Greetings gentle reader and welcome to another interview session with M. R. Carey, famous for his Girl With All The Gifts and Felix Castor novels – and now with a new book out, published today! Welcome Mike – perhaps you’d like to give us a little introduction to your new book – no spoilers, of course!
M R Carey: Thanks, Chris. This novel is a stand-alone, not part of a series. It’s set in Pittsburgh, in the US. The protagonist, Liz Kendall – or one of the two protagonists, arguably – is a domestic abuse survivor. She’s finally managed to get out of an abusive marriage, but her ex-partner Marc is still very much in her life because he has visitation rights over their two children, Zac and Molly. One day he gets into a vicious argument with Liz after bringing the kids back late from a trip, and he assaults her, as he has many times before. But this time is different. Out of nowhere, Liz is suddenly filled with the strength and will to resist Marc, and to fight back. She has no idea where this has all come from. It’s as though she’s been possessed by something bigger and stronger than herself.
Which is fine, at first. She’s frightened and shaken, but she doesn’t look too far down the gift horse’s mouth. But then that other, stronger entity keeps coming back, and its instincts are always violent and subversive. Eventually Liz realises that she has to find out what it is and where it came from.
Real Chrisparkle: Which is also the set-up for a brilliantly exciting story, Mike. I have to say this is probably my favourite book of yours! And also very difficult to talk about without giving away too many spoilers!
MRC: Thanks! Yeah, spoilers are an issue. It’s a story with a lot of big reveals at different points. I’ll try to be vague where necessary…
RC: Me too! I’d love to know what gave you the inspiration to write it. Is this your 21st century Jekyll and Hyde?
MRC: That’s a really good reference point, but it wasn’t explicitly in my mind when I was writing. I think the initial seed was just thinking about might-have-beens. The road we didn’t take in the forest, the choice we didn’t make. Our lives have a shape, but it’s a fairly ragged and asymmetrical shape for most of us, and as you get older you realise more and more how few of the turning points were things you actually did or choices you made. A lot of them were external events – happenstance. I was mulling over some of this stuff, and I hit on an idea for a story about a woman who in some ways has made all the wrong choices, but then seemingly gets the chance to get out of a bad situation and re-invent herself. But of course there’s always a price to be paid for those monkey’s paw kind of bargains.
RC: So like J B Priestley’s Dangerous Corner? I think many people will have been in a situation where they think to themselves, if I’d made THAT decision rather than THIS, life would be so much better, or if only I was stronger I could deal with this much better… But Liz is in a very different position than just being a bit weak when challenged, right?
MRC: Yeah, absolutely. Nothing in that initial set-up is quite what it seems. The early part of the book has Liz trying to figure out what’s happening, and settling on a rationalistic explanation that makes a kind of sense. But there are wheels within wheels, and ultimately it’s not just something that’s happening to her. Other characters get drawn in. Her children, especially her son, a local police officer, and a teenaged girl named Fran Watts who lives nearby.
It’s actually Fran’s story as much as it is Liz’s. She wasn’t in the original plan, but she came to me early in the process and she got more and more important as I wrote.
RC: That’s really interesting, because for me, a major strength of this book is how recognisable so much of it is. The lone woman struggling to make ends meet whilst looking after her loving family. The gently growing first love between two young people. And then, by contrast, there are scenes of domestic violence, and a young person who had something horrendous happen to them in their early years. All human life is there! Would you say this is your most family-oriented story?
MRC: I think everything I write is about families, to a really huge extent. It became the core of Lucifer when I was writing it. I cast that story in terms of a rebellious son’s attempt to shake off his father’s influence and be his own person, which is particularly difficult to do if your father is god. But then, there’s a sense in which all parents are gods to their kids at first, and then a lot of people reach a point where that unconditional love and worship hits a bump and has to be re-evaluated.
Family is a very important theme in this story, as you say. And there are a lot of internal echoes. Fran’s one-parent family resembles Liz’s in some ways and is very different in others. They’ve both got a weight of past trauma on them, and they’re both trying to cope in the face of that. Fran’s father, Gil, is like Liz in that he wants to protect his daughter from the world, but he knows he can’t because the world isn’t something you can bolt the door on. It’s always already inside.
RC: Going back to something you said earlier…. you say Fran got bigger and bigger as you started to write, was that because her family set-up became an interesting comparison with Liz’s family?
MRC: She started out as a sort of repetition of Liz’s story in a different key. I wanted to expand the scope of the story, building to the reveal as to the actual source of Liz’s alternate self, and Fran seemed like an effective way to do that. But she grew as I wrote her. I got more and more interested in her story in its own right, and gave it more space to develop.
