Welcome to Part 2 of our interview with M.R. Carey, writer of ‘The Girl with All The Gifts,’ and ‘Fellside’.
If you missed Part 1 click here.
STORGY: All right, fantastic. So, going into ‘The Girl With All the Gifts,’ you’ve kind of taken the zombie genre and given it a fresh and invigorating take. But not in the expected way – in the last 10 years or so there’s been a saturation in the market, but what you’ve done differently is that the monsters in this aren’t the flesh eating zombies, or even the parasites…it’s evolution, I guess – so the book’s monsters are a mutant strain of – [Laughs] – please excuse my pronunciation – [Proceeds to give an awful pronunciation of Ophiocordyceps Unilateralis] Is that correct?
M.R.C: [Laughs] That’s close enough: Ophiocordyceps Unilateralis.
STORGY: That’s the one. You’ve said it vastly better than I ever could have. Those are the zombie ants, the parasite infects the ant and they’re forced to climb to the highest point they can think of, at which point the parasite explodes, kind of Alien-Style from their heads. Could you tell us the inspiration behind that? Was it something that was always on your mind or was there a crossover element to it?
M.R.C: Well I guess there’s a broad divide, isn’t there in zombie fiction? Between supernatural zombies and science zombies and I’ve always had, I know this is probably the minority here, but I’ve always had a sort of leaning towards the latter, towards zombies with a scientific explanation. 28 Days Later is one of my favourite zombie texts and I know some zombie purists would say: ‘They’re not zombies!’ They’re –
STORGY: Rage zombies!
M.R.C: Yeah, so in the short story that became ‘The Girl with all the Gifts,’ I just said off-hand that it was a virus. It’s a virus that has these effects. When it came to plan the novel and more particularly the movie I can remember a conversation with Colm [Colm McCarthy, The Director of The Girl with All the Gifts] and Camille [Producer] quite early on where Colm said, ‘This won’t do, will it? Just saying it’s a virus? We’ll need to have something a bit more specific than that to bounce off, let’s think about pathogens.’
And I’d seen the David Attenborough scene The Life of Plants which has that utterly terrifying footage of the ant being consumed by Ophiocordyceps Unilateralis from the inside and the fungal…the fruiting body of the fungus thrusting upwards out of the ants…it was just…
STORGY: Nature at its worst. [Laughs]
M.R.C: And I thought, that’ll do then, won’t it? I started to research it and the iconography is just splendid – you immediately just find yourself thinking of how certain scenes will play out, so we had an aesthetic, we had a look for the ‘hungries,’ we had a rationale for the ‘hungries,’ and everyone was really happy with that. I didn’t know at the time of course that there was also a game in development – a video game…
STORGY: Oh, ‘The Last of Us.’
M.R.C: Yeah, which had used the same type of –
STORGY: Yeah, yeah definitely.
M.R.C: I still haven’t played it because I’m very, very bad at console games –
STORGY: It’s very good. I mean, some reviews have likened your characters in TGWATG, especially Helen Justineau and Melanie’s relationship to Roald Dahl’s ‘Matilda,’ but with zombies – in such that a teacher bonds with a precocious, cheerful child with amazing abilities, or in this case gifts, who hasn’t been soured by the cruelty of her circumstances – when you were writing was this the anchor to the novel? Their relationship, or did that bloom as you carried on?
M.R.C: Well Melanie was the crux, Melanie came first when I was writing the short story, the short story was for a themed commission and the theme was ‘schooldays’ so it had to be a supernatural or horror or dark fantasy story set against the backdrop of a school or referring to school experiences, and I woke up with the idea of Melanie one day and I wrote the story in four days, and in either way I saw her she was writing an essay in the classroom and the essay was ‘What I want to be when I grow up,’ and the irony is, of course, is that she’s a zombie and that’s really not an option. So that was the seed of the story and then it was the seed of the novel and then the movie screenplay. Once you have Melanie then obviously you need characters for her to play off; in the short story there were only two and it’s fair to say that they were equally important – it was Sgt. Parks and Miss. Justineau – or Miss. Mailer as she was in the [short] story, it’s the compassionate teacher and the initially sceptical and brutal soldier who, almost sort of against his will, warms and softens to the child, it was those two relationships – so I guess from a very early stage what I was doing was assembling an adult cast around Melanie who would move her forward on her journey and would also interact with her in ways that pushed the plot forward more importantly pushed her arc forward.
