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!

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.