The Real Chrisparkle meets M. R. Carey (again!)

Someone like meGreetings 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?

Jekyll and HydeMRC: 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?

Rikki Tikki TaviMRC: 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?

Girl With All The GiftsMRC: 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!

RC: Rikk-tikk-tikki-tikki-tchk!

The Agatha Christie Challenge – Five Little Pigs (1943)

Five Little PigsIn which Hercule Poirot is asked to consider a case that took place sixteen years earlier, where Caroline Crale was found guilty of the murder of her husband Amyas. But her daughter is convinced that her mother was innocent, and wants to reassure her fiancé of that fact. So Poirot exercises his little grey cells and examines the evidence and memories of the five little pigs, who would be the only other people who could have murdered Crale, and proves that you can solve a murder just by thinking. As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to tell you whodunit!

UCL-University-College-LondonThe book is dedicated “To Stephen Glanville”. He was a friend of Agatha and Max, and, at the time, was Professor of Egyptology at University College London. During the Second World War, he and Max were both in the RAF together. It was Stephen Glanville who challenged Christie to write a detective story set in ancient Egypt – this would result in Death Comes as the End, which would be published in 1945. After the war Glanville became Provost of King’s College Cambridge, and he died in 1956 at the age of 56. Five Little Pigs was first serialised in the US in Collier’s Weekly in ten parts between September and November 1941, under the title Murder in Retrospect. The full book was first published in the US in May 1942 by Dodd, Mead and Company, and the subsequently in the UK by Collins Crime Club in January 1943. So there was over a year between its first appearance in magazine form in the US and in book form in the UK.

This little piggyMy main memory of this book is buying it at a jumble sale when I was about ten! When I came to re-reading it recently, I remembered the structural premise – that it consists of five people giving their evidence in retrospect, but I couldn’t remember if that meant it was a little repetitive, or if the unusual structure kept the interest going. I was pretty sure I remembered whodunit – and I was right, which is always slightly disappointing on a re-read. It is an enjoyable book, but I did feel it was a bit of a bind hearing the story told at least five times from the five different suspects. I see that the critic in the Times Literary Supplement proclaimed: “No crime enthusiast will object that the story of how the painter died has to be told many times, for this, even if it creates an interest which is more problem than plot, demonstrates the author’s uncanny skill. The answer to the riddle is brilliant.” Sadly, I can’t agree. Not that the answer to the riddle is brilliant – there’s no doubt about that, it’s inventive and clever and the facts had been staring us all in the face for ages, but we ignore them. But I did find the repetitive nature of the story meant it was a bit of a slog to work my way through. Interestingly, that wasn’t the case in Murder on the Orient Express, where you also have Poirot questioning a series of people about a death, in a similarly structured manner. Maybe Five Little Pigs lacks glamour! To be honest, I also don’t think aligning the story so closely to the nursery rhyme of the five little pigs adds much to the intrigue; it feels rather forced.

MemoryAs the story was variously published between 1941 and 1943, sixteen years earlier – which is when the crime was committed and much of the action is set – takes us back to somewhere between 1925 and 1927. In those days, Poirot was investigating the Murder of Roger Ackroyd, and coming to terms with the ridiculous The Big Four. That seems a long time ago, even in this little Agatha Christie project! I think a major stumbling block with taking this book seriously is how extraordinarily well everyone remembers the minutest detail from sixteen years ago. I don’t know about you, but if I was asked to recollect details from 2002 I’d be absolutely stumped.

Old ManIt’s been a year or so since we’ve caught up with Poirot, so how is he getting on? “I am old, am I not? Older than you imagined?” he asks Carla Lemarchant on the first page of the book. Nevertheless, he hasn’t lost any of his pride. “”Rest assured”, said Hercule Poirot. “I am the best”.” More than ever now, Poirot understands his trump card, which is his foreignness: “Hercule Poirot shrugged his shoulders. He was at his most foreign today. He was out to be despised but patronised.” And a few paragraphs later, Christie would confirm that his intended effect was working perfectly on Philip Blake: “”Actually, I am a detective.” The modesty of this remark had probably not been equalled before in Poirot’s conversation. “Of course you are. We all know that. The famous Hercule Poirot!” But his tone held a subtly mocking note. Intrinsically, Philip Blake was too much of an Englishman to take the pretensions of a foreigner seriously. To his cronies he would have said: “Quaint little mountebank. Oh well, I expect his stuff goes down with women all right.””

PoirotWhat do the other suspects think of him? “Meredith Blake received Poirot in a state of some perplexity […] here was the man himself. Really a most impossible person – the wrong clothes – button boots! – an incredible moustache! Not his – Meredith Blake’s – kind of fellow at all. Didn’t look as though he’d ever hunted or shot – or even played a decent game. A foreigner. Slightly amused, Hercule Poirot read accurately these thoughts passing through the other’s head.” Miss Williams bristles at some of Poirot’s questioning techniques: “”You mean that they were more like lovers than like husband and wife?” Miss Williams, with a slight frown of distaste for foreign phraseology, said: “You could certainly put it that way”.”

psychologyBut what about the real Poirot, are there any new insights into his character? We already know from previous cases that Poirot likes to understand the psychology of any case. Here, he can meet the five suspects, but he never had the chance to meet either Amyas or Caroline Crale. He specifically needs to know about them to get to the bottom of this mystery. “”Have you ever reflected, Mr Blake, that the reason for murder is nearly always to be found by a study of the person murdered?” “I hadn’t exactly – yes, I suppose I see what you mean.” Poirot said: “Until you know exactly what sort of a person the victim was, you cannot begin to see the circumstances of a crime clearly.””

teacher-strictAnother aspect of Poirot that I don’t think has been pointed out this obviously in Christie’s texts so far, is Poirot’s penchant for not telling the truth. “Clear, incisive and insistent, the voice of Miss Williams repeated its demand. “You want my recollections of the Crale case? May I ask why?” It had been said of Hercule Poirot by some of his friends and associates, at moments when he has maddened them most, that he prefers lies to truth and will go out of his way to gain his ends by means of elaborate false statement, rather than trust to the simple truth. But in this case his decision was quickly made […] Miss Williams had what every successful child educator must have, that mysterious quality – authority! […] So in this case Hercule Poirot proffered no specious explanation of a book to be written on bygone crimes. Instead he narrated simply the circumstances in which Carla Lemarchant had sought him out.”

lonelinessThis is quite a solitary case for Poirot; of course, he meets a number of people during his investigation – not only the suspects, and Miss Lemarchant, but also all the solicitors and police officers involved in the original case. But he has no Hastings or other confidant with whom to discuss his findings. As a result, we don’t really see the little grey cells at work at the time – just the reporting of his suspicions and discoveries as a done deal. He comes up with a brilliant explanation, but – if this was the equivalent of a maths exam – we never get to see his workings out, which is a little disappointing.

AlderburyRegular readers will know I like to have a look at the place names in Christie’s books to see to what extent they’re genuine, or just a figment of her imagination. There aren’t many places named in this book – Philip Blake lives at St. George’s Hill, Meredith and the Crales at Alderbury, and Miss Williams at Gillespie Buildings. St George’s Hill is the name of a private estate in Weybridge, which would be very appropriate for the stockbroker Philip Blake. Alderbury is the name of a village in Wiltshire, near Salisbury. I can’t find any trace of a Gillespie Buildings in London, but Lady Dittisham lives in Brook Street, which has featured in Christie’s books before as a desirable area of London, and Angela Warren lives in Regent’s Park. So this book contains many more “real” locations than most of Christie’s books!

