Sunday, January 12, 2014

Mike Carey Interview, Part Two

Question FourOne of the most compelling features of your Felix novels is the close reading of urban space, the concrete descriptions of the places where both thought and action unfold, as well as your allusions to the history and myth that accrue to and sometimes obscure that very reality.  As a native Liverpudlian, you bring perhaps an outsider's sharp eye for the quirks and vagaries of London; as Felix says in the first novel:  "I was born elsewhere, you have to understand-- up North, two hundred miles from the Smoke-- and my view of London is an outsider's view..."  Hence the specificity of the locales: the Bonnington Archive in Euston, on Eversholt Street near Drummond Street; the Charles Stanger Care Facility on Coppett's Road near the North Circular and Coldfall Wood; Number 14 Oak Court, Folgate Street, "right off Bishopsgate, up the Shoreditch end."  Would you share with us how you structure the space and the action within your fiction, what place means to the impact of your stories?

Carey:  It’s because the Castor books are a noir construct. The city often functions as a character in noir fictions, and the exploration of the darker interstices of an urban landscape is a big part of the impetus for noir. I was on a panel at Eastercon where the existence and robustness of rural noir was very strongly insisted on, and I accept that (Lawless is a good recent example). The sense of place is still paramount, though, so I spend a lot of time getting that right. In fact, the largest part of the research I do on the Castor books relates to location. I go to a lot of places and walk around looking at them from various angles – like a casting director, auditioning the landscape.

Even the wholly fictional places in the Castor books are based on real places and sort of sit askew on real places. There is a hospital (not a mental hospital, a regular one) roughly where I put the Stanger home – and the roundabout in West London where I put the Oriflamme actually has the derelict shell of a small community museum on it. The Bonnington is very loosely based on the London Metropolitan Archive – with the location changed, but a lot of the interior and exterior geography retained. I like that there’s a thread of real-world sinew running through the books. Psychologically, it feels like that anchors the supernatural elements and makes them more believable.

Question Five:  Regardless of medium, you work primarily within the field of horror, the bleaker ends of fantasy, the nouveau-gothic.  At its core, your work strikes me as profoundly moral, in a refreshingly old-fashioned way.  Your monsters are terrifying, but the real evil is perpetrated by the humans...and you are explicit that everyone has a choice.  Is the presentation of tortured choice, of personal accountability and potential guilt, in the midst of the gruesome what keeps readers so attuned to this genre, and specifically to your work?

Carey:  I think it’s a strong theme in my writing, certainly – and it feels like it’s very much at the heart of most noir. You very often have a protagonist who’s trying to do the right thing in a world that doesn’t even present the right thing as an option.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately in connection with The Girl With All the Gifts. The concept of evil really requires a sense of agency. A monster that’s insentient, or a monster that just obeys its own appetites and urges, can be scary but it can’t be evil. You have to choose evil, and you have to choose it knowing what at least some of the consequences will be.

Maybe for that reason, I think a lot of horror – like a lot of folklore and fairy tale, which are precursors to horror – is fundamentally about moral choices. Joe Hill’s and Graham Joyce’s work spring to mind as very fine and clear examples. It’s what distinguishes true horror from, say, fictional disaster narratives. In horror, characters choose their fates.

Question Six:  You are a reflective practitioner.  For instance, your Guest of Honor keynote address at the 2011 Toronto SpecFic Colloquium, 'Speak of the Dazzling Wings': Myth, Language, and Modern Fantasy," was anchored in the work of Wallace Stevens, and spanned evolutionary biology (touching on Brian Boyd's On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition & Fiction), T.S. Eliot, hard-boiled detective novels, comic books, Owen Barfield (perhaps the least-remembered Inkling, whose Poetic Diction: A Study in Meaning from 1928 is steadily gaining more notice and adherents), and more.  You refer to Blake and Defoe, to John Owen and Isaac Watts ("the reservoir dogs of eighteenth-century theology," in your memorable phrase)-- I catch allusions to Poe and Dickens, possibly Woolf and Balzac-- and you enjoy a sly joke in the way of earlier learned correspondence (naming your hard-luck protagonist "Happy Beaver" for starters).  Do you plan to write more critical commentary about your own work and its place within the genres, and/or about the work of other writers?  If so, what form might such criticism take?

Carey:  I don’t know whether there would ever be a readership or a constituency for that sort of thing! I love concordances, but I think the worthwhile ones are always written by people other than the writer of the original text. They’re free to be merciless in pointing out unacknowledged borrowings and stuff like that.

It’s a fascinating field, though. I tend to think of Harold Bloom as something of a pillock, and the Anxiety of Influence as over-egged post-Freudian phallocratic nonsense, but there is something in the idea that every text is haunted by the ghosts of other texts, and it’s wonderful when you’re able to tug on one of those threads and see something unexpected unravel from it.

One of my favourite reads of 2012 was John Fuller’s Who Is Ozymandias? It’s a book about literary puzzles and unlikely connections. It does a great job of convincing you that certain words and phrases in certain poems are fossils from earlier poems left lying around there because the poet’s mind was unable to let go of them.

So yeah, I love the commentaries on my writing that are floating around on the net, but I’d probably fight shy of writing any myself. Apart from anything else, the most interesting influences and echoes are probably the ones you’re not aware of yourself – or the ones you won’t admit to because they’re too embarrassing.

Did I really say that about Owen and Watts? That sounds like something I may have stolen…

Question Seven:  You can invite a half-dozen guests to dinner:  who would you invite and why?  And what theme or lead topic might you suggest for the evening?

Carey:  Do these have to be real, living people or is it a wish fulfilment kind of deal? Assuming it’s the former, I’d have a horror fantasy evening. I’d invite China Miéville, Ursula LeGuin, Neil Gaiman, Joe Hill, Mike Moorcock and Hilary Mantel (I know she writes history, but she gets an invite anyway on account of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies). And I’d steer the conversation around to the things genre can do that mainstream can’t.

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