I spoke to the brilliant Mike Carey about his writing process.
Born in Liverpool in 1959, Mike Carey is a well-known writer of comic books, films and novels. He wrote the Eisner Award-nominated comic book Lucifer for the Vertigo Imprint of DC Comics, as well as being the ongoing writer of X-Men: Legacy for Marvel Comics. After such an impressive writing career, it came as no surprise that Carey decided to turn his hand to novels. The first book in his Felix Castor series was published by Orbit in 2006, and The Girl With All the Gifts was released earlier this year under the name M.R. Carey.
On the recommendation of the lovely Peadar Ó Guilín, I read and reviewed The Girl With All the Gifts a couple of months ago (proceed with caution – my review contains mild spoilers!). I thought it was absolutely fantastic. Not only is it a brilliant novel, with a fresh take on the overdone zombie theme, but it’s set in the area in which I live, so I could really visualise the events. My secondary school is literally down the road from RAF Henlow, where the base in The Girl With All the Gifts is located, and I used to live in Baldock. I have to agree with Sergeant Parks – it would be no great loss if the service station was burnt to the ground, though I’d rather keep the KFC. Stevenage is, regrettably, where you have to go if you want to get any decent shopping done. It came as no surprise to me that Stevenage was overrun by “hungries” – it’s practically the case already.
When I spotted Carey’s name on the programme for WorldCon, I was ecstatic. Book in hand, I sauntered over and demanded to know if he lived in the area. I can see how that may be taken the wrong way, but after assuring him that I wasn’t a stalker, I proceeded to explain that I lived in the area, and that he’d written about it perfectly. Luckily for me, he didn’t run away, and I managed to set up an interview.
Carey didn’t see writing as a possible career, and so he writes, quite simply, because he loves to tell stories.
As a kid I used to make comics for my younger brother Dave, and then when I had kids of my own I used to tell them stories too – sometimes reading aloud from books, sometimes just making it up from whole cloth. That pleasure is my strongest motivation.
He has, of course, had an extremely successful writing career, despite his earlier hesitation.
It was something I did alongside my actual job, in the little interstices. I was a teacher, and later a parent too, so I didn’t have a lot of free time. But what I did have went to writing. I wrote novels mostly, and they were big shapeless bags of story with no real structure. Then I started to write and pitch comic series, and through that I learned how to structure a story.
My second question, where do you get your ideas from?, always seems to throw authors.
From everywhere, I suppose. And usually from sources that are fairly opaque to me. I’m sure that’s true for most writers. An idea comes to you and you don’t question where it comes from, you just grab it and start worrying it like a dog with a plastic bone.
Writing 101, according to Carey, is to strip back your own childhood, and write about the experiences that are the most vivid and real for you.
A lot of people and places and actual events from my childhood have made it into my stories one way and another. The Hellblazer issue entitled The Gift was very heavily based on things that happened to me, and lots of the backstory in the Castor novels – especially in the fourth book, Thicker Than Water.
And of course you’re wide open to stuff that’s bubbling away in the zeitgeist, he says.
In other words you build on other people’s stories. Not in the sense of consciously borrowing from them, but in the sense of having them embedded in your brain at a deep level so bits of them filter up in disguised form.
Carey has some brilliant advice for aspiring writers. The three most important things are the three most obvious ones: read a lot, write a lot, but not in a vacuum.
Read voraciously in the genre and the medium in which you want to write. In my opinion if you don’t love it as a reader then you won’t hack it as a writer. That sounds intuitively obvious but I’ve had conversations with people who’d decided to write (let’s say) a fantasy novel without ever at any point in their lives having picked one up. Not gonna work.
Writing is very much a learning-by-doing thing. It’s a creative skill, but it’s also a mechanical skill. Mechanical skills improve with repetition, and writing does too.
Take the stuff you’ve written and get people to look at it. Read it aloud to friends and family. Join a writing group and read it aloud there, too. Seek out people who are not afraid to give you negative feedback – negative feedback is precious. Find out what you’re doing wrong, then get back on the horse and try again.
As someone who did a lot of indie work and fanzine work, Carey thinks the benefits of writing and reaching an audience will often outweigh the drawbacks of choosing to swim in a small pond. Small press and self-publishing are therefore valid and viable routes, though he has a word of caution, as going down those routes can make it harder to get a commission from a major publisher afterwards. If you can get an agent, do so. They will lift your work out of the slush pile and get it a sympathetic reading.
Having said that, I got my first job at DC Comics (Sandman Presents Lucifer) by being picked out of the slush pile, so it can be done.
Carey wishes he hadn’t spent his twenties hiding his manuscripts in his sock drawer. Writing is a learn-by-doing process, and there’s a sense in which you always start out clueless and find out who you are as a writer by actually writing. But the process doesn’t kick in until you get serious. Once you’re writing whole stories and getting them out in some form – self-published, online, it doesn’t matter how – that’s when you really start to develop. So the sooner you get on with it, the better. And when it comes to editors, it pays to do your research:
I wish someone had told me not to treat all editors as if they’re limbs of the same big monster-editor. I sometimes sent pitches in to people who didn’t handle that particular genre at all. I might just as well have dropped those pitches into the wastepaper basket.
Being a freelancer means always thinking about the job after the job after next. At the time of this interview, Carey had delivered his next novel and was deep in rewriting it. He was also writing some episodes for a TV series at Touchpaper, as well as working on the movie adaptation of Jonathan Trigell’s sci-fi novel Genus. He’s also pitching a comic book series with Peter Gross, which he hopes they will be able to work on once The Unwritten wraps up at the end of this year.
As always, I asked what Carey was reading. He had just finishedThe Shining Girls by Lauren Buekes, which he described as an amazing and hard-hitting book. As light relief, he then picked upAdventures of Superhero Girl by Faith Erin Hicks, before moving on to Peter F. Hamilton’s latest novel.
And I’m simultaneously reading The Ocean At the End Of the Road to my wife, while she reads me Raising Steam. This is a long-standing arrangement that kicks in when one of us is doing some cooking. The cook demands and gets in-kitchen entertainment.
Carey does a lot of appearances, both at festivals and in the form of readings in bookstores. He was in Lanarkshire for Encounters, and before the end of the year he’ll be attending Thought Bubble, Wales Con and the Herts festival. Keep an eye on his website or social media for appearances coming near you.
The Girl With All the Gifts is available on Lovereading.co.uk, the UK’s No.1 book recommendation site.