Greetings gentle reader and welcome to yet another interview with M. R. Carey – because he’s written yet another book! Hello Mike!
M R Carey: Hi Chris. Thanks for the invite.
Real Chrisparkle: My pleasure! Your new book came out a few days ago – and it’s The Book of Koli – the first of a trilogy I believe. Would you like to tell us a little bit of what the book’s about (without giving any games away, of course)!
MRC: Sure! This is me going back into post-apocalyptic territory. The story is set a few centuries from now. Our civilisation has fallen apart for numerous reasons. There was resource depletion, which caused resource wars. Biodiversity went through the floor. The climate broke down, despite attempt to throw science at the problem – and the solutions that were tried mostly made things worse. Basically there’s been a massive thinning out of the human population. The survivors live in small, isolated communities – so small that they’re probably not even genetically viable in the longer term. The level of technology has gone back to something close to a medieval level – except for a few precious pieces of tech salvaged from the old times. The people who wield this tech are known as Ramparts, and the protagonist of the book, Koli Woodsmith, desperately wants to become one. But it’s very much a case of “be careful what you wish for…”
RC: I can say from my personal knowledge that it’s a great book and you set up a very exciting series of adventures for our hero Koli to endure! Can I first ask, why did you choose to set the story in the Calder Valley – and Mythen Rood, that’s Mytholmroyd, is it not? Do you have some association with that area?
MRC: Not really, no – although I went there last year as guest author on an Arvon writing course at Lumb Bank. I wanted somewhere that was a long way from London, for reasons that become clear as the story goes on, and being a Northerner I turned my eyes northwards rather than, say, to the south-west. I had some fun with the place names, and I took a few liberties with geography. You have to assume that some of the settlements we hear about are a little way removed from their present-day equivalents. Otherwise the distances don’t work. But the main thing I wanted was a real and defined area in England that has changed a lot but still has some recognisable landmarks or features.
RC: Thanks for clearing that up! This is (at least!) the second time that you’ve set novels in a post-apocalyptic world. What is it about such a world that you find so fruitful and fascinating?
MRC: There are lots of reasons, but I think most of all I like post-apocalyptic worlds because they present simply. There are a lot of things we think are fundamental that are really accidents – they come down to social codes and social roles, rather than to anything intrinsic in human nature. In a post-apocalyptic novel you can strip that stuff away and get back to basics – while at the same time holding up the things that only seemed to be basics to a kind of indirect scrutiny.
RC: That’s very interesting – it’s almost like it allows us to come closer to the truth of what life is all about. It’s perhaps strange and slightly frightening that the book has been published in what might be a pre-apocalyptic time for all of us, with the Covid-19 running riot around the world! Staying at home means we have to strip the unnecessary stuff away too. Might there be accidental parallels between your fictional universe and our current situation?
MRC: Yeah, I’m very much afraid there are! The second book actually has a plague narrative as a major strand. While Koli is off on his journeys, Mythen Rood succumbs to an epidemic – and it falls to Spinner, the girl he thought he loved, to try to figure out how to combat it. Obviously there’s no question of a vaccine in a world that has no real concept of science. It’s more a question of trying to find out what the vectors of transmission are so they can close them down.
I’d finished writing those sequences by the time lockdown started – actually I sent them in last July – but they were still very much in my head when Covid-19 went from something distant and disturbing to something that was right at the door and threatening to knock it down. There’s a passage in that second book where Spinner reflects on how different it is to live through a catastrophe, as opposed to hearing stories about it. Stories can prepare you for the worst, up to a point, but when you’re catapulted into the actual experience, the first thing that happens is that you change from the business-as-usual version of you to the crisis version. And you don’t necessarily know in advance what that’s going to look like.
RC: Perhaps it gives us a greater insight into the nature of catastrophe – as you say, nothing can really prepare us for what lies ahead. I guess we’ll have to wait until the second book to find out! We’ve spoken of post-apocalyptic and pre-apocalyptic situations; I wonder, can you imagine writing a book that dealt with the actual apocalypse itself? After all, if there were to be a post-apocalyptic world afterwards, there’d have to be some survivors, so it could be quite a positive/optimistic story! Maybe a bit like The Sound of Music, but where the von Trapps survive to establish a new world order!