STORGY: So, as you said, TGWATG was initially based on a short story, we at STORGY are trying to promote the short story genre and we’re hoping to soon expand with reviews and whatnot – do you find, I suppose you’re quite busy at the moment but is this something you would go back to? You mentioned before about the sock drawer, are there quite a lot of stories in that sock drawer that you would come back to, or would elaborate on?
M.R.C: I guess I’ve written about a dozen short stories, I was a latecomer…it took me a long time to realise just how much pleasure there is in the short story form…both as a writer and as a reader. You know, the challenge of creating a world and crafting a narrative in that short space is really exciting and really fun. I always find at the end of the short story…I’m always sorry to leave it, and that there’s more you could do with it. GWATG is the only one where I’ve carried that logic forward and turned the short story into a novel, but most of my short stories are things that I wouldn’t mind going back to at some point – and I’ve also done short stories that were set in the world of the novels, so there’s a cast of –
STORGY: Like a spin-off type of thing –
M.R.C: That can give the characters some second wind, for example.
STORGY: One thing that I’ve come across in your novels is the realness of the characters, I suppose with TGWATG, Caldwell could be described as the main antagonist, if you will – a researcher dedicated to finding the cure for the plague, but at the cost of dissecting a child. I mean I guess there’s a kind of fine line between what constitutes as a villain, but some of the best villains have the greatest intentions – was it intentional to keep the fine line for that character, playing on the reader’s emotions. I suppose you have some people will think what she’s doing is correct and then I guess you’ll have the majority of people saying: ‘Melanie’s just a girl! You can’t do that!’ Was that something that you wanted to achieve?
M.R.C: I guess with unsympathetic characters…you try to write everyone from the inside…nobody is the villain of their own story, everyone can see their own motives, so if you do something questionable, you’re still inclined to think, ‘yep, but it was because of this…because of this situation or that situation,’ you remain the hero.
Caldwell is an idealist – she’s also incredibly brutal and incredibly lacking in empathy.
But in her own eyes she’s…yeah she’s saving the world and that kind of excuses any possible cruelty or inhumanity in what she does. There’s a moment in the movie that lands really well, a lot of the movie follows the same structure of the book, but some of the individual scenes play out differently. In that final conversation between Melanie and Caldwell inside Rosie [the mobile laboratory Rosalind Franklin] when Caldwell is making a last ditch attempt to extract the cure from Melanie…they do actually…they go there. Melanie says: ‘Do you still think I’m not human?’ and Caldwell is forced to admit, ‘okay, yes…you are human…you are sentient, you are alive, you are an individual in your own right.’ And then Melanie says, ‘So why should it be me that dies and not you?’ And it’s a really powerful scene.
STORGY: Yeah, definitely.
M.R.C: Obviously it didn’t hurt one bit that it’s Glenn Close playing the scene.
STORGY: [Laughing] Well that was my next question really – when you’re writing a character for a novel and it’s being adapted into a film did you have any influence with that casting selection? You’ve got Gemma Arterton, Paddy Considine and then you’ve got Glenn Close – all very heavy hitters, but did you have your own actors in mind when you were writing the screenplay?
M.R.C: I tend not to do that, I almost never do that – partly because I can never remember actor’s names, I did it with Parks, because I found when I was writing Parks his idiom kept slipping into a kind of transatlantic, sort of an American drawl and I guess because I’d seen so many American incarnations of that tough soldier character, so in order to keep him straight in my head, in order to keep him British, I would imagine either Sean Bean or Paddy Considine reading the lines. And lo and behold, Paddy Considine did end up reading the lines! In all the other cases, Camille would send me lists of the actors that they were auditioning for the roles and I thought I’d fallen asleep and woken up in a parallel universe. I had no idea that we were reaching out to actors of that calibre. Not just Glenn, Gemma and Paddy but Fisayo Akinade as Gallagher, Anthony Welsh [Dillon], Dominique Tipper [Devani], Anamaria Marinca [Dr. Selkirk], just all so real amazing actors…is it an ensemble cast? I don’t know, I don’t think it is – I guess Melanie is the protagonist when you come right down to it, but an amazing, amazing cast assembled round her.
