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Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Interview with Mike Carey

Official Mike Carey Website
Orbit’s Mike Carey Website
Pre-order “The Devil You Know” (US Version) HERE
Read An Excerpt from “The Devil You KnowHERE

Whenever I think of Mike Carey, I think comic books. More specifically, Marvel’s Ultimate Fantastic Four and X-Men, “Hellblazer” & the Eisner Award-nominated “Lucifer” from the DC imprint Vertigo, and such Neil Gaiman-related projects as “Sandman Presents” & “Neverwhere”. So, when I was asked to review Mike Carey’s debut novel, I was admittedly surprised at first, but I immediately jumped at the chance to cover “The Devil You Know” and interview Mr. Carey. So, many thanks to Lisa at Grand Central Publishing (formerly Warner Books) for setting everything up and for Mike Carey’s cooperation, who was very forthcoming with his answers, which deals with everything from his comic works and the Felix Castor series to a screenplay he wrote and plenty of other interesting projects & topics. Thanks again to both Mike & Lisa and readers enjoy!

Q: As a novelist, you’ve completed three Felix Castor books, two of which are already available in the UK, with the third one set for release this September. Meanwhile, your debut novel “The Devil You Know” will make its first appearance here in the United States on July 10, 2007 via Warner Books. For those of us not familiar with your work, can you tell us what to expect with “The Devil You Know”?

Mike: Sure. The books are set in a London where the dead have started to rise, in a variety of antisocial forms. There are ghosts, which are scary and unsettling but for the most part not actually dangerous, but there are also zombies and were-creatures, and there’s increasing evidence of demonic presences too. So initially the books present themselves within a horror setting, but they play out much more like crime thrillers, with the protagonist, Castor, being called in to dispel a ghost and staying to solve a mystery.

Castor is an exorcist, but he’s not a religious man: it’s just that he has this skill and he’s turned it into a living – a fairly precarious living for the most part. You could say he’s the Philip Marlowe of exorcists, because there’s kind of a noirish feel to the books. The parts of London that Castor frequents are down-at-heel, sleazy, pretty dangerous, and you’ve got to play your cards pretty well to stay in the game.

One of the cool things about the books, in my opinion, is that everything springs logically from one premise – human souls coming back from the dead. All the other phenomena are consequences of that one thing. If someone comes back in the spirit only, they’re called a ghost. But some spirits force their way back into their own dead flesh and animate it, which is what we mean by a zombie. And in some cases, if that isn’t an option, they’ll invade and reshape animal flesh, making it look like their own remembered human body – and that’s a werewolf, although in Castor’s world they’re usually called loup-garous.

Q: Sounds pretty interesting. So, what kind of process did you go through in finding a US publisher and why did you decide to go with Warner Books? Was it because of the Orbit connection? Also, what are the US publishing plans for the next two Felix Castor novels?

Mike: The fact that Orbit and Warner are in a sense part of the same stable made the process a lot easier, because it meant that the connections – the working relationships – were already there. The Orbit guys, who were acting as agents for the overseas rights on the books, were prepared to go to an open auction, but they approached Warner first and Warner were very keen. Just as importantly, it was clear that Warner got what the books were about and where we were coming from. It seemed like a great fit.

I don’t know how the timing is going to work for the rest of the series, but I’d imagine that books two and three will all be in print in US editions by the close of 2008.

Q: Cover art seems to be an issue that comes up a lot with speculative fiction, mainly how generic it can be and also the differences between US & international covers. What are your thoughts on cover art in general, as well as your own novels specifically the US/UK covers for “The Devil You Know”?

Mike: Well comparisons are odious, and the UK editions are going through a change of trade dress at the moment, so there are some things I won’t comment on. I think the cover for the US edition of "The Devil You Know" is spot-on. I like that it’s based on a photo, because that immediately days real world – and this is the real world, despite the supernatural appurtenances. I love the shadow effect, and the vivid force of the red spot-colour in a black and white image. The human figure and the shadow of the cross get across the tension between the crime elements and the supernatural ones very powerfully.

The most important thing with any cover is that you should end up wanting to pick the book up. It’s easy – well, comparatively easy – to make something that attracts attention, but the trick is to turn that attention into active curiosity. I think Warner have done that here.

