Mike Carey’s third novel is out in the U.K., but his first has just been released in hardcover in the U.S., The Devil You Know.
This may be his first novel, but is far from his first published work. Carey is one of the finest writers in comics in addition to being one of the most prolific. This year alone he’s released Crossing Midnight, God Save the Queen, Re-gifters, Faker, Confessions of a Blabbermouth and Voodoo Child, among others. He’s also developing a joint project for Virgin Entertainment and the Sci-Fi Channel.
Mike Carey’s career in comics has been an odd one. His writing career has rested on two series, Lucifer and Hellblazer, both complex, adult works that straddle multiple genres. We sat down to talk about his novel’s American release.
- Where did novel come from?
- I honestly don’t know. It comes from a lot of things that are kicking around in your head at any given time. I’d been thinking about this idea of explaining–you know the idea of the grand unified theory, the theory of everything which sort of explains the relationship between all the fundamental physical forces–I was thinking of a grand unified theory of the afterlife, something that would explain ghosts and demons and werewolves and zombies and vampires and so on, by means of a single mechanism. That was definitely one of the triggers.
- The other one was just Castor himself. I was thinking about, what if an exorcist was like a private dick, a shamus, rather than a priest. So the idea of a noir-ish, Raymond Chandler-ish Exorcist was the other thing and then putting those two together became the basis for the pitch. It happened over quite an extended period of time and was just floating in the back of my mind.
- Did you pitch it as series or one book?
- As a series. The first novel was very fully explained and the two subsequent ones–Vicious Circle and Dead Man’s Boots–just a paragraph on each, which was a paragraph of bullshit. A paragraph that I just made up on the spur of the moment and yet strangely they did turn out that those were the stories I told.
- I’m curious. You’ve mentioned that you started out writing prose unsuccessfully and it was writing comics that taught you structure. Was that what you think your earlier attempts were missing? Or was it just a question of something else?
- It was a lot of things. Structure, definitely. I wrote novels that were vast and aimless. I would literally write “Chapter One” and then stare at a blank page until an idea for Chapter Two occurred to me. I had no idea where the novel was going. But also I think learning what to say and what not to say.
- Comics are an elliptical medium. Again, because of the restriction of space you can’t go from a to z by means of b,c,d,e, etc. etc. You jump and fill in the gaps by means of captions or dialogue or whatever. I think my early novels were incredibly expatiating, every single thing spelled out in agonizing detail. You learn what to leave out.
- I’m trying to find a way to phrase this properly without insulting anyone, the prose is very dense and complex, not laziness pretending to be minimalism or–
- It’s not rubbish.
- It’s not rubbish, yes. It’s thoughtful and descriptive and it would seem almost antithetical to the writing of a comic, which all about economy of scale because of the limitations.
- You look for the music of an individual voice. I love reading genre fiction, but I can’t stand now reading fiction by bad stylists. I hate fiction that’s shoddily put together. That’s why I love China Mieville and I love Mervyn Peake, because they are incredibly gifted at using language as a descriptive and evocative tool. You just feel comfortable listening to that voice. I guess I go overboard sometimes on the descriptions because I enjoy painting the word pictures, which of course you don’t do in comics. Except you do to a certain extent when you’re writing a comics script, a whole layer of creation that never gets seen by anyone except the artist. Unless you’re Alan Moore, of course, and they publish your script as a book. So I guess there is a sense in which some of the descriptions in The Devil You Know are art direction.
Did you know the ending when you started, or at least now?
- Oh, yes. In fact I work out the story beats very thoroughly, very carefully. I had the fortune to work at DC with two very, very good editors, Alisa Kwitney and Shelley Bond. Alisa was the editor on the Lucifer miniseries and Shelley was editor on the Lucifer Monthly for most of its run. Alisa did a narratology degree or a narratology module in her degree. She dissects stories mercilessly.
- When I was doing the last issue of the Lucifer miniseries she phoned me up and she said, I think you need to do five things, and told me what they were. I was really silent afterwards and she said have I offended you? I said no it’s just embarrassing because you know this story better than I do. She said, well that’s what editors do, they look at the structure from the outside and tell you what connects with what. I learned a lot about writing from Alisa and Shelly. One of the things I learned from Shelley was costing. Costing the scenes out, deciding where to place the beat and how much time to give to each scene. Shelley insists on scene breakdowns, costed by pages, how many pages for each scene. Then she’ll argue the cost with you, that doesn’t need three pages, you can take a page out of that and have a splash over there. And even though most editors don’t ask for that, I still do it.
- When I was doing Castor I did in some ways a ridiculously detailed plan for it, forty sides of closely typed A4. Longer than a novella, I think.
- You mentioned that you enjoy being able to change something in the beginning of the novel if the end isn’t working, which because of the serialized nature of comics, isn’t something you’re able to do. Is knowing the whole story and the detailed outline a defense against that as much as possible?
- Yes it is. But there’s a price to be paid for that because a story always looks different from the inside than it does when you’re planning it. With a novel you can continue to, because it’s a more organic process, you can continue to make those changes. I’m finding very much with the fourth novel, which is why it’s taking so long, it’s becoming the most personal of the four. It’s about Castor’s relationship with his brother growing up. To some extent it’s about my relationship with my older brother growing up. And I’m tampering with the other chapters as I write, quite extensively, but I’m really happy with the shape it’s taking. It’s a luxury you just don’t have in comics.
- You mentioned that the two things which began the novel were the idea behind the story and the voice of the character. Is the voice always key for you in writing?
