Mike Carey is best known for his work on Hellblazer and Lucifer comic books and the Felix Castor series of Novels. Starburst caught up with him to talk about his latest book, The City of Silk and Steel, which he co-wrote with his wife Linda and his daughter Louise.
Starburst: Tell us about The City of Silk and Steel.
Mike Carey: City of Silk and Steel is a fantasy novel whose DNA is almost entirely drawn from the Thousand and One Nights. It’s not quite a pastiche, because we developed our own style and approach which is very different from the nineteenth century English editions such as Burton’s. But it’s a riff on that wonderful book, coming back to its themes and situations with a more modern sensibility.
One of the things all three of us feel when we read the Thousand and One Nights is that despite having an empowered heroine in Scheherazade, it sometimes expresses a very misogynistic view on the relationships between men and women. We decided to explore that topic through the adventures of a group of concubines – women from a sultan’s harem, whose whole life revolves around their sexual role – who are then thrown into a very different role and have to take their fate into their own hands.
It’s set in the ancient Middle East, where a sultan, Al Bokhari, is overthrown by a cult of religious extremists. This cult first condemns the concubines to banishment and then decides on reflection to execute them. They have to survive that threat, and then they have to find a way to fend for themselves out in the deep desert, and finally they have to make some sort of decision about their future. But they’ve got three things going for them. One of the concubines used to be an assassin before she became (in effect) a sex worker. Another has a lot of political acumen and used to advise the sultan on his dealings with other city states. And they meet a woman who’s been either blessed or cursed by the seven djinni and can sometimes see the future.
Why the multiple perspectives?
I think it’s inherent in the source material. The Thousand and One Nights is this gigantic bag of stories into which many different cultures contributed over (probably) a couple of centuries or more. There’s pretty much everything in there – adventure, horror, bawdy, romance, comedy, you name it. The first ever whodunit is in there, in the form of a story about a young woman who dies and two men who both claim to be the murderer. The sultan puts his best vizier on the case and tells him to find the real killer.
So it feels like if you’re going to go there, you have to go there as some great horde and make something huge and sprawling. If City of Silk and Steel works, it’s because we found a way to have that enormous variety but to put it in the service of a strong central narrative.
What was the most difficult story to tell?
It was difficult to modulate from the very upbeat adventure elements in the first part of the book to the much darker stuff that happens in the second part. The other analogue for what we’re doing is the Arthurian cycle – the building of Camelot, and then its fall. And as with Camelot, it all happens in a single generation. So you’ve got to chart this radical progress, this cycle of making and destruction, and give full weight to both aspects of it. We did that by resorting to very different storytelling devices in successive stories. Bessa at One and Ever and In the Fullness of Time are almost like cinematic montages, and you come out of them in a very different place.
Why an Arabian Nights style format?
It seemed like the only viable option. Well, no, that’s obviously not true. It would have been entirely possible to tell this story straight and chronologically. But I think it would have had to miss out a lot, and it would have been a much sparser experience. Doing it in this way, with all the digressions and the stories-within-stories, allowed us to reflect a massive upheaval with consequences for an entire society, and to at least try to do justice to the complexity and the strangeness of it. It’s like we’re showing this unique historical moment, but we’re also showing its roots and its after-effects and the motivations of the people who were part of it and the legend it becomes in later time. All those things. The Arabian Nights model – which is similar in some ways to the Moby Dick model (and we do have a homage to Moby Dick in there) – lets you do that. And it lets you do it in a way that doesn’t automatically say “this is through-line, and that part is just backstory”.
What sort of influence did your previous work have on The City of Silk and Steel?
I think perhaps my comic book work – especially the writing I’ve done on Lucifer and on The Unwritten – was a structural influence. I got used to writing those books in arcs of three to five issues which corresponded to chapters in an ongoing story. And I used done-in-one pieces as buffers and pauses for thought between the longer arcs. That’s a model that brings a lot of built-in advantages when you’re telling a long form story in episodic form. But it works just as well - in a different way – when you’re writing a novel.
What is the weirdest thing that has ever happened to you?