Quintin HoggLet’s have a look at some of the other references in the book. I was intrigued that Christie called the Prosecution counsel Quentin Fogg; I wondered if she was thinking of Quintin Hogg when she named him? The former Lord Hailsham, around the time that this book was written, was MP for Oxford, so would definitely have had a public profile. Amyas Crale’s mother is described as “an admirer of Kingsley. That’s why she called her son Amyas.” The Kingsley in question would be Charles Kingsley, priest, university professor, social reformer, historian and novelist – he wrote Westward Ho! in 1855, a story about a young man named Amyas Leigh who follows Francis Drake to sea.

Romeo and JulietCaleb Jonathan, the Crale’s family solicitor, becomes all maudlin and delivers a lengthy quote that starts “If that thy bent of love be honourable” and ends with “follow thee my lord throughout the world”. That’s the bit of Romeo and Juliet where Juliet agrees to marry Romeo, if his intentions are honourable. He clearly equates Elsa to Juliet. Angela Warren also has a penchant for quotations; in her narrative that she sends to Poirot she recalls walking along the kitchen garden path saying to herself “under the glassy green translucent wave”. That’s Milton, from Comus. She’s very well read.

SocratesMeredith Blake is friends with Lady Mary Lytton-Gore. I was sure I recognised that name from somewhere. I did. She was in Three Act Tragedy; she’s Egg’s mother. I wonder if Egg’s found herself a husband yet. Blake also tells Poirot that he read out to the assembled guests the passage from the Phaedo describing Socrates’ death. That’s because Socrates also used coniine to kill himself.

Darwin TulipsLady Dittisham’s house in Brook Street is decorated with Darwin tulips in the window boxes. According to a gardening site I visited, Darwin tulips are “A very tough tulip type that withstands locations that are not ideal. A perennial favourite mix that’s durable and tough and has the perfect old-fashioned appearance. Planted extensively in parks and communities throughout Europe for centuries.” So now you know.

TomboyMiss Williams describes Angela Warren as hoydenish. It’s a very old-fashioned word. My OED defines it – of course – as behaving like a hoyden. And a hoyden is “a noisy, rude or boisterous girl or woman” late 17th century, Old Dutch. I guess today we’d think of her as being a tomboy.

Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for Five Little Pigs:

Publication Details: 1943. Fontana paperback, 6th impression, published in July 1968. The cover illustration, presumably by Tom Adams, shows a model brass cannon, on some pavement tiles, together with a ball of wool or string and a pipette. To be honest, I’m clueless as to the relevance of nearly all that.

How many pages until the first death: Not a straightforward question in this book, as no one dies during the “present” aspects of the story, only in the past. However, we discover that Amyas Crale had been murdered, and that Caroline Crale had died the following year, on the second page of the book.

Funny lines out of context:
None that I could see.

Memorable characters:

Probably the best drawn characters, and most intriguing people are the late Amyas and Caroline, who seem to have had a very weird relationship from time to time. From the living, I think really only Miss Williams stands out as a strong character, with her no-nonsense bossy governess outlook. I’m not sure the other characters have that much personality between them.

Christie the Poison expert:

Amyas was killed by coniine poisoning; this, as Christie points out, is from the spotted hemlock, and apparently ingesting less than a tenth of a gram of coniine can be fatal for an adult human. Superintendent Hale specifically describes the poison as coniine hydrobromide, as opposed to coniine hydrochloride, but I don’t think we need worry about that too much.

Class/social issues of the time:

Christie doesn’t get too carried away with many of her pet hates in this book, but almost all of them receive a cursory nod from time to time. There’s normally a hint of xenophobia somewhere; she’s already allowed Poirot to act up as foreign as he can, in order to wheedle information out of the suspects. I thought a very nice observation – and to my eyes, absolute nonsense – comes with Meredith Blake’s pejorative comment about foreigners that they “will shake hands at breakfast…” Some people will just get offended at anything!

Christie’s always been uncomfortable with the notion of divorce, no doubt in part due to her own experiences with her first husband Archie. But there’s an interesting observation about the differences between the way divorce was looked at in the 20s, when the Crale story took place, and in the 40s, when Poirot is investigating. Meredith Blake is explaining to Poirot that Amyas, as a married man with a child, ought to have taken his marriage more seriously: ““Amyas had a wife and child – he ought to have stuck to them.” “But Miss Greer thought that point of view out of date?” “Yes. Mind you, sixteen years ago, divorce wasn’t looked on quite so much as a matter of course as it is now.””

Christie has also expressed mixed views about feminism and women’s place in society. Miss Williams, of course, has her own opinion of relationships; how women ought to behave and – good grief – even entertaining the hideous thought of men. Of the Crales, she tells Poirot: “They were a devoted couple. But he, of course, was a man.” Miss Williams contrived to put into that last word a wholly Victorian significance. “Men –“ said Miss Williams, and stopped. As a rich property owner says “Bolsheviks” – as an earnest Communist says “Captialists!” – as a good housewife says “Blackbeetles” – so did Miss Williams say “Men!” From her spinster’s governess’s life, there rose up a blast of fierce feminism. Nobody hearing her speak could doubt that to Miss Williams Men were the Enemy! Poirot said: “You hold no brief for men?” She answered drily: “Men have the best of this world. I hope that it will not always be so.”

Christie allows Poirot a big presumption of misogyny when he deduces that the suggestion that Amyas Crale should pack Elsa’s case is all wrong. “Why should Amyas Crale pack for the girl? It is absurd, that! There was Mrs Crale, there was Miss Williams, there was a housemaid. It is a woman’s job to pack – not a man’s.” Not many shades of grey in that opinion.

I think there’s always been a tendency to view artists with suspicion – the disliked Mr Ellsworthy in Murder is Easy is considered “arty”, and here again, there are plenty of opportunities to deride the lifestyle and skill of Amyas Crale. “Never have understood anything about art myself” confesses Philip Blake. And being an artist becomes an excuse for all sorts of strange behaviours. From Meredith Blake: “If ever there were extenuating circumstances, there were in this case. Amyas Crale was an old friend […] but one has to admit that his conduct was, frankly, outrageous. He was an artist, of course, and presumably that explains it. But there it is – he allowed a most extraordinary set of affairs to arise. The position was one that no ordinary decent man could have contemplated for a moment […] the whole point is that Amyas never was an ordinary man! He was a painter, you see, and with him painting came first […] I don’t understand these so-called artistic people myself – never have.”

There’s one lovely line that is packed with all Christie’s fond awareness of class distinction – here’s Meredith talking about Elsa: “I’ve never seen such grief and such frenzied hate. All the veneer of refinement and education was stripped off. You could see that her father and her father’s mother and father had been millhands. Deprived of her lover, she was just elemental woman.”

Classic denouement: Not far off. All the suspects are gathered, slowly Poirot sums up the evidence, then he allows you to think that X is the murderer, and then he twists it round so that it’s Y. The only thing it lacks is a conclusive ending; the murderer refuses to confess and walks freely away, because there’s no active criminal investigation taking place. We assume that Poirot is going to inform the authorities – he says he will – but we’ve no idea what their reaction will be and what, if any, action will be taken against the presumably guilty party.

Happy ending? No indication one way or the other. One guesses that Carla Lemarchant satisfies her fiancé of the innocence of her mother, so that they can live happily ever after. But this is a book with both feet firmly in the past, and there’s no real interest in what’s going to happen in the future.

Did the story ring true? Yes, in all respects bar one. It’s very believable, not only the manner in which the murder took place, and the motivation, but also in the reasoning why Caroline Crale did not defend herself against the accusation of murder. The only thing I can’t quite accept is the brilliant memory recall of everyone involved!