The correspondences are important, but so are the contrasts. Where Liz has a sort of possessing, controlling other self, Fran has an imaginary friend – Lady Jinx – who is entirely benign. But as Fran starts to investigate her own past, she becomes more and more convinced that there’s a link between herself and Liz, and that Jinx may be a part of that link.
It’s a case of using one story to unlock the other. But the narrative weight keeps shifting between the two of them. And then at the end all the various strands of the story come together in a way that I hope is satisfying.
RC: I can guarantee it’s very satisfying! The threads all mesh perfectly. And the characters themselves are really well drawn so that the reader feels they know them really well. I wonder if these people have been haunting your imagination for some time? All the major players in the book are female too, I note!
MRC: Yeah, that’s true. And that seems to be part of the equation for the M. R. Carey novels, as opposed to the stuff I write as Mike. It’s not something I go out of my way to do, as a conscious choice, but it keeps happening nonetheless. I suppose I’m writing into a space that’s partly defined by the earlier books. Writing into it, and at the same time writing against it. I don’t ever want to fall into the trap of deliberately working to a formula.
As to where the characters came from, I’m going to throw my hands in the air and confess that they’re all more or less stolen. Whenever you write a fictional character, I think you draw on real people you know. You don’t usually do it in an explicit, focused way. Well, I don’t. But as a character comes together I’ll find myself becoming aware of correspondences and using them when they seem to be fruitful or appropriate. That’s certainly the case for Liz and Fran in this book, and to some extent for Marc – although Marc is much less of a character and we never really get into his inner life. Which is not something I regret…
RC: You heard it here first, character thief! No, obviously, one’s own experience must influence the characters one creates, I’m sure we’ll let you off! I’m guessing Lady Jinx is not based on a real person. She’s a terrific character. I don’t know what we can say about her without giving away the game too much. But if you were in Fran’s position, who would be your imaginary friend?
MRC: That’s a tough question! I think it would depend on how old I was when I started doing the imagining. If I were to do what Fran did, and grab a character from an existing story – and if I was doing it at the age of six, when she did it – I’d probably have gone for Rikki-tikki-tavi, the brave little warrior mongoose from the Just So Stories. Later on, after I’d read Watership Down, it would have been Hazel or Fiver.
I did actually have a lot of imaginary friends as a kid. But I shared them, which I know is weird. My brother Dave and I had an entire phalanx of imaginary characters who we used to send on insane adventures. Then when I had my own kids, the same thing happened. I invented imaginary characters to talk to them, and they invented imaginary characters to talk back. Some of those characters still visit occasionally.
RC: I think that explains why Jinx feels so real – your own life has been populated with a bunch of Jinxes! Rikki-tikki-tavi would be a brilliant choice, I reckon he’ll be mine. I was going to ask you, but I think you’ve answered it just now, that of all your other books, I feel this bears a relationship with Fellside, where the central character is also linked to, what you might call, an “other self”, or maybe, even, an imaginary friend, like Jinx. This is clearly an area that you like to explore!
MRC: Yeah, it is. Very much so. When it comes down to it, I think everyone is pretty much broken into separate pieces. There’s a line from a Wallace Stevens poem: “Can one man be one thing, and be it long?” We like to think of our personality as a single thing, unified and consistent, but there’s very little evidence to support that idea. We’re more like pearls – layer after layer built around the original piece of grit that was our childhood self. Our other selves are built in, is what I’m trying to say.
RC: Do you think those ever-increasing layers, that build up around our original grit, could be where Liz has acquired her other self? Sometimes when I read passages from the book where she is trying to work out what’s happening, I got the feeling that she was suffering from mental health issues, rather than some kind of external force working on her. Maybe it’s those layers that can sometimes upset our mental balance?
MRC: Hell, yes. I mean, in the book, not so much. I’m definitely committed to the explanation that Fran finally gives to Zac after it’s all over. But in real life, yeah. And this is where the pearl analogy breaks down, because pearls are solid and shiny and robust. We’re not. For us, there’s flexibility and instability. The layers can chafe against each other, and they can swap places in terms of which ones are allowed to come to the surface.
Plus, identity isn’t something that exclusively belongs to us, although we tend to think it is. It’s socially mediated. We’re constantly seeing ourselves reflected in other people’s eyes, in their definitions of us and their treatment of us. I read an article a while back by a clinical psychiatrist who was essentially saying that madness is an attribute of the family rather than the individual. It’s what happens when the gap between those different definitions of you gets too big to bridge.
