Wednesday, 12 September 2007

Interview with Mike Carey

I’ve heard tales about people paying large amounts of money (at charity auctions) to have their name, or description; appear in their favourite author’s book. Would you consider doing something similar and how much would I have to pay you to have my name appear in the next Felix Castor book?
It’s something I used to do way back when I was writing the Lucifer monthly series. There were a whole group of people who were posting regularly on the Vertigo message board, and we had this running gag going that it was a High School (Morningstar High) and I was the head master. I would set them ‘homework’ assignments, for example write Lucifer’s reply to Isaiah’s “Oh how art thou fallen from Heaven, O Lucifer son of the morning”. They would post their entries and I would choose a winner and the winner each month would get to nominate a word that would then go in the next month’s issue. I had to keep my fingers crossed that they wouldn’t choose anything too obscene or too ridiculous that would skew the whole storyline around it. But in fact – and probably inevitably – what everyone did was send in their names as their nominated word and we would somehow work it into the dialogue or the artwork. Sometimes I would name a character after them or sometimes their name would appear as graffiti on a wall. So it is something I have done but not for money: it’s a nice little nod that you can give to a friend.
I can say from personal experience, though, that if you name a character after someone you know, you should have due regard to that character’s ultimate fate. People don’t like watching their namesakes come to sticky ends.

We’re now halfway through the Felix Castor series and the first thing I noticed about the book was that the style of the cover had changed! What happened there?
Halfway through a planned six-book sequence – not necessarily through the entire series.What happened was that we looked at the original designs, which we were always very happy with, because we thought they very cleverly wove in a lot of different elements from the books, which they do! But we realised once we’d been through two variations of the theme that they actually work better once you’d read the book. You come to realise why there are musical notes there, why there are Cyrillic characters and so on. They play off the story, but they play off the story in ways that you need to be familiar with the story to understand. What we wanted was a cover design that would clue you in a bit more up front, as it were; that would make a statement about the themes, the material and the approach. We went for this photographic design as it tells you a lot about Castor, the London setting and the mix of supernatural and noir elements. In that sense we figured it would be a more effective statement.
Do you see yourself sticking with that format for the rest of the series?The plan is to stick with that style and when the first two books come up for reprint they’ll be issued with similar covers as well.

You’ve obviously done a lot of research into the darker side of London and your work has a really gritty and spine-chilling feel to it. Have you ever written something so scary that you’ve scared yourself out of going back to that place in real life?
I guess I don’t associate the material strongly enough with a place that the place itself would come to have negative overtones for me. But there are themes and events that when I put them into a book can be emotionally difficult for me to deal with. The first Castor novel had the sexual violence in it which was probably the darkest and most upsetting thing I’ve ever written. Those scenes do stay with you, all the more probably because they’re based on real life experience. Not mine or anyone I’ve known but they’re based on things I’ve read about in relation to people trafficking and they do leave an emotional imprint on you that can take days or weeks to shake off. In that sense you do get a psychic hangover from writing horror.

Is there anything you’ve ever come across, during your research, where you’ve just thought, “There’s no way that would ever go in a book of mine”?No, I’ve never come across anything that I would flatly refuse to put into a book but I became aware after writing ‘Devil You Know’ and ‘Vicious Circle’ that there was a pattern beginning to form of women as victims. You have the faceless ghost in the first book and the ghost of Abbie Torrington in the second book who are both victim figures and their role in the book is largely a passive one. That’s not 100% true of Abbie as her ghost has a part to play in the climax of the second book, but I did feel when I came to write ‘Dead Men’s Boots’ that I wanted to break away from that. I didn’t want it to become a defining feature of the stories as it too often is in horror. Obviously Juliet is a more positive female role model, and a much more active character, but I wanted to work the changes on that. If there’s a victim figure in Dead Men’s Boots it’s John Gittings, the dead exorcist.