Overall satisfaction rating: Very clever plotting, an unusual structure, and a good ending. On the other hand, it’s very repetitive. So I think that balances out as an 8/10.

The Moving FingerThanks for reading my blog of Five Little Pigs and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. Next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge is The Moving Finger, and the welcome return of Miss Marple to work out who’s been sending poison pen letters around the village of Lymstock. As usual, I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!

The Edinburgh Fringe One-Weeker 2017 – Edinburgh International Book Festival – Terrifying Dystopian Dramas, M. R. Carey and Joe Hill, 20th August 2017

Boy on the BridgeAnd now, a short break from the Edinburgh Fringe to take in something at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. I know, we are intellectual, aren’t we? To be fair I probably wouldn’t have gone to see Terrifying Dystopian Dramas, M. R. Carey and Joe Hill, at the Garden Theatre, Charlotte Square Gardens, were it not for the fact that the aforementioned is my oldest and bestest mate – known as Lord Liverpool to frequent readers of this blog – and we’re spending a few days together up in Edinburgh whilst he and his family are in residence; so we’ll be seeing a number of shows with him and his entourage as the week progresses. This talk takes place at 17:45 on Sunday 20th. Here’s the official blurb: “DC and Marvel writer Mike Carey ditches his first name and uses his initials to indicate he’s back on novel-creating duty. The Boy on the Bridge follows up the monumentally successful The Girl With All the Gifts and sticks to similar post-apocalyptic territory, while Joe Hill continues his hugely popular mystery-thriller ways with The Fireman, which has a globe-threatening virus taking hold of America.”

The FiremanI’ve read The Boy on the Bridge; it’s an excellent read and I can’t wait to hear what he has to say about it and the kind of questions people will ask. I’m afraid I know nothing about his co-star, Joe Hill, but no doubt by the time the hour is up I will leave a much better informed kinda guy. The talk lasts an hour so check back around 7pm to see how erudite we all are. By then the next preview blog should be available to read too.

Well that was a totally new experience and absolutely fascinating. Both Mike and Joe were on the receiving end of some challenging questions and I think everyone enjoyed the session. It was hosted by Russel D MacLean and he was ace! 

Review – The Girl With All The Gifts, Everyman Cinema Barnet, 2nd October 2016

girl-with-all-the-gifts-film-posterTime: the future, but maybe not that far ahead. Place: England; London, Birmingham and places in between. Life: Distinctly not as we know it. A fungal infection beyond the scope of Daktacort has zombified the populace, turning the average man on the street into a Hungry. Indeed, that average man on the street remains exactly where he was at the time he was infected – on the street; and one of the most chilling images of this brilliant film is the sight of them all, swaying gently in the breeze in an abandoned shopping centre like the most bizarre crop choice a deranged urban farmer could ever have envisaged. They are the decayed product of a decayed environment, where a dilapidated M&S Simply Food outlet becomes a backdrop for death and disease rather than for promoting its aspirational groceries. Hungries just stand and sway, inanimate; they do nothing, unless something fleshy comes within their orbit, in which case their senses start to activate and their taste buds start to salivate; and then they go hell for leather for whatever it is that has aroused their desire. Teeth jammering for food like human machetes, it’s not long till that living creature is but a husk.

caldwellOnly one thing can save the dribs and drabs of humanity that have survived the infection, and who inhabit a military camp/prison school/research laboratory somewhere in the Home Counties, and that’s the possibility of a vaccine, being perfected by Dr Caldwell. And what organic tissue might be the source of this vaccine? The brains of the Hungry children, who have no idea they are not just regular kids; they just wait for the enjoyable 9 till 5 lessons of the lovely Miss Justineau, and accept their regimented and isolated 5 till 9 as part of ordinary life. And there’s one particularly intelligent, polite and loving kid – Melanie. She lives to please Miss Justineau – just as you would if she was your teacher. Melanie’s compliant and obedient with the soldiers; she respects and assists Dr Caldwell wherever she can; but she also recognises the moment when the balance of power swings in her favour.

Author running off at the back, pursued by bloggerOK, I think this is the moment when I step out of review mode and into personal persona. I first met the writer of both the screenplay and the original book, Mike Carey, in December 1977 when we were both hapless teenagers attempting to convince Oxford University during their rigorous interview process, that we were worth a punt, if you’ll pardon the expression. Come October 1978, on arrival for the first term to read for a BA in English Language and Literature, we both discovered that we’d pulled sufficient wool over their eyes to get an offer. Within days of meeting again we became the bestest of best friends, and that’s been a friendship that has endured at full blast to this very day. There’s also a side issue that for the last two days of shooting the film, I was an extra; a blink and you’ll miss me extra, but an extra nonetheless. I may be seen fleeing or munching on dead soldiers in one of the outside scenes at the Beacon camp; and I’m definitely in the trailer! Two long days of endlessly running at USAF Upper Heyford in the summer of 2015; it was sheer agony at the time but now I look back on it with a certain nostalgia. So you may think, gentle reader, that this review cannot possibly be impartial. In response to that I say: if I’d hated the film I would have been in a very tricky situation. But fortunately, both Mrs Chrisparkle and I thought it was just totes amazeballs, and I will be as honest as I always am!

melanie-and-hungriesBack into review mode: so this is a zombie film in excelsis. It’s not a genre with which I am particularly au fait; but I know for a fact that these zombies have a class and a style way above those normally found in zombiedom. In his Felix Castor novels, Mike’s own self-confessed favourite character is his zombie with the most unthreatening name ever – Nicky, the red-wine loving, jazz record collecting, but nevertheless putrifying inhabitant of a disused cinema in Walthamstow. One could never accuse Mike of creating a run-of-the-mill zombie. In The Girl with all the Gifts he has devised a complete landscape of these terrifying creations and director Colm McCarthy has done an incredible job in bringing his vision to life, if that’s not an oxymoron. Whether they’re delicately poised in a shopping precinct, with our heroes carefully treading lightly around so as not to disturb them; or whether they’re gnashing viciously at the perimeter fence, rest assured the Hungries won’t leave your mind for a goodly while. And given Mike’s lightness of touch, the film contains just the right number of unexpectedly funny lines, reflecting the irony and sheer ridiculousness of the situation. For example, it takes a full five seconds for Melanie’s response to Justineau’s suggestion that she might like a cat, to sink in.

melanie-justineau-caldwell-gallagherAs a perfect counterpoint to the Hungries, you have the pure, human emotion of the relationships between Melanie and all the adults in her sphere (which is ironic, seeing as Melanie isn’t really human.) Revel in that beautiful simplicity of her thoughts and her motives; her child-like sentence structures; and the innocence with which she repeats the barrack-room terminology of the soldiers. Her presence and her trust soften the hard exteriors of the people around her, such as when you see her sharing stories in friendly chat with Private Gallagher, where before he was merely her military custodian. Somewhere in the emotional spectrum between Melanie and the Hungries is Dr Caldwell, with her emotionless and clinical need to pursue her vaccine research with no care for whom she hurts; but also with that degree of altruism that motivates her – the chance that the world may survive is down to her. Caldwell becomes a character that turns out to be far more complex than one originally imagined on reading the book.

park-royalWhich takes us nicely on to the performances, and let’s start with Glenn Close as Caldwell, because she really did make you think twice about whether or not she is just a scalpel-happy savage or the potential saviour of the world. Just like with all the film’s stars, director Colm McCarthy has coaxed a superb performance out of Glenn Close. Her Caldwell is tough, no-nonsense, wily, but surprisingly vulnerable; prepared to endanger herself in the cause of science, willing to side-step the rules if it means she can get closer to her personal goals. She treads a beautiful balance between modern hero and medieval torturer and it makes thrillingly uncomfortable viewing.

