Sunday, January 5, 2014

Mike Carey Interview, Part One ("Genuinely Chilling And Numinous")

Lobster & Canary starts 2014 with a special treat: a two-part interview with Mike Carey.    I had the honor of meeting Mike when he was the keynoter and Guest of Honor at the 2011 Toronto SpecFic Colloquium.  You can read more about Mike here, here and here.  The second half of the interview will run in next Sunday's edition.

Question One:    Many writers are famously lone wolves, but you collaborate with many others, often over many years (thinking of, for instance, your long-standing partnership with Peter Gross, and your work with Linda Carey & Louise Carey).  What makes collaboration work in your experience, when is it the optimal way forward and when not?  

Carey:  I think the enormous blessing that comes with collaboration is that it inevitably pulls you away from your own centre of gravity as a writer. When you’re working in a single genre area and writing a lot of different works that share the same DNA, it’s very easy to plagiarise yourself without even meaning to. You just mine the same seam of inspiration repeatedly, and your work converges on a single flavour or feel.

But when you collaborate, you’ve immediately got somebody else’s comfort zone to accommodate yourself to. A lot of things have to be done by negotiation – which means they take a terrifyingly long time – but you come out in a different place. You find yourself trying out different things and taking chances that you wouldn’t normally take. I don’t think I could have written The Girl With All the Gifts without having done the two collaborations with Lin and Lou first.

But notwithstanding all that, I’d say collaboration only works – and is only worth the trouble – when it’s a real meeting of minds. I was working on a comic book series a few years ago where I was essentially co-writing. But because of other commitments, I was having to let the other writer do all the conceptual heavy lifting. It was a pretty bleak experience for both of us, and I think it would have come out better if I hadn’t been involved at all.

Comics, of course, are always a collaboration, which is one of the reasons why they’re such a wonderful school for learning the craft of writing. You get a lot of rough edges knocked off you very quickly, because you get exposed to a lot of different people’s ideas of good practice.

Question Two:  You are also more versatile than many writers, working in media ranging from comic books to novels, and including screenplays and less-definable forms.  How do you select the medium (or does it select you) for a given project?  What remains the same within your craft, what differs as you tell stories across various platforms? 

Carey:  Wow. That’s a tough question to answer – or at least, to answer without falling into tautology. Because on one level, what remains the same is you – your perception and your take on the story. If you’re doing the job right, everything else should be up for grabs. The last thing in the world you want to do is to come up with a scene-for-scene faithful translation of the story from one medium into another.

I was lucky enough when I was first getting established as a writer to be offered a lot of adaptation work. I adapted the Fantastic Four movie into comic book form, and also did comic book adaptations of two novels – Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere and Ender’s Shadow. I felt like I learned a lot from that. When you’re adapting, you really have to dismantle the story and examine all the moving parts closely, then decide what structure would best express them in the new medium. With Neverwhere, we decided to use a first person narrator – Richard Mayhew – and we radically recast Richard and Door’s first meeting with Islington. Both of those things, it seemed to me, made the story work more smoothly and organically in the comic book medium. An omniscient narrator is perfect (if slightly obvious) example of a convention that’s invisible in prose but often really marked and awkward in comics.

But to come back to the first part of your question, I believe that any story can be made to work in any medium – although it will often have one medium to which it feels really “native”. For example, Star Trek Next Generation functions perfectly well in movies and novelisations, but the TV episodes feel like the ur and genuine statement of those characters and that situation.

The trick, always, is to find the way through – to make the medium serve the story. I hated the movie version of The Road because I felt that in spite of wonderful acting and often imaginative direction it really failed to do that. When you read the novel, the unrelenting bleakness of the situation is leavened by the sublime beauty of McCarthy’s prose, so you’re constantly in a suspension between despair and some other emotional state I can’t quite name. The movie didn’t find or even look for an audio-visual equivalent of that experience.

Question ThreeI am a particular fan of Felix Castor, the freelance exorcist and anti-hero of the series you began with The Devil You Know.  Felix is a most worthy addition to the tradition of occult detectives that goes back to, among others, Blackwood's John Silence, Hodgson's Thomas Carnacki, and Wellman's John Thunstone.   More recent cousins would include Preston & Child's Agent Pendergast, Butcher's Harry Dresden, Stross's Bob Howard, Selene in the Underworld series, Anton Gorodetsky in the Night Watch trilogy, Buffy, Mulder & Scully in The X Files, more distantly Tyador Borlu in Mieville's The City & The City.   How do you see Felix within this tradition?  How do you explain the reading public's apparently boundless fascination with all things paranormal? 

Carey:  I’m delighted to see you put Castor in that distinguished company. I think what I was trying to do with that series, more than anything else, was to create a supernatural crime fusion that was true to the spirit of both of those traditions. In other words, I wanted the supernatural elements to feel genuinely chilling and numinous, and I wanted the mystery elements to work as a mystery – with no supernatural “get-outs” or breaches of logic.

In terms of style, I took my cue from Raymond Chandler. I was trying to make Castor feel like the exorcist half-brother of Philip Marlowe or Sam Spade. I don’t know how far I succeeded in that, but that was the blueprint – an exorcist who walks the mean streets and does what he has to do for a moderate daily fee plus expenses.

The other aim was to create a supernatural taxonomy that makes sense and is consistent. We’ve got ghosts, zombies, were-creatures and demons, but there’s only one mechanism at work in all these different manifestations – so you only have to believe one impossible thing before breakfast, and everything else flows from that one thing. Obviously many supernatural stories work without any explicit explanation at all, and that’s fine. But I felt like I’d be missing a trick in the Castor novels if I didn’t make the ultimate mystery be: why is this happening?

[Second half of the interview next week.]

No comments: