Mike Carey, long-time writer at Vertigo and Marvel, has something a little different on his plate these days. His novel The Steel Seraglio -- co-written with his wife Linda and their daughter Louise and published by ChiZine Publications-- hit bookstores last week. The brilliant story of a group of concubines exiled to the desert and condemned to death fighting to retake their city is like the love child of Frank Herbert's Dune and The Arabian Nights. I was lucky enough to get to interview all three Careys about life in comics, writing and the book itself.
You've worked a lot writing comics, and there were many passages in the novel where I pictured panels while I was reading. How does your experience in comics impact your writing? Was it a natural switch for you?
Mike: It was certainly a very smooth and easy switch! I spent a lot of my late teens and early twenties writing novels, without really having any idea how a novel worked. I gave no thought at all to structure, I just wrote chapter one and then sat around waiting for some kind of a lead on chapter two, and so on. Writing comics – apart from being sort of a dream come true – taught me a lot about structure and pacing in my writing. In a monthly comic, you have a canvas of a very precise size and no room at all for deviation. So you become incredibly conscious of how every story beat has to earn its keep, because it’s potentially taking up space where you could do something else. I would actually have arguments with my comic book editors about things like splash pages – what you might call the spatial budget for the story. All of which was really good training for writing novels, where there are no limits except for what you impose on yourself.
Speaking of your comics work, is there a character of yours you're particularly attached to? Who's the most fun to write? What do your kids think of Tom Taylor?
Mike: My kids eat up The Unwritten, which is great. When I was writing Lucifer, they were much younger and I couldn’t even show it to them. There was stuff in there, like the hate-crime beating of the gay guy in the first story arc, that they just wouldn’t have been able to cope with emotionally. I think the first story of mine that they read and kind of enjoyed was My Faith in Frankie – and The Unwritten is the first of my books that they’re actually following, month by month.
Favourite characters. In Lucifer, definitely the kick-ass women – Mazikeen, Jill Presto, Elaine Belloc, Spera. The ones who came together at the end of the series for the Girls’ Night Out issue.
In The Unwritten, probably Mr. Bun. I should be more ashamed of that than I am. He’s a horrible human being, and an even worse rabbit, but he’s enormous fun to write.
And in X-Men, although I was fickle, I tended to default back to Rogue whenever I could.
Louise: I can confirm some of this. It's true that David, Ben and I loved My Faith in Frankie, and we're really enjoying The Unwritten. I also have to admit that I, too, share a guilty fondness for Mr. Bun. It's the constant stream of obscenities that does it for me- the idea of a cute fluffy bunny swearing like a trooper is just too funny!
However, even though dad certainly couldn't show us Lucifer, it didn't stop me stumbling across an unedited proof issue at the tender age of eight, and devouring it with gusto. Although I only read the series in fits and starts, and in entirely the wrong order, its surreal vividness and lyricism stay with me to this day. I've always been into fantasy, so even as a child I loved the dreamlike quality of much of Lucifer, and its wild flights of fancy.
What's it like to work within a world created by another writer, like Lucifer or Hellblazer?
Mike: You know, it’s so much the norm in comics that you don’t even think about it. Work-for-hire on someone else’s books makes up the huge bulk of the work you can get in the mainstream, and it’s taken for granted. In fact, there’s a huge pleasure in taking an established character and adding your own twist to them, then seeing that version of the character be accepted and built on by other writers. In X-Men, I loved taking cool characters out of obscurity and shoving them back into the spotlight. Lady Mastermind, Exodus, Amelia Voght, Frenzy, Ariel, Husk, Indra, Loa… That toy box is so vast, you could spend your whole life in there.
Hellblazer is a special case, because I think everyone who’s worked on that book writes a very different John Constantine, and yet the core of the character keeps surfacing again and again through all these different treatments. My John Constantine was very close to his Liverpool roots, and very involved in family. That’s close in some ways to Garth Ennis’s and Jamie Delano’s versions of the character, but a long way from Warren Ellis’s and Brian Azzarello’s. But John is always John, which is his biggest magic trick.
With Lucifer, I started off by staying very close to the Lucifer of Sandman, but then I diverged more and more as time went on. If you read some dialogue from a late issue of Lucifer, and compare it to Season of Mists, you’ll see what I mean. But that was a joy. Writing Neil’s characters, adding a chapter or two to that story – very much a dream job. And I cherry-picked. I borrowed (with Neil’s blessing) all the Sandman characters I loved best, and wove them in and out of Lucifer’s story. That was a wonderful thing to be able to do, and it was a big factor in the book’s success. I felt that Caitlin Kiernan, on The Dreaming, had an impossible task – writing stories around this massive narrative hole, the absence of Dream.