caldwell-justineau-parks-gallagherPaddy Considine puts all his natural authority to great effect as the hard-nosed Sergeant Parks, running the camp with ruthless efficiency, eliminating a wounded comrade with just one shot. His gradual softening towards Melanie is beautifully depicted, as he starts to trust her – or as she starts to manipulate him, your choice. His final scene with its quiet, emotional dignity turned the otherwise cool, calm and collected Mrs C into a blubbering wreck. Fisayo Akinade is a very believable Private Gallagher, all bluster when directly under the influence of his military bosses but revealing a decent level of humanity when Parks hears Melanie refer to him as Kieran – his briefly embarrassed look is a moment to treasure. Annamaria Marinca has a brief but very impactful role as Dr Selkirk, Caldwell’s even-less-friendly assistant. That’s one helluva scary scene.

melanie-and-justineauAs Miss Justineau, there’s a wonderful performance from Gemma Arterton, who’s quickly become one of the country’s most talented actors. From the start she’s brimming with emotion, making that really important contrast with the rigorous discipline of the camp. Justineau is much fonder of Melanie than she should ever have allowed herself to become; Miss Arterton soon makes it clear that Melanie is her character’s Achilles heel, and it’s Miss Justineau’s sentimentality (or innate decency?) that sets the ball rolling for the sequence of uncontrollable events that lead to the final conclusion of the story. It’s a superb, very moving performance, and if she doesn’t get nominated for a best actress at the BAFTAs I’ll eat my Ophiocordyceps unilateralis.

melanie-againWhich leads us to the stunning debut performance by Sennia Nanua as Melanie, the Girl herself. The very last person to be auditioned for the role, the creative team have made a great discovery with this young lady. A totally secure, supremely confident performance, full of emotion, a stunning ability to portray both vulnerability and power, and, when it comes to it, a deadly comic delivery!

melanieIt’s a thoroughly fantastic film, and I’m not just saying that because it’s written by my mate. The combination of unsettlingly recognisable locations in a post-apocalyptic era, tense and suspenseful story-telling through both script and direction, and a cast that excel themselves in every role, makes this one of the most intelligently exciting films for an age. I couldn’t recommend it more!

If you’d like to read more about Mike Carey the writer, may I respectfully direct you to an interview we did earlier this year about his current book, Fellside; and to another interview a while back as the author of The Dead Sea Deception – under the pseudonym of Adam Blake.

The Real Chrisparkle meets M. R. Carey!

I recently had the pleasure to talk to celebrated author M R Carey about his newest novel, Fellside, that was published today. Hope you enjoy our chat!

FellsideRealChrisSparkle: Greetings gentle reader! And welcome back M R Carey to the pages of The Real Chrisparkle blog! I say “welcome back” because this isn’t the first time you have graced us with your presence, is it?

MRC: Thanks for having me! No it isn’t the first time I’ve been here. It’s the first time I’ve been here under my own name though.

RCS: So it was you pretending to be Adam Blake! I knew it all along. Well thanks for taking some time from your busy schedule to talk bookish things. Since your appearance as Adam, your career has continued to blossom with the very successful Girl With All The Gifts. You must be dumbstruck at how well it has done?

Dead Sea DeceptionMRC: Yeah, very much so. I’m still waiting for the other shoe to drop, in some ways. I’ve been writing for thirty years or so now, and doing it for a living for about half that time. The reception that The Girl With All the Gifts got wasn’t like anything in my previous experience. It’s not just about the sales figures, either. It’s the fact that I was able to write the movie screenplay, and the fact that the movie got made. That one story has completely changed my life, in all kinds of ways.

RCS: It’s amazing how just one book can turn things around! And you mention the movie, I’ve read that it’s going to open on 9th September, is that the official date?

Girl With All The GiftsMRC: Yeah, Warner’s confirmed that a few weeks ago. Very exciting! It’s actually somewhat earlier than I was expecting. The unofficial word was “some time in September or October” but with the rider that October was more likely. Now suddenly there’s an actual date and it’s only five months away. It’s hard to believe. There’s a part of me that still finds this whole sequence of events implausible enough to be a prolonged hallucination that I’m having while I’m slumped on the floor of a bar somewhere.

RCS: I guess if the barman jogs you awake with the words “come on mate, haven’t you got a premiere to go to?” you’ll know it’s true! But what’s really at the top of your agenda today is the fact that your latest book, Fellside, is just out. Would you like to tell us a bit of what it’s about? Don’t give away any surprises!

MRC: It’s a ghost story set in a women’s prison. The protagonist, Jessica Moulson, is a drug addict who accidentally kills a child. She’s high at the time, and trying to escape from an abusive relationship by burning down her flat with her violent boyfriend in it. The boyfriend gets away clean, but the young boy who lives in the flat above gets caught in the blaze and dies.

Jess is tried for murder and sentenced to life imprisonment in Fellside, a privately owned “titan” prison on the Yorkshire moors. But she judges herself a lot more harshly than that. She feels that she doesn’t deserve to live after what she has done. So she decides to commit suicide.

But killing yourself in prison isn’t easy, especially if you’ve been put on suicide watch. Jess chooses to go on hunger strike, because the prison authorities can’t intervene to stop that process.

But when she’s about to die she has a vision of the ghost of the boy she killed. He saves her from dying, by means that seem to be supernatural and inexplicable. It seems that he has plans for her, and that she might have a chance to earn herself some kind of redemption if she can figure out what the ghost wants her to do and do it.

But there’s a complicating factor. Jess comes to the attention of the woman who runs all the rackets in Fellside – Harriet Grace. And Grace has plans for her too.

RCS: I was lucky enough to obtain an early copy and have read it cover to cover, and – most unlike me – I really was unable to put it down. It’s such an exciting read – in fact, probably one of the most exciting books I have ever read. Did it take you long to write?

MRC: It took a lot longer than GIRL. About eighteen months, but of course I was working on other projects for some of that time. I went through five drafts, effectively trying out different versions of Jess’s character and voice until I hit on the one that seemed best. It was hard. She’s a very difficult character to sympathise with, but in the end the story fails if you don’t. So it was important to present her strongly from the outset and to find an effective way of staging the reveals that make us revise our judgement of her as the story goes on.

RCS: I can appreciate that – and the way that the character develops through the story is definitely one of the driving factors that makes you want to keep reading. What came first in the creative process – was it wanting to write a book set in a prison, or wanting to write about someone accused of murder? Or some other aspect of the book?

MRC: I think there were two things that were in my head when I set out. One of them was the setting. I really like enclosed settings in which some of the normal rules of social interaction are suspended. The army base in GIRL was one, and obviously Fellside Prison is another.

AddictionThe other strand that was in there right from the start was addiction. I wanted to write a story about an addict fighting against her own cravings, fighting to find herself and redefine herself. I’ve had my own (mostly trivial) brushes with addiction, but I’ve also known many addicts. Some of the people who have been most important in my life have either fought against addiction and won or been destroyed by it. So I’ve thought for a long time that it was a theme I should visit and try to explore.

RCS: That’s fascinating and the exploration of addiction is something that frequently recurs in the book – and it pulls no punches where it comes to the harm it can cause. As far as the enclosed setting is concerned, I don’t think you’ve ever been to prison but I do know you used to work in a school – do you think prison and schools are similar in some ways?

