The interview contains minor spoilers (but only if you know nothing about the book, which isn't a bad way to approach it) so if you're the kind of person who avoids such things come back here after you've read the book. Go on, we'll be waiting for you....
Everyone else read on:
The Bristol Book Blog Review:
Book Trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_Xo3A5UTjso
Her name is Melanie. It means “the black girl”, from an ancient Greek word, but her skin is actually very fair so she thinks that maybe it’s not such a good name for her. She likes the name Pandora a whole lot, but you don’t get to choose. Miss Justineau assigns names from a big list; new children get the top name on the boys’ list or the top name on the girls’ list, and that, Miss Justineau says, is that.
So starts the latest Mike Carey book (writing as M. R. Carey) which is a contender for best book of the year for me.
To get the best from those brilliant opening chapters, which hook you so thoroughly, it’s best not to say too much about the story. Melanie is a special little girl, genius level IQ, in a school on an army base with about 20 other children. The children are taught and tested by a number of different teachers but Miss Justineau is Melanie’s favourite. The book, at its heart, is an exploration of the relationship between these two compelling characters.
Carey has captured the voice of the 10 year old girl perfectly and creates a very plausible world which is explored in a slowly unfolding and engaging plot. The characters are lovingly crafted such that we care what happens to them, throughout, even those that perhaps are not ‘nice’ people. This book has been plotted with care, with excellent pacing. At around 400 pages it doesn’t feel like a long book and I enjoyed the experience so much that around the half way mark the book became unputdownable and I stayed up late to finish it. It has that effect where, when you close it for the final time, you are utterly satisfied and somewhat emotionally drained. This is a book I’d like to return to once the memory has faded a little. Very much a stand out read. I’m just gushing now but this is highly recommended.
I think this Nietzsche quote is apposite
He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you.
oBeyond Good and Evil, Aphorism 146 (1886).
Overall –Emotional and unputdownable. Highly recommended.
Not every gift is a blessing
Many thanks to Mike for the interview!
Tell us a little about the background of the book, it stemmed from a short story I believe?
Tell us a little about the background of the book, it stemmed from a short story I believe?
Yeah, that’s right. I was approached by Charlaine Harris and Toni Kelner to contribute to one of their annual themed anthologies of horror and dark fantasy. What they excel in is finding a seemingly innocuous hook to hang some cool and scary stories on – home improvements, say, or family holidays. Well, in 2012 it was “school days.” And having said I wanted in, which I really did, I couldn’t come up with a single decent idea.
I fretted about it for months. Then one morning I woke up with this image in my mind. It was a little girl in an empty classroom, writing an essay about “What I want to be when I grow up”. Only she’s already dead, so everything she’s writing is tragically irrelevant. She’s never going to grow up. That was the seed that the story Iphigenia In Aulis grew from – although obviously it ended up quite a long way from that starting point.
And then once I’d written the short story, I realised I’d effectively just written the first chapter of a longer story. And I really couldn’t leave it alone. I was meant to be delivering a completely different novel, but I felt like I had to stay with Melanie and find out/work out what happened to her.
The Pandora story is quite key in the book, what do you think it is about the Greek myths that make them so compelling?
I think stories that stick around for centuries and millennia do so because they continue to speak to us and to have power over us. It’s not just the Greek myths, and it’s not all of them by any means. There are Greek myths that bore my bum off. If you read through the many hundreds of pages of Robert Graves’s The Greek Myths, there are plenty of passages that take away your will to live rather than your breath. “The infant Artemis tore a patch of hair from the chest of Brontes, one of the Cyclopes because he was making improper advances to her, and forever after he was bald in that one spot…” Hmm. But then you read something like Zeus’s struggle against his murderous father, Cronus, or Prometheus stealing fire from the gods, and yeah, that resonates. They survive because they’re just great stories and because we continue to find meaning in them. And of course they haunt and colonise other stories, all the way through Western history.
The Pandora story is really part of a Creation myth – it’s an explanation for why we live in a fallen world with disease and famine and misfortune all around us, instead of in the perfect world the gods first made. It’s one of the big, central questions that every one of us has to grapple with sooner or later and every religion has to find a plausible answer to. And it’s a story that puts a single individual – a complete innocent – at the very centre of that moment of change. It was sort of irresistible to use that narrative as one of the anchors for Melanie’s story.
Without spoilers the book is set post collapse. Are you the kind of person that has a contingency plan for the collapse scenario? If so can you share it with us?
Oh, I’m about as far from being a survivalist as it’s possible to be. I have zero practical skills and zero clue. If civilisation falls, I’ll last until the first time I click the kettle to make a pot of tea and nothing happens. I’ll die right there, with un undunked digestive in my hand.
