Saturday, April 02, 2011

12 or 20 (second series) questions: with Mike Carey

Mike Carey was born in Liverpool, but moved to London in the eighties after completing an English degree at Oxford.  He taught English and Media for several years before resigning to become a freelance writer in 2000.

After working for several UK and American indie publishers, Mike got his big break when he successfully pitched the Lucifer ongoing series to DC Comics’ Vertigo division.  Since then, he has written Hellblazer for DC, X-Men and Fantastic Four for Marvel, Vampirella for Harris and Red Sonja for Dynamite Entertainment.  He also wrote the Marvel Comics adaptation of Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Shadow, and has recently launched a creator-owned book at Vertigo, The Unwritten, which has twice made the New York Times graphic novel bestseller list.

More recently, Mike has moved into prose fiction with the Felix Castor novels, supernatural crime thrillers recounting the exploits of a freelance exorcist.  Five have already been published in the UK, subsequently going into reprint several times, and three in the US.  The series will run for a minimum of six novels in all.  Mike is working on a movie screenplay for UK’s Slingshot Studios and a novel, The Steel Seraglio, commissioned by Canada’s Chizine Publications, which he is co-writing with his wife, Linda, and daughter, Louise.

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
If you mean the first novel, it didn't change my life all that much. I'd been writing full-time for about six or seven years by then, and moving from comics into prose fiction seemed like a very natural progression. Maybe I should say extension, rather than progression, because I haven't given up comics: I just had a yen to try writing in another medium, too.

Writing prose is chiefly different from writing comics in that you work in much larger blocks of time and also of material. A comic book is an ongoing project in every sense. As soon as you submit a script and finish revisions on it, you're planning the next issue. And at the same time you're doing dialogue revisions on the previous issue, which is probably at lettering draft stage by then - so it's always moving, and you have to stay on top of it all the time. With a novel, obviously, your deadline is going to be a lot further ahead: you'll be living with it for many months, and you submit it as a complete, monolithic thing. that gives you a greater degree of freedom, in some ways, in that you can revise at any stage, even change your mind about fundamental aspects of structure. With a comic, you're continually bolting new pieces of narrative onto the front of a moving train. Which, come to think of it, is the biggest challenge in getting into writing for comics in the first place.

2 - How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?
I like stories. Outside of my family, they're the thing that matter most in my life, and they always have been. I've done a lot of different kinds of writing, now - comics, novels, short stories, radio plays, computer games, movie and TV screenplays - but at the end of the day, what I love to do in any medium is to tell stories. That's the common thread.

I tried my hand at poetry when I was younger, and I got a lot of pleasure out of it - but nothing I wrote was fit for publication, really. I was just using poetry as a way of working through some personal stuff. I did submit a few to magazines and such, and I got exactly one poem - called "In Thule With Jessica" - published on a website and later in an anthology. It must be ten years now since I tried to write a poem.

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
I'm a compulsive note-taker, and always have been. I tend to use those big page-a-day diaries, and I wear them out in less than a year, so we're talking about hundreds of pages of scribbling. I use a schizophrenic catechism approach, interrogating myself and then trying to come up with answers in a rolling, pugnacious conversation with myself.

Planning is slow, writing - once you feel like you know what you're doing - is fast. I can footle around for days or weeks when I'm roughing out a plan, and seem to have nothing much to show for it, but I've learned over the years that the slack periods are part of the process too. Eventually you get a lead and you follow it. I imagine writer's block is what happens when you wait around for that lead and it doesn't come.

Redrafting varies a lot depending on what I'm writing. I've been working on a movie screenplay recently, and it's been an intensely rewarding experience despite - or maybe because of - the fact that over several drafts, almost nothing has stayed in the same place. Structure, characters, motives, plot beats have all been through some profound metamorphoses. In other circumstances that could be nerve-wracking and demoralising, but it actually felt exhilarating - as though we were triangulating on the actual plot by writing different scenes set in the same story space until everything reached a kind of critical mass. I'm very happy with the final draft, which is, astonishingly, the seventh.

By contrast, with the Castor novels, except for Dead Men's Boots, none of them required structural changes at all. There was a draft and then an intense polish.

4 - Where does fiction usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
Usually the latter. I plan stories out in advance in quite a high degree of detail. I don't always stick to the plan, but it has to be there so that I've got a sort of map of the territory.