There’s a lot of dark and quite evil stuff happening in both the Felix Castor and Hellblazer books. How do you switch off from that when you’ve finished writing for the day? Are you tempted to write something really sweet and wholesome just to balance it out?
Hey, I do write sweet and wholesome stuff. Recently, over the last three or four years, I’ve been writing romantic teen fiction for DC (most recently for their Minx imprint) which is to some extent an antidote to some of this dark stuff. Thinking about it, though - and I don’t know whether it’s being a writer or being a man – but there’s a certain kind of schizophrenia that you can achieve sometimes which can be very useful. You can come from writing Castor, Lucifer or Hellblazer and describing scenes of torture, horror and despair to chatting with the kids about their day at school and stuff. And sometimes, despite what I said earlier about psychic hangovers, sometimes you really can just leave all that stuff behind you on the desk. My wife can’t do that at all. She’s also a writer but finds if she gets herself into a certain mood, because of a scene she’s writing in the book, it sticks with her and she’s trapped in that mood and she can’t dislocate. I find it easy to jump from one psychic plane to another and I think that suggests I’m a much less healthy individual, psychologically speaking, than she is…

One of the recurring themes I’ve noticed, so far, is that the only luck Felix seems to have is when a case starts to go his way, the rest of the time he’s a mess. Is it more fun writing about a character who has to look up to see rock bottom?
Chris Claremont, the man who reinvented the X-Men and turned it into the massive franchise it is today, was once asked for the recipe for a great comic book. He said it was really easy: you basically take a group of nice amiable people and then you put them through Hell. I think extremes are always more interesting and it’s always easier to sympathise with someone who has reached the bottom of the heap than someone who is richer than you, luckier with you and so on. I think this is a problem, for example, with the Alex Ryder books. They’re a hell of a lot fun to read but the trouble is he’s too perfect. Things go his way too much. I like losers, I like loners, I like people who get shat on by life. I think they’re more fun to write about and more fun to read.

I mentioned, on the SFX Forum, that I’d be talking to you and one of the ladies there said that you’re her favourite author and she happens to have a little crush on Felix Castor (and was wondering if this is normal!) Do you think there’s anything loveable about Felix Castor?
Yeah I think so. Maybe. At rock bottom he is a guy who is trying to do the right thing even though life doesn’t always let him, and he often suffers as a result. He’s somebody who’s done awful things to his friends and the people who love him – sometimes consciously – but he carries the weight of that guilt around with him. It’s something that makes it easy to sympathise with him as he can’t walk away from the consequences of his actions, he’s haunted by his past in that way. I also think that his wit, his sharp tongue is attractive. Felix is an ironic and humorous commentator on the things that go on around him and I enjoy that aspect of his voice, the fact that he’s sardonic and he always has a wisecrack and the perfect putdown. Characters who are verbally skilled are interesting and attractive for that reason I think.
A character in a book is only going to be interesting if they have something interesting to say.
Did you ever have an encounter and then as you replay it in your mind give yourself all the best lines, like ‘I wish I’d said that and that’? Well, Castor is a wish fulfilment figure on that level only; he always has the comeback ready.

In ‘Dead Men’s Boots’, Felix finally makes it out of London and across to the US for a brief visit. Other than the case itself, is there any other reason why this happens here?
The real basis for that decision was that I wanted to take Felix and Juliet a long way out of their comfort zone. I wanted them on foreign soil not just in the banal sense but also in the psychological sense. Juliet is very badly affected by that journey: it turns out that she has a cthonic connection to the soil and that flying in an aeroplane is really bad for her so she’s at a disadvantage from the moment that she takes off. It’s a solution to one of the problems you have with Juliet. With her on Castor’s side it’s like he has a nuclear arsenal all of his own. She’s unstoppable normally but in the Alabama scenes she’s only of limited use to him. Castor actually has to rescue her from a fight with a were-creature in which she is outmatched. So it was partly ‘let’s put them in a new situation where a lot of their natural advantages don’t work and let’s see how they cope with that’ and partly ringing the changes on the formula. If you keep on doing the same thing one book after the other then it stops being fun, you have to keep pushing the envelope.

