Just Waiting For The Locusts To Come
I mean everything else is happening in the world, right? Now I get to interview not only one of my favorite authors since before I started-up this little corner of the bookish community, but internationally known, USA Today Bestselling author, M.R. Carey. And with that, yes, I am waiting for Locusts to just start flying outside my patio. Anyhow, if Mountain Lions can crash it, why not locusts? PLUS, if you didn’t know? His greatest honor? He is the infamous author that inspired my dead is dead post… I kid!
Is he the anonymously mentioned author that inspired it? Yes. Is it his greatest honor? It is not.
When given the opportunity to throw every question and the kitchen sink at Carey, I did. It isn’t easy to throw a kitchen sink that far. It hurts. I didn’t expect it all to get thrown back. It did. So, without any other needless and surely unsuccessful banter from me, I give you M.R Carey on the The Book of Koli, Book 1 of the Rampart Trilogy, YA (yes it is most definitely a category and not a genre- I will die on that hill with you, sir), Eight Perfect Murders (YES READ IT- and lord there are so many books you should read, we should swap lists), genre bending, writing advice, pandemics and so much more! I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I have had the honor and privilege of bringing it to you.
Tuesday I will post my review of the first book in the Rampart Trilogy, The Book of Koli, which will be released by Orbit Books on April 15th. Carey’s latest short story, Henry and the Snakewood Box, was just released in the Anthology: Cursed by Titan books.
1) The length- It is quite a bit shorter than your other books…. is that because this is a quick release series (so of it had been one book, it would have been closer to your normal length)? Or would that fundamentally have been true either way?
I think that’s actually an optical illusion. The Book of Koli weighs in at about 133,000 words. That puts it firmly in the mid-range, substantially shorter than Someone Like Me but quite a bit longer than The Girl with All the Gifts. It’s a quick read though, that’s for sure, so it probably feels shorter than it is. I think that’s because of Koli’s voice – the simplicity of his vocabulary and sentence structure. I think – I hope – there’s a certain amount of poetry to the style, but it’s very stripped down.
2) Speaking of the above… although Boy on the Bridge is set in the same world as Girl with all the Gifts, it is a standalone… this is your first series. What inspired that idea? How did you find it… would you do it again?
I think I went full trilogy on this because ultimately, it’s a story that explores a world. There’s a lot of territory to cover across the three books, both in terms of place and in terms of time – the How We Got This Way part of it, which I think is best if it unfolds very slowly and indirectly. There’s also a very large cast. It’s Koli’s story first and foremost, but increasingly it’s also Monono’s, and then in the later books Cup’s and Spinner’s. I didn’t want to reduce any of those characters to walk-ons. Their choices and changes are important.
Would I do it again? Yeah, but not right away. I’ve been living and breathing this world for a year and a half, since I first started to put the ideas together. It’s been exhilarating but also exhausting. I’d like to write something small and self-contained next, while my batteries recharge. But having said that, you write the story that jostles to the front of your head. You don’t altogether get to choose its shape and size. Or rather you do, but you follow your instincts and worry about the details afterwards. I may do something reckless and stupid.
3) It is a memoir (I’ll get to how that afflicted me later)! But… you have done the unreliable narrator, the type of unfolding where the reader is in the dark and finds out what is happening as the main character does (GWATG), like Wilder Girls by Rory Power… what made you write a fictional memoir?
Well it’s got all the advantages you just described! I wanted Koli’s world to open up in stages, starting small and getting bigger. One of my models, although I’m pretty sure it doesn’t show, was Gene Wolfe’s Torturer quartet. I love how those books tease you with reveals, show you false vistas and alternate versions, so in the end the reader becomes complicit in creating the world. The easiest way to do that, I think, is with first person. Especially multiple first person, which is where I went in books two and three.
Did I link the write Gene Wolfe series? I need to know if A) I need to fix it and B) if that is the right series so I order the right series. I learned from music to always listen to those that influenced your favorite artists… sooooooooo, yes, please.
4) So… as for how the above afflicted me… from the unreliable narrator or that structure where readers are in the dark as much as the main character…. to a narrator who very well knows the story but then out right tells the reader…. yes <insert big bad event here> happens but I’ll tell you about that later…
AND HOW DARE YOU, SIR. I am just so happy you have found a new and fun way to torture your readers.
I don’t see it as torture! Well, maybe a little bit. Mostly it’s a game for two players with rules you make up as you go along. The less you show your hand, at least to begin with, the more the reader joins in the storytelling with you. Obviously you reach a point where that stops being true and you have to keep the promises you’ve made, but you can get up a rhythm where each reveal takes as much as it gives and you don’t reach equilibrium until the end.