Recently, though, I've been involved in a project that grew in a very different way. I'm co-writing a novel with my wife and daughter, which has been commissioned by Canadian publishers Chizine. It's called The Steel Seraglio, and it's a suite of stories somewhat in the style of the Arabian Nights Entertainment, which nonetheless grows in the end into a coherent novel. We have multiple protagonists and we write in a variety of styles, with each story being to some extent a self-contained entity with its own pay-off. That meant we were able to have a lot of autonomy in the chapters that we were writing, but could still incorporate and strike off from each other's ideas. The result is pretty astonishing, I think. Very different from anything else I've done, and - for me personally - very exciting.

Comics, of course, are always about the local as well as the global. The monthly instalments are intended to work both as stand-alones and as chapters in an ongoing narrative.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I love doing readings - and I make a lot of use of test audiences when I'm working on a book. That's a grandiose way of saying that I bend the ears of my friends and family by asking them to sit still while I bounce a chapter at them, then ask them what they thought of it. It's a great way of finding out whether you said what you thought you said.

Public readings are different from that, but still very pleasurable. And I love them from both ends, as it were - I enjoy being read to as much as I enjoy doing the reading.

6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
Oh man, I have to throw up my hands on this one. Trust the tale, not the teller. I think there are some themes that keep cropping up in my writing. Families - and especially parent/child relationships - are everywhere, and there's a polarity. My happiest characters have stable, supportive families: my most messed-up characters have families that are like torture chambers. I write about children trying to pull away from parental influence, and about children who are trapped in the child role in perpetuity.

I write a lot about guilt as a motivating force.

I write a lot about storytelling itself, and why it's important. That's the main focus of The Unwritten, of course, but it was also a recurring theme in Lucifer, culminating in the storytelling competition in the issue called Fireside Tales - and it's very important in Steel Seraglio, which has stories within stories and is ultimately about the way memory both falsifies and preserves things.

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
Well, referring back to the previous question, I think stories tell us what we are, both as individuals and as a culture. We use stories as buoys marking little bits of reality or little bits of ourselves. We use them to orient ourselves. Sorry, I can’t really explain what I think about this topic without resorting to mixed metaphors. But I think stories are important – hugely important. The writer of stories is a public mirror, a public filter, a public conscience, a public id.

When Britain and the USA decided that torture was cool after all, so long as you called it something else, I was fascinated and appalled by the number of stories that started to surface in which torture was framed as the solution to the narrative problem. It’s not just that it was sympathetic characters who were doing the torturing, it was that the torturing was key to the denouement. In real life, I don’t think there’s a single example of intel obtained from torture saving a life, but in movies, TV, comics, I was suddenly seeing all these situations where the hero has to find a bomb or rescue a hostage or whatever the hell, and the only way to complete the mission is to hack pieces out of someone until they talk.

I don’t see any grand conspiracy in that. I just think that a lot of writers saw this thing – this toxic thing, in my opinion – lying in their path and picked it up. An idea was floating around, so they used it. Going back to the mixed metaphors, we’re like birds that pick up any piece of garbage and use it to make our nests. Whatever’s in people’s minds, whatever’s being seen or talked about, all the acknowledged and unacknowledged obsessions of the moment, will make it into fictions and surface there in different forms. Fiction is a talking cure. It’s where we lay all our sick shit out on the table.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Both, very definitely. I've tried working without an editor, and it's hell. You always need someone to be a resistant reader, to tell you what's not working, to hold you to your stated aims and not let you get away with stuff. Your best work often comes from collaborations with really spiky and difficult editors. The process can even be traumatic, but what comes out at the other end is the beter for it.

The other face of that coin is editors who tamper just to show that they’re there, because really they don’t have a clue what you’re talking about. Way, way back at the start of my career, I wrote (in a comic book) a description of Lucifer’s fall from Heaven. I wrote this, or something like it: “He fell for nine days and nights, we’re told. By the ninth day, his speed, his energy, must have been impossible to calculate”. The editor came back to me with this: “Well, the acceleration due to gravity is 9.8 meters per second per second, so at the start of the ninth day his speed would have been…” Oy.

