Monsters with Heart: An Interview with M. R. Carey
Reach-unlimited.com had the chance to interview prolific British author, Mike Carey, whose comic book work on VertigoComics: Neverwhere, Lucifer, the Unwritten, and his horror noir Felix Castor series have marked him as one of the best storytellers of scary and strange for all ages
Horror as story is huge everywhere especially in the Philippines and othe Asian countries, each of which have their own supernatural mythology that is as entertaining as it is blood-curdling. One local writer, has written an interesting essay about our Monsters being scarier than others, a pun used by every cheesy kid with claims on bragging rights, that makes for an interesting premise if the supernatural and horror is concerned. Award winning genre novelist, China Mieville has also said in more than one interview that if he'd pick between any story, he'd pick the one with the cool monster.
Mike Carey has put together all sorts of monsters in the stories and novels he's writtern and we ask him how he does it (like only the British can too). The scary has never been as compelling as it is today with plenty of the best writers stretching the genre to its strongest for always...
Hello Mike! Great to talk to you about horror as a goldmine for all
sorts of story and as one genre that has climbed out of the doldrums
to become everything from Shiny Vampire YA romance, to Bizarro
Yuck-fests, to New Weird goodness like Kraken from China Mieville (a
comedy of sorts too!). You've
explored crime noir as an environment for horror and the supernatural
with your incredible Felix Castor series. Even
recent horror stories like the Penny Dreaful TV mini-series, Lost
Girl, and American Horror Story have in one way or another have used
crime noir as a legit and engaging environment for setting up a good
scary yarn. Lots of kids everywhere, not just in our county, dream
of becoming a horror novelist and want to know how to write a great
horror story, no matter what environment they can play with.
How did the Felix Castor series come together as a horror yarn? What do you look for in any good scary story? Is it about stringing together images and scenes for flavor? Is horror all about atmosphere and feels?
M. R. Carey: I think it’s one of those things where there are lots of very different ways to reach the same goal. Horror is certainly a genre that’s defined by its effect on the audience. If it doesn’t unsettle you, terrify you or make your skin crawl then arguably it’s not horror but something else that looks like it.
What you say about atmosphere and overall feeling seems to me like a very good way of describing the Far Eastern approach to horror. There are many great horror movies – I’d offer Ju-On as a prime example – that really don’t trouble themselves about plot logic or overall coherency. They just offer one sublimely scary moment after another, and the audience comes out feeling that they’ve got their money’s worth.
Having said that, there’s another trend also well represented in those same countries where the stories build towards a final reveal that completely changes your perspective on what you’ve seen. The horror here is partly conceptual: emotion has to ride on the processing of the ideas. A Tale Of Two Sisters falls into this category, as of course do The Ring and Dark Water. And in the West, the Orphanage.
And of course the full-on creature feature story is different again, with its own rules and its own internal mythology. And it’s here – if you think about many modern vampire stories, werewolf stories, zombie stories – that you realise what a broad church horror is. It mixes well with other genres, lends its furniture out for free, but often in those mixes the horror response is very muted or entirely absent. When you read the Twilight novels or watch the Blade movies, being scared might be in the mix but it’s not a major component. Something else, like romance or action, takes centre stage and everything else is mediated through that.
The Castor novels are a hybrid of that kind, with the other side of the equation being noir. Essentially they’re noir-ish crime stories with supernatural horror elements. That was how I pitched them – and the fact that I was writing Hellblazer at the time helped to get me in through the door. Hellblazer is in a slightly different genre space, when all is said and done, but the overlap especially in the first novel is considerable. So there was a template for what I told Orbit I wanted to do.
REACH: You've made Horror as sexy as any writer could without doing erotica in the Felix Castor books. Is sexy something that mixes with horror, a difficult heist to pull off? What makes the scary and the supernatural such a goldmine for story for every writer, whether a Wattpad junkie or more seasoned dudes like the best of the British pulp writers like you and China Mieville, and Paul Cornell?