M.R.C: And of course it’s Sennia’s performance [Sennia Nanua – Melanie] that carries the whole thing.
STORGY: This is her debut film, is that right?
M.R.C: Her feature debut. She was in a short film called ‘Beverly.’ This is her first feature film and she’s onscreen for almost every scene. So out of those 110 minutes I think maybe there are two or three when you don’t see her. So it’s an awful lot to ask for a twelve-year old girl and she just absolutely –
STORGY: Nailed it.
M.R.C: Nailed it. Owned that role.
STORGY: I was going to ask as well that when the TGWATG originally came out, that was in 2014?
M.R.C: January 2014, that was the UK hardcover release.
STORGY: So Gillian Flynn’s ‘Gone Girl,’ which I believe was published in 2012, this novel comes out and seemingly there’s a lot more novels with ‘Girl and Gone’ in the title –
M.R.C: There were lots before –
STORGY: Sure, do you think that’s something…I don’t know what you would call it – not a marketing technique I suppose but –
M.R.C: It’s a cultural meme, isn’t it?
STORGY: Yeah, exactly – I was just curious if that was something that translated from the novel to the film, was there any stories of the title of the film changing to broaden the appeal to other countries, or was it always going to be TGWATG?
M.R.C: I certainly wasn’t influenced by any of those titles; if I had been I’d have been influenced away from them. There was a sense even then that the market was a little bit saturated with ‘Girl Who,’ or ‘Girl With,’ titles. In our defence, our girl is a real girl! She’s not a –
STORGY: She’s not a woman.
M.R.C: Yeah, she’s a girl – she’s a child. TGWATG obviously directly translates to Pandora, and in some ways this is a retelling of the Pandora legend, so dammit that was just the best title for the book.
Also, I like it because it’s alliterative and has a cadence to it. It flows. The movie was initially pitched it as ‘She Who Brings Gifts,’ but at a certain point we changed back, to the title of the novel, because the novel was doing extremely well and it seemed perverse really to pull away from it. I think the thinking behind changing the title was precisely to get some clear blue water between us and the other ‘Girls,’ the ones with dragon tattoos and the ones on trains, and the ones that are just gone and so on…and also I think Cami and some of the BFI people who were involved in the project felt that TGWATG was a little bit unwieldy as a title, a bit long and I think they wanted something pithy, the trouble is of course is that ‘She Who Brings Gifts,’ removes a crucial ambiguity, because with TGWATG we don’t know whether those gifts are attributes that she possesses or presents that she’s bringing to you, so is it something in her or is it something between her and the world? And that ambiguity pays off in the end, whereas SWBG flattens the waveform. It’s a present; it’s a gift in that sense.
STORGY: Your new novel, ‘Fellside,’ is a bit of a thriller/horror/sci-fi hybrid – I likened it to a bit of Shawshank Redemption meets Ghost and even Orange is the New Black but with frightening characters instead of the humorous characters from the show. Once again, mentioning the realness of the characters that you create, some of them are actually quite frightening, some of them have been beaten down, like Jess for example, she’s on this redemptive course, can you tell us a little bit behind the character process for ‘Fellside?’