MRC: There are obviously some strong similarities. Two groups sharing the space, one of whom is empowered while the other is mostly powerless – at least in terms of defining the rules of engagement. Prison is a total environment, though. You’re there all the time and there’s no getting away from it. So a relationship that sours or a situation that the institution sees as problematic can spill over into every aspect of your life. There’s no refuge. No way – or almost no way – to assert your own definition of yourself against the institution’s definition of you.

Another huge similarity, though, is that both schools and prisons offer roles, and behaviour sets that go with the roles. By enacting the role you can find yourself absorbing it, accepting it. You carry out the behaviours you think are expected of you, vaguely reassured by the fact that it’s the role, not your real nature, that’s in play. But of course we are what we do. You converge with the role. You become that aspect of yourself more and more. Or at least that’s the danger.

That’s another reason that enclosed and constrained settings fascinate me. I think they create pressures on our sense of self, and it’s interesting to see how people respond to that.

RCS: Certainly the traditional roles of, say, prisoner and prison officer are questioned in your book. Sometimes it’s not necessarily the person with the institutional authority who’s in the driving seat. I’m not sure Harriet Grace would ever have been the kind of person who meekly did what she was told!

MRC: No, that’s true. And partly that’s a case of the individual will, of course. But partly, too, it’s a side effect of how total institutions work. You could say that Grace chooses a role out of the many that are waiting there to be selected. There’s a point where one of the other characters, Shannon McBride, tells us about Grace’s early life, and how she escaped from being bullied by becoming a bully. She doesn’t change or question the paradigm, she just moves. It’s a confidence trick. Look, I can’t be a victim because you can plainly see that I have victims of my own…

I think this is something we see at a lot of different points in the book. People either getting trapped in a definition of themselves or rebelling and renegotiating it. The biggest contrast to Grace is probably Salazar, who allows himself to be trapped by one bad decision – and by fear – into playing a role that he absolutely hates.

RCS: Yes I admit I felt rather sorry for Salazar, even though he’s his own worst enemy – but that’s part of the human condition – frequently we are! I guessed from the start things wouldn’t turn out well for him, although I couldn’t predict what actually happened! And on that note, can I ask you about the plotting? The story twists and turns like a twisty-turny thing. Did you always know where it was going, or did the characters surprise you by taking you in different paths from what you expected?

MRC: I did what I always do, which is to start out with a very detailed plan but then to jump ship when a better idea came along! I think it’s probably like this for most writers. A novel is a semi-organic thing, like a cyborg. Some parts of it are built to high tolerances out of factory-hardened steel. Other bits are made of spit and sawdust. But the great thing about having a plan to start with is that it allows you to do precisely that – to deviate and experiment.

I think I had a strong sense of the journey each character would have to make, so I knew – in general terms – where they would end up. The big reveals, likewise, were fixed from the start. But some things just happened because they happened, which is part of what makes writing so exhilarating. Shannon wasn’t even mentioned in the plan, but at a certain point I pushed her into this role as Fellside’s storyteller and it seemed to work really well. So she ended up being very important. She’s the one who lets us see inside Grace’s head. She’s also the custodian of Jess’s story, although she changes it many times as her perceptions of Jess change.

Comedy and Tragedy masksRCS: That’s fascinating, I saw Shannon as rather like “Rumour” in an old pre-Shakespearean tragedy. I sense you’re rather fond of Shannon, she developed very nicely through the book! Are there any other characters of whom you are especially fond or proud that they turned out like they did? I liked the solicitor’s assistant Levine, falling for his client – albeit a rather imaginary version of his client. He’s wannabe noble but full of human failings. Are there any characters who you’d want to go for a drink with?

MRC: I liked all of them, including the really dysfunctional and scary ones! I’m very fond of Salazar. He was a challenge to write because he’s so passive and weak-willed for most of the story, facilitating what the more brutal and unprincipled characters do by not standing against them. But underneath that he has a very powerful desire to do the right thing, and we follow his progress from this position of abject surrender to a very brave decision that is still, somehow, a falling down rather than a standing up.

And I enjoyed writing both Patience DiMarta and Andrea Corcoran – people who are quietly doing their best in this hideous and messed up environment.

In terms of going out for a few pints… you know, I’d probably go for the other lawyer, Brian Pritchard. He’s a bit of a grandstander, but he’s shrewd and in his own understated way an idealist. I suspect he’d be good company.

RCS: He probably earns well too, so I’m sure he’d be generous when it was his round! As in GIRL, at the heart of the book you have a strong female character with an almost unbreakable bond with a child. Is this something we should examine psychologically about yourself? Would you like to get on my couch and tell me about your childhood?

MRC: Oh man, would I not like that!

My childhood was frankly weird. There was a fair amount of deprivation – we were very poor – and there was a fair amount of what I can only call crazy shit. My brother Dave said to me once that the scariest thing about our childhood was the sense that nobody was really in control, and I absolutely agree.

But it was a very loving family. Precarious, almost falling apart, perpetually in crisis, but loving all the same. And I think those contradictions ricochet around in everything I write. Families can save us or destroy us. Can save us AND destroy us. Parents build us up and break us down. They make it possible for us to be what we are, and yet they set the limits too.

This Be The VerseI think what I really keep picking at is the extent to which we make our own identities, and the extent to which our relationships with other people can help us or hinder us in that process. Nothing is as fulfilling or as important as love, and parental love is important at the point in our lives where we’re still learning who we are. But it’s almost inevitable that at some point you’ll have to fight against the way your parents see you. The definition of yourself that they want to give you. Otherwise you’ll find yourself becoming some edited and foreshortened form of yourself.

RCS: Thank you for your honesty sir! I completely agree that there comes that point when you have to fight your parents’ definition of who you are and take your own course in life, which is almost certainly not the same course that they had planned for you! Jess’s bond with Alex is, at first, very domineering, making those assumptions about who he really is, and what will be best for him, just in the same way you suggested your parents did for you and certainly mine did for me. Jess is certainly guilty of projecting her own fears, fantasies and desires onto Alex, moulding him into something she wants him to be, but that he basically isn’t. This also happens to Lizzie Earnshaw who’s been made into a big bad bitch but is actually as nice as pie deep down. It all goes back to what you said earlier about defining your roles and your character.

MRC: Yeah, absolutely – and sometimes that’s a very hard thing to do. Every relationship changes you. Everything you do often enough and consistently enough changes you. There’s no clear dividing line between you and the world, there’s just a permeable membrane. The trick is to maintain enough awareness of those processes to have some control over them.

RCS: There’s a very stark contrast between the gritty realism of life in the prison with the supernatural friendship between Jess and Alex. It must have been very difficult to find the right way to express their relationship, when there’s not much in the way of “reality” taking place! How did you go about finding that voice?

MRC: It was the toughest balancing act in the whole process of writing the book, and I think part of the answer is that I cheated. Once I’ve created the two worlds – Fellside, in all its grim solidity, and the dream world which is about as solid as a memory of smelling candy floss – I immediately start to interweave them. As soon as you have that moment when Jess feels Alex’s hand in hers as she’s standing on the walkway outside her cell, you have a kind of palimpsest. She’s always got a foot in both camps, and everything – arguably – is simultaneously real and not real. Or at least everything has consequences in the other world. Jess and Alex’s dream journeys raise echoes in the minds of the Goodall inmates, and the realities of life in Fellside shape and inform the things that they encounter in the dream world.

There are other forms of cheating going on too, of course, that I can’t discuss without major spoilers. But it seemed crucial to me that we should both believe and invest in the relationship between Jess and Alex in all of its stages. They help each other to survive, in real and measurable ways. That’s the core of the story. And it doesn’t stop being real (or at least I hope it doesn’t) when we realise that they’ve been fundamentally mistaken about each other.