The UK covers obviously went for a very different strategy, where several elements from each story were fused in a teasing way that would make more and more sense to you as you read the book. That’s a cool approach too, but I have to say that I prefer the new covers which make more of the London setting and have a harder-edged feel to them.

Q: Before the Felix Castor series, you primarily wrote comic books and graphic novels dating all the way back to the early 90s. I’ve read that you’ve always wanted to write novels, and in fact you even wrote some that were never published. Why did you decide that now (or whenever it was that wrote “The Devil You Know”) was a good time to write a novel and why the story that you chose?

Mike: Well yeah, as you say, it was something I’d done before and something I always wanted to do again. The key fact here, if I’m absolutely honest, is that when I first tried my hand at writing novels I didn’t know enough about structure to make a decent fist of it. I’d write chapter one and then sit around waiting for some kind of inspiration to hit me vis-à-vis chapter two. Then the same thing would happen for chapters three through twenty-four. I did a minimum of detailed planning, had only the vaguest idea where the story was going, and never seriously thought about pacing. Consequently I wrote seven-hundred-page tombstones that were completely unpublishable.

Writing comics honed my sense of structure to - - well, a finer point, anyway. In comics, especially if you’re writing a monthly book, you have to make every scene pay its way. You’re got twenty-two pages, with between one and six panels per page most of the time: there’s no room for what Mary Shelley called “proud flesh” – meaning twiddles and flourishes that don’t advance the story, establish mood or reveal character.

So I got to the point, when I’d been writing comics successfully for about seven or eight years, when I just felt that the time was right to try my hand at prose fiction again – not as an alternative to comics but because, you know, I’m a storyteller and I want to use all the tools, all the media that are available. I pitched the idea for the Castor novels to Orbit and they went for it. And here I am.

Q: You just mentioned how writing comics helped prepared you for writing in a novel format. What do you feel are the biggest differences between writing a novel and a comic book? What about the positives/negatives of each format in relation to the other?

Mike: The two processes are very different. One of the biggest differences is in terms of the way the work impacts on your life on a day-to-day basis. It comes down to pacing again – or maybe I mean scheduling. In comics you work to very short deadlines. You plot months in advance, so you know where you’re going, but you’re writing the story in short segments that have to be completed within a finite and tightly defined time frame. So you write the script, you send it in, you get the edit notes and do a rewrite, and then off it goes to the artist. If you’re in the middle of the next issue or a few issues down the line and you suddenly think “Oh wait, I should have introduced this character earlier” or “I should have prepared the ground for this!” it’s too late and you can’t change your mind. The freedom to change your mind is very limited.

A novel is something that grows gradually. You live with it for 6 months, or maybe longer, and at any point within that time you have the option of changing your mind about very substantial things. If you get to chapter 22 and you want to go back and change something in chapter 5 you can do that because chapter 5 is still there – it hasn’t gone anywhere and nobody else has seen it yet. Nobody else is waiting for it to arrive so they can start doing pencils or lettering or whatever. So you have this vertical freedom which I really enjoyed a lot.

But comics have their advantages too. Scene-setting is effortless – for the writer, anyway – because so much can be conveyed in the visuals. And since you’re telling the story essentially in two modalities, you can make words play off images to produce some very cool effects.

Its horses for courses, at the end of the day. Some stories work best in comic form, others play beautifully as novels – and some translate readily into any medium, as I discovered when I wrote the comics adaptation for Neil Gaiman’s novel, “Neverwhere”, after it had already been made into a TV series.

Q: Going back to the Felix Castor books, what are your overall plans for the series?

Mike: I’m envisaging at least six novels in the series, with a major revelation coming in the course of the sixth book. As the series progresses, although each book is free-standing we start to focus more on some of the wider questions as to why these things are happening in Castor’s world. Why have the dead started to rise in such huge numbers now? Do the demons have something to do with it, and if so, is it part of a wider plan? From book three onwards, Castor is actively involved in getting answers to those questions, even while he’s dealing with the cases that are at the core of each book.

There’s also a real possibility that Castor will spin off into other media: the TV and movie rights have been acquired by Bentley, who do The Midsomer Murders here in the UK, and they’re currently in talks with another major producer about a Castor movie, which would be very cool.

This is a very rich vein, really. There are lots of stories to tell about Castor and his supporting cast, and there’s a wider story which will gradually come into focus as the series goes on. In the long run there could be as many as twelve novels.