I’ve learned a lot from editors. I look back and I can mark the stages of my progress as a writer in terms of relationships with specific editors. I’ll go further: Vertigo was the house that spawned me. Before I met Alisa Kwitney and Shelly Bond, I couldn’t write to save my life.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Relating to writing? Probably Peter Gross’s maxim, the two-out-of-three rule. There are three virtues a writer (or artist) can have: they can be very good, very fast, or very nice. Any two out of the three will do. One from three is not going to get you there.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (fiction to graphic novels to monthly comics)? What do you see as the appeal?
My comfort zone is actually a lot narrower than you'd think! For all the volume of what I've written, the genres spanned aren't that many. I write overwhelmingly within the scope of what's now being called "speculative fiction" - in other words, the bit of the literary spectrum that goes from magic realism through sci-fi to fantasy and then to horror. You could argue about that spurious sequence, obviously, but that’s what I almost always work with. I’ve done a couple of YA stories (for Minx) that had no fantastic elements, and now I’ve written a mainstream thriller. It was great to do those things, but when I started out on them, I felt like a tourist in a dangerous city where I didn’t know the rules that would keep me from being mugged.

11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
My average day is chaotic, and it’s always been that way. There’s a T.S.Eliot line about being distracted from distraction by distraction. That’s me. What saves me is that I’m obsessive and I don’t rest. I’ll waste an hour looking out of the window or playing a computer game, but then work right through the evening to make up the time.

A typical day begins with a cup of tea being shoved into my hand by my wife, Lin, who works in central London and has a really early start. If I’m lucky, she’ll also drop the daily paper on the bed, and I’ll leaf through it while I’m drinking the tea and waking up.

The kids need breakfast, then they head out to school. After that, I go right to the back of the house, to my study or whatever you want to call it (it used to be a shed once, but now it’s attached to the rest of the house) and start writing. From there it’s anyone’s guess. The day has whatever structure I can impose on it. On a bad day there’ll be lots of false starts, random web searches, fruitless scuffing around the house. On a good day I get the wind behind me and I’ll work right through until the boys are suddenly home from school and there’s dinner to be made. In the evening I’ll come back and do at least a couple more hours.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Music. Mostly folk music.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Wet plaster! I work in a tiny room at the back of the house, and there's a problem with the roof of the hallway leading to this tiny room that we've never really fixed...

14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?

This is going to sound banal, but in my late teens and early twenties I was hugely inspired by the work of M.C.Escher. They seemed to be glimpses into other words, and probably fuelled by already obsessive interest in sci-fi and fantasy.

I read a lot of popular science books, especially stuff relating to genetics and paleontology. I don’t know whether those ideas surface in my writing, but they certainly fascinate and excite me – contribute lumber for the furnace.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
That would be a big list, and not a particularly stable one. At the moment:-

Writers of prose fiction – China Mieville, Mervyn Peake, Ursula LeGuin, Ted Chiang, Roger Zelazny, Gene Wolfe, Terry Pratchett, Joe Hill, Tony Hillerman, Raymond Chandler, Charles Dickens, Gionanni Guareschi, Angela Carter, Donald Barthelme.

Comics writers – Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison.

Non-fiction writers – Stephen Jay Gould, Henri Bergson, Lewis Hyde.

Poets – Wallace Stevens, Mark Strand, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Wilfred Owen, little bits of T.S.Eliot, the Fitzgerald translation of Omar Khayyam.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I’d like to travel more. And I’d like to write a stage play.

17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
I was a teacher for many years, and I'd probably still be doing that if I hadn't dropped out to write full-time. I was okay at it. Not great, but okay. To be honest, quite good at the classroom side of it and pretty awful at everything else - and everything else was a big part of the job.

Once, back in the day, I temporarily left teaching and trained to be a chartered accountant, in the mistaken belief that it was a nine-to-five job and would allow me to write in the evenings and at the weekend. Those were a bad couple of years. I had no aptitude for the work at all.

Maybe if I wasn’t a writer I’d be out of work and living on the streets.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

I enjoy it more than anything else. That sounds glib, but it's true. I suspect it's true of most writers, that they do it mostly for the intrinsic rewards of doing it. If you can make a living out of it, that's something else again and it both complicates and simplifies things. But the pleasure comes first.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

Last great book... probably The Gift, by Lewis Hyde. But that's non-fiction. Last great novel was China Mieville's The Scar. And last great short story was The Story of Your Life, by Ted Chiang.

Last great movie, I think, Winter's Bone.

20 - What are you currently working on?

The Steel Seraglio, this co-written novel I mentioned above. X-Men Legacy and The Unwritten. The final draft of a movie screenplay. The sixth Castor novel. Enough to be going on with...

Mike Carey reads in Ottawa as part of the ottawa international writers festival on May 1 + 3, 2011

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

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