We had a fellow author staying with us once when she was in London – as a favour to our agent, who was her agent too. And we got talking about the woman who was her partner, who sounded really fascinating. She was a hi-fi enthusiast who’d built up a business tracking down rare vinyl for high-end collectors. And as we chatted, various weird little synchronicities kept popping up. So I started asking more focused questions, to see if what I suspected was true. And it was. The lady in question was a relative of my wife’s. That’s probably a not uncommon coincidence, but what was weird here was hearing very familiar family stories told with a completely different spin. It was a little bit Twilight-Zoney, like we’d stepped into the universe next door.
What would the elevator pitch for the autobiography of your life be?
Snot-nosed kid from the Liverpool slums goes down to the Smoke and becomes moderately successful fantasy writer. But never does learn to wipe his nose properly.
Which of your works would you like to see on the silver screen?
It would be wonderful to see a Castor movie. We keep having talks, but things keep not quite happening. Now that Dominion is going into production, though, I’ll finally get to see people speaking my lines in a movie. Unless I get struck by lightning at the premiere.
I’ve just delivered a novel to Little Brown, The Girl with All the Gifts, which comes out in November. It’s kind of a retelling of the Pandora myth in a post-apocalyptic near future, but it’s also a horror novel and – in a weird way – the most realistic thing I’ve ever written. I mean, the themes are ultimately all real-world themes. It’s very character-driven, and one of the characters in particular has turned out (I think) very, very well. She’s a ten-year-old girl who’s both really loveable and really terrifying.
I’ve also got some seed money, along with a director and two producers who I’ve been working with, to write a screenplay and do some development work for a UK-set horror movie. I’m really excited about that, because these three people are all wonderful to work with. The director is Colm McCarthy, of Endeavour and Ripper Street and Outcast. I think he’s a total genius, and brainstorming story ideas with him was the most fun I’ve had in ages.
And Lin, Lou and I are working on the follow-up to City of Silk and Steel. Not a sequel, but another book that functions in a similar way.
If you were stranded on a desert island and could only have one book for company, what would that book be?
You’re going to comp me the works of Shakespeare, right? If I could cheat and make it an omnibus edition, it would be either Gene Wolfe’s Torturer quartet or China Mieville’s three Bas Lag novels. If it had to be just the one novel, maybe Zelazny’s Lord of Light.
If you could delete one thing from reality in such a way that it never existed and never will, what would it be?
Oh, man. That’s hard. I’m going to go with reality TV shows.
What fictional worlds inspire you? Which Authors are your influences?
I could rabbit on endlessly about this stuff. The first fictional world I loved and got obsessed by was Enid Blyton’s Magic Wood and Faraway Tree. Earthsea and Amber would both be in the mix, as would China Mieville’s Bas Lag, Gormenghast, The Urth of Gene Wolfe’s Torturer quartet… And those authors were all big influences on me. I think in my style I tend more towards Wolfe and early (as in Perdido Street) Mieville, but Peake’s world building has always been a point of reference for me. Just in terms of the solidity and texture of the Titus novels, he casts a massively long shadow. Other writers I admire without being even remotely like them. I think M. John Harrison is amazing, but I could never be that merciless and incisive. In horror, as soon as I started reading Joe Hill’s work I felt like a lightbulb had clicked on in my head. That goes for his comic book stuff as well as the novels.
What else inspires you (Music, TV, People)?
I listen to a lot of new-ish folk/rock music, and I use music to put me in the right frame of mind to write, even though I hardly ever listen to it as I’m actually writing. My current favourites include Beth Jeans Houghton, Shearwater, the National, Tunng, Lord Huron and Micah Hinson. I bought an MP3 player a few months back, and it’s utterly changed my life. Especially the facility to tell the machine to shuffle all the songs together and surprise me. Before that, I’d get narrowly focused on one band or genre. Now it’s like I’m being randomly bombarded with music I love.
The Simpsons or Futurama?
Futurama! The first four seasons are absolutely immaculate.
The Devil or the deep blue sea?
The Devil, always. He’s been a good friend to me, one way and another.
Truth or Beauty?
Has to be beauty, because the truth isn’t even out there. Sorry, X Files.
THE CITY OF SILK AND STEEL is out now and is reviewed HERE.