Q: Wow, that’s impressive. Obviously you must like the Felix Castor character enough to devote an entire series to him, and everything else that is going on, so what makes writing Felix so fun?

Mike: I guess I love anti-heroes. Castor is something of a bastard in many ways – a very tough nut to crack, and with few qualms when it comes to his own survival and his own interests. I’d already written both Lucifer and John Constantine when I created Castor, and it may be that there’s a certain flavour of both of them that clings to him. He’s not a bad man, but if you described him as a good one you’d want to qualify that with a couple of big provisos. He’s flawed, and the flaws make him interesting. He’s done some terrible things in his time, mostly to people who loved him and relied on him. And because he’s only human at the end of the day he carries the guilt of those things with him. I’d rather have a character like that than an unbelievable saint.

Q: Are you completely satisfied with the way “The Devil You Know” turned out? Is there anything you wish you could have change if you had the chance?

Mike: You’re never completely satisfied with anything you produce. Well, nobody I know is. The only question is how short the time interval is between “this turned out pretty good” and “oh no, how could I have…?”

I think there might have been an argument for making Castor’s first outing less…visceral. Some people have told me they were shocked and even nauseated when they got to the explanation for the ghost and the form she takes. I also wish I’d made more of Castor’s relationship with Cheryl Telemaque. She was a fun character to write.

Q: How have you progressed as a writer with the second & third Felix Castor novels ("Vicious Circle" & "Dead Men’s Boots")? Is there anything else you would like to improve upon with future projects?

Mike: I think “Vicious Circle” is more ambitious than “The Devil You Know”. Once the foundations of Castor’s world had been laid, I was free to start filling in what I think of as the infrastructure – the ways in which the presence of the dead has altered society, both subtly and more obviously. There are scenes there - like the scene where Nicky Heath visits the Ice-Maker – where I was just having a ball imagining what sort of goods and services a zombie might need just to stay viable.

Vicious Circle” also introduces us to some powerful groupings of people with their own opinions about what’s happening and why – the Anathemata, the Satanist Church of the Americas and so on. You definitely get the sense of a culture still reeling from a massive shock and trying to accommodate to it. That’s a movement outwards from “The Devil You Know”, which was very much focused on the one case and didn’t really look beyond it.

Q: What else can we expect from Mike Carey the novelist in the future?

Mike: I’m going to be writing some short stories for Interzone and elsewhere, and at some point – probably next year – I’m planning to write a novel that will be for a younger audience. Probably it will be a fantasy of some kind, but in a very different register from Castor. More like "My Faith in Frankie", perhaps.

Q: Let’s talk comics now. For many fanboys you’re name is associated with the Eisner Award-nominated “Lucifer”, “Hellblazer” or such Neil Gaiman-related projects as “Sandman Presents” & “Neverwhere”, while currently you’re penning such high-profile Marvel titles as Ultimate Fantastic Four and X-Men. What’s it like writing such mainstream material when your career has been basically built on the indie stuff? What challenges have you had to overcome in writing such recognizable characters?

Mike: Well with X-Men – even for a long-standing fan like myself – the biggest challenge is mastering the continuity. There’s a lot of research to be done to bring yourself up to speed on the massive cast and their massive backstory, and since my tendency is towards overkill I’ve tried to do it the direct way, by reading many hundreds of comics – although the website has also been invaluable.

Obviously you’re talking about a different storytelling style, but it’s one that I felt very comfortable with: I grew up reading comics avidly and discovering American superhero books when I was about seven was an epiphany that still echoes through my life. It’s true that Vertigo created a revolution in the comics’ mainstream from which there was no going back, and I thoroughly love and admire the Vertigo project, but I like superhero books too. They’re a genre that comic books have made absolutely their own, and although you can translate superhero stories into other media they still work best in comics form.

The other thing about writing mainstream superhero books is that it brings you in contact with a very large, very vocal online fan-base. That can be daunting at first, but it can also galvanize you. You realize very early on that the characters you’re writing matter a lot to a lot of people: that makes a difference, I think, and it’s mostly a positive thing. Except when you get death threats…

Q: You’ve obviously written a lot of comic books & graphic novels. Do you have a particular story or book that you’re most proud of? What about a favorite character?

