I recently had the pleasure to talk to celebrated author M R Carey about his newest novel, Fellside, that was published today. Hope you enjoy our chat!
RealChrisSparkle: Greetings gentle reader! And welcome back M R Carey to the pages of The Real Chrisparkle blog! I say “welcome back” because this isn’t the first time you have graced us with your presence, is it?
MRC: Thanks for having me! No it isn’t the first time I’ve been here. It’s the first time I’ve been here under my own name though.
RCS: So it was you pretending to be Adam Blake! I knew it all along. Well thanks for taking some time from your busy schedule to talk bookish things. Since your appearance as Adam, your career has continued to blossom with the very successful Girl With All The Gifts. You must be dumbstruck at how well it has done?
MRC: Yeah, very much so. I’m still waiting for the other shoe to drop, in some ways. I’ve been writing for thirty years or so now, and doing it for a living for about half that time. The reception that The Girl With All the Gifts got wasn’t like anything in my previous experience. It’s not just about the sales figures, either. It’s the fact that I was able to write the movie screenplay, and the fact that the movie got made. That one story has completely changed my life, in all kinds of ways.
RCS: It’s amazing how just one book can turn things around! And you mention the movie, I’ve read that it’s going to open on 9th September, is that the official date?
MRC: Yeah, Warner’s confirmed that a few weeks ago. Very exciting! It’s actually somewhat earlier than I was expecting. The unofficial word was “some time in September or October” but with the rider that October was more likely. Now suddenly there’s an actual date and it’s only five months away. It’s hard to believe. There’s a part of me that still finds this whole sequence of events implausible enough to be a prolonged hallucination that I’m having while I’m slumped on the floor of a bar somewhere.
RCS: I guess if the barman jogs you awake with the words “come on mate, haven’t you got a premiere to go to?” you’ll know it’s true! But what’s really at the top of your agenda today is the fact that your latest book, Fellside, is just out. Would you like to tell us a bit of what it’s about? Don’t give away any surprises!
MRC: It’s a ghost story set in a women’s prison. The protagonist, Jessica Moulson, is a drug addict who accidentally kills a child. She’s high at the time, and trying to escape from an abusive relationship by burning down her flat with her violent boyfriend in it. The boyfriend gets away clean, but the young boy who lives in the flat above gets caught in the blaze and dies.
Jess is tried for murder and sentenced to life imprisonment in Fellside, a privately owned “titan” prison on the Yorkshire moors. But she judges herself a lot more harshly than that. She feels that she doesn’t deserve to live after what she has done. So she decides to commit suicide.
But killing yourself in prison isn’t easy, especially if you’ve been put on suicide watch. Jess chooses to go on hunger strike, because the prison authorities can’t intervene to stop that process.
But when she’s about to die she has a vision of the ghost of the boy she killed. He saves her from dying, by means that seem to be supernatural and inexplicable. It seems that he has plans for her, and that she might have a chance to earn herself some kind of redemption if she can figure out what the ghost wants her to do and do it.
But there’s a complicating factor. Jess comes to the attention of the woman who runs all the rackets in Fellside – Harriet Grace. And Grace has plans for her too.
RCS: I was lucky enough to obtain an early copy and have read it cover to cover, and – most unlike me – I really was unable to put it down. It’s such an exciting read – in fact, probably one of the most exciting books I have ever read. Did it take you long to write?
MRC: It took a lot longer than GIRL. About eighteen months, but of course I was working on other projects for some of that time. I went through five drafts, effectively trying out different versions of Jess’s character and voice until I hit on the one that seemed best. It was hard. She’s a very difficult character to sympathise with, but in the end the story fails if you don’t. So it was important to present her strongly from the outset and to find an effective way of staging the reveals that make us revise our judgement of her as the story goes on.
RCS: I can appreciate that – and the way that the character develops through the story is definitely one of the driving factors that makes you want to keep reading. What came first in the creative process – was it wanting to write a book set in a prison, or wanting to write about someone accused of murder? Or some other aspect of the book?
