Q & A: M. R. Carey
M.R. Carey is an award-winning writer of novels, scripts and comics. His novel, The Girl With All The Gifts, was a runaway, word-of-mouth success and it will be followed by the novel Fellside, released April 7th. Fellside is a haunting thriller set in a maximum security prison on the edge of the Yorkshire moors.
How was the experience of writing Fellside compared to writing The Girl With All the Gifts?
It was different in a lot of ways. Fellside took longer in the planning stages, but that was probably because it had more of a real-world component. I had to find out a lot about the British prison system, because although Fellside is a fictitious place I wanted it to feel as authentic as I could make it.
Certainly Fellside is a different kind of story from The Girl With All the Gifts in many ways, which was already a very big departure from the books I’d written before. I was trying to do a kind of genre fusion here, bringing together a realistic prison drama with a story about ghosts. I needed to find a voice and approach for that, and the solutions took me in a different direction from what I’d done or tried to do in Girl. Fellside still uses multiple points of view, and it still has a sort of almost-but-not-quite parent/child relationship at the core of it, but in some respects it’s a very different proposition. It’s darker than Girl, which perhaps sounds ridiculous given that Girl includes an extinction event. It goes to more troubling places, emotionally, and there are some very brutal scenes.
Both books, in my opinion, have endings that allow for hope. But it’s the kind of hope you have to walk over a lot of broken glass to get to.
Why did you choose the setting of a women’s prison for this book?
There were a lot of different reasons. I’m fascinated by institutional environments, closed systems that force people into roles or constrain their behaviour in other ways. Base Hotel Echo in The Girl With All the Gifts would be another example of that. And partly, in this case, it’s a question of pushing genre tropes to an extreme. A lot of the power of ghost stories, or at least of haunted house stories, comes from the sense of claustrophobia they generate. It felt like a prison setting might add another turn of the screw there, to borrow Henry James’ metaphor.
And Fellside itself is a metaphor, of course. Probably all fictional precincts are, but certainly the ones you meet in genre fictions. Jess is trapped by her own sense of guilt, locked into a quest for atonement that she can’t ever get close to. And then on top of that she’s trapped in a web of very dangerous and pathological relationships within the prison. The walls and locked doors are shorthand for a lot of other things.
But the other side of that question is why should the setting be specifically a women’s prison as opposed to one for men. That was a direct and obvious consequence of making Jess, the protagonist, a woman – and I think I made that decision because I was drawing on the experiences of women I actually know or have known. It’s partly a story about addiction, and those aspects of the story were partially rooted in actual memories and relationships. In a way, this was almost a story I’d been consciously hiding from. And I finally decided to see if I could tell it.
So Jess always presented in my head as a female character. She’s not directly based on any one person, but there are ghosts of some real women hovering over her. Women who were very close to me in earlier stages of my life.
Did you set out to make this a ghost story?
Yes, very definitely. Jess’s relationship to the child she killed – or has been accused and convicted of killing – is right at the heart of the story. The focus, all the way through, is on how she confronts and copes with her guilt, and how she eventually comes to understand it. So the child, Alex, needed to be a presence. You can argue about how much presence a ghost has, and that’s very much an issue with this ghost. Jess has a history with vivid dreams, after all, and she has been treated for mental illness in her childhood. But here she is faced with the very embodiment of her guilt, and she has to respond to it. She has obligations to Alex, whether this version of him is real or not. She can’t walk away, or take refuge in thinking “well I’ve just lost my mind”. The novel is about the ways in which we’re haunted by our past – so it was always going to take the form of a haunting.
Would you say that the theme of redemption links Fellside and The Girl With All the Gifts?
Redemption is unquestionably a theme in both books. In The Girl With All the Gifts Helen Justineau makes that first emotional commitment to Melanie partly out of a sense of guilt and complicity, a feeling that she has to put something in the scales to balance the dubious and troubling things she’s being called on to do at the base. And in that respect she’s more than a little like Jess in Fellside struggling to find some way of living with what she’s done and what she is.
It’s an impossible conundrum, though. I think it’s something we all do, to some extent, trying to buy forgiveness from ourselves or from some imaginary tribunal. But it almost never works because the things you do and the promises you make now are not really commensurate with the things in the past that you feel bad about. There’s no easy way of making the sums come out right. All you can do is be a better person in ways that feel like they matter and hope and pray that eventually that will translate into a sense of peace. So redemption comes on its own terms, if it comes at all. You can’t force the issue.
There’s a passage in Gene Wolfe’s Torturer quartet that I always think of in this connection. He says we have an altar in our hearts, and we come to the altar to try to pay for the sins of the past using the debased currency of the present. It’s hard. Almost impossibly hard. We do it because the alternative is even harder.
Is there any message you’d like to pass on to Waterstones booksellers across the country?
Yes! I’d like to say a huge, earnest thank you for all the support that Waterstones gave to The Girl With All the Gifts. It was amazing to see how some Waterstones branches became such passionate advocates and cheerleaders for the book and how much of a difference that made in terms of people picking it up and trying it even when it wasn’t in their literary comfort zone.
I hope you find something to like and approve of in Fellside too. And I look forward to meeting some of you at signings around the UK!