Mike: Out of all my published work, if I had to pick a single favourite it would be “My Faith in Frankie”. That was a very small-scale project that just took off in some wonderful ways, mostly because the creative team – myself, the artists Sonny Liew and Marc Hempel, and editor Shelly Bond – just meshed perfectly. We inspired each other. It was also an enormous change of pace, because at that time I was writing a lot of dark fantasy and horror, whereas “Frankie” was light-hearted and romantic. It felt like a holiday, in a way – and then, of course, we started to layer the darker elements back in again, but in a way that didn’t overwhelm the other stuff. We were all really pleased with how it came out.

Favourite character… probably one of the supporting cast in Lucifer. Maybe Gaudium, who grew from being just a plot contrivance to being a major comic turn, or maybe Elaine Belloc who was based on my daughter.

Q: What other comic book/graphic novel projects are you working on or planning on working on?

Mike: Well I’m doing some work for DC’s new Minx imprint, as you know. There’s “Re-Gifters”, which will bring together the “My Faith in Frankie” team for the first time since that book, and there’s also “Confessions of a Blabbermouth”, which I co-wrote with my daughter, with the amazing Aaron Alexovich coming on board to handle the art. We felt very privileged there, because Aaron mostly just illustrates his own stuff. Both of those books are an interesting departure for me in that they work wholly within what you could call a realist narrative framework – no supernatural or fantasy elements, no horror, not even any magical realist touches. They’re stories set in the real world, built around teenaged protagonists and their relationships both familial and romantic. “Re-Gifters” is a martial arts rom-com and “Blabbermouth” is a different kind of comedy with some more satirical dimensions to it. They were lots of fun to do. They’re both coming out later this year, and they probably won’t be the last things I do for Minx.

I’ve also got a book coming out from Virgin’s Voices imprint – “Voodoo Child”, based on a pitch that Nicolas and Wesley Cage worked up together. Parent-and-child teams are coming up a lot here, aren’t they? That’s a terrific story, again very different from anything I’ve done before because it’s a marriage of black magical and horror elements with contemporary social and political themes – very hard-hitting and I think entirely unique. It’s set in New Orleans, post-Katrina, and it has a protagonist who’s been raised from the dead to carry out a particular, very grim set of tasks, with the NOPD trying very hard both to stop him and to figure out what the hell he is. Dean Hyrapiet is doing the art on that, and I’m honestly stunned at the depth and richness of texture he’s putting into both the historical and the contemporary scenes.

Q: Sounds like some pretty cool stuff that you’re working on. With so many different projects that you’re juggling, do you ever feel overwhelmed? What keeps you motivated?

Mike: I’m okay. I’m spectacularly neurotic, so my instinct is to keep working all the time. I feel kind of guilty and hunted and insecure when I stop. It’s made me very good at working to deadline… There’s also a sense in which the more work you take on, the bigger the adrenalin rush gets and the more momentum you build up. Some days I can’t get the words down fast enough.

Q: Are there any particular comic book properties, artists or other writers that you wish one day to work with?

Mike: Oh, my wish list is too long to go into. It’s got Ethan Van Sciver on it. And Bryan Hitch. And Rags Morales. And Dave Gibbons – that would be a real wish-fulfillment fantasy. I’m keeping this short by avoiding any mention of “who would I like to work with again?” That’s an even bigger list at this point, with Peter Gross and Mike Perkins at the top of it.

Q: Aside from comic books and novels, you’ve also written a screenplay called “Frost Flowers”, which is currently in pre-production. Can you give us a summary of what “Frost Flowers” is about and what the status is with the movie?

Mike: "Frost Flowers" is an erotic ghost story. It’s about a guy – a London stage actor named David – who becomes romantically and sexually obsessed with the ghost of a woman named Cora, who also lived in London almost a century earlier. And it’s about the process by which that desire – which is mutual – is consummated, and what it leads to. It’s a very dark and twisted story. At the moment I’m waiting for news on when the principal filming will start, but in theory Holly Hunter is on board to play Cora. It gives me a warm glow just saying that.

Q: Of all the other material that you’ve produced, what would be your dream adaptation?

Mike: I’d love to write a movie version of “My Faith in Frankie”, with the “Frankie and Her Pals” flashback scenes animated and the rest live-action. That would work so well. And Warner have the rights, so you never know. It could happen.

