The moments I love in zombie stories are the moment when the human surfaces within the monster, somehow not quite extinguished.  The wife going back to her own front door in The Walking Dead.  The zombies in the bandstand in Land Of the Dead.  And the whole premise of Warm Bodies.  That’s the horror, really – not just being chased by creatures that want to eat your brains, but recognising friends and family and ultimately yourself in those creatures.

Who was your favourite character to write?

Melanie, without a doubt.  When I felt like I’d got her voice right, her point of view, I pretty much jumped up and punched the air.  I wasn’t confident going in that I could catch the tone I wanted – the seriousness, the innocence, the curiosity and the endless reserves of well-meaningness.  But it came together better than I could have hoped for.

Tell us about TGWATG film - how involved are you and how far has it progressed?

It’s coming along really well, and right now it’s at a very exciting stage.  I was involved right from the start, developing the story alongside director Colm McCarthy and producers Camille Gatin and Dan McCulloch.  The BFI came on board with help, advice, and actual funding which enabled me to write a screenplay.  Then we secured a distribution deal, and Camille and Dan were able to lock in the rest of the budget.  Now we’re in the process of casting.  If all goes well, we’ll shoot early in the new year – which is blindingly fast in movie terms!

Which other writers do you love?

That’s a long list.  My formative influences include Mervyn Peake, Roger Zelazny, Ursula LeGuin, Lord Dunsany, Gene Wolfe, and going back a bit further Enid Blyton.  Authors whose work I’ve discovered and loved more recently – China Mieville, Joe Hill, Lauren Beukes, Nick Harkaway, Adam Roberts.  I lost the reading habit for a while because of work pressures, and I got it back again a couple of years ago.  Definitely in a binge phase right now.

Tell us something that might surprise us about you.

There is nothing surprising about me.  Not a thing.  Grant Morrison once wrote a superhero whose name was the ! and his power was that (to quote) “he comes as no surprise”.  Wherever you meet him – even if you wake up in the middle of the night and find him standing next to your bed – you just accept him as natural, run of the mill, completely unremarkable.  I am the !

No, okay, there is one thing.  I used to be an accountant.  Only for a year.  I was trying to get out of teaching into something that would give me more time to write, so I got a job at KPMG Peat Marwick as a trainee auditor.

It didn’t take.

What are you working on at the moment?

Rewrites to the next novel, whose working title is The Boy Inside.  The last ever issue of The Unwritten.  The second episode of a TV series I’m developing with Touchpaper, the production company that did Being Human.  A movie adaptation of Jonathan Trigell’s science fiction novel, Genus.  And a pitch for a new comic series that I want to do with Peter Gross.  I keep pretty busy.

What's something you wish someone had told you at the start of your career?

Hmm.  I wish someone had given me some advice about structuring a story.  Really basic advice, along the lines of “Don’t make it up as you go along – have at least some vague idea of where you’re going.”  Structure doesn’t come by itself.  You’ve got to work at it.  I could have saved myself a lot of heartache if I hadn’t thought it was okay to just wing it.

And if you were to give a writer one piece of advice, what would it be?

You can’t write unless you read.  Read passionately and voraciously in the genres and media in which you want to write.  If you don’t love them as a reader then you won’t be able to navigate them as a writer.  I’ve sometimes been in breach of this rule myself, and nothing good ever came of it.  You’ve got to write what you love, because if you fake it your readers will know.  And there’s a kind of alchemy involved.  Reading widely doesn’t mean you end up pastiching what you read, although that may happen a bit at first.  Something will come out of all that reading and processing that’s uniquely yours.  You’ll develop a voice.  Developing a voice in a vacuum is very difficult.  Any physicist will tell you that.


  1. I didn't realise TGWATG was being made into a film but I am super happy! I was actually watching 28 days later last night, and all I could think was how much better the girl with all the gifts would be as a film. There was something very gritty and real about it as a book and it has stayed with me since I read it. I think it will translate very well! Very excited. I also picked it as my staff choice at my bookshop ;)

  2. I think it is such a brilliant book. I was at a chapter reading he did before it came out and that opening he shared stuck with me for so long. Once it came out I had to buy a copy and then I bought about 5 more for family and friends. It just hits the right points all over the place, as someone who's always loved school stories and fantasy. And I also love how complete it is. I mean, I like the Unwritten too, but I love how TGWATG just feels so satisfying on the last page. *gush over*

  3. TGWATG was amazing, thanks for posting this interview! I didn't know about the film; that's good news.

  4. I still have no words for how much I loved this book. LOVED. Capslock and everything.
    This is an excellent interview, particularly the ! which put me in mind of 'all my friends are superheroes' which I also loved.
    Also: Developing a voice in a vacuum is very difficult. Any physicist will tell you that. Wise words MC, thank-you.