MRC: I think there were two things that were in my head when I set out. One of them was the setting. I really like enclosed settings in which some of the normal rules of social interaction are suspended. The army base in GIRL was one, and obviously Fellside Prison is another.
The other strand that was in there right from the start was addiction. I wanted to write a story about an addict fighting against her own cravings, fighting to find herself and redefine herself. I’ve had my own (mostly trivial) brushes with addiction, but I’ve also known many addicts. Some of the people who have been most important in my life have either fought against addiction and won or been destroyed by it. So I’ve thought for a long time that it was a theme I should visit and try to explore.
RCS: That’s fascinating and the exploration of addiction is something that frequently recurs in the book – and it pulls no punches where it comes to the harm it can cause. As far as the enclosed setting is concerned, I don’t think you’ve ever been to prison but I do know you used to work in a school – do you think prison and schools are similar in some ways?
MRC: There are obviously some strong similarities. Two groups sharing the space, one of whom is empowered while the other is mostly powerless – at least in terms of defining the rules of engagement. Prison is a total environment, though. You’re there all the time and there’s no getting away from it. So a relationship that sours or a situation that the institution sees as problematic can spill over into every aspect of your life. There’s no refuge. No way – or almost no way – to assert your own definition of yourself against the institution’s definition of you.
Another huge similarity, though, is that both schools and prisons offer roles, and behaviour sets that go with the roles. By enacting the role you can find yourself absorbing it, accepting it. You carry out the behaviours you think are expected of you, vaguely reassured by the fact that it’s the role, not your real nature, that’s in play. But of course we are what we do. You converge with the role. You become that aspect of yourself more and more. Or at least that’s the danger.
That’s another reason that enclosed and constrained settings fascinate me. I think they create pressures on our sense of self, and it’s interesting to see how people respond to that.
RCS: Certainly the traditional roles of, say, prisoner and prison officer are questioned in your book. Sometimes it’s not necessarily the person with the institutional authority who’s in the driving seat. I’m not sure Harriet Grace would ever have been the kind of person who meekly did what she was told!
MRC: No, that’s true. And partly that’s a case of the individual will, of course. But partly, too, it’s a side effect of how total institutions work. You could say that Grace chooses a role out of the many that are waiting there to be selected. There’s a point where one of the other characters, Shannon McBride, tells us about Grace’s early life, and how she escaped from being bullied by becoming a bully. She doesn’t change or question the paradigm, she just moves. It’s a confidence trick. Look, I can’t be a victim because you can plainly see that I have victims of my own…
I think this is something we see at a lot of different points in the book. People either getting trapped in a definition of themselves or rebelling and renegotiating it. The biggest contrast to Grace is probably Salazar, who allows himself to be trapped by one bad decision – and by fear – into playing a role that he absolutely hates.
RCS: Yes I admit I felt rather sorry for Salazar, even though he’s his own worst enemy – but that’s part of the human condition – frequently we are! I guessed from the start things wouldn’t turn out well for him, although I couldn’t predict what actually happened! And on that note, can I ask you about the plotting? The story twists and turns like a twisty-turny thing. Did you always know where it was going, or did the characters surprise you by taking you in different paths from what you expected?
MRC: I did what I always do, which is to start out with a very detailed plan but then to jump ship when a better idea came along! I think it’s probably like this for most writers. A novel is a semi-organic thing, like a cyborg. Some parts of it are built to high tolerances out of factory-hardened steel. Other bits are made of spit and sawdust. But the great thing about having a plan to start with is that it allows you to do precisely that – to deviate and experiment.