M. R. Carey: Sexy mixes with anything, on account of the sex drive being so fundamental to our natures. Having said that, there are different ways of incorporating it and some work better than others. When I introduced Juliet, I was conscious that as a character she’d require very careful handling. If she and Castor had been able to have sex it would have been awful. Even without explicit description I think it would have felt like some kind of sleazy wish fulfillment. It was important that she be unattainable – that’s part of what makes her cool.
I did have one actual sex scene in The Devil You Know. It was… okay. But it made me vividly aware of the difference between nuance and explicitness as far as sex goes. Nuance carries ten times the narrative power in most cases.
Why are scary stories still such a rich vein to mine? Well, see above. I don’t think it’s any one thing. But one of the most potent pleasures it can offer is the experience of dipping yourself in boiling oil and coming out whole. You’re filled with intense emotions which in a real-world setting would be powerfully unpleasant – but you surface each time into the safety of your living room, the cinema, wherever. It’s like waking from a nightmare and luxuriating in the realisation that it didn’t really happen.
And of course, like sex, it puts us in touch with something fundamental – our sense of our own mortality, which we suppress most of the time so we can function.
REACH: Lucifer as a comic book character was an amazing opportunity for you to work on a book that could explore very tricky story ideas about characters that have been stereotyped by dogma , especially ones that are canonical in religion. Neil Gaiman had paved the way with his Sandman depiction of Lucifer as being rather human and even likable as a badass dude. What was your take on developing Lucifer from what was started in Sandman, and were you given free reign to make the book the best story yarn you could spin? Does research on the mythology and dogma of such canonical characters an essential part of fleshing out your story ideas especially when creating memorable scenes and dialogue in supernatural stories? What parts of the arc were your favorites? Is there a chance for you and DC to revive the book in the future or did you tie up the story as it ended as an epic?
M. R. Carey: To take the last part of that question first, I wouldn’t want to revisit Lucifer himself at any point. I feel as though the story we had to tell through him is told. But I don’t own the character, so the way is clear for other writers to use him – especially Neil Gaiman, who of course created and defined this version of the Devil. And I wouldn’t rule out going back to that world to tell stories about other characters.
I was pretty much given free rein when I was writing the book. Neil was involved as script and story consultant, and was amazingly helpful without tying our hands in any way at all. He had a sense of what our starting point should be, and I followed that steer in The Morningstar Option and A Six-Card Spread. As the series went on, though, my conception of the character took us in a slightly different direction. I saw it as a sort of family dynastic drama, with Lucifer as the rebellious son trying to get some kind of freedom from his father’s influence. I wrote him as Everyman.
I wouldn’t want to make too many claims for the depth and seriousness of my research. I was an English Literature major at university, so I was steeped in mythology already and I tended to choose stories and characters that I was already familiar with and interested in.
Favourites… I loved writing the one-offs. They were exciting and fun and rewarding to an extent that really surprised me. Stories like Breaking and Entering, The Writing On the Wall, Bearing Gifts were ugely enjoyable to write and I’m still very proud of them. It was a model I copied from Neil, and I could really see once I started doing it why he’d made it such a big feature of Sandman.
REACH: Every writer wants to put his own mark on any comic book character he gets the opportunity to mess up. What was your take on Hellblazer? Given that you had to work off the previous writer's canon ( for unfamiliar fans, John Constantine, aka Keanu Reeves the wizard-exorcist, Hellblazer is his DC comics title ), and are you happy that they've cleaned him up for TV (no more chain smoking, less cussing)?
M. R. Carey: I came onto that book right after Brian Azzarello, and I think it’s fair to say that I took John in a very different direction from Brian. Brian had stripped the magical elements down to a minimum – used them sparingly but very effectively. He’d also taken him way outside of his comfort zone, to the hinterlands of the USA. I brought him back to Liverpool and I put the magic front and centre again. I like to see John as the laughing magician, triumphing by sneakiness and smarts over much more powerful opponents.
And with regard to the smoking, specifically… It’s a different signifier now than it was in the 80s. It doesn’t feel like a betrayal of the character to have it not be visibly in the mix.
