April 2016 | by Carl Marsh
Are you one of those writers wherever you are in the world and when you pass a book shop, you go in and then sign away, or do you resist the urge?
I’ve never done that. I can’t resist the urge to check which – if any – of my books are in stock, but I don’t go to the front desk and say “Hey, guess who I am.” It would feel kind of egotistical and absurd. And how humiliating would it be if you offered to sign and the assistant said "no thanks"? I’m haunted by that scene in Young Adult where Charlize Theron is thrown out of a bookshop for signing her own stuff without permission. That’s the stuff of nightmares.
Writing comics is where the majority of your work is but your book The Girl With All The Gifts has now been made into a movie, you also wrote the screenplay, did you feel the need to amend much of the storyline?
The situation is actually a fair bit weirder than that. I wrote both the novel and the screenplay off the back of a short story entitled Iphigenia In Aulis, which appeared in the anthology An Apple For the Creature. So I was working on the prose and movie versions simultaneously.
They did diverge quite considerably. There were things that made sense in the novel that didn’t feel like a good fit for the movie, and vice versa. In particular, the novel introduces many different points of view. Melanie, as the protagonist, is the primary POV character but we also see some events through the eyes of Miss Justineau, Dr Caldwell, Parks, even Kieran Gallagher. The movie sticks with Melanie’s point of view throughout, and it’s very rare indeed for us to see any events that she’s not present for. That was a conscious decision and I think it works. Novels can get away with being expansive and discursive where movies often work better if they’re focused to a point. Sorry, that’s probably overstating it, but there is a sense in which every medium comes with its own built-in tool kit.
One point I need to mention is that some of the film was shot in a town in my home city of Stoke-on-Trent, I hear this did not go down too well with the local council/press as it may portray the town as a desolate and demeaning place; is there anything positive you think the film will give back to the area for having been filmed there?
You know, I don’t think it does portray the town like that. We didn’t choose the Midlands as our shooting base because it fitted the post-apocalyptic vibe. We chose it because it had the right mix of urban and rural settings all within easy reach of a production base that we could afford. A lot of the London scenes, for example, are shot in parts of Birmingham that are actually very beautiful. We had to apocalypse them up quite considerably! Elsewhere, obviously, we had to search for decayed and abandoned sites to get the right look and feel. But even then Colm found a kind of beauty in the way the man-made structures had been partially reclaimed by nature. Nobody is going to watch the movie and think “man, I’m staying away from there!”
In terms of giving back, the director and producers were very committed to the idea of using local talent both in front of the camera and behind it – and that was very explicitly discussed with our backers, including the BFI and Creative England. A lot of the supporting cast were from the Midlands, and likewise a lot of the crew. Our female lead, Sennia Nanua, was born in the area and still lives there. We spent the majority of our budget there.
I didn’t read any negative comments in local media. If there were any, I think they’ve missed the point.
Your new book, does it have anything in common with The Girl With All The Gifts in any way, and most importantly, what is it called?
The next novel is called Fellside, and it comes out early in April 2016. It’s a ghost story set in a women’s prison. The protagonist, Jess, is accidentally responsible for the death of a child and is then haunted by the child’s ghost. She’s also thrown into a terrifying undeclared war with the prison’s most powerful fixer, Harriet Grace. It’s got very little in common with The Girl With All the Gifts except that it once again has a quasi-parental relationship between a woman and a child at the heart of it. In this case, though, Jess’s relationship with the ghost of Alex Beech is a lot more complicated and fraught with dangers for both of them. You might wonder what a dead child has to fear. In this case the answer is: a lot.
You were a teacher for a number of years, do you miss that as a profession?
Not so much any more. For the first few years after I quit it felt very strange to me to be working alone in a tiny shed while all my friends who were still teachers were meeting 200 new students. My world seemed to have got much smaller and quieter. But that’s sort of an optical illusion. Right now, life is as crowded and noisy as it’s possible to be and I’m far from complaining.
There is a sense, though, in which it’s good for a writer to be out in the world rather than sitting in a shed. Teaching, like any job, plugs you into human nature and human relationships. It gives you lots and lots of raw material for your imagination and your fictions to work on. In that sense I miss it. But I’m certainly getting a lot more writing done since I quit!