I think I had a strong sense of the journey each character would have to make, so I knew – in general terms – where they would end up. The big reveals, likewise, were fixed from the start. But some things just happened because they happened, which is part of what makes writing so exhilarating. Shannon wasn’t even mentioned in the plan, but at a certain point I pushed her into this role as Fellside’s storyteller and it seemed to work really well. So she ended up being very important. She’s the one who lets us see inside Grace’s head. She’s also the custodian of Jess’s story, although she changes it many times as her perceptions of Jess change.
RCS: That’s fascinating, I saw Shannon as rather like “Rumour” in an old pre-Shakespearean tragedy. I sense you’re rather fond of Shannon, she developed very nicely through the book! Are there any other characters of whom you are especially fond or proud that they turned out like they did? I liked the solicitor’s assistant Levine, falling for his client – albeit a rather imaginary version of his client. He’s wannabe noble but full of human failings. Are there any characters who you’d want to go for a drink with?
MRC: I liked all of them, including the really dysfunctional and scary ones! I’m very fond of Salazar. He was a challenge to write because he’s so passive and weak-willed for most of the story, facilitating what the more brutal and unprincipled characters do by not standing against them. But underneath that he has a very powerful desire to do the right thing, and we follow his progress from this position of abject surrender to a very brave decision that is still, somehow, a falling down rather than a standing up.
And I enjoyed writing both Patience DiMarta and Andrea Corcoran – people who are quietly doing their best in this hideous and messed up environment.
In terms of going out for a few pints… you know, I’d probably go for the other lawyer, Brian Pritchard. He’s a bit of a grandstander, but he’s shrewd and in his own understated way an idealist. I suspect he’d be good company.
RCS: He probably earns well too, so I’m sure he’d be generous when it was his round! As in GIRL, at the heart of the book you have a strong female character with an almost unbreakable bond with a child. Is this something we should examine psychologically about yourself? Would you like to get on my couch and tell me about your childhood?
MRC: Oh man, would I not like that!
My childhood was frankly weird. There was a fair amount of deprivation – we were very poor – and there was a fair amount of what I can only call crazy shit. My brother Dave said to me once that the scariest thing about our childhood was the sense that nobody was really in control, and I absolutely agree.
But it was a very loving family. Precarious, almost falling apart, perpetually in crisis, but loving all the same. And I think those contradictions ricochet around in everything I write. Families can save us or destroy us. Can save us AND destroy us. Parents build us up and break us down. They make it possible for us to be what we are, and yet they set the limits too.
I think what I really keep picking at is the extent to which we make our own identities, and the extent to which our relationships with other people can help us or hinder us in that process. Nothing is as fulfilling or as important as love, and parental love is important at the point in our lives where we’re still learning who we are. But it’s almost inevitable that at some point you’ll have to fight against the way your parents see you. The definition of yourself that they want to give you. Otherwise you’ll find yourself becoming some edited and foreshortened form of yourself.
RCS: Thank you for your honesty sir! I completely agree that there comes that point when you have to fight your parents’ definition of who you are and take your own course in life, which is almost certainly not the same course that they had planned for you! Jess’s bond with Alex is, at first, very domineering, making those assumptions about who he really is, and what will be best for him, just in the same way you suggested your parents did for you and certainly mine did for me. Jess is certainly guilty of projecting her own fears, fantasies and desires onto Alex, moulding him into something she wants him to be, but that he basically isn’t. This also happens to Lizzie Earnshaw who’s been made into a big bad bitch but is actually as nice as pie deep down. It all goes back to what you said earlier about defining your roles and your character.
MRC: Yeah, absolutely – and sometimes that’s a very hard thing to do. Every relationship changes you. Everything you do often enough and consistently enough changes you. There’s no clear dividing line between you and the world, there’s just a permeable membrane. The trick is to maintain enough awareness of those processes to have some control over them.
RCS: There’s a very stark contrast between the gritty realism of life in the prison with the supernatural friendship between Jess and Alex. It must have been very difficult to find the right way to express their relationship, when there’s not much in the way of “reality” taking place! How did you go about finding that voice?