RCS: No, absolutely, the two characters are completely interdependent and that bond is completely real, right through to the very end – which we’d better not discuss as that would really ruin it for anyone who hasn’t read it! In amongst all the greed, power, corruption, injustice, and revenge, it strikes me as being a very moral tale. The baddies certainly get their come-uppance, which feels very satisfactory for the reader. And there’s definitely a religious nuance going on there too. Is it fair to say the name of Grace was chosen with a certain degree of irony?

GraceMRC: Yeah, very much so. My original working title for the novel was State Of Grace. It’s a story about redemption, and about how far redemption is possible. And of course in that narrative Grace has some of the attributes of Mephistopheles, pulling Jess away from her goals and from her attempt to keep faith with Alex.

But I don’t know that I’d call it a moral tale. Good people get hurt and ruined too. I remember reading Kenneth Muir’s introduction to the Arden King Lear back when I was a student. Sorry, I’m not comparing myself with Shakespeare, here, I’m just borrowing an argument. Muir pointed out that by the end of the play the villains have been destroyed but they’ve taken almost all the decent characters with them. It’s as though the universe has been through some huge convulsion to purge itself of something terrible – but the violence of that purging hits everybody, leaves them all dead or walking wounded.

Having said that, there is certainly a sense of a better order starting to emerge at Fellside at the close of the book. It doesn’t just go back to the status quo.

RCS: There’s definitely a better order at the end of the book – Fortinbras has come on board and taken things under control! I see why you don’t feel it’s moral, and for sure some of the decent characters don’t survive unscathed. But they were sacrificed so that the future would be brighter. Something was certainly rotten in the state of Fellside – sorry for Hamleting up your Lear allusion! So what’s next on the cards for you, now that Fellside is out. Reclining on a chaise-longue and being fed grapes?

MRC: That would be nice! Actually I’ve never been busier in my life. I’m finishing up the next novel, Bedlam Bridge, which I’ve got to deliver in April, and at the same time I’m working on a lot of screenwriting projects which I’m trying to juggle so that I don’t lose momentum on any of them. One of them is a movie version of Fellside, which I’m hoping to get off the ground with the same production company that did The Girl with All the Gifts, and with Colm as director again.

I still write comics, too. I’ve just finished volume one of Highest House, the epic fantasy I’m writing for French publisher Glenat. Which means I should now be planning volume two…

RCS: …and I’m guessing you aren’t yet?! Wow you certainly are busy. A movie version of Fellside would be great, I can already imagine some perfect casting for the roles! And if Bedlam Bridge needs to be ready this month I’d better let you get on! Thanks very much for your time Mike, congratulations on a brilliant book, and best of luck for all your future endeavours!

MRC: Thanks to you too, RCS. It’s been a real pleasure talking.

Later edit: Bedlam Bridge, which Mike talks about here as being his next up and coming novel was of course retitled The Boy on the Bridge, the much admired prequel to The Girl with All the Gifts.

The Real Chrisparkle meets Susan C Fox!

As the Dust SettlesHello and welcome to another of my occasional interviews with artists and writers around the world and I am delighted to welcome the writer Susan C Fox from Washington DC, author of “As The Dust Settles – Finding Life at Ground Zero”.

 

 

RealChrisSparkle: Welcome Susan! Please, to start us off, give us a bit of an outline of what your book is all about. The aftermath of the 9/11 attack on New York, right?

Susan C Fox: Hi Chris. Yes, it is a book about the recovery after 9/11 in the neighborhood of ground zero, which the affected area surrounding the former World Trade Center site was called. In August of 2002, my husband and I moved to the area and after living there for several months I felt obliged to begin writing about the area and seeking out residents and later businesses to find out how they were doing as it was a very difficult area to live. I interviewed residents, businesses and people who worked in the area to discuss not simply the event of 9/11, but more so the implications it had on their lives and how they were dealing with their own recoveries.

RCS: It must have been a really strange place to live at that time. Why did you decide to move to the area in the first place?

Susan C FoxSCF: Initially, I think I was curious about the neighborhood and thought that moving there may be a way of assisting in some way. Later, the decision became a financial one. The Lower Manhattan Development Corporation (LMDC) was created to begin the rebuilding process and offered anyone willing to move there a monthly grant of $500 for the first two years. Given the cost of moving to NYC, which requires not only the first month’s rent and deposit (which is another month’s rent), you also had to pay the last months rent. At the time, our financial situation was a big concern and this was a way of moving without putting us in a worse financial situation.

RCS: It’s interesting that there was a financial incentive to move there, as I discovered from reading your book (which I found absolutely fascinating!) that a number of the local residents and businesses really suffered financially as a result of the terror attacks. How did the state go about helping the residents and businesses financially?

SCF: The grants that the LMDC, which was a government organization, not only provided them for new residents, but also to retain previous tenants. They also offered funds to the businesses as well. There were also charities, Safe Horizons, The Red Cross and the like, that assisted residents by reimbursing them for food costs, in some cases, medical treatments, psychological counseling, and banks offered loans at a lower rate. However, what I later discovered, many of the people living closest to ground zero had a difficult time getting assistance. For the businesses, the amount of money received depended on how long the businesses were established which for new businesses affected was for some ruin and others simply disastrous.

RCS: Yes for those people, they really suffered twice, didn’t they – as if the destruction of their buildings and neighbourhood wasn’t enough. Their financial ruin is something that wouldn’t have occurred to me. How do you think overall that the authorities coped with the situation? Did they manage it as well as could be expected, or do you think they let some people down?

Ground ZeroSCF: I think many people were let down. What I found most interesting was that the anger many people had in my neighborhood was directed at the government, rather than the terrorist. And although there was that, the people who experienced the attacks first hand were the people least looking for retaliation. I think the EPA should have done something immediately and the contaminated buildings should have been brought down after the “pile” (the remains of the towers) was removed. All in all, it was a terribly difficult situation, but it was not organized in a way that was logical. I think initially it was simply a matter of a rescue effort, and then it was a matter of removing the debris and getting the area cleaned. But after things settled a bit, I think organization was lacking and their was not a central focus on the future of the neighborhood.

RCS: That is fascinating – that the people who were affected first hand were the least retaliative; I guess they were just relieved to be alive. And you touch on another subject here that I don’t think many people in the UK at least were really aware of – the contamination. Basically, the area was strewn with poisoned dust, is that right? That must have given rise to many health scares.

SCF: Incredibly so. When the owners of the Deutsche Bank finally sold the building to the LMDC, which was several years later, a report surfaced regarding the kinds and amounts of chemicals in that building and it was staggering. Much of the danger was already known to medical professionals especially those attending to the rescue workers, but little was done and people had returned to the area and lived there for several years. Most of the air testing was done three years after the attacks, so it was too little too late. Outside of the contamination, there was also the problem of rodent infestation and very little mention of the amount or level of human remains that were all over the area. For the people cleaning out their apartments and businesses, this was also a problem.

Contaminated apartmentRCS: There’s an almost pathetic photograph in the book of someone’s otherwise elegant living room covered with grime, which really brings home a sense of how personally the contamination invaded people’s lives. Is the area generally safe now?

SCF: That’s a great question. I should think generally, as a whole, it is safe. However, I would also add that for many of the residential buildings it is questionable, as they were not properly tested. Much of the dust may have gone below the floors, between walls, etc. and in some cases there are buildings that remain untouched. They were empty on September 11, 2001 and remain so. Those buildings, I would assume contain all of the dust and debris from that period. Unless the buildings’ interior structure (behind the walls, ceiling and floors) are tested, there is really no way of knowing.