The first exposure Felix has to his exorcist abilities is when, as a child, he sings away the ghost of his sister. By the time of ‘The Devil You Know’ Felix is questioning where the souls go once they’ve been exorcised. Is this something you will let the reader know or will it be left open ended?
There’s never going to be a categorical answer but you find out an awful lot more. We find out more about why the dead are rising and we find out more about the mechanics of all the phenomena in Castor’s world. There’s actually a big revelation which I’m planning for the sixth book which will make sense of an awful lot of things that people already think they understand. It will be a case of ‘ah but, there is also this’, another level to everything that’s happening which will make you see it in a different light. It's kind of like the ending of Apocalypto where the hero makes it to the coast… I’m trying not to spoil the film here, but you know what I’m referring to. It’s a change of perspective on everything that we’ve seen so far.

Is it set in stone that the Felix Castor series will only be six books long?
No, not at all. It’s just that I’m consciously planning up to the climax of the sixth book which, to some extent, is the climax of everything that has happened before. And while there’s an inexorable build to this one moment, this one reveal, it doesn’t have to be the ending. At this point, you realise for the first time exactly what’s happening and exactly what’s at stake but the series could carry on.

You’re an incredibly busy man, not just with Felix Castor but also with various comic book projects. When you have an idea for a project, how do you decide whether it’s better suited to graphic novel or straight novel format?
Wow… In some cases there’s one obvious element that organises everything else around itself. I pitched the Castor books as a novel series for an awful lot of reasons, the one reason why you couldn’t do the Castor books as a comic (I don’t think) is because of the music. Castor exorcises ghosts through music and this is notoriously difficult to do effectively in a graphic media. How would you do it? Notes on a page? You could maybe do it as a visual effect but something would be missing because you couldn’t hear or describe the music. In other cases it’s a question of where you are when you start the story, you may be thinking of it as a comic straight out of the gate. Some stories translate effectively into any media and it doesn’t matter where you start with them. I don’t know, you have to be prepared to follow an idea wherever it takes you and that could be a million miles away from where you started when it first hits you.

Would you like to see the Felix Castor books become a movie or a TV series?
A TV series allows you to do a lot more in terms of developing the world. A movie is like a short story whereas a TV series is a novel. I’ve got a lot of respect for TV dramas, in fact a lot of what I watch is TV drama. It seems to me that the more formulaic and predictable Hollywood movies become, the more varied and wonderful American TV dramas becomes. Don’t get me wrong, I would love to see a Castor movie because it would be a massive way of getting more people to read the books if nothing else and it would be an exciting departure for me creatively.

You’ve worked on X-Men, Ultimate Fantastic Four and Neil Gaiman’s ‘Neverwhere’ amongst other comics. If you had the chance to work on any other comic book character who would you choose? The only character I’ve had a real hankering to work on (and haven’t been able to make it stick) is Dr Strange, the Sorcerer Supreme and the magical wanderer in the Marvel Superhero universe. I love Dr Strange, going right back to the original Steve Ditko stories. I love him because the approach to magic, in the Dr Strange stories, is so visceral and so visual; you actually have characters duelling with bolts of magic and it is there in front of you on the page. I tried to do something similar in a book called ‘Spellbinders’ (with Mike Perkins) and the approach to magic was nothing to do with spells or magic words. It was just shapes and colours on the page and people who read the series carefully would eventually come to realise what spells were being cast by the shapes and colours that were being used. It becomes a kind of visual shorthand. I have a pitch in at Marvel, with Pablo Raimondi, which basically has Dr Strange losing all of his power and having to learn magics from the ground up, taking him back to square one. It turns him from the Sorcerer Supreme back into the student and he has to put it back together again. It’s a book I’d love to do and Pablo would be a fantastic guy to do it with.

Thanks for your time Mike, it's been great talking with you.


Robert said...

Love it :) Mike's interviews are always a joy to read...

Chris, The Book Swede said...

I've never read any of Mike's books. I'll have to rectify that mistake - your interview was brilliant :)

The Book Swede

Graeme Flory said...

Chris - Just read them all right now! I think you'll like 'em ;o)

Rob - Glad you liked it :o) I did get your email, I've just been really slack at replying to it. Sorry...

Drew said...

Mike's an awesome guy- we met him on his US book tour for DEVIL YOU KNOW and spent some time over coffee and records at San Diego Comic-Con. Definitely one of the nicest guys in the business and one of the hardest-working too!