Today, we are delighted to bring you an interview with M.R. Carey, the author of the recently published apocalyptic speculative fiction novel The Girl with All the Gifts. (Thea loved it.)
Please give a warm welcome to M.R. Carey, folks!
The Book Smugglers: Your novel The Girl with All the Gifts is based on the Edgar Award-nominated short story Iphigenia in Aulis. How and why did you decide to expand this tale from a short work to a full novel??
M.R. Carey: I was sort of haunted by the characters – or one of the characters, at least. I kept thinking about Melanie, and I couldn’t get away from the feeling that there was more to her story. It’s not something that’s happened to me before. I’ve often appended short stories to novels I’ve already written, as with Second Wind, the free-standing Nicky Heath story that’s attached to the Felix Castor novels. But in this case I’d opened a tiny window onto a world, and I wanted to go back and visit for longer. More than that, really – I wanted to mount an expedition and go exploring.
But Melanie was key to all that, definitely. I wanted to go back and see what became of her once she left the narrow confines of the military base which is the only setting in the short story. And the more I thought about it, the more sense it seemed to make to take the short story as the first chapter in a larger work.
The Book Smugglers: Are there any other adaptations of The Girl with All the Gifts (comics, film) in the works? If you could have anyone draw or direct an adaptation of this book, who would it be?
MC: There’s a movie version for which I’m writing the screenplay. We’re being assisted and funded by the BFI, who’ve been incredibly supportive of the project, and it feels like we’re in a really good place. We already have a director attached, and I really couldn’t imagine anyone better. It’s Colm McCarthy. He’s one of the most respected and sought-after directors in British television at the moment, having worked on Sherlock, Endeavour, Ripper Street, Doctor Who and every other great TV drama of the past ten years. He also wrote and directed an amazing horror movie, Outcast, which I saw and loved. So the prospect of working with him on a movie project was very exciting to me.
I was actually writing the novel and the screenplay at the same time – another first, and something which I think worked to the benefit of both versions. Inevitably the two versions diverge in some ways – because movies and novels work differently and have different strengths. The novels moves between five point-of-view characters, where the movie stays resolutely with Melanie herself and forces us to see everything through her eyes. And the mechanics of her world are subtly different, too. It’s not a case of one version being better than the other. We just wanted to use the full potential of the different media.
If there was ever a Girl With All the Gifts comic, the only people I’d want to draw it would be either Peter Gross (who worked with me on Lucifer) or Mike Perkins (the artist on the Marvel adaptation of Stephen King’s The Stand). Either of them would have the perfect sensibility for the story, although they’d render it in very different ways.
The Book Smugglers: Tales of the apocalypse are increasingly popular these days – from Justin Cronin’s The Passage to AMC’s adaptation of The Walking Dead, people have a thing for the end of the world by ravenous monster. What books (or comics, films, or tv shows) inspired your particular take on the apocalypse? What distinguishes your zombies from others in popular culture?
MC: I’m a big fan of both The Walking Dead and the Romero zombie movies. I don’t know to what extent they influenced me, but it would be hard to claim they never entered my mind. I hadn’t read The Passage when I wrote Girl, and now that I am reading it, I’m glad. It’s magnificent, and the two stories share just enough DNA that it would have worried me if I’d known it was out there. I would have tried to steer away from it more, possibly to the detriment of the story.
But of course my novel doesn’t have any zombies. We don’t use the z word even once…
Kidding aside, there were two things that I was doing that felt new and arguably significant. Far and away the more important of the two is Melanie herself – an innocent who is also a monster but doesn’t know that and has to learn what it means. The other thing is the mechanic of how people become infected and how it changes them. I’d been watching a David Attenborough nature documentary, and I sat up and took notice when he started to talk about insect parasites. It felt like there was something in his discussion of the Cordyceps fungus that really played into some primal fears about possession and loss of self.
So I have to count Life In the Undergrowth as a major influence, too.
The Book Smugglers: How does writing long form fiction differ from writing comics or screenplays? Do you have a favorite or preferred media?
MC: When Marshall MacLuhan said the medium is the message, I think he got it exactly right. Every creative medium – film, comics, prose fiction, console games, radio drama – is a set of tools for picking up and examining the world. But they’re such very different tools, they enable you to apprehend and explore very different things. Obviously that’s an extreme way of putting it. The internal logic of the medium pushes you in a certain direction in each case – encourages certain approaches and strategies.
I don’t really have a favourite, but I’m very much aware of what those differences mean for me. To state one obvious point, a comic book is usually a canvas of a very definite and pre-programmed size. If it’s a monthly book, it’s going to have either 20 or 22 pages, with almost no wriggle room to increase or decrease that count. So when you write a comic book, you have to think very consciously not just about structure and pacing but about costing out the scenes you’re working on and making sure that you get to your end point with no rushing or pushing or squeezing.
With a novel, you have much more latitude. Even if your contract states a word count, nobody ever sees that as prescriptive. You can go wildly over and nobody will bat an eyelid, so the canvas is what you make it.
It’s also true to say that when you’re writing a novel you’re a one-man band, whereas when you’re writing a comic book you’re conducting an orchestra.
And then again, you live with a novel for a lot longer. Most editors don’t ask to see work in progress, so there might be as long as a whole year between signing the contract and delivering the finished work. And at any point within that time, you can change your mind about very significant things and go back and amend them. You can introduce new characters, or rewrite existing ones, interpolate or strike out whole chapters, juggle the sequence…
With a monthly comic book you don’t have that flexibility. You script, you rewrite, you polish, and then that issue has gone off to the art team. The window in which you can change your mind is very small – which again puts a premium on detailed and punctilious planning.
Screenplays look like comics books, but don’t work like comic books. They’re much, much more stripped-down and spare. And they’re even more collaborative.
I feel I’m very lucky to have been able to work in all these different media. It forces you to examine your default strategies in storytelling, which can only be a good thing. You learn very quickly that you have to let the story tell you how to tell it.
The Book Smugglers: It’s the end of the world, and the zombies are coming. You can bring 5 books with you. QUICK! What are they?
MC: Oh, I’d probably die still faffing around! Or trying to find a book that I’d just put down somewhere in the Aladdin’s cave/junkyard of my house. Just five? Okay, how about these (cheating slightly in some cases to include series rather than individual volumes).
Lord Of Light by Roger Zelazny.
The Earthsea books of Ursula LeGuin (if I had to pick just one: Tombs Of Atuan)
The Torturer Quartet by Gene Wolfe.
Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne.
The Gods Of Pegana by Lord Dunsany.
The Book Smugglers: Finally, a question we ask during all of our interviews: We Book Smugglers are faced with constant threats and criticisms from our significant others concerning the sheer volume of books we purchase and read – hence, we have resorted to ‘smuggling books’ home to escape scrutinizing eyes. Have you ever had to smuggle books?
MC: Fortunately not! My wife, Lin, is a bigger bookoholic than I am. If the sheer weight of books in our bedroom made the floor collapse, she’d just say “let’s build it stronger next time”. Assuming she wasn’t reading at the time – in which case she might not even notice. And she counts comics as books, so I’m covered on that front too…
Thanks so much for the chat! Make sure to stick around for our review of The Girl with All the Gifts later today! In the meantime, here’s a video to keep you on your toes.