Interview: Mike Carey
Review by Drew Bittner
Date: 29 June 2008
Links: Mike Carey's Website / Review of Vicious Circle /
His comic book titles, including X-Men: Legacy and Ultimate Fantastic Four, follow successful runs as the creator of the Lucifer comic series for Vertigo, as well as Confessions of a Blabbermouth (co-written with his daughter Louise), Voodoo Child (co-written with Nicolas and Weston Cage) and... well, too many others to list here. He's also starting to write for film and television, with his series The Stranded optioned by the SciFi Channel.
We're frankly amazed he has time to eat or sleep. Where he managed to work in writing novels we will never know; his novel Vicious Circle, sequel to The Devil You Know, arrives this month. We asked Mike if we could chat a bit about his writing work. Like the gentleman he is, he agreed.
Mike, thanks for taking time to chat with SFRevu! Now, without further ado, let's go to the questions...
SFRevu: Have you always been a writer? Was there any point when you thought "this is what I want to do"?
Mike: Actually I was a teacher for fifteen years. I was writing pretty much all of that time, at evenings and weekends and whenever I could squeeze in an hour here and there. Looking back on it, those were the years when I was learning the mechanics of writing – mostly by blundering around and doing things wrong.
I always had a vague aspiration to write as a career, but I was given regular reality checks whenever I got a rejection slip or whenever a pitch I'd sent to a publisher just vanished without trace. Mostly I wrote for the intrinsic pleasure of writing, with steadily decreasing expectations that anything would actually come of it. And then, when I'd almost stopped pushing at the door, it opened. Very strange.
SFRevu: What draws you to horror as a genre?
Mike: It's part of the speculative fiction spectrum, and I'm drawn to every wavelength of that spectrum: horror, sci-fi, fantasy, what used to be called magic realism, the works. I love breaking away from reality, because – and I really mean this – you see reality more clearly when you break away from it. It's like you get a better view of the ground when you're flying than you do when you're walking. People who dismiss sci-fi and fantasy and horror as escapist literature are so wide of the mark it isn't even funny.
SFRevu: Tell us about Felix Castor. He's a freelance exorcist caught up in a rising tide of supernatural incidents, but who is he?
Mike: He's a guy with a natural talent – binding the dead – which he's turned into a career. It's a pretty precarious career, and it's also a poisoned chalice. The first spirit he ever exorcises is the ghost of his dead sister, Katie, and there's a sense in which he's never forgiven himself for that. Guilt and a desire to atone are a large part of what drives him.
He's a typical noir hero in a lot of respects. A loner, emotionally reticent, morally compromised, and a very dry, cynical commentator on the world around him. Castor sees through everybody's illusions and pretensions, including his own. He'd be really good company for about an hour: then you'd want to push him over a cliff.
SFRevu: How do you "flex your writing muscles"? I would imagine it helps that you write a variety of comic book titles as well as horror novels...
Mike: I think there's a sense in which the more different things you're writing at any one time, the more it keeps you on your toes. Comics and novels have very different schedules and deadline pressures: shifting from one to the other can be a way of staying fresh. What you need to avoid, though, is the shorter-term deadlines crowding out the longer-term ones. Because you live with a novel for nine months, it can sometimes get pushed aside – if you're not on your guard – by the things you need to do by the end of the week.
SFRevu: What was your big break in comics, and has your experience in comics helped prepare you to become a novelist? (Or was it the other way around?)
Mike: Karen Berger said to me once that there's no such thing as the big break – there's just a long, long sequence of little breaks. That was how it was for me. I wrote for the UK anthology title Toxic! That introduced me to some people on the US small press scene, which got me work at Malibu and then at Caliber (thanks largely to the friendship and generosity of Ken Meyer Jr and Lurene Haines). Doing Inferno and Doctor Faustus for Caliber gave me a calling card at Vertigo, which was how I landed Sandman Presents Lucifer.