- It’s certainly something that you have to get right early on. You sort of feel your way into it. The first chapter of The Devil You Know, was actually in the pitch. It was part of the pitch that I sent to Orbit, that this is the sort of thing I’ve got in mind. Castor’s voice locked pretty well in the early stage. But yes, you have the right way into the story and you have to find the right voice to tell it and once those things are in place, a lot of other things follow from it. It’s why the first chapters always take three to four times a long as anything else. They take as long as they take and you can’t rush them. You can rush the later bits to a large extent.
- Your characters are dissatisfied with their lot, most famously you wrote about Lucifer trying to write himself out of God’s plan. Castor is an atheist exorcist whose brother is a priest. They’re malcontents. Where does that come from?
- People too content with their lot make lousy protagonists. (laughs) There has to be a source of drama, a source of conflict. You can start with a character that’s out of tune with his time or his life or some aspect of his life. And then if it’s a Hollywood movie with a Hollywood happy ending it’s the story of redemption, the story of how you get from that discontent position to your own perfect space. The first Back to the Future movie is kind of archetypal in that respect. You start by showing all the things that are crappy about the kid’s life and then he comes back to this sort of paradise at the end.
- My characters don’t tend to find paradise, but they do sometimes find themselves. Lucifer’s arc is much stranger than that. It ends with a sort of existential conundrum, does he impose himself on the void or does he become the void? And we deliberately don’t answer that question. And I’m kind of not answering your question, either. (laughs)
- How much of you is in Castor?
- There’s a lot of me in Castor. It’s a little bit out of control. I started out deliberately giving him aspects of my past, just little bits and pieces. He comes from Walton in Liverpool. His dad works in a factory. Stuff like that I put in because I could write them with absolute conviction because I knew them. And then weirdly I began to realize that a lot of Castor’s back story is like a coded or a disguised version of my own story in ways that I can’t even begin to explain. I got to book four and I realized I’m talking to my brother.
- At what point did you know you wanted to write?
- I always did it. I always just did it for fun. Weirdly, when I was a kid I was writing comics. I used to do comics with my other brother, my younger brother Dave, because I can’t draw to save my life, I used to do these comics not with humans as the characters but with eggs. Eggs with arms and legs; The Egg men. I used to have these enormous, extended epics about these stupid little eggs, mostly science fiction, occasionally fantasy. And as I grew older I was writing comics journalism for a little while, I was writing reviews for a magazine. I did feature articles for it later on and then I started pitching scripts. This is all while I was working full-time as a teacher. It was a hobby for an awfully long time. And then amazingly I started to get paid for it in checks that didn’t bounce. It was like, whoa, this is a novelty. And then I got to the point where I was having to turn comics work down because teaching was so time consuming. I thought, well what do I most want to be. And seven years ago I took the plunge and quit my day job, which felt terrifying at the time.
- Was this before you started the series Lucifer?
- I was already writing Lucifer. They had talked about giving me Hellblazer but hadn’t formally offered it to me at that stage. My boss was incredibly understanding. When I quit he said, I’m going to give you a sabbatical. Even though you’re quitting and even though I know you’re probably not going to come back, on the books you’re on sabbatical and we’ll hire a temporary replacement for you for a year and if you want to come back at the end of the year you can, which was fantastically kind of him.
- So you’re writing the fourth novel now. The third one comes out in September in the UK. Second one comes out in the US next year. You’re writing three comic books every month. This year has seen the release of four or five graphic novels.
- It sounds like a lot.
- It does sound like a lot. And there’s more. That was kind of the point.
- There is such a thing as a freelancer’s mindset. It comes from this terror of not having a paycheck anymore. You say yes to everything. Someone phones you up and says we want you to do a gritty, dark version of Babar the Elephant, you say, I’ll do. We want you do a biographical comic of Ozzy Osborne, I’ll do it. You say yes to everything because you know that for every five times people say it, one thing will happen. And then gradually your hit rate goes up and up and up and you get to the point where you realize you’ve said yes to too many things. It’s easy to stop; it’s not easy to slow down. Stopping is just a matter of saying no to everything. But if you’re saying no to a few things, then you’re not in control at all. You start saying no to editors and editors start thinking, oh he’s not taking work anymore and they won’t make you offers. So you can’t control the pace at which you slow down. That’s my problem at the moment. I am on the brink of doing too much and trying very, very hard to stay on the right side of that line because up to a point doing more things energizes you. Beyond that point and it kills you. And then you’re no use to anyone because you’re dead.
- You mentioned Re-gifters, the first book without fantastic elements and you want to do it again. Was it the change of pace?
- It was an enormous change of pace. It wasn’t just that it wasn’t fantasy. It’s also a light-hearted story, a heart-warming story with an unambiguous happy ending. It’s a romance. And it has social realism. The Castor books have social realism in them as well, but this is about the relationship between the haves and have-nots in L.A. It’s about the way different ethnic groups interact in L.A. It was incredibly enthralling and fun the way it came together. Initially I made the pitch; she’s a Korean American living in L.A. just purely on the very vague grounds that I knew there was a Korean community living here. What I didn’t know was the story; the fact that a lot of them had lost so much in the Rodney King riots and the lingering effects of that.
- There’s a story from the Civil War and I’m going to tell it very badly because I can’t remember the personalities involved, but one general camps and the other general watching him from close by says Jesus that idiot has camped at the confluence of five major roads and two rivers. I hope he moves on before he realizes how good a decision that was. Sometimes you just pitch your camp in the right place and all sorts of great things happen. You don’t even realize. You didn’t do it because you were smart, it was just dumb luck.