RC: Sounds like a basis for a new book, maybe?! One thing that, for me, shone through this book was a sense of true optimism. Even in the darkest days, there’s somehow always a way out of your problems, if only you can find it. Did it feel that way to you? An optimistic view of human and/or animal nature?
MRC: Yeah, it did. I think all the novels I’ve written since The Girl With All the Gifts kind of do that. Viewed from one perspective, they could easily be tragedies. There’s certainly no shortage of horror and loss. But horror and loss aren’t the point, in themselves. The point is what we do with them. How we fight back.
I go back and forth when it comes to human nature. We’re so awesome, as a species, and so awful. It’s hard to keep the two things in focus at once, but they’re both true.
RC: Awesome and awful – the opposite ends of the same semantic stem I guess! From a different angle, so far (if I remember rightly) all your novels have been firmly located in the UK; the Castor books are very London-centric, and the Melanie books hug the M1 corridor! But Someone Like Me is based in the US. Have you always wanted to write an American novel?
MRC: It wasn’t an itch that needed to be scratched. Most of my comics work has been set in the US. It was more that this story seemed to make better sense in an American setting. Liz’s treatment, in the wake of that first incident, would have been handled very differently here in the UK. And the idea of dissociative identity disorder – the myths and the realities of it – are built into the American consciousness in a way that has no exact parallel here. And I really wanted to sneak in a little Native American folklore, to achieve a particular perspective on the events we’re seeing. So I decided on Pittsburgh right out of the gate, and stuck with it.
It helped that we have good friends there, and have visited the city often. I felt I knew it well enough to do it justice.
RC: Ah yes, the Skadegamutc, which I’d certainly never heard of before. At first I thought it was something you’d invented, but then I Googled it!
MRC: It required a little fudging, to bring it in. The myth belongs to the American North-East, but not so much to Pennsylvania. The Abanaki’s annual range generally wouldn’t have extended further south than Maine and New England. So I was careful not to say it was a local legend. It was just something that Bruno Picota heard about when he was a child, and was mightily impressed by. One of the layers, for him…
RC: Oh those layers…. they get us into all sorts of trouble… one more technical, if you like, question that fascinated me about the book was that the chapters are not numbered, or titled, but illustrated. A little drawing or symbol at the beginning of each new section, reflecting the main character in each part. It reminded me of a pictorial version of William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, where we see the name of the person whose viewpoint we’re next going to read about. Was this an homage to Faulkner, or did you have another reason for this?
MRC: I remembered that device in As I lay Dying. It’s also something that Philip Pullman does in The Subtle Knife, to keep his various worlds straight in the reader’s head, and I liked very much how it worked there. As you turned the page, you’d see the little graphic of the alethiometer and you knew you were going to get another Lyra scene. So your anticipation would soar.
I wanted to do something similar here. It’s a book about identity, and the symbols allowed me to play some sneaky tricks with perspective – especially at the point where Jinx becomes a POV character for the first time. That’s meant to come as a surprise, but I enjoyed putting the reveal right up there in the chapter heading. And of course there are the chapters that have multiple symbols because… well, because point of view gets muddied and identity starts to be a slippery concept.
In the first draft, I used portraits of the characters’ faces, but that was maybe a step too far. It was fine for the human characters, but the way you draw Jinx potentially tells you a lot about what Jinx is.
RC: And I think it’s very important for the reader to have their own impression of Jinx, because we all shape our own imaginary friends! So now that Someone Like Me has hit the bookshelves, what else is on your horizon at the moment, Mike? Another novel? More comics? Castor #6?
MRC: Another novel, definitely. I’ve already delivered a draft, and I’m working on revisions. The working title at the moment is Koli Faceless, and it has a male protagonist – so that’s a first for M. R. Carey. In comics, I’ve got the first Barbarella trade and the collected edition of Highest House both coming out this month, and I’m very excited for both of those. And I’m working on a number of TV and movie projects, including a TV adaptation of Someone Like Me, with Hillbilly Films.
RC: With all that activity, do you ever get time to rest?
MRC: Seldom. 🙂 But I’m doing something I love, which is an incredible privilege.
RC: Which means you’re in a good place, so we’d better stop now so that you can do some more creating! Thanks for your time Mike, or M. R., I suppose that should be, and best of luck with this and all your future endeavours!
MRC: Thanks, Chris. RC? Great to talk, as always!