M.R.C: Well, I think if Melanie was the core of GWATG the idea for Fellside was addiction. I wanted to tell a story about an addict. So Jess was kind of the starting point here. I’ve known a lot of addicts; I’ve known some addicts very closely. And very intimately. I kind of have addictive tendencies myself and by pure dumb luck have never been addicted to anything that could actually kill me. But I know a fair bit about addiction and what it can bring you and the crisis it can bring you to and what it does to your personality and relationships and I wanted to tell that story for a long time – and I guess I pulled away from it because I was, at the same time too close to it and a little bit too far away and it was other people’s stories that I was telling instead of mine. But I finally decided I would do it and once I made that decision the idea of having an addict who’d killed someone and having the book be about the relationship, the relationship between the addict and the person that she’d wronged, the person that she killed who returns as a ghost and raising the possibility of an ever redemptive journey which she travels on with the ghost, that seemed like a really interesting core for a book. I chose the prison setting because…well, the plot logic kind of pointed in that direction already, but I love enclosed, claustrophobic environments, I think they do good things for stories, like Base Hotel Echo in GWATG is another example. If you put a whole bunch of people together and you don’t give them any way of withdrawing from each other than the whole logic of their personalities and relationships plays out relentlessly.
STORGY: It has a gothic element to it, where there’s a place where the people or the gang can’t escape from as such.
M.R.C: Yeah, yeah – that was how the story grew, and then I started to flesh out the support cast and some of them in early drafts were…had different roles of importance. In an earlier draft of the story, bizarrely, was told by Sylvia Stock, you know the nurse who tries to kill Jess?
STORGY: Yeah –
M.R.C: But it didn’t quite work, I was experimenting with having a first person narrative but where the narrator is not the protagonist. It kind of didn’t come off. So in later drafts I pulled back to I guess to a similar sort of story that I used with TGWATG, in that there are multiple points of view. You’re embedded with one character after another. You’re with Jess most of the time but you’re also with Grace, with Devlin, Salazar, with Stock and so on.
[At this point I spoke about a plot point in the novel, which I won’t spoil here]
M.R.C: With Salazar I was repeating the main theme in a minor key. He’s like Jess in that he’s basically a decent person but has been put into this hideously compromised position and he can’t…he can’t be a hero, no matter how hard he tries. I think what he does in the end is he finds a way to do the right thing within the limitations that he has, dealing with his cowardice and his inability to stand up to stronger personalities. I really enjoyed writing him, actually. He was one of the characters that grew in the course of the various drafts.
STORGY: Is there any plans to have Fellside transported to the big screen?
M.R.C: Yes, there are. I’ve done one draft already –
M.R.C: One of the things I’m going to be doing in Toronto is meeting with the Poison Chef guys [UK Production company]…well, meeting with Colm and Cami specifically to go over that draft and bring the project forward. At the moment we’re kind of in a good place, I should be touching wood as I say that…no, but the BFI have promised to help with the development money and there’s a lot of potential production partners who are looking favourably on us at the moment because GWATG seems to have come out pretty well, Colm is now really going from strength to strength – he’s been working on the pilot for the new Warner/DC series ‘Krypton,’ and he’s got a lot of offers on his plate at the moment.
So I think there’s a good chance…a reasonable chance that Fellside will happen.
STORGY: That’s brilliant. Great news. Well it seems like you’re going from strength to strength, TGWATG coming out in cinemas on 23rd September, the new release of ‘Fellside,’ – what’s next?
M.R.C: The next novel is called ‘The Boy on the Bridge,’ it’s a prequel to TGWATG, it takes place about 10 years before…so –
STORGY: So you’re revisiting the world?
M.R.C: Yeah, revisiting the world – taking us to the years immediately before the breakdown of civilisation. Do you remember in GWATG there’s a point where they discover the big armoured laboratory? The Rosalind Franklin?
M.R.C: We never found out what happened to the crew of the Rosalind Franklin, so it’s basically that story. But it’s a way of expanding the –
STORGY: The Universe –
M.R.C: The world that we created, yeah. But also exploring other aspects of it. And also some questions that we’ve implicitly asked.
STORGY: I think I’ve taken up enough of your time Mike, but I wanted to thank you, I know you are busy at the moment and I really appreciate that you were able to do this interview, I’ll be making my way to the cinema on 23rd September to watch TGWATG and I hope it gets all the rave reviews that it thoroughly deserves.
M.R.C: Cheers, thanks a lot Tony. All the best.
STORGY: Thanks, Bye.