If you’ve read The Girl With All The Gifts, you’ll know a thing or two about M.R. Carey. The one-time comic-book writer and all-round awesome guy hit literary pay dirt with his 2014 genre-blender, which has already been made into a blockbuster movie starring Gemma Arterton and Glenn Close (it’s ace, go see it). And because he’s a self-confessed write-a-holic, Carey (Mike to his friends) has already released his next novel, the equally unputdownable Fellside. Set in the titular prison, it follows new inmate Jess, who’s haunted by the memory of the night she accidentally killed a little boy during a drug-fuelled rage. Incarcerated and terrified, she starts hearing voices – could the little boy have followed her to Fellside? (Yeah, I got chills.)
I was able to chat to Carey about his new book as part of his promo blog tour. Here’s what he had to say…
Where did the name Fellside come from?
I just wanted a name for the prison that had a Yorkshire flavour to it. I love the word fell. I particularly love how ambiguous it is. It means a high place, but that could be a mountain or it could be a piece of moorland high up in a range of hills. There’s no absolute sense of physical orientation to it. So it’s a good name for a place where you lose your moral orientation, where you lose your way as my protagonist Jess very definitely does.
What makes prison such a good setting for a story?
I think it’s the fact that your characters are locked in together and there’s no easy way out. Every story ultimately comes down to the clash of personalities and the inexorable working out of the logic of a given set of relationships. If you put your characters in an enclosed, hothouse environment with no way out, you compound and concentrate that effect. A prison is just one example.
How does Fellside compare to The Girl With All The Gifts?
I think it’s a darker book. That sounds a little strange, given that Girl is post-apocalyptic and includes the virtual annihilation of the human race, but I believe it’s true all the same. In Fellside there’s a lot of pain to go around, and Jess’s journey is harder and more traumatic than the journey Melanie has to make.
That said, both stories are optimistic about human nature. They find grounds for hope, let’s say, even in the most unpromising situations. Jess things she’s buying redemption for a terrible crime, and although she’s deeply mistaken about what exactly she’s doing and who she’s doing it for, she does achieve a kind of peace and a kind of accommodation with her own past. And the last chapter revisits that past in a way that hopefully will surprise a lot of readers.
Did you want to play with ghost cliches the way you played with zombies in Gifts?
Not really. I mean, challenging genre conventions wasn’t the point with either book. You always want the story to feel fresh, obviously, and so you reject some ideas just because they’re overly familiar. But that doesn’t present itself as the core of what you’re doing. With Girl the core idea was Melanie herself. Inventing her and fleshing her out was a big part of the groundwork for the story. Deciding on Cordyceps as my McGuffin didn’t feel anywhere near as important, although I was happy to find a vector for the zombie apocalypse that hadn’t already been worked to death.
At rock bottom Fellside is a story about addiction. About what it does to you, about getting free of it and then about trying to find the part of you that’s still you at the end of that process.
If you could lock two characters from two of your stories in a room together, which ones and what would happen?
Probably Dr Caldwell from Girl and Harriet Grace [from Fellside]. They’re both the heroes of their own internal narratives, but I think they’d see through each other’s bullshit in some very interesting ways. It probably wouldn’t end in physical violence, but they’d both come away effectively dissected.
Best story idea you’ve had that scared the hell out of you?
I don’t think I can get scared by my own stories. It’s like trying to tickle yourself – your nerve endings don’t work that way. But conceptually the scariest thing I’ve ever written is probably Pullman’s artificial hand in The Unwritten. If it touches you, you stop being real and become a story. You literally melt into words. That’s not something I ever want to experience.
Ever had a day you categorically couldn’t, wouldn’t (and maybe shouldn’t) write? What did you do?
No, everything is fair game. The more extreme, the more interesting. Obviously you don’t say which bits of your work are autobiographical…
Do you have writing habits and/or a routine, or does it depend on the day?
I wish I had a routine. I work long hours, start early and finish late most days, with maybe one day or half a day off at weekends. But I don’t work consistently. I’m easily distracted, waste a lot of time here and there on footling things, and then I have to make up the time by working late into the evening.
A colleague of mine at Luton Sixth Form College back when I was teaching said that when she watched me work the word that came into her mind was entropy. I asked her what she meant and she said “A whole lot of energy burning away into a vacuum.” She had me bang to rights. I’ve been very productive as a writer, but it’s been at the expense of everything else. I really do not have a life. I work and I sleep.
But I enjoy what I do, so it would be crazy to complain.
Review that left you grinning? Review that scarred you for life?
One of my Twitter friends described Fellside as “orange is the new Woman In Black.” I liked that a lot.
Bad reviews always make me unhappy, but I can’t remember any that have affected me for longer than a day. You wake up the next morning and go back to what you do. If the review was fair you even learn from it, and if it wasn’t you shrug it off that much quicker.
Best and worst X-Men characters to write for… Go!
Best would include Rogue, Beast, Cyclops, Professor X… You know, when I think about it the two lists would be almost identical! What matters is whether the editor is letting you play out the riffs and arcs you’ve got a real feel for, and I was very lucky in that respect. Mike Marts, Nick Lowe, Andy Schmidt, Daniel Ketchum. Best in the business.
And when you come right down to it a lot of the characters I loved best when I was writing in the X-verse were the minor ones who nobody else was using. I loved to dust them off and put them back in the spotlight.
Any unfulfilled writing dreams?
At this point, literally none. But there are still some comics artists I’d love to collaborate with. Top of that list would be David Beauchard, who wrote and drew Epileptic.
Fellside is out now.