MRC: That’s an appealing image. If I’d ever written a third book set in the world of The Girl With All the Gifts, it would have been something along those lines – jumping back in time another decade to the time of the Breakdown and exploring how the arrival of Cordyceps impacted the world. One thing that Covid-19 has painfully exposed is how fragile a lot of social structures are, and how threadbare our safety nets have become. Capitalism is predicated on never-ending growth, so we’ve created a society that’s a bit like a shark. If it stops moving, it’s in danger of dying. It would be fascinating – and terrifying – to look at that process in action. I mean, in a work of fiction. I have to say, I’m not enjoying living through it.
RC: And to be fair, the public don’t need to be spooked more than they already are. Now is probably a time for horsies and bunnies! But it is frightening – and at the same time strangely intriguing – to see the tenets of society shrivel up. Fortunately, there’s always hope at the bottom of Pandora’s Box! So, going back to the beginning of The Book of Koli; you create a world that we barely recognise, but we can see there are long established rituals and patterns of behaviour that we don’t understand at all at first and then gradually get some sense of what it’s all about. It’s very much a time-travel experience for the reader. That, plus the unusual language, can be a bit of a barrier at first. Were you aware that you were making life potentially tricky for some of your readers?
MRC: I was, yeah. I can vividly remember reading Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker, and bouncing off that strange future English. I was doing something less radical, but I knew it would take a bit of grappling with for some readers. It was just that Koli’s voice was at the centre of everything, for me, in the same way Melanie’s voice was in GIRL. Even more so, in fact, because Koli is the narrator. I was trying – in my small way – to do something a little bit similar to what Mark Twain did in Huckleberry Finn. I wanted to tell a story from the point of view of someone who is barely literate and has to struggle to communicate with us. It would have felt like cheating if Koli had spoken in standard English – and I think it would have taken something away from the book. A layer of meaning, or a bit of light and shadow.
Speaking to the gradualness – the way the world reveals itself slowly and piecemeal – that’s a side effect of the first person perspective. The things that Koli tells us are the things that matter to him, which means they’ve got to be visible to him. It’s only when Ursala comes into the story that we get the luxury of a different take. That’s when we start to see over Koli’s shoulder and connect his world to ours. I love that kind of narrative bait and switch – both as a reader and as a writer.
RC: Indeed, the connection between those two characters is incredibly positive – it put me in mind of the old Kung Fu programme – with Ursala as a figure of wisdom, and Koli as the little grasshopper learning his way! Koli may be barely literate but he’s still superbly eloquent. How did you set about constructing his use of language? (which for me was a constant source of delight in the book!)
MRC: Thanks! I’m glad you enjoyed it. Koli’s voice was the thing that came first, in fact – and it existed before I started to write the novel. As with The Girl with All the Gifts, there was a short story that came first. The narrator at that story is called Tari, and he lives in an actual medieval village rather than in a quasi-medieval future, but he’s got a lot of Koli’s characteristics and I gave him the same unlettered, earnest voice. A lot of it is the logical but wrong application of rules. Koli treats most verbs as if they had regular endings. He’s also really bad at modals, especially “have”. I’ve spoken to a few people who said they cringed whenever they hit a “should of” or “would of”. All I can say is so did Microsoft Word. I fought a long, bitter fight against the spellchecker, which turned itself back on whenever I booted up and did its best to thwart me. But yeah, I’m glad you said you found Koli eloquent in spite of all his errors. I felt like there was a kind of hacked-about, jury-rigged poetry to his language. I wanted readers to engage with him, and to feel comfortable with his voice after that first bumpy acclimatisation.
RC: I think – (I could be wrong) that all Koli’s “new” nouns are created from the “add two existing words together to make a new word” device; words like “summer-dance”, “pair-pledge” “stop-mix” “brown-skin”, and so on. I also love the use of “tumble” for sex! And why don’t we say “onliest”? It makes much more sense than “only”!