Q: Based on the discussions above, it’s apparent that you’ve really branched out as a writer with the different formats and genres. In this day and age where film/TV adaptations of comic books & novels, etc. are practically becoming the norm, how important is it do you feel, to be able to write in different mediums in order to become and stay successful as a writer opposed to just being dedicated in one area (books, comics, film, etc.)?

Mike: Tough question – and it begs the other question as to why we do what we do. When writing becomes a career rather than a hobby or a fetish, you have to start to think in terms of where you’re going and how you can stay afloat, financially, which believe me can be a very complicated equation. In that sense, yeah, it’s a survival trait to be able to adapt yourself to different media, different genres, different commercial contexts.

But I think writing is one of these things where you’re not going to get very far unless you actually love the process. The intrinsic motivation is what gets you started and what keeps you going when the reviews are bad or the money isn’t coming in. And in that sense – talking about your own inner resources and your relationship to your own stuff – it’s a lot more complicated. You can’t write what you can’t feel. Or rather you can, but you’re not going to do it well. It’s dangerous to generalize about these things. I love telling stories in lots of different media because it lets you play with lots of different techniques and approaches. It keeps you fresh. But for example I would never dream of writing a stage play. I honestly believe I’d suck at that: I have no idea where I’d even start. If it won’t fit, don’t force it, like the song says.

Q: Staying on the subject of writing, what advice would you give to an aspiring writer or anyone hoping to get involved with the comic book industry?

Mike: All the obvious things. Write all the time, and show your stuff to as many people as you can. Get opinions on your stuff, and take them seriously especially when they’re negative opinions. Join a local writers’ group. Read voraciously. Think about what works and what doesn’t. Hone your craft.

Do your research. If you submit a pitch to a publisher, make sure that (a) it fits in with their publishing profile and (b) it obeys their submission guidelines, which are mostly available online. Send it in to a named editor and follow up with an email, letter or phone call after about three weeks to a month. Be politely persistent without being a stalker or a nuisance.

Start at the bottom and work up. Big publishing houses like you to have a track record when you approach them, so if your ambition is to be the next Stephen King or Mark Millar you’ll have to prove you can do it. For every Joe Esterhaze who takes the express elevator straight to a multi-million-dollar deal, there are a thousand guys who climbed the stairs.

Q: Do you have any preconceived notions that you’d like to dispel as someone who works in comics?

Mike: Well, there’s the tired old prejudice against comics as being somehow a lesser form of literature – or entertainment dressing itself up as literature. “Graphic novels? Graphic novels? If it’s got pictures, it’s a picture book. Like for kids…” People who believe that are probably never going to get it, but it’s their loss. It’s like me saying (and I say it a lot) “I just don’t get opera. The conventions are stupid…”

Q: I don’t know if you have the time :), but what are some of the things that you’re currently reading?

Mike: China Mieville! “The Scar” is a wonderful, wonderful novel. Ted Chiang’s short stories are fabulous. In comics, I’m re-reading all the Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez stories in the big Fantagraphic reprint collections, Palomar and Locas, and re-discovering how brilliant they are. Sfar’sThe Rabbi’s Cat” is very cool, and so is his Klezmer series. Anything by Junji Ito, but particularly “Uzumaki”. Millar’sUltimates”. Shigeru Mizuki’sNonNonBa”.

But mainly these days I get to bed at 1.00am, read two pages and fall asleep. I wish it wasn’t so.

Q: Do you have any last thoughts or comments that you’d like to share with your readers?

Mike: No. My brain is empty. It’s going to be a couple of hours before I even move, so you’d better let yourself out… :)

Thanks. I’ll just say thanks. It’s a symbiotic thing. I can’t exist without you, so you’re the Frankensteins who’ve made me into what I am. The moral responsibility is yours. As I lurch out into the night, think on that…


Reanimated said...

Another super interview. Can't wait to get a copy of The Devil You Know. It sounds pretty cool.

Thanks Robert.


Dingosatemybaby said...

Just wanted to drop a line and say how much I enjoyed reading this interview. Never had a clue Carey was doing novels. Off to Amazon I go...


Robert said...

Hey, glad you guys liked the interview. Definitely check out the book when you get the chance and look out for my review of "The Devil You Know" sometime next week. Much love & respect.

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