RCS: That is a pretty scary situation. Does that add to a general unease for the current residents, or are they just putting it out of their collective minds?

SCF: I think, in the end, one must move forward. Part of the difficulty for the residents, workers, and businesses has been the ability to move forward and continue with their lives even after three or four years. The construction process has been just as painful for them. Many people left the area for different reasons. Those who have stayed, they have to live with this question everyday. For some, they lived and worked in the debris cleaning out their own homes without any assistance for close to nine months. They lived with the contamination, as did the rescue workers. In the end, many of them realize they have been exposed and will deal with the consequences. For those who are new to the area, I am not sure it is an issue.

RCS: Can I ask you about the people that you interviewed for the book? How many people did you actually speak to, and how did you go about finding people to interview?

SCF: I interviewed nearly 140 people, some on the record, some off. My first interview was in May of 2003 and my last was November of 2004. So I spent almost 18 months interviewing people. Some people I found through friends and acquaintances, others I read about in the papers and wanted to learn more from them as many of their interviews were really piecemeal So I cold called people and stopped into businesses. Some people gave me referrals and contacted their friends, and as I moved further into my research I found others in government agencies and the like. I have to admit I was quite nervous cold calling people, but overall the reception I got was amazing and so many people wanted to talk on so many different levels and for so many different reasons.

RCS: That is a huge number – you undertook a really comprehensive survey. I can imagine that the cold calling was a bit nerve-wracking, but it’s interesting that people were willing to talk so readily. Do you think you almost provided a counselling service to them?

SCF: In some cases, I think so. Overall I think 85-90% of the people I asked to speak to agreed. I really became emotionally connected to these people. It is hard to walk into someone’s home without knowing them and ask them to trust me and tell me about the worst day in their lives. The more I found out, the more respect and admiration I had for all of them, and the more I knew I needed to get the book out. After a year and a half, I eventually was burned out, and needed to take a bit of a reprieve from the book. Unfortunately, four of the people I interviewed passed away before the book was published and that is in itself difficult.

RCS: I was wondering if you had become personal friends with any of them as a result – although maybe friends isn’t the right word? Preparing the book, and then publishing it – albeit after your necessary break away from it – must have become almost like a personal mission for you. Did you feel as though you were allowing these people to have a voice, so that their story can be understood by a wider audience?

Ground Zero looking toward Deutsche BankSCF: I have become friends with many of them, and two of the people who died, I felt very close to. It really was a personal mission, initially the need to write the book came from within. I found it to be such a difficult place to live and I just kept thinking, how are the people doing who were here on that terrible day? How are they surviving? So it began from my own needs, and then it evolved into the need to tell the story of this community. I felt they were underrepresented and they had so much to tell. In the end, I think that by living there and living with all of the daily pressures I was able to experience something that another writer, who didn’t live there may not have. But I also think, that by not being there on 9/11, I had a bit of a distance and yet I also experienced the attack on my own city of DC. In other words, I had a vantage point of understanding and at the same time distance. I think this helped with trust and my commitment to the area and community. At the same time, my distance from the event itself, allowed me to do the interviews and write the book.

RCS: For my part, I think you’ve absolutely achieved that – you are able to bring these individuals’ experiences to the reader and get quite intimately involved with each story – they’re all different in their own ways – but in a structural way, you somehow remain dispassionate and non-judgmental, which really allows the reader to focus on the people themselves. On a personal level – if I may be so bold – did it make you think differently about your own life?

SCF: Thanks Chris that is kind of you — there are some things that I wish I could have included, but my main goal of the book was to stay back from the personal stories and experiences and allow people to speak. I struggled with this at times, not in the way of critique, but adding perhaps more of a theoretical perspective. In the end, I chose not to. My experiences upon moving to NYC were so interesting and so many different things happened on different levels on a daily basis that I was frequently emotionally moved and continuously working through these moments. I felt that I was being thrown into something in such a way that it has to be told. Once you add the community into the fold, I thought it could be a different kind of book.

The whole experience, professionally and personally has changed me. I was not used to this kind of writing be it sociological or journalistic and it began out of the need to do it. I think in the end, it has had to change me, but it is difficult to say how as it has been unfolding for sometime and I’m getting older. Although, the whole experience at times was very difficult I wouldn’t change it. I never thought I could fall in love with a community and neighborhood as much as I have and I guess with any love affair you have to take the good with the bad. I have always been somewhat on the periphery of communities that I have been involved with, and I can say that has really changed. I know my neighbors now and get involved with their lives and they with mine. In the end, they may be the people you have to rely on and that may need you.

RCS: They say every book changes the world, but you don’t always think that applies to its author. Thanks for that thoughtful reply. From my own experience, I know that life is very different in a village from in a large town (having lived in both) and that community spirit varies widely from place to place. But you can have that closeness even within a large and ostensibly faceless community and it sounds like that’s something that will stay with you for good! So, having written this book, do you have the urge to write another?

SCF: Indeed, there are many villages in large cities and at the same time you have your anonymity as well. Yes, I do have some things in mind, a bit more academic. But at present, with a two and a three and a half year old, I think I will have to hold off on that for a bit. I am teaching and hope that a book can come out of the research I have been doing and perhaps it all stems from my experiences with the book in some ways. I teach art students, and one of my courses “the psychology of creativity” is a hit with the students, so hopefully I can write a book on creativity and how it relates to the psychology of the individual and their need to create.

RCS: Your course sounds fascinating! And yes I can well imagine that having two youngsters is not entirely conducive to spending hours researching at the computer. Good luck with your new book as and when you get the opportunity! Thank you again Susan for your time speaking to me today and very best wishes for the future.

SCF: Thanks Chris. It has been an absolute pleasure!

And if you want to buy “As the Dust Settles” it’s available from Amazon here.

Photos copyright of Susan C Fox with the exception of the black and white photograph of the apartment living room, copyright Cheryl Dunn.

Review – Gatz, Elevator Repair Service, Noel Coward Theatre, London, 30th June 2012

GatzSome time around 1981 I decided that “The Great Gatsby” was my favourite novel of all time. I’d read it at school, studied it further for my American Literature paper at university, and basically allowed it to become a major part of me. Many waters have passed under the bridge since I last read it, so I was intrigued to hear of this eight hour experimental drama piece, where you basically witness someone reading the entire book out loud over the course of an afternoon and evening. How will that work, one wonders. How will I concentrate that long? Is it still my favourite book? Will there be enough time for dinner?

Of course it is a tall order to keep an entire theatre audience engaged for eight hours. However, time wise, it’s not that much different from going to see a matinee and then an evening performance on the same day – and it makes a very interesting comparison with, say, David Edgar’s dramatisation of Nicholas Nickleby, where it takes about the same length of time to tell the full story in two self contained plays. Like Gatz, some of Nick Nick also involves the direct lifting of text from the novel to be recited on stage; but of course, 99% of Dickens’ book has been adapted and dramatised into a theatrical event. That is what makes Gatz different from any similar production – there is no adaptation. The entire text that you hear is exactly what was written by Scott Fitzgerald without any additions or subtractions.

Carraway and GatsbyIt’s a risky strategy. I like theatrical risks though, and would much prefer to see something fail creatively than simply be a lazy success. If you can achieve it, even better is a creative success of course; but regrettably I’m not sure I can classify Gatz under that heading. There’s no doubt this is a Marmite production. The majority of the audience at the Noel Coward theatre last Saturday night gave it a standing ovation; at the same time at least six people from the row we were in and the one behind left, not to return, during the course of the performance. It’s never going to be one of those shows that pleases everyone.