Insofar as I have a plan, it’s to avoid any situation where a group of plucky army types have set up a gated community. I've read Day Of the Triffids and I’ve seen 28 Days Later, so I know that always ends badly.
What are you working on right now? (apart from this interview of course)
Astonishing amounts of stuff, really. I’ve never had so many projects on the go at one time before. I’m working hard on my next novel, State Of Grace. I’m also working on the second draft of the movie screenplay for The Girl With All the Gifts, and a pilot for a TV series which has already been green-lit.
Meanwhile I’m still writing three ongoing comic book series – The Unwritten for DC Vertigo, Suicide Risk for BOOM Studios and Houses Of the Holy for the Madefire app.
And I have another novel coming out in June, House Of War and Witness, which I co-wrote along with my wife Linda and our daughter Louise. We’ve just worked through the copy edits on that and we're waiting for the page proofs.
It’s an exhilarating time.
There is a fair amount of science in the book, how much research did you have to do & how did you go about it?
The stuff on cordyceps in the book was based on very little research, initially. I’d seen the David Attenborough documentary, so I knew what cordyceps is and what it does. Then when I’d decided to include it in the book I went away and read some essays about parasites in general and about fungal life cycles in particular. Enough to get by, let’s say.
The other thing that fed into the way the hungry pathogen is presented in the book was an essay by Stephen Jay Gould from a collection of his work that Lin bought me years ago as a birthday presents. He was writing about axolotls, which are a really weird species because they’re the immature form of salamanders – but if they want, they can stay as axolotls, mate as axolotls and produce axolotl babies. It’s called neotenous reproduction. Growing up into salamanders seems to be optional for them. So that was where I got the idea for the fungus having two distinct forms and two modes of reproducing itself.
Mostly with research I’m pretty lazy and slipshod. But I’m good at identifying narrow areas that are going to impact on the story and working up some shallow expertise in those areas.
Which character in the book do you most identify with and why?
I tried to identify with all of them, even Caroline Caldwell. But I think I ended up identifying most strongly with Melanie. It was a challenge getting her inner voice right – finding a way to represent her mix of innocence and ferocious intellect. But once I had, I was happiest when I was writing her chapters and seeing through her eyes. It was sort of a wrench to re-situate and see her from the outside.
What are you most proud of about the book?
Probably exactly that – the fact that I had a narrator who was a ten-year-old girl, brought up in profound ignorance of the world, and that I figured out a narrative voice for her that seemed to work. It was a big departure from anything I’d done before. The Castor novels were all first person, and the voice there was a construct mostly borrowed from Raymond Chandler and with the serial numbers filed off. Melanie’s point of view was so alien, and yet so central to the way the story had to work, it was the one thing I had to get right. And the response the book has got so far suggests that I got it at least partly right.
Do you have a set writing process, if so what is it?
No, I’m extremely disorganised. I work very long hours, but partly that’s because I never have a plan for the day or if I do I never stick to it. A woman I worked with when I was a teacher once told me that when she watched me working she thought of entropy – lots of energy boiling away into a vacuum. At the time I was sort of hurt, but I think she had my number. I work three times as hard as I need to work because I just bury myself in the thing I’m doing and forget all about the context.
Having said that, I sort of know where I am with most kinds of writing commission these days. I mean, I know how long it will take me to write a comic script, and how many words of prose I can feasibly get through in a day. Less so with screenplays – the skill set is still bedding in there, so it’s fresh enough to be unpredictable. But yeah, insofar as I have a process, it’s “let’s do X today, and get to this point before bedtime. And tomorrow let’s do Y.”
What did you learn about writing whilst writing the book?
In a way, the answer to that question is always the same: I learned how to write that book. That seems to be how it works. You solve the problems that apply to that story, and you write the story. When you start again, you start from scratch. To some extent you have to forget what you did last time, because next time is going to be different. Or it should be different. Unless it’s the next book in a series, of course, but even then… One of my favourite fantasy novels as a teenager (and I still love it now) was The Tombs Of Atuan, the second of the Earthsea books. You read A Wizard Of Earthsea, so you know who Ged is and you think you know how the franchise is going to work. Then you get to that second book and it’s all out the window. Utterly brilliant!
That’s what you should aim to do, I think. Even if you mostly fail. I hate to sound pretentious, and I’m not saying I live up to this by any means, but at the end of every story you should burn your boats.
In one sentence what is your best piece of advice for new writers?
It’s going to be a very long sentence, I hope that doesn’t count as cheating.
Keep on writing and writing and writing, because it’s a mechanical skill like riding a bike or weeding a flower bed or building a card tower, and you will get better – much better – with practice, whereas if you just pick up a pen and expect something miraculous to fall out of it onto the page you will be bitterly disappointed.