Maybe the best metaphor is a tightrope-walker on a high wire. At any given moment, if you freeze-frame, they may seem to be way out of balance, leaning too far in one direction or another – but the whole performance is perfectly calibrated and all the wobbles and lurches are actually a part of maintaining balance. That’s what a good book does. Or it’s one model, at least, and something to aim for.
5) Expanding on the above, how did you find a way to merge writing a horror/Sci-Fi novel in the structure of a novel to create such a suspenseful and creepy book?
I think we’ve been living in a post-genre age for quite a while now. Genre mashups have always existed, but they’ve become more layered and sophisticated as audiences have become more knowing about storytelling tropes. Nobody bats an eye now if you write a western set in space with horror elements and a romantic sub-plot. Sorry, that sounds reductionist and crude. It’s actually a wonderful thing that you can tell a story that blends elements from multiple genres and traditions and resolves in an unexpected key.
An example that stays with me because I saw it very recently is The Nightingale, the second movie from director Jennifer Kent who gave us The Babadook. I almost didn’t watch it because from the synopsis it sounds like a rape-revenge thriller, a genre I don’t generally go within a mile of. But actually, it’s not that at all. It just uses some of the furniture, setting up your expectations so that when it modulates into something entirely different it feels like you’ve been sideswiped by a truck.
BIG HEADS UP ON BOTH THESE TRAILER
That’s what genres are for, really. Well partly they’re for marketing. But mostly they’re for telling the reader “we’re sort of in this space here”. But the glory of it is you can lie and take them somewhere else.
6) You have an incredible talent for creating characters that land readers between disgust and empathy for them. In the case of Koli, I think he is more relatable. The line about pissing in your own milk and complaining about the taste nearly knocked me out. Koli is the every man (kid) even within the apocalypse- with the same struggles and frustrations of the shrinking (non-existent) middle class. But Ursula- how about feeling something between respect and disgust? Without giving away anything- she just stirred up some mess and walked away.
I guess she did at that. But then walking away is a defining trait for her. She’s a humanitarian who hates people, if that makes any sense. She’s given a big chunk of her life to helping others, but if they get too close to her she freaks out and throws up her barricades. She only gives Koli what he asks for, ultimately. Maybe she should have thought harder about how he’d use what she gives him, but she’s not used to thinking in those terms. She’s got the weaknesses of her strengths.
7) Can you talk any about the symbolism of her role without spoiling anything?
I’m not sure what you mean by the symbolism. But I guess she stands in a long line of mysterious outsiders who come wandering into town and give the protagonist a nudge that gets them moving. She’s got other roles going forward, but that’s definitely a part of her function. Maybe she’s an externalisation of Koli’s suspicions about what might be going on in Rampart Hold.
8) If world circumstances were different, I probably would have written a fun post about how over the past couple years there has been a trend in YA and Adult sci/fi fantasy where nature and the botanical world takes revenge. Off the top of my head, I can think of at least 8 books that are out, along with a couple coming.
The Book of Koli is all about an apocalypse brought on by the rebellion of nature when people ignore climate, nature and mess with nature in ways they aren’t meant to. That’s definitely a major theme. It’s also about our relationship with our own past and our culture’s past – which means it’s very much sharing the same headspace as The Girl with All the Gifts.
You’re right, ecological themes are everywhere right now. But we tell stories about the things that are looming up big in our own minds. The trick is to tell them, so they feel new even if you’re treading over familiar ground. Everything is in the execution.
9) What, if any, are your concerns with the Book of Koli coming out in April and The Trials of Koli coming out in September?
None at all. I’m thrilled. It gives me a real sense of momentum, and I hope it will do that for readers too.
10) Being a more established author, what advice might you give to debut or just less established authors going through this time? (PS There is more writing advice towards the end)
This time? The time of coronavirus? Honestly, I’ve got nothing. It’s too far out of my experience, and all our experiences, for anything I say to be useful. Everything will contract, on the far side of this. The creative industries will probably be more conservative and risk averse as they try to stabilize themselves and get out of the red. But they’ll still be looking for the next big thing, and the trick – as always – is to try to persuade them that you might be it, so they give you a chance.
- Hone your skills.
- Keep on writing, because you get better at it the more you do.
- And use stories to stay sane and happy – that’s one of the gifts they give.
- Keep on writing, because you get better at it the more you do.
Book of Koli Review Coming Tuesday
11) Koli is a kid, at least right now, like Melanie (Girl with All the Gifts). Yet unlike most books that are automatically put in YA when the MC is under 20. Yet The Book of Koli and GWATG (as is Jay Kristoff’s Nevernight Chronicles) are categorized as adult? Why do you think that is?