This production is by New York’s Elevator Repair Service, and is being staged as part of the London International Festival of Theatre, within the framework of the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad. The structure of the show is simple. We’re in a rather dilapidated looking office, circa 1993 from the look of the IT. Our hero Nick arrives for work, switches on his computer but it fails to start up. Whilst trying to reset it, he finds a copy of “The Great Gatsby” on the desk, opens it at page one and starts to read it aloud. Other members of staff arrive, and go about their business – in a rather non-productive dilatory sort of way – but slowly they too integrate themselves into the story of Gatsby. Nick, reading the book, assumes the role of Nick Carraway, the narrator; his boss becomes Jay Gatsby himself; others become Tom, Daisy, Myrtle, Jordan and so on. In that opening scene there’s a charmingly funny moment after they start joining in as Office Nick shows mild astonishment that they seem to know the text unfalteringly without actually having a copy of the book to hand. But he doesn’t question it, he goes with it, and the story proceeds with his colleagues chipping in as other characters in the story. Elements of the book get amusingly or ironically replicated on stage, but not in imitation; it’s as though they are two parallel universes. Clever and entertaining stuff, and subtly underplayed. As the story develops, one of the strengths of the production is that you lose sight of the office setting, and the characters simply start acting out the Gatsby story. In fact the office equipment undergoes a gentle bit-by-bit decommissioning, so that by the time we’re in the final “act” so to speak, there’s hardly any office equipment left, save for Nick’s keyboard which, bemused, he drops into a filing cabinet.

MyrtleI thought that opening sequence – basically representing Chapter One – worked very well; slowly (perhaps too slowly) setting the scene for later on. On the other hand Mrs Chrisparkle found it extremely slow and fought, unsuccessfully, against sleep. With Chapter Two comes an increase in drama and tension, as Nick is introduced to Tom’s mistress Myrtle, in a scene of wild drunken abandon. Being both more visually and vocally stimulating, with many new characters appearing and talking, this provided a big step up in the interest stakes and Mrs C started to stay awake naturally, without my having to dig her in the ribs. But when we get to Chapter Three, which is basically the introduction of Gatsby, it goes more reflective and quiet again and the dramatic tension built up in the previous scene is frittered away. I feel this is the major problem of the show and its structure. It’s not an adaptation of a book but the book itself and in my opinion it doesn’t actually translate well to the stage. Fitzgerald wrote a finely crafted novel with highs and lows and changes of pace; but the stage is a different place from your imagination whilst reading, and the lows just didn’t work for me. Moments of high drama came to life really well throughout the whole performance; quiet moments of reflection and introversion came across to me as rather boring.

JordanGiven that the book is about Nick, and how he fits or doesn’t fit into the society in which he is a stranger, the book is full of self-enquiring, self-examining passages where he is learning about himself. Whereas they make a very satisfying read, I don’t think that simply reading out those passages works on stage. My memory from the book is that Nick actually turns into quite an unpleasant character; his dumping of Jordan is the cowardly action of a heel, if I remember. In Gatz this comes across as a minor event of little significance, whilst in the book it stands out; you judge him, harshly, and you wonder if he will ever love again (or indeed is capable of love). In Gatz I was not motivated to judge him.

Scott ShepherdThere’s no doubt that it’s a complete tour de force by Scott Shepherd playing Nick; and when someone spends the best part of eight hours on stage speaking it seems churlish to criticise his performance. But I did sometimes find it difficult to distinguish Office Nick from Nick Carraway; to the extent that Character Nick occasionally got a bit lost. The two occasions when Nick appears to come out of character and directly addresses the audience with the information that “we’ll take a break for fifteen minutes” completely destroyed the illusion of just reading the book out loud in an office. Mrs C wondered what would have happened if he hadn’t said it. Would we have continued to sit in our seats for fifteen minutes while nothing happened, confused as to why the house lights were up? No. He doesn’t even say it to his fellow workers but to the audience. Considering the whole structure of the show is to be very careful that only words from the text are spoken audibly, I found it a very painful breach of fourth wall etiquette.

Susie SokolI really liked the performance of Susie Sokol as Jordan Baker, the golfer with whom Nick starts a relationship. She fell extremely well into character from the rather lazy magazine reading gopher that she is in the office. Her quirky cutesiness was very convincing, and you got the feeling that Office Nick quite fancied Office Jordan too, which was a nice touch. I also thought that Jim Fletcher’s Office Jim, who became Gatsby, was another very good performance. He absolutely looked the part, in his mismatching pink suit (an Oxford man would never mismatch) and his rather dour deliberate delivery gave a good impression of Gatsby’s unreality, setting him apart from the other characters. Gatsby is largely a figment of his own making, and you might expect him to be a glamorous character – think of Robert Redford in the 1970s film – but deep down inside he isn’t, and I think Jim Fletcher conveyed that very well.

Jim FletcherLaurena Allan gave very entertaining performances both as Tom’s mistress Myrtle, all wannabe Isadora Duncan and spoilt plaything; and as Office Myrtle, simpering in a cack-handed sort of way and doing a masterstroke of comic business with the Oreos. When the brutal Tom, played by Gary Wilmes, punches her in the nose you feel the hurt almost as much as she does. I’m not sure he drew out Tom’s brutality quite as much as I would have expected – his big showdown with Gatsby was rather like two nice guys just getting a bit irked; it could have done with more grit, perhaps. Of the smaller supportive roles, I particularly enjoyed the performance of Kate Scelsa as Office Secretary Lucille, unmotivated and with highly judgmental eyes reacting with despair to whatever anyone more senior was doing in the office; and then throwing herself into the more drunken and degenerate roles of Gatsby partygoers and neighbours.

Laurena AllanOne very positive aspect to the production is that I am sure it will drive people to read or re-read the original book. We heard people in the audience vowing to revisit it, and Mrs C is now determined to catch up on some other Scott Fitzgerald that she hasn’t read yet. It was excellent to hear the story again and I was pleased that I could still actually remember a few passages. It really is a brilliant book and if you haven’t read it, you should; and you can easily read it in a day, as this show confirms.

Gary WilmesBut my overwhelming feeling about the production is that a novel is not a play. Whereas Nicholas Nickleby soared with comic and dramatic scenes tumbling into each other with perfect timing, Gatz feels very patchy and uneven; for me, nowhere was this more pointed than with the last hour of the show, after Gatsby has died (sorry if you didn’t realise that’s what happens to him). The book wraps up his life and his loose ends in a very poignant and tender way, but I felt that everything that happens on stage after he dies was really rather boring. It’s like the major plot occurrence has happened, and you’re spending the final hour twiddling your thumbs. I did like the way Scott Shepherd progressed from reading the book to reciting it without referring to the text; that was a nice touch, bringing Office Nick and Carraway closer together. But I just felt it lacked tension and drama. This time it was Mrs C’s turn to nudge me in the ribs to keep me awake during that final hour.

Kate ScelsaSo a fine example of the “fail creatively” school of theatre, I’d say; it’s a very bold experiment, and technically it’s certainly fascinating to watch actors perform for such a long time. But I left feeling generally dissatisfied and, a couple of days on, the more I think about it, the more dissatisfied I become. I know I’m in the minority as it has generally received rave reviews; but I also think it is very easy to be swept away with enthusiasm simply because of the effort and commitment of the cast to work so hard for their curtain call. It’s on in London until 15th July – if you have the time, definitely go and see if you agree with me, or if I’m being an old curmudgeon.