Interview: M.R. Carey: The Writer With All the Gifts
by Drew Bittner
Review by Drew Bittner
Date: 04 August 2014
Links: M.R. Carey's Website / Review of Girl With All The GIfts /
SFRevu talked with Carey recently about his latest book, his newest projects and what's going on in his amazingly busy life.SFRevu: Was there one idea that sparked GIRL? I can imagine that, as a former teacher yourself, you've faced classrooms that could have been full of these children (or worse).
Carey: Yeah, but I taught at the top end of the age range -- senior high and community college, or their UK equivalents. I never had to ride herd on a grade school class, which I would imagine is one of the toughest things in the world to do.
Girl... started with an image, really. I'd agreed to write a short story for a themed anthology, and the theme was "school days". And having said I'd do it, I just got nowhere in coming up with a story. And the deadline was looming and I was starting to get really nervous. Then one day I woke up with this picture in my head. It was a little girl writing an essay in an empty classroom. The title of the essay was "What I want to do when I grow up." Only the girl was dead, and didn't realise it.
I started to write with just that image to go on, and the short story -- "Iphigenia in Aulis" -- coalesced as I wrote. But when I'd finished I was pretty certain that there was more to tell. I had Melanie's voice in my head by that time and I really wanted to take the story further. So I started to work on an outline for what became the novel.
SFRevu: This book asks some pretty heavy questions about what makes us human. How did that unfold for you as you thought through this story? Were there any surprises in these different perspectives?
Carey: It was a little surprising when I wrote the first few chapters from Caldwell's perspective. She's the closest thing to a monster in the novel, but from her own point of view she's totally right and totally justified. At quite a late stage I added in the dialogue between her and Justineau where she asks "Which weighs the most, your compassion or my work?"
I always wanted Melanie to be the touchstone for the adult characters -- so we understand them and I guess judge them according to how they behave towards her. But I also wanted all four of them to be more than cardboard cut-outs or symbols for points of view. At the start I think we're inclined to hate both Parks and Caldwell because we can see how they're denying Melanie's humanity. But I'd like to think that by the end of the story we understand where they're coming from. And of course they all change in the course of the story. Even Caldwell does, although her least of all.
As you say, I was trying to interrogate the limits of that empathic faculty -- our ability to look at another individual and see ourselves there. That question brings a lot of other questions with it.
SFRevu: There's a lot of loneliness in this story. Miss Justineau and Dr. Caldwell are perhaps the last of their kinds. Is there a tragic beauty in apocalyptic endings and the entropy that grinds down the remnants of a civilization?
Carey: Oh yes! You know that word Brecht used to describe his own work? Verfremdungs-effekt? I think that's something you get from a lot of science fiction and horror -- a new perspective on very familiar things that suddenly makes them strange again. And it's very much a feature of post-apocalyptic fiction. You look at the things that survive from our world -- fractured, out of context, perished -- and you confront your own mortality. It's why the original Planet Of the Apes movie packed such a punch when it first came out back in the '60s. That final shot of the sunken, broken Statue of Liberty was shorthand for the death of an entire civilisation, and it hit you in the stomach. I mean, I'm British and I still felt that.
So yeah, I was going there. To compare great things with small, there's a scene in Girl... where the five survivors come upon a double-decker London bus. And it's as big a mystery to Private Gallagher as it is to Melanie. He grew up after the collapse, so he's never seen anything like this and he's not sure what it is. Melanie actually gets it faster because she's learned about it in class -- and then he has to pretend that he knew all along. I enjoyed writing that scene.
Caldwell's last-ditch defence of the scientific method is something else again, maybe. It is meant to be poignant, and maybe it becomes tragic when she has that conversation with Melanie about what she got wrong and why. She's never been able to see past her own ego, and then this child makes her recognise what she is and what she's been doing.
SFRevu: In stories like this, the survivors always end up exposed to danger from every side. In terms of drama, why is that moment necessary? What does it reveal about the characters?