I didn’t think of them as YA when I wrote them. They’re not addressed to that audience in an exclusive or even a conscious way. It’s just that they both include coming-of-age narratives. They also include a lot of stuff that stands outside of that. But branding something as YA really is just a marketing decision, I think. YA isn’t a genre, it’s a label on a can.
I don’t say that to demean the books that get given that label. There’s some utterly sublime work that flies a YA flag. I just don’t think the flag itself is very useful or informative.
12) The classism in which Koli’s “community” is structured is a direct mirror of society now. I won’t go into specifics of the how or why. I am sure that was a strategic choice? For me, it was jarring. Maybe I am naive. Sometimes, when watching or reading other apocalyptic works- you can think- hey there is a way to start over, get a found family! Because everything goes out the window. This was a direct recreation of social norms as they are now. Was that just a springboard for Koli’s character development and the rest of the series, a purposed choice, or both?
In many ways Koli’s Mythen Rood is a pre-capitalist collective. They don’t have money, except for trade with other villages, and they have what seems like (more or less) even distribution of the necessities of life. They also have share-works, where people suspend their usual activities and come together to make something that’s important for the whole village. It’s all very socialist – except that it’s all subject to the fairly autocratic decrees of the Ramparts. So yeah, I think there are echoes of our world. Certainly, I was looking as things that exist modern Western society, which increasingly seems to be morphing from the liberal democratic model to a feudal system with unsustainable disparities of wealth. I’d say a distorted mirror rather than a direct recreation.
13) Music is an integral piece of Koli’s initial realizations. What made you choose music as a vehicle?
I’d already done Greek myth! It felt like a very natural choice, really. For Monono to live inside an entertainment console rather than any other kind of device. It fitted in well with how I saw her as a character.
14) I believe you have read my Dead is Dead post that you inspired. Can you elaborate more on why bringing characters back from the dead takes away consequence and hurts a story?
I think it makes everything in the narrative feel weightless. If you can have a frictionless rewind, none of the beats land in the way they should.
It’s all about emotional weight, and it’s part of a bigger issue for me. The thing I try to avoid more than anything else in the world is that beat you see in so many bad movies and bad comic books where the protagonist is on their knees, head thrown back, screaming NOOOOOOOOOO! Ideally, the author keeps a deadpan and the reader cries. If the author cries, the page gets soggy.
15) You once gave me some advice that if you are going to write a novel don’t write what is coming out in that moment, no matter how much you love it. Try to think of what is the next big thing because by the time you are pitching it, the market will be saturated with what is big now. Can you talk more about this idea and other advice you would give to those working on a novel that you don’t see often given?
It’s a fruitless and dispiriting thing to chase a trend. I know this because I’ve done it. There was a time, after I’d written the Castor novels, when I was being encouraged by my editors to try something different – but by different they meant more mainstream. The trouble with that is that if something’s mainstream when you start to write it, it’s getting stale by the time you finish. And then unless you get lucky very quick, you’re shopping around something that feels like last year’s news. You should follow your own instincts as a storyteller. You can definitely benefit from looking at what has already been successful, but not by copying it. Or at least, not by copying its content.
As far as other advice goes, I could blather on forever.
- Have a plan but ditch it when it stops being useful.
- Make sure you know what your ending is, even if the middle is hazy.
- Don’t give love and sex to your protagonist as prizes for being awesome.
- Try not to have any characters who are just a plot function and nothing more.
- Use your knowledge of how real people work as a guideline for your characters’ behavior and motivations.
- Don’t write impossible people – I guess, unless you’re deliberately trying to.
16) Outside of your novels I have had the pleasure of reading your short stories through Titan books (I am a part of the Cursed Blog Tour) that is coming up and just received the book in the mail. What is the draw to these retellings and new takes on long told tropes? How does it fit in with writing full novels?
I use short stories as thought experiments. They let me mess around with style and voice and approach, and sometimes I hit on something that feels like it really works. The Girl with All the Gifts and the Koli books both began as short stories.
I’d recommend short fiction – and short-short fiction – as a creative exercise even if you don’t intend to submit the finished work anywhere. It’s just fun, and invigorating, and leads to lots of serendipitous discoveries.
17) What turned such a good humored, affable person into such a creepy and downright psychologically messed up writer?
I can’t even imagine. But think how messed up I’d be if I wasn’t able to pour all the craziness into the stories…
18) There has to be something you always wish someone had noticed about your work and asked about? Something you wanted to say but weren’t asked the right question or given a chance? This is your opportunity.