REACH: You've also mentioned more than once that Chris Claremont was an inspiration for getting back into comics. We so love his work no matter what anyone else says ( reading Uncanny X-Men used to take an hour just to savor each panel and page's dialogue by Claremont, unlike today when you just zip by looking at the pages in 10 minutes; and the word balloons aren't an art by themselves like when Chris was penning them the way they WEREN'T supposed to be penned according to snootier pundits ). Thank goodness, China Mieville got a shot at DIAL H, and being wordy wasn't as bad as they make it out to be. How different is writing for comics today from way back when, as far as style is concerned?
M. R. Carey: Oh man, it’s chalk and cheese. Or chalky cheese versus some other kind of cheese.
All media – comics, film, TV, prose fiction – are in a state of perpetual flux. At any one time there are a million things going on and a lot of them contradict each other. But within that ferment of motion there are recognisable shifts from generation to generation. Some conventions become marked choices – almost impossible choices – where they used to be ubiquitous and uncontroversial. Thought balloons, for example, and omniscient narrative captions. They used to be everywhere, now you hardly ever see them in the wild at all.
Wordiness, as you say, has gone into partial eclipse. But the ratio of words to pictures is something that has to be negotiated afresh with every book and every creative partnership. Nobody took Bendis to task when he was writing Daredevil and produced such wordy pages that Maleev had to build the entire page AROUND the dialogue. If something works, readers won’t question it.
It very definitely is a generational thing. It’s like what Kuhn said about science. A particular template will hold for a long time, and everyone will accept it and follow it. Then someone proposes a new template and everyone gravitates to that. Stasis followed by revolution. I belong to the generation whose revolutionary was Alan Moore, and his template seeped into all our work. It was impossible to ignore.
But Chris Claremont, ten years before that, was also a revolutionary. He completely changed the nature of episodic storytelling and the extent to which continuity elements took precedence over “story of the month”. Arguably his legacy was more far-reaching and longer-lasting than Moore’s. That’s not a measure of quality or artistic merit. It’s just a reflection on the way we work in this industry.
REACH: The coming-of-age story is one of the most powerful YA themes that
every writer gets a chance to work his chops on. And even on Lucifer
( as an adult reader book ), you've shown that overcoming life's
demons and supernatural hurdles is always an amazing sandbox for
telling an enjoyable story whether if be horror or otherwise.
Unwritten is another keeper in DC Vertigo's list of amazing books
about growing up for storyhunters to hunt and hoard. Whether writing
for comics or a novel, what advice would you give to aspiring young
writers to draw out the experience of growing up and getting there?
Is it an adventure yarn of finding an identity, as cheesy as that
M. R. Carey: You have to write what you know, I think. But let me put that in context.
Most fiction works from a basis of
fact. You try to create a dramatic illusion, and you try to persuade
your readers to invest in it – to suspend disbelief. You try to
build a world that’s internally consistent, settings that feel
plausible, characters who are believable and who speak in
authentic-seeming voices. And when you’re doing these things, the
main thing you’re drawing on is your own experience.
And it’s the same with character. The worst characters are the ones who are built to service a plot and to do what the plot needs them to do. You should always write from what you know about human nature, and try to make sure that all your characters fall within the human range as you understand it. I’m not talking about stereotypes here, I just mean that you have to try to give every character you create a personality and a set of motivations that you can believe in yourself – that corresponds to what you’ve experienced in the real world. This is not to say that you make them conform to types, unless being human is a type trait. You extrapolate from people you’ve actually met and interacted with.
So your own experience - what you know - is the foundation for everything you write. And if you create characters who just plain don't work, your audience will know it and will feel it. They'll be pushed away from engagement with the story. And as far as that goes, a coming of age story is a special case of that more general strategy. It’s an experience we’ve all got in common – leaving home, whether home was sheltering or oppressive, and going out into the big world. It’s both a human universal and uniquely personal for each of us. As a writer, you should start from the personal end of that spectrum, and if you’re fortunate you’ll end up creating a character that all your readers will identify with. Your own experiences will energise every character you write.