MRC: Exactly! Yeah, I was very pleased with “tumble”. There’s a lot of information in that word. It suggests both a guilt-free attitude to sex and an absence of sexist asymmetries. It takes two to tumble. There’s one point where Jemiu, Koli’s mother, tells him to take his mind off Spinner and look for love elsewhere. It’s one of the few places in the book where the F word appears. She tells him that getting married is very different from “a fuck thrown in the bushes at Summer-dance” – and the harshness was deliberate.
RC: Yes! I remember that phrase – it certainly stands out! Koli is a great creation. When you said earlier, that at the start of the book we just hear the things that matter to him – that made me realise that it makes our relationship with him very intimate. We get a very clear picture of what’s going on inside his head. He’s honest with himself, so he’s honest with us. We can trust him. How would you describe him?
MRC: I think he’s the nicest protagonist I’ve ever written. He messes up badly at times, and he’s certainly capable of being selfish and thoughtless, but he never lets himself off the hook for those things. He feels his mistakes and does his best to atone for them, and most of the time he’s really trying to do the right thing. He looks out for his friends – and at times even for his enemies. Without going into spoiler territory, I think Koli’s fight with Mardew is a touchstone for his character. He has every reason to hate Mardew and very little reason to extend him any compassion or concern, but he can’t switch off those things. They’re in his nature. One of Monono’s pet names for him is “dopey boy”, but I think he’s got a kind of emotional intelligence that’s very bit as important as the other kind.
RC: Absolutely! He’s incredibly likeable, but flawed – he has a sense of ambition that leads to an element of ruthlessness, but, deep down, that’s not really him at all. How do you see Koli in the classic “what would he be like down the pub” situation? Full of stories and bonhomie, I would imagine. And capable of downing a few lager-pints!
MRC: He wouldn’t have any barriers or defences. He’d throw himself into everything that was going on, probably try to sing a song or tell a joke and get lost in the middle, and he’d almost certainly get sentimental and tell you he loved the bones of you about three pints in. Whereas it takes me at least four, as you know.
RC: Basically, Koli is you, hiding in plain sight, isn’t he?! Mentioning “dopey boy”… Monono is another fascinating character. When she calls him that it says easily as much about her as it does him. In one respect, Monono is incredibly powerful, and in another, bizarrely powerless. She’s the voice trapped in the machine, a blast from the past; like the out of control “oo-oo” voices on Video Killed the Radio Star, or Hello this is Joanie’s voice carrying on long after she’s no longer here. How did you come to create her? What influenced how she turned out?
MRC: You’re way too kind, Chris! I think I based Koli on my kids rather than on me. I was talking about emotional intelligence earlier. It’s a thing I’ve struggled with all my life. My temper, my hypochondria, my inability to let anything lie… they’ve always been there, and they’ve always been problematic. My kids don’t seem to have those demons.
With Monono, as with Koli, I started with the voice – in this case, a teasing and funny, savvy and mischievous voice – and let the character accrete around it. And weirdly, the backstory of her actual pre-apocalypse life was the last thing to arrive, which made it effortless. By that time I had a really vivid sense of her. There’s a scene in the second book where (by strange means that I won’t reveal) she gets to take Koli for a walk around Tokyo. It’s one of my favourite scenes in the trilogy, not least because it’s actually her first time there as well as his. She’s NOT that dead girl, she’s something built on that template, and she knows it.
I gave her a lot of my own hang-ups about biodiversity, and I also used her narrative to provide some more clues as to how our world gave birth to Koli’s. But I needed her to feel real as a person too – especially since, when we first meet her, she really isn’t one. The things she gets wrong, like the repeated dialogue and getting Koli’s name wrong, are meant to be poignant as well as funny. She’s been intentionally hobbled – a vital personality reduced to an interface – and I wanted the reader to feel a kind of horror and pity at that.
RC: She’s definitely an all-round personality, and innately programmed to help, in whatever manner that might mean. I’m looking forward to the Tokyo walk! And yes, there is a sense of pity at what is essentially her entrapment. On another note… without giving away any spoilers, Koli is a wannabe Rampart but actually the Ramparts aren’t as heroic as they’re cracked up to be. I was reminded of Groucho Marx’s famous line that you wouldn’t want to be a member of a club who’d have you! The Rampart world is not a great endorsement of ambition and power. What do you think of these attitudes and characteristics – is ambition for power a good thing?
