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Melding Fiction & Reality: The World of Mike Carey

By Gregory Frye.

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“Stories are the only thing worth dying for,” Mike Carey says, quoting the words of Count Ambrosio, one of the villains in his new Vertigo monthly comic book series The Unwritten, co-created with artist Peter Gross.

The line comes with the mention of the Greeks who fought at Troy, women burned as witches, the Rosenbergs, religious martyrs, and the millions who have fallen in every war since the beginning of time.

“[This notion] comes from a very strong feeling which I’ve always had – and just gets stronger as I get older – that we don’t live in the real world,” Carey says. “We think we do, but we live in narratives. We live in ideas about the world. The stories that we tell ourselves are the furniture of our lives, the furniture of our thoughts, the factors of our decisions.”

We can’t say a story is just a story, Carey maintains, mentioning Count Ambrosio’s reference to fallen soldiers and religious martyrs. “Those people all died for stories. They died for either a narrative they believed in, or a narrative that somebody else believed in and imposed on them.”

Carey tells me all of this from the hole that is his writing space, a converted garden shed – with no heating or cooling – where he sits at the keyboard most of any given day, surrounded by stacks and towers of books, comics, newspapers and magazines.

Storytelling has always been a part of Carey’s life. He initially got into prose as a hobby, telling stories to his little brother as a child, writing comics in his early teens even.

“I guess it’s fair to say that as a child I lived inside my own head for a very large percentage of the time, and that’s never stopped, really.”

This inability to stop writing has led Carey into what many would consider a dream career. He tried his hand at comics journalism, which led to publishing comic strips, a few one-shots, and then his first major break, which came about ten years ago when Vertigo agreed to do a monthly series of Lucifer. The success of the series led to other comic writing gigs, including a lengthy run on the everlasting Hellblazer series.

Now Carey’s plate is always full, full of telling stories. In addition to his Felix Castor novels, a series of books about a freelance exorcist who is also an atheist, Carey does work for Marvel comics on X-Men: Legacy, and he also has a new screenplay in production and is working on a couple of video games.

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The Unwritten: fiction and reality

With all of the published works under his belt, many people are suggesting that The Unwritten is Carey’s and co-creator Gross’ best work to date. The monthly series earned three Eisner nominations in 2009 and has garnished a lot of attention from in and outside the comic world.

The basic premise is a story about a man named Tom Taylor who is famous all over the world because his father has written a series of books about Tommy Taylor the Boy Wizard, the character being based off his own son.

Resentfully, Tom grows up to service his father’s legend, doing signings and conventions, famous only because of another person’s work. It gets worse when somebody points out the documentation relating to Tom’s life is mostly forged or unavailable, and therefore it turns out he may actually be his father’s fictional creation made flesh.

The comic also brings other pieces of literature to life including Frankenstein and Jud Suss, where the characters find themselves in Nazi Germany. Moby Dick will also soon make an appearance.

The theme of exploring the connection between fiction and reality arose during a conversation between Carey and Gross, which ultimately sparked the conception for The Unwritten.

“There is currently this feeling now in psychiatry that the self is narrative,” Carey says. “When you start looking for what used to be called the seat of the soul – the part of you that is you, that is the observer behind your eyes – the current thinking is it’s just the story that you tell yourself as it joins up the things that you’ve done and the things that happen to you. Your sense of that history, of that story, is yourself. It’s the closest thing you have to a soul. These are things that Peter Gross and I have been talking about for a long time, and it was Peter who had the idea to take a character and tell their story in real life and in a narrative in which they’re a fictional character.”

Creating a premise where fiction and reality undergo crossovers allows for some impossible things to happen but doesn’t necessarily give way to a world without rules. “The danger is if you completely take the lid off – if you say that reality is story and story is reality – you can end up with a situation where nothing matters because anything can be undone, anything you do on the page can, if you choose, have zero consequences.”

To illustrate his point, Carey gives a modern example of the television series Heroes. While he enjoyed the first season, he was “shaken loose” during the second season when they started using the blood of Claire, a cheerleader with rapid healing powers, to bring dead characters back to life. Going from a traumatic, tear-jerking death to the character being alive again just didn’t work for Carey.

“All the pressure, all the tension, all the sense of narrative weight and momentum just dissipated for me, and we don’t want that to happen in The Unwritten. This is very much a story about the impact of fiction on reality, and it does seem to be a story where elements from fiction become real, but there are strict parameters within which that’s possible. There’s ultimately a logical explanation for everything that happens.”

“You don’t want to use the metaphysical fiction aspect as a get out of jail free card to absolve your responsibility for narrative developments. You have to play things so they still have meaning.”