Being an ex-teacher and now a successful writer, you must long for the day when reading a book becomes much more normal a thing to do, and that more people read more?
I kind of like that internet meme that goes “whoever said they were sorry they only had one life to live had clearly never read a book.” It’s cheesy, as all these things are, but it expresses an important truth. Stories expose you to other lives, worlds and experiences. They make you bigger. It’s as simple as that.
Actually, I’d go further. Our sense of self is really no more than a story we tell ourselves about who we are – a narrative centre of gravity, as Daniel Dennett puts it. Not reading stories or watching them is like choosing to be a recluse, to live in a self-imposed exile. Stories are your other family. You should embrace them, including all the embarrassing uncles.
You must have many favourite past reads, what are they, and why?
The problem with listing your favourites is deciding what to leave off.
The Amber novels by Roger Zelazny are enduring favourites of mine, as is his sublime stand-alone novel Lord of Light. Nobody is better than Zelazny at establishing a cool or compelling idea and then finding a dozen brilliant ways to twist it. Reading his books is like listening to a Bach fugue.
I’ve always loved the Gormenghast trilogy by Mervyn Peake. Peake was an artist, and he writes very powerfully for the eye. His books build 3d dioramas in your head. And the last 250 pages of Gormenghast, where Steerpike is hunted down by the trio of Titus, Flay and Prunesquallor, make up one of the most sustained and gripping set pieces in literature.
Terry Pratchett was a genius and I love his Discworld novels, especially those that feature either the three witches or Sam Vimes. Having said that, Reaper Man is probably my all-time favourite book in the sequence, mostly for Death’s plea to Asrael and Asrael’s one-word answer.
I could go on. Ursula LeGuin’s short stories, and her Earthsea books. Tim Powers’ Dinner at Deviant’s Palace. The Torturer quartet, which IMO is Gene Wolfe’s definitive masterpiece. Stephen Hall’s Raw Shark Texts. Michael Swanwick’s Jack Faust (and the much shorter Cigar Box Faust). In comics, The Sandman, the Hernandez Brothers’ Love and Rockets, anything by Tony Millionaire, Larry Marder’s Beanworld, Joe Hill’s Locke and Key…
What annoys the hell out of you, what really pisses you off?
I hate sloppy arguments. I can read robust diatribes that I disagree with, so long as there’s a logical through-line. If people argue in bad faith, contradict themselves or cheat by misusing statistics or faking evidence, that drives me crazy. One of my biggest hate figures is Cyril Burt, the educational psychologist who created an argument in favour of selective schools by means of utterly fraudulent twin studies.
So what makes you know that life is great on a day to day basis?
Red wine. Home-cooked food. Netflix. And above all else my family.
How easy or hard was it for you to get a book deal initially, did you get rejected at any time?
It was very easy for me to get a book deal because I was already known for my comics writing. I more or less walked into a three-book deal at Little Brown. But I slogged away for ten years – no exaggeration – before I got my comics career off the ground. I worked for UK indies, American indies, anyone who would have me. And before that I wrote comics journalism and reviews for several years. I built the foundations of a career through a decade of sheer hyperactivity.
But I can see now, looking back at those years, that I was doing things the hard way. I could have abridged a lot of those steps if I’d just had more confidence in myself.
However – and this is going to sound like a contradiction – I can also see that every single one of those articles, reviews, pitches, spec scripts, short stories, submissions and rejections and all, was worth the time I spent on it. Writing is many things, but on one level it’s a purely mechanical skill. Like riding a bike. So you get better at it by doing it. You may at some point hit a ceiling, but still, you improve your skill set – you discover your skill set – by using it. I suspect you can’t be a writer unless on some level you either love or need to write.
I say either love or need because sometimes it’s stressful. Sometimes it’s hard. The need pushes you through those times and then at some point, in my experience, you’ll start loving it again.
If your main character "Melanie" in The Girl With All The Gifts was an animal, what would it be, and why?
Wow. That is a tough question. She’d have to be something small, something only partially domesticated, and something that’s both cute and dangerous. I think she’d be an animal in the mustelidae family – maybe a ferret or a mink. Those things are really lovely, really sweet and playful, but they’ll sink their teeth into you all the way to the bone if you catch them at an off-moment. That seems like a very appropriate avatar for Melanie.