MRC: No, it really isn’t. I tend to think that a desire to take power should disqualify people from ever having it. In every workplace I’ve ever known, the people who were most successful were – almost without exception – people who put self-promotion and advancement before actually doing their jobs. Organisations depend for their survival on an army of people who never rise through the ranks because they’re too busy working.
The Vennastins are a dodgy bunch, without a doubt. They’re not beyond the pale, though – or at least not all of them are. There are nuances. Fer is like a female Boris Johnson, wedded to her lies and willing to do anything to keep them from coming out. Mardew is basically a thug. But Catrin isn’t a bad leader, and she’s sometimes able to rein in her sister’s worst impulses. And there’s more to Perliu than meets the eye. We see a lot more of all of them in the second and third books, and the whole question of Rampart power – and the possible alternatives – comes more and more to the fore.
RC: I guess very few people – even those who seek power for their own pleasure – are evil through and through, so it will be very interesting to see how those characters and Rampartism in general develop! There’s also not-very-veiled criticism of institutionalised religion, with the unsettling scenes with Senlas and his followers. Even in a post-apocalyptic age religion survives. Simon and Garfunkel’s Sound of Silence came into my head when I was thinking about both him, and the value of tech in this new world: And the people bowed and prayed to the neon God they’d made. Is Tech the new God?
MRC: Tech has taken on a kind of sanctity, for sure. There are strictures on its use, taboos about its handling, and so on. But God is always God, I guess. In one form or another, religion seems to be a fixture in every human society. What I tried to do in the Koli books is to show how malleable belief is. The rudiments of Christianity are still around in Koli’s world, but there’s another messianic figure – Dandrake – who seems to have arisen from within Christianity and then broken away from it, much as Christianity broke away from Judaism. We learn a fair bit more about Dandrake, both as a religious figurehead and as a historical figure, and we’re able to judge the distance between the two. Senlas just takes the same logic to an even more rabid and intemperate conclusion. Koli doesn’t have any time for any of this stuff, but we’ll meet some other believers – and belief systems – in book two. Gods are never in short supply, one way and another…
RC: It’s becoming clear that you have so much to say through the character of Koli and his adventures that there’s no way you could have fitted it all into one book. No wonder it’s a trilogy! You’re a fan of the trilogy structure I believe – I’m thinking Mervyn Peake here for example. I wondered whether the rest of the trilogy would follow on instantly from the end of this book, or whether we’d see Koli at three stages of his life?
MRC: I think there’s a lot of power in the extended series format. I love the Gormenghast trilogy, as you say – and Earthsea, and The Book of the New Sun, and Zelazny’s Amber novels. The crucial thing is that you’ve got to have an end point in mind and you’ve got to make sure the individual novels carry their weight as parts of the whole. Koli’s story felt like a big, sprawly, epic thing that would benefit from a big canvas. Then as I incorporated other stories – Monono’s, Cup’s, Spinner’s – It felt like I could do something with point of view that would (I hope) be unexpected and effective. The second and third books follow straight on from the first in terms of time, but they don’t only follow Koli. We keep one eye on Mythen Rood, and the characters we left behind there.
RC: A perfect way to end this interview but keep us in suspense for the rest of the trilogy! When are the final two parts to be published?
MRC: Book two is out in September, and book three in April of next year. They open outwards from book one, showing us a lot more of Koli’s world, and putting him on a collision course with the distant past that could determine the shape of the future.
RC: So I’m guessing not much in the way of horsies and bunnies?
MRC: Hahaha! There are definitely comedic moments. And touching moments. I don’t write grimdark… 😀
RC: Excellent! And is there life after Koli? What’s your next project, if you have one?
MRC: I’m just starting to noodle with a new idea. It will be horror-inflected, and it will have ghosts in it. And a bit of T. S. Eliot. That’s about as far as I’ve got.
RC: Sounds like my cup of tea! Best of luck with it! And thanks again for taking the time to have this interview. Been great chatting as always!
MRC: My pleasure, Chris. I’ve enjoyed it too. Cheers!