REACH: You have a new book out now called THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS, another YA scary book that has gotten rave reviews everywhere as one of the best novels of this year. Because it is an amazing and memorable read that will haunt you for always. Kids today all want to do something like what you do. Is a life of writing ( whatever kind of writing one does for a living ) as good as it is, like everyone with their hearts into it says so? What inspires you to write the next book, and the next one after?
M. R. Carey: I don’t really see GIRL as a YA book. It has a very young protagonist, but I wrote it for an adult audience. Having said that, it’s been reviewed as YA more than once. I guess it’s a matter of perception.
What to say about the writing life? It can be utterly wonderful. Telling stories to an appreciative audience is one of the greatest experiences there is. And I would imagine that that’s why most of us do it, whether we can make a living out of it or not. It’s just intrinsic to want to make up stories and get them out there in some form or other and have people read or watch or listen to them. William Tenn has one of his characters say that being an army officer and leading a unit is “like making love without the caresses”. I never really got that comparison, but it’s somewhat true for storytelling. You’re having a very profound effect on people, and it’s an amazing thing to be able to do. Chuck Pahlaniuk makes people faint, vomit, run out of the room when he reads some of his short pieces. I’ve never managed that, but I have had people cry when I was reading aloud from GIRL and it made me enormously happy and proud that a story I’d created could get into people’s heads in that way.
But like any other profession writing is a peculiar, hybrid thing. I do it to make a living, too, and that changes things. Once you go freelance and you’re living on your earnings as a writer, your relationship to your stories has to change in some ways. Some jobs you take because you don’t want to starve. Some commissions don’t give you a great deal of creative freedom. Every gig is different, and every day is different. I’d be lying if I said it was all good. A bad review or an internet controversy can upset your mental equilibrium to an insane extent. It can be a really hard slog to get any paid work at all. And sometimes you’re forced to make compromises that break your heart. Sometimes, also, you write something that you’ve put your heart and soul into and it gets passed over and ignored. Those are the downsides.
All in all, though, I love it and I feel incredibly fortunate to be able to do it. Terry Pratchett said one time that he was afraid his publishers would find out how much fun he was having and stop paying him. I have days like that too. And I guess that’s part of the answer to what keeps me doing it.
The other part is fear. The freelancer’s fear of the work running out, which is like the goalkeeper’s fear of the penalty.
REACH: Among all the horror stories you've done, all the characters wear their heart on their sleeve one way or the other. Even the meek ones. And the monsters most of all. From Lucifer to John Constantine. From Felix Castor to Juliet. Now, Melanie from THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS. Does it come from working in comics and making cookie cutter characters work better? This isn't something that any writer can wing like it were a mechanical skill. How do kids figure out how to create unforgettable characters for their writing? Is character such a defining part of writing story and a writer's meat and potatoes for skill? British writers write some of the most stand-out people especially in comics, and as we've seen, in novels and movies as well, what makes you guys write such memorable chaps and mollys?
M. R. Carey: Wow. Tough question. And as with your question about horror earlier, there’s no one right answer. I think I touched on it a little when I said you have to draw on your experience. There are lots of other strands to it, though. Let me think.
Well one thing you do when you create characters is you try to align the reader’s perceptions with the character’s perceptions. This is sort of what Blake Snyder is talking about when he says your protagonist should save a cat in act 1. He doesn’t mean an actual cat – he just means that there has to be a moment when you see the character do something you absolutely sympathise with and approve of. And hopefully that will make you stick around with them long enough to get to know them better.
Your character can be good or bad, sweet or sour, pure or perverted, but they always have to be good company. The audience has to enjoy the time they spend with them. Underwood, Walter White, Joffrey Baratheon, Spider Jerusalem, Dodge from Locke and Key… I mean, you wouldn’t invite any of them to your wedding, but when you turn a page or turn on the TV and they’re there, you’re happy and excited. They absorb you and fascinate you. That’s the effect you’re going for. How to do it is less easy to define but yes, it’s the absolute heart of writing and most stories stand or fall by it.