MRC: It was the toughest balancing act in the whole process of writing the book, and I think part of the answer is that I cheated. Once I’ve created the two worlds – Fellside, in all its grim solidity, and the dream world which is about as solid as a memory of smelling candy floss – I immediately start to interweave them. As soon as you have that moment when Jess feels Alex’s hand in hers as she’s standing on the walkway outside her cell, you have a kind of palimpsest. She’s always got a foot in both camps, and everything – arguably – is simultaneously real and not real. Or at least everything has consequences in the other world. Jess and Alex’s dream journeys raise echoes in the minds of the Goodall inmates, and the realities of life in Fellside shape and inform the things that they encounter in the dream world.
There are other forms of cheating going on too, of course, that I can’t discuss without major spoilers. But it seemed crucial to me that we should both believe and invest in the relationship between Jess and Alex in all of its stages. They help each other to survive, in real and measurable ways. That’s the core of the story. And it doesn’t stop being real (or at least I hope it doesn’t) when we realise that they’ve been fundamentally mistaken about each other.
RCS: No, absolutely, the two characters are completely interdependent and that bond is completely real, right through to the very end – which we’d better not discuss as that would really ruin it for anyone who hasn’t read it! In amongst all the greed, power, corruption, injustice, and revenge, it strikes me as being a very moral tale. The baddies certainly get their come-uppance, which feels very satisfactory for the reader. And there’s definitely a religious nuance going on there too. Is it fair to say the name of Grace was chosen with a certain degree of irony?
MRC: Yeah, very much so. My original working title for the novel was State Of Grace. It’s a story about redemption, and about how far redemption is possible. And of course in that narrative Grace has some of the attributes of Mephistopheles, pulling Jess away from her goals and from her attempt to keep faith with Alex.
But I don’t know that I’d call it a moral tale. Good people get hurt and ruined too. I remember reading Kenneth Muir’s introduction to the Arden King Lear back when I was a student. Sorry, I’m not comparing myself with Shakespeare, here, I’m just borrowing an argument. Muir pointed out that by the end of the play the villains have been destroyed but they’ve taken almost all the decent characters with them. It’s as though the universe has been through some huge convulsion to purge itself of something terrible – but the violence of that purging hits everybody, leaves them all dead or walking wounded.
Having said that, there is certainly a sense of a better order starting to emerge at Fellside at the close of the book. It doesn’t just go back to the status quo.
RCS: There’s definitely a better order at the end of the book – Fortinbras has come on board and taken things under control! I see why you don’t feel it’s moral, and for sure some of the decent characters don’t survive unscathed. But they were sacrificed so that the future would be brighter. Something was certainly rotten in the state of Fellside – sorry for Hamleting up your Lear allusion! So what’s next on the cards for you, now that Fellside is out. Reclining on a chaise-longue and being fed grapes?
MRC: That would be nice! Actually I’ve never been busier in my life. I’m finishing up the next novel, Bedlam Bridge, which I’ve got to deliver in April, and at the same time I’m working on a lot of screenwriting projects which I’m trying to juggle so that I don’t lose momentum on any of them. One of them is a movie version of Fellside, which I’m hoping to get off the ground with the same production company that did The Girl with All the Gifts, and with Colm as director again.
I still write comics, too. I’ve just finished volume one of Highest House, the epic fantasy I’m writing for French publisher Glenat. Which means I should now be planning volume two…
RCS: …and I’m guessing you aren’t yet?! Wow you certainly are busy. A movie version of Fellside would be great, I can already imagine some perfect casting for the roles! And if Bedlam Bridge needs to be ready this month I’d better let you get on! Thanks very much for your time Mike, congratulations on a brilliant book, and best of luck for all your future endeavours!
MRC: Thanks to you too, RCS. It’s been a real pleasure talking.
Later edit: Bedlam Bridge, which Mike talks about here as being his next up and coming novel was of course retitled The Boy on the Bridge, the much admired prequel to The Girl with All the Gifts.