Aaaaand I’m going to flunk it. No, there’s nothing.
Okay, there’s one thing. I wish someone would ask me to define the difference between genre fiction and literary fiction.
Then I could paraphrase Kingsley Amis and say literary fiction is sci-fi without spaceships, spy thrillers with no spies and Westerns with no shoot-outs.
About M.R. Carey (Bio From His Website)
You may know Mike Carey from his record-breaking run on Hellblazer, or from the impressive Sandman spin-off title Lucifer. In fact, a fair portion of his output has been concerned with either Hellblazer- or Sandman-related stories; throw in the work that he’s done with various X-Men titles, and you get a fair picture of what to expect from this writer.
However, the unexpected diversions and twists in his bibliography reveal that there may be even more to Mike Carey than one of the better ‘Gaiman- Moore’-style writers, of which there seems to be an endless supply.
He happens to have a cousin who is a well known maritime lawyer. Maritime lawyers practice what for many of us land based folks would consider a niche law specialty. But after the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, we know much more about what maritime lawyers do. For a quick course about maritime law and those who practice it: Maritime attorneys primarily focus on issues pertaining not only to maritime law, often referred to as admiralty law, but also to the Jones Act. Admiralty law refers to the longstanding US laws and regulations, including international agreements and treaties that govern the activities in any US navigable waters whether its inland waterways (the big rivers where barges transport all sorts of products) or the open sea. Admiralty law formalizes the long-standing maritime maintenance and cure traditions, which have been recognized for centuries. I would not be at all surprised if Carey has pumped his cousin for details about the BP oil disaster, what happened on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig and its ecological consequences of the actual spill. I’m sure we’ll see some influence of his insider knowledge sometime in his future writing.
You might think that Mr. Carey’s long tenure on Hellblazer would have drained the author on ways to make the ‘supernatural detective’ premise fresh over and over again. Yes, his “Felix Castor” series of books will certainly satisfy any Hellblazer fan, and the comparisons to John Constantine are unavoidable. However, whether you love Hellblazer and are just looking for “more”, or simply want to see what Carey can do with the premise when unburdened by established canon, The Devil You Know and its sequels will satisfy all of your questions.
I can attest to that. I enjoyed the book over the past summer while longing on the deck of my back yard pool. I had long wanted a pool so the whole family would have a great place to hang out during the hot summer months in New York. I had done a search online for hudson valley pools, wanting to have a local pool company so if I ever need help with maintenance or getting pool supplies, they would be nearby. Boy, did I luck out with Royal Pools & Spas. They were great at installing the pool and recommending a company that built the deck. I’m considering getting a spa set up for the winter. Anyway, there’s something about all detective novels that provide a very nice pace for the prospective reader, a gentle lulling between beatings and the solving of murders, and this is only enhanced by the inclusion of ghosts and Succubi. Mike Carey knows what he is doing. Felix Castor gets added to my roster of male lead urban fantasy go-to characters. He is a cynical, flawed, morally unpredictable man who somehow shows a deep sense of right and wrong. I am looking forward to reading more Mike Carey books by my pool next summer.
Most recently, the buzz is beginning over the upcoming feature film Frost Flowers, in which an actor (Rupert Holmes) becomes romantically obsessed with a ghost — pursuing her to the point of sending strange, yet luxurious gift baskets filled with diaphanous fabrics, bunches of sweet smelling flowers, pearls and other precious stones dangling from gold necklaces, succulent fruit, and paper and colored pens (with the hope she could communicate via writing him messages. She returns the gift baskets to him that now are filled all sorts of strange supernatural objects ranging from crystals, stones, tiny ornate vases filled with exotic oils, old broken pieces of jewelry, burned playing cards, a stuffed blue parrot, shells, poems on old parchment, and dried flowers. The gift baskets were a most unusual devise for the author to use, but also most effective. Eventually she becomes pregnant with his child. Yikes! We’ll see how well Mr. Carey can explain that one. I’m a pretty big fan here, so I’m thinking of sending Carey a gift basket, but I’ll fill it with sweet and savory goodies and maybe a few bottles of wine.
Personally, I think his most impressive work to date has been The Unwritten, a Vertigo series that deals with issues such as child celebrities and mentally-unbalanced fandom. Not so much about online blackjack, but the series hasn’t finished yet!
Okay, so once again any reasonable reader will be unable to make certain obvious comparisons (the plot revolves around a bestselling young adult series starring a boy wizard and his two companions, a boy and a girl his own age…gee, we hope a certain lawsuit-happy writer doesn’t get herself a copy!) . However, the combination of wild creativity and authentic human experience makes this series something truly special.