When it comes to choosing which pieces of literature to crossover into the world of The Unwritten, Carey and Gross employ a two-piece criteria. Firstly it must be a work they enjoy, but they also want to use literary works that can sometimes have metaphoric or symbolic reference to Tom’s situation.

For example when Frankenstein makes an appearance, he tells Tom they have something in common in that they were both made by creators other than God, and that creator doesn’t care for them all that much.

Ultimately, Carey and Gross have a definite ending in mind for The Unwritten. They hope to take the series on a five or six year run and really give it a chance to breathe, grow and go all the places it needs to go.

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Success & creativity

The quality of Carey’s work has brought him a lot of writing projects, and he’s been working “flat-out” for the past two or three years, juggling all that he can handle.

“Provided you don’t push it too far, the upside to that is if you’re working really hard on a lot of different projects, there’s a sense where you get a big creative momentum behind you. You go into fifth gear, your mind is working overtime, you’re generating ideas … obviously the danger is that if you work at the pace for too long, you can burn yourself out, and you wouldn’t necessarily know you burned yourself out,” Carey says.

He has noticed that some writers, at certain points in their careers, start reusing the same set of tropes or the same set of story arcs. “[The writer] is probably the last person to see that. Other people see it before you do. It’s a great terror for me, the idea of plagiarizing myself like that.”

The contrast, however, that comes between working on novels and comic book manuscripts keeps Carey fresh at the keyboard every day.

“For writing novels, my favorite part is just the freedom,” he says, mentioning that comics are more restricted in canvas-size, a page-length typically set by the publisher. Some publishers will sometimes let you squeeze in an extra page, but it usually means subtracting a page from a future issue.

“With a novel, you define the format, you define the structure and the length and the pacing of all the beats. That freedom is very attractive.”

But working on comics also has its set of attractions. “A lot of the excitement with comics is working in a collaborative medium, working as a team of creators to bring the vision to life on the page and seeing your words turned into pictures by people like Peter Gross, Mike Perkins, or Chris Bachalo, that’s tremendously exciting.”

Like most successful writers, Carey would probably keep on writing even if his work wasn’t being published. “Artistic creation is really the externalization of something you’re already really pumped up about, something that fills you to the point where it comes out. Your ability to control that process is questionable perhaps.”

Although, now that he’s made a name for himself, Carey has to negotiate an economic imperative into his world of words because in the comic industry, to build a reputation of saying “no” is often considered bad luck.

He recalls quitting his teaching job ten years ago. “I suddenly realized like a Warner’s cartoon character, I had run off the edge of a cliff. As long as I didn’t look down and kept running, then I wouldn’t fall. And I’ve kept running in a sense.”

Of course, Carey’s success has also brought quite an audience-base. His experience with comic fans has been mostly positive and he loves interacting with them at conventions. There’s a fantastic atmosphere at cons that dissolves whatever barrier between the creator and the fans, he says.

With his more mainstream projects, like X-Men: Legacy, Carey is very aware of a sense of responsibility he as a writer has when it comes to the characters.

While a writer, if lucky, will be working on these books for around three years or so, a lot of these readers have been with the characters for most of their adult lives, for decades, he says. “They have more emotional capital invested in those characters than you have, even if you’re a fan. There are some people out there who are more attached to the characters than you are.”

The writer has a responsibility to the continuity of these characters, Carey says. “You have to be careful about making radical changes just for the sake of it. The changes have to be justified in the context of the line as a whole.”

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Experience

Carey has been cultivating his craft for a long time. As mentioned earlier, this didn’t necessarily come by choice. Carey admits that even when he’s not working, he can feel the pull of the keyboard.

“I think what you get with experience is a sense of your own limitations and a sense of your own process.”

So now, for comic book writing, he knows exactly how long it will take him to plan and write a script, thus allowing to him allocate his time sensibly.

“You just have to be careful not to write the same thing endlessly. You have to find news ways of challenging and surprising yourself. The last thing you want is to become a player piano, just repeating the same few tropes endlessly.”

You can find Carey sitting in his converted garden shed almost any given day, continually challenging himself while tap-tapping away at his keyboard, surrounded by a castle of pages and words, having the time of his life.

“There’s nothing more thrilling for me than writing stories, and it’s the most exciting thing in the world to see your words become part of the furniture of somebody else’s mind. That’s the payoff.”

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ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Gregory Frye is a journalist and struggling novelist who teaches English in Athens, Greece. His short story, Mr. Electric, received honorable mention in the 78th Annual Writer’s Digest Writing Competition. That story and other literary/cultural oddities can be found at his new site: doginthesand.wordpress.com.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, April 23rd, 2010.