On the strength of that I flew over for San Diego Comicon for the first time ever and met both Alisa Kwitney and Shelly Bond, two of Vertigo's best editors at that time, trying – shamelessly – to build the one-off commission into something more ongoing. Little breaks, getting bigger. I pitched the Lucifer monthly and it took. Everything else came from that.
The whole process was invaluable. A lot of my early scripts were appallingly loose and badly structured. I learned about structure by falling on my face a lot – creatively speaking, I mean – and then reconstructing the accident afterwards and figuring out why it happened. By the time I started writing Lucifer, I was pretty much ready for it.
And similarly, by the time I started writing Castor, working in comics had given me a mind-set where I was disinclined to waste pages on stuff that didn't need to be there. It had made me a miser with story beats, which I mean much more positively than it sounds. You have to make each scene pay its way: you have to know why it's there, and comics trains you to ask those questions.
SFRevu: What was it like, the first time you walked into a bookstore (or comic book store) and saw your work on the shelf?
Mike: Thrilling and slightly surreal. You feel like some physical force has shifted: like it's raining sideways or something.
SFRevu: People might think horror writers are somewhat grim, sinister or downright evil. You are not. Discuss.
Mike: No, no. I am, honest. I'm a closet psychopath. Or maybe it's just that I have a psychopath in a box, in the same way that Schroedinger had a cat. I use him to carry out thought experiments.
SFRevu: People might have no idea what comic book writers are like. Discuss.
Mike: Most of us are bald. I'm bucking the trend.
SFRevu: What one illusion would you most like to dispel about being a writer, be it writing novels or comic books?
Mike: I guess… the illusion that in order to write you have to be a writer. Everyone should write, just like everyone should cook. Writing makes you think about your own motivations, and you can never do too much of that. It's also fun and rewarding in its own right, and something you can leave behind you after you're dead so that the people who love you can still feel like a part of you is there with them.
SFRevu: What is the worst piece of advice you've ever gotten about being a writer?
Mike: "Write what you know."
SFRevu: You have a number of projects in the pipeline. Is there anything special you'd like to mention as a work-in-progress?
Mike: I've got new books coming out for both Marvel and Vertigo in '09 that I'm hugely excited about. One's an adaptation, one is totally new, but they're both going to be crazy fun. And I can't give either of them a name, so it was stupid to mention them in the first place.
Secret Invasion: X-Men, how about that? (Interviewer's note: this miniseries ties in with the huge Marvel Comics summer event, Secret Invasion, wherein the shapeshifting Skrulls have infiltrated Earth and now seek to take over the planet.) This is the book that answers the question "What did you do in the Skrull war, Mr. Summers?" I'm having a wild time on that book, playing with a colossal cast and involving them all in the action as far as possible. Big battle scenes, even bigger moral dilemmas – and some of my favourite characters right at the centre of it.
SFRevu: Finally, what's coming up next for Felix and his friends?
Mike: In the third novel, Dead Men's Boots, Castor and Juliet blunder across the trail of an American serial killer who's now plying her trade in London – despite having been executed back in the sixties. "She's the worst kind of repeat offender," Castor says at one point. "The kind that doesn't stop when you put twenty thousand volts through her." It's a big story, with conspiracies and double crosses and false identities, and it takes Castor way outside his comfort zone. At one point he has to take a trip to Alabama: I leave you to imagine how well he blends in there.
Then the fourth book (Thicker Than Water)gets its UK release in January. By contrast with book three, this is a very personal story in a lot of ways, focusing on Castor's relationship with his brother, Matt, and the reason why there's so little love and trust between them now. But there are further revelations about the undead, too – some of them huge. We're gradually starting to zero in here on the bigger mystery of why the dead are rising and who or what is responsible.
SFRevu: Sounds like there are some major things in store for Felix and his circle of friends. Thanks for letting SFRevu inside your world for a bit, Mike!
Mike: A pleasure, guys, as always.
SFRevu: Don't forget, Vicious Circle is in bookstores July 2008. And if you want to learn more about Mike's work (or ask a question yourself), visit him online at www.mikecarey.net.