Carey: Well there's definitely the sense that once you've got your characters out on the road you throw the kitchen sink at them. And that's enjoyable on the level of pure spectacle, but if you're doing it right then it should be more than that. You test your characters to destruction because that's how you crack them open so you can take a look at what's inside.
I was saying earlier that all the characters are changed in the course of the story. But really what changes are the relationships -- especially the relationship that each of the four adults has with Melanie. There are a number of reasons for that, but one of them -- maybe the biggest one -- is that the hierarchy of power shifts. Once they're outside the base, Melanie is the only one who can move freely without watching her back every second of the time. She's indispensible to their survival. So then other things mutate around that. Parks' suspicion, Caldwell's sense of ownership, Justineau's protectiveness....
SFRevu: This is perhaps a most oddly hopeful ending. Do you think there's redemption for humanity in Melanie and the children?
Carey: I have to pick my words with care here, because that ending is the one thing that kind of has to creep up on readers and catch them unawares. But yeah, I would say that there's hope there. That was actually the main reason why I wanted to use Pandora's box as the anchoring metaphor for the whole story. When you open the box, unimaginable horrors swarm out. But right at the bottom, almost afraid to show herself, is Hope.
SFRevu: I understand that you not only have the screenplay of the story finished but you've also got a budget to get started with filming. Can you say anything about this?
Carey: This has been the most amazing sequence of events, really. I was working with an independent production company, Golden Arrow, on an adaptation of a science fiction novel. But then the rights deal went sour and we suddenly had no valid option on the material. This was right at the point where I was talking to Orbit about turning my short story into a novel. I showed the short to the producers, Camille and Dan, and they loved it. Then UK director Colm McCarthy joined in those discussions, and the four of us approached the BFI for help in developing a movie. They agreed to put Girl... on their slate, which meant we were funded to produce a screenplay and they also advised us and gave us feedback at key points.
So I was writing the screenplay at the same time as I was writing the novel. The two processes fed off each other and ricocheted off each other. It could have been a nightmare, but it was brilliant! These guys are so smart, and they were so committed to the story -- including that very bittersweet ending. We were all on the same wavelength throughout.
And then we sent the finished screenplay out to a hand-selected group of people. That was where the BFI advice and steering really came in handy. And we got a distribution deal, right out of the gate. Which meant we had a budget. And then we went and got a casting director. And the rest, I fervently hope, is not-yet-but-soon-to-be-history.
I've been involved in movie projects before but this time feels different. I've really learned from it, and enjoyed it, and it feels like we've functioned amazingly well as a team. I came out of that process in a different place creatively, and I mean that in a good way.
SFRevu: Finally, is there anything you might tell our readers--a sequel in the works, maybe?
No immediate plans for a sequel, although I'm starting to see all sorts of ways in which you could do it. The next M.R. Carey novel, which doesn't even have a title yet, is a ghost story in which a murderer is haunted by her victim's ghost. But that's just the nucleus for a much wider story that involves dozens of characters. The only real comparison with Girl... is that it's an enclosed, institutional setting. But whereas in Girl... the base falls a third of the way through, in this next story everyone is trapped together for the whole time -- for a given value of the word trapped!
I'm also still working on another movie screenplay, based on a novel by Brit author Jonathan Trigell, and on a TV pilot. And Peter Gross and I are planning and pitching the next thing we're aiming to do after (DC/Vertigo comic book series) Unwritten. So life is pretty full. Which I now realise is how I almost always sign off in interviews, so let me try to inject a different note this time. I feel as though I'm leaning back in a catapult and the tension on the strings is increasing and increasing. Any moment now there's going to be an almighty TWANG. And after that I don't know what happens, but I think it's going to be interesting.
SFRevu: Thank you for spending some time with us, Mike, and a huge congratulations on the success of GIRL! If you haven''t read it already, what are you waiting for?