You guys wrote this as a family, with your daughter. What was that like? How did you handle the inevitable (at least in my marriage they'd be inevitable) creative clashes? Mike, this isn't your first collaboration with your daughter -- was it different this time around? Did your experience collaborating with comic artists help you out here?
Mike: I think it helped in flagging up some of the potential pitfalls – although we still ended up falling into one or two of them anyway.
In both cases, it was a really exciting and rewarding process, and a great learning experience. But yeah, you don’t collaborate on something this big without having a few shouting matches along the way. It was good that there were three of us. If one (usually me or Lou) misbehaved, the other two could form a quorum and talk them round.
The magic ingredient was fanaticism. We all loved the story and the characters, and we had that sense of urgency to get their story down on paper. When it was time to put up or shut up, we put. Or if we were talking nonsense, shut. We really did put aside our differences whenever it was a case of getting something done.
Louise: I was a lot less experienced as a writer the last time I collaborated with dad, which made it a different process from writing Seraglio. When we co-wrote Confessions of a Blabbermouth, even though we split the work more or less 50/50, I was very much a junior partner in the creative process. Dad was teaching me things about plot, pacing and dialogue as we went along, and I tried to apply them as best I could. But I was still finding my feet, so what I wrote was often a little rough and needed polishing. Working on Seraglio, I think the three of us were on a more even footing.
There was also more independent planning involved. Dad and I plotted Confessions together on a beat by beat basis. With Seraglio, although we decided on the overall plot and structure of the book as a team, we wrote our chapters individually, and had pretty much complete autonomy over their structure and content. The novel functions in many ways like a collection of short stories, so there was a lot of potential for each of us to go off on weird tangents which interested us.
Linda: For me, that was the best thing about the collaboration: every so often, one of us would turn up with a new riff, or even a new character that we all loved on sight, and the whole narrative got moved sideways to accommodate that. And though Mike was nominally the senior partner, as Lou says the new ideas came from all of us about equally, which made the planning meetings quite exciting. Even with the occasional quarrels, it meant that we were motivated to come to an agreement.
Linda, you're no stranger to the fantasy genre, but your previous work -- the Darkest Age trilogy -- has been on the children's side. Do you feel like there's a difference when writing for adults (beyond the obvious, being able to write about courtesans)?
Linda: There are other freedoms as well: it was fun to put older characters centre-stage, like the elderly courtesans or the cook who’s lost his son, and to flesh out the city of Bessa by talking about details of how the place might actually be run, like trade routes or the importance of maintaining the sewers – the sort of thing that doesn’t usually make it into children’s fantasy. Not, of course, that a young audience can’t take an interest in those things. In my experience as a teacher and parent, children are capable of engaging with any subject you can throw at them – and they’re often pretty astute about things political. But when you’re writing a children’s or YA novel within a particular genre, there are a set of constraints. You’re expected to stick to the story, and too much digression comes over as self-indulgent. Whereas you could say Seraglio is all digressions.
You three did a remarkable job keeping Zuleika and the other women from being just another action pinup chick. Is it challenging being a female writer in the epic fantasy-historical fighting genre?
Linda: I don’t think we ever saw the book as existing within that genre! If anything, we wrote it as a deliberately cross-genre narrative, with elements of fable, romance, war-story, and, OK, a bit of historical-fantasy. But we weren’t trying to live up to any heroic conventions. The women in the story have spent their lives in a closed community, and are suddenly required to fight a war: it would be perverse (not to say boring) to transform them all into Amazons overnight. So some of them refuse to fight, and they’re all scared, and they quarrel a lot about what they’re going to do – I think we just went by what the three of us thought we would do under those circumstances.
Zuleika, of course, is a fighter, but she lives in the same world as the others, which means she has to hide what she is to be accepted. As we saw it, she becomes an assassin to escape a forced marriage, and carries on with the job because it offers her a living – though still one that depends on a male patron.
Louise: I wrote several of the fight scenes in the novel, and I did find them really difficult to orchestrate. However, my difficulties were not with how to present the women involved so much as with the actual nuts and bolts of the fighting itself. Writing Seraglio made me realise that I had never seen a physical fight outside of the movies or television. Going to an all girls' school from the age of eleven has meant that my exposure to physical violence of any sort has been incredibly limited, and this was an obstacle for me when writing the fighting bits of the novel, as I wanted them to feel as realistic as possible.
Thanks so much for talking with us! Any hints as to what's coming from you in the future?
Louise: We're currently working on another collaborative book, which we’re tentatively calling Many Mansions. It will be something of a follow-up to Steel Seraglio, but only in terms of its thematic emphases- we're going to set it in a completely different world, with none of the same characters.
Mike: And I’m writing thrillers under a pseudonym. And a zombie novel that I’m very, very excited about.