“Inspirations and Influences” is a series of articles in which we invite authors to write guest posts talking about their Inspirations and Influences. In this feature, we invite writers to talk about their new books, older titles, and their writing overall.
Today, are delighted to welcome M R Carey back to the blog to talk inspirations and influences behind his new book, Fellside, out from Orbit now.
“What are your influences?”
It’s the one question you always approach with mixed feelings. On the one hand, it’s great to get to talk about the stories that have inspired you and turned you on, the books and movies and TV shows that have furnished the inside of your head.
But on the other, you’re always a little wary that you might be sort of confessing to a theft. When people go back to your influences, will they find all the good bits of your own work prefigured there? Will they discover that your contribution to literature amounts to a cut and paste job? Will they find you out?
Okay, I’m exaggerating, but that last question is seriously meant. It’s hard to find a writer who will describe themselves with just that one word, without hedging their bets in any way. It’s even hard to find a writer who is comfortable with being praised. Most of us see a massive unbridgeable gulf between the books written by people we respect and admire and the stuff we write ourselves. The sense of that gulf makes us wary, a lot of the time, of making any claims at all for our own books.
Especially when we compare ourselves to the writers who’ve influenced us, who will always tend to stand massively tall in our minds. My influences include (in no order whatsoever) Gene Wolfe, Ursula LeGuin, Mervyn Peake, China Mieville and Lord Dunsany. And if I ever write anything that’s a half or even a quarter as good as the works those writers are famous for, I’ll feel like I’ve acquitted myself very well indeed.
But there are other influences, just as important, that I never mention at all – but for very different reasons. Stories I devoured at one point in my life but don’t want to own up to now, either because my tastes have changed or because even at the time they were a guilty pleasure. I suspect every writer has bêtes noires of this kind, stories they read and passionately loved but then woke up in bed with the next morning and thought “My God, what have I done?”
Like it or not, though, those things planted seeds in our minds just as surely as the precursors we proudly lay claim to. You can practise safe sex, but there’s no such thing as safe reading. When you open the page, and your mind, every barrier goes down at once.
In my mid-teens I discovered the Lensman novels of E.E. “Doc” Smith, which at that time were being reprinted by Panther Books with enticing covers by Chris Foss. I worked my way through the entire series with great delight, not in the least bit put off by the awful, overblown style or the appallingly dodgy politics. If you haven’t read Smith, let me give you a brief taste (from Gray Lensman, the fourth book in the series):
“From millions upon millions of projectors there raved out gigantic rods, knives, and needles of force, under the impact of which the defensive screens of Jalte’s guardian citadels flamed into terrible refulgence. Duodec bombs were hurled—tight-beam-directed monsters of destruction which, looping around in vast circles to attain the highest possible measure of momentum, flung themselves against Boskone’s defenses in Herculean attempts to smash them down. They exploded; each as it burst filling all nearby space with blindingly intense violet light and with flying scraps of metal. Q-type helices, driven with all the frightful kilowattage possible to Medonian conductors and insulation, screwed in; biting, gouging, tearing in wild abandon. Shear-planes, hellish knives of force beside which Tellurian lightning is pale and wan, struck and struck and struck again—fiendishly, crunchingly.”
I read half a million words of that. For pleasure. Twice. And much as I’d like to repudiate it now, it sank in. Did you notice how addicted Smith is to the rule of three? As in, if a thing is worth saying it’s worth saying three times? “Rods, knives and needles of force.” “Biting, gouging, tearing with wild abandon.” I still do that stuff and think it sounds pretty cool.
And for a long time I hid that fact from the people who love me. I might confess to having read Smith, but I’d swear I never inhaled.
But I think it’s better to be upfront about these things – own up to our disreputable influences as well as our noble ones. And in that spirit, I’m going to reveal the bad stories that may conceivably have fed into my latest novel Fellside.
In pre-emptive self defence I’d like to stress that I did a lot of research for Fellside, more than for previous books, because the real world aspects of the story demanded a deadly serious approach. Fellside is a ghost story, but it’s set in a women’s prison and it deals with addiction. The main character is a woman who has killed a child and is haunted by his ghost. I didn’t want to touch on these subjects without doing the best I could to get the factual side of the story straight.
So while writing the novel and later the screenplay I talked to people in the prison system, to addicts and former addicts and people involved in drug rehab. I visited prisons, through the good offices of National PEN, and did talks and workshops. I read a lot of accounts by former prison inmates of their experiences inside. And though the story as I wrote it exaggerates some things and is silent about others, I think it gives an account of prison life that doesn’t stretch credulity too far.
But I love a good prison drama, and I’m more than tolerant of a bad one. I’m prepared to admit that among the books and movies I’ve consumed are the following epic fails, which in themselves constituted both a crime and a punishment. Fortress, which saw Christopher Lambert banged up for the crime of trying to father a second child (harsh but fair) and introduced the world to a torture device called the intestinator. Mean Machine, which starred Vinnie Jones and had the distinction of being an even worse prison football movie than Escape To Victory. And Jeffrey Archer’s prison diaries, which unironically borrow the structure of Dante’s Divine Comedy to describe his two years inside.
I’m not saying that any of these things were in the forefront of my mind when I was writing Fellside. The forefront of my mind was taken up with other things, including the real life experiences of addicts I’ve known, the men and women I met on my prison visits and the state of Britain’s jails after a doubling of their population over the last twenty years.
But there’s a swamp of fear and loathing in my hindbrain, and Jeffrey Archer lives there. With Christopher Lambert. And Vinnie Jones.
There’s more than one level in the strata of our influences.
And more than one way of being haunted.
About the author:
M. R. Carey is an established British writer of prose fiction. His previous novel The Girl with all the Gifts was a word-of-mouth bestseller and is soon to be a major motion picture. Under the name Mike Carey, has also written for both DC and Marvel, including critically acclaimed runs on X-Men and Fantastic Four, Marvel’s flagship superhero titles. His creator-owned books regularly appear in the New York Times graphic fiction bestseller list. He also has several previous novels and one Hollywood movie screenplay to his credit. The Girl with all the Gifts movie will be released on the 9th September