Many comic book writers turn their hand to prose but maybe not so successfully as Mike Carey (Barbarella) who not only produced the critical smash, The Girl With All The Gifts, but then turned his hand to developing it for the silver screen and winning a BAFTA nomination in the process. Now, he returns to the world of his breakthrough novel with a prequel, now out in paperback, The Boy on the Bridge on both sides of the pond. We caught up with Mike to talk to him about this book, how it’s tied to The Girl With All The Gifts and what we saw previously may not quite be the truth once we look back into the past as presented in this new novel. So, strap yourself in and read on.
Olly MacNamee: This is a prequel to The Girl With All The Gifts, so how does one go about creating a book where the conclusion is already foretold? How do you sustain the engagement of the reader?
Mike Carey: I think part of the answer is that you sort of resolve in a different key. The events of The Girl With All the Gifts are still ten years in the future, here, so they won’t play a part in how the story resolves – or at least not directly. Then at a certain point you realise that the decisions Greaves and Khan and McQueen and Carlisle take will have repercussions. But by that point, you’re mainly thinking about the characters and what’s going to happen to them rather than the big picture. At least I hope you are. And then the big picture comes back into focus right at the end, with the various codas.
OM: There’s no doubt The Girl With All The Gifts informs much of the background to this story. I mean, the transporter/mobile lab is the one that’s found abandoned in the first novel, and Stephen Greaves, one of the focal characters in this novel, is revealed to be a boy genius and creator of the ‘zombie blocker’ used by all in the first novel. But there are more, aren’t there?
MC: Yeah, it’s there all the time. I wanted this story to be happening in the negative space, the bits of The Girl With All the Gifts that never made it onto the page. This is a strange comparison, but it’s a little bit like what Michael Frayn does in Noises Off. First of all you see the play in performance. Then you see the backstage area, and all the beats that happen there lock in around what you’ve already seen and help to explain it. Orson Scott Card did something much the same with Ender’s Shadow, where you see all the key events of Ender’s Game but from Bean’s perspective – and you realise that some of what you saw wasn’t exactly what it seemed.
It would have been a lot easier, in some ways, to write BOY as a completely free-standing novel. As it is, although you can read it without knowing anything about The Girl With All the Gifts, there are additional layers of meaning if you do.
OM: Staying with Greaves, the proverbial boy on the bridge; how much research was needed into autism, and for that matter PSTD, ahead of writing this book?
MC: Less than you’d think. I have a friend and a family member who are both on the autistic spectrum. I didn’t exactly base Greaves on them, but the way I wrote him was informed by both those people and my relationship with them. And of course, back when I was a teacher, I had several students over the years who were on the spectrum, covering the entire range from barely perceptible to very pronounced behavioural cues. I did a little reading to supplement that personal experience, but not very much.
I was more careful with researching the PTSD side of the equation because I’ve never encountered it personally. But of course part of the point with Greaves is that you can’t really know, in the end, why he is the way he is. Everyone has a theory except for Greaves himself, but there are so many different factors in the mix you kind of have to just take him as a given.
OM: Steven is certainly a member of the team, on their way to Scotland, who divided opinion, with Samira Khan his most ardent supporter. While the book covers a lot of ground – quite literally – the air of claustrophobia and tension hangs heavy over the novel. How did you plan and plot for the different relationships and conflicts that occur throughout the book? It’s a very delicate juggling act for a writer, I imagine.
MC: It’s certainly a challenge working with a big cast. Obviously every story has characters it follows – characters to whose arcs it gives attention and significance – and characters who only have walk-on roles. The Boy On the Bridge arguably has two protagonists, Greaves and Khan, but the rest of Rosie’s crew are only a little less important and the story has to concern itself with all of them. So that’s a dozen people moving in and out of focus as the story progresses, even if you don’t count Brigadier Fry and the scarred girl.
One thing I’ve done in all my novels since the Felix Castor series is to have multiple points of view and to switch between them as the story requires. In The Boy On the Bridge we spend most of our time with Greaves and Khan, but Carlisle, McQueen, Foss, Lutes and Fournier all get their turn. We see things through their eyes, which immediately puts our relationship with them on a different footing. That still leaves several characters who we only ever see from the outside, but they still have their arcs – Akimwe and Sealey in particular.
So yeah, it is a juggling act. I approach it the way I approach most things, which is to say I work out big beats in advance, and then change my mind a lot as I’m writing and the characters crystallise in my mind.
OM: As you were in the process of writing this prequel novel, did you find yourself liking some characters more than others? Considering the small space in the mobile laboratory, Rosalind Franklin, they all inhabit for much of the novel, they are a diverse bunch of people. Where there any characters you started liking, despite yourself, for that matter?
MC: Yeah, definitely. That’s almost inevitable, I think – and I’d argue it’s a really good thing. You need to give as much thought and care to your villains (for want of a better word) as to your sympathetic characters. Maybe more. Nobody is the villain of their own story. You try to find the internal logic that makes sense of these characters, and write them from that point of view.
A good example would be the sniper, McQueen. He’s very easy to hate, when you think of the things he does in the first two-thirds of the book. But he’s an honourable man, at least by his own definition, and he despises other people for slavishly following the rules when the rules are wrong. I really enjoyed writing him – and writing the shifting relationship between him and Foss as her hero-worship turns to disapproval and disgust.
OM: All the while, there’s the political subplot going on in the background that could jeopardise everything?
MC: That whole plotline came out of me wanting the book to have something like the same scale that The Girl With All the Gifts had. In GIRL we’re mostly following this tiny group of five people, but their fate turns out to have huge consequences for the rest of the world. Here too, it’s mostly about Rosie’s crew and Rosie’s mission, but how those things resolve is material in terms of humanity’s future. Will Beacon survive? If it does, what will it become? And of course, how will Graves square the circle between his two tribes? None of these things are directly comparable to the choice Melanie makes at the end of GIRL, but they do the same thing in terms of how the story works: they pull focus, from the personal to the universal and back again – which gives the outcomes on a personal level more weight and momentum. At least, that’s the effect I was going for.
I was also thinking that in a mission like Rosie’s, the communications with your home base would be absolutely crucial as a life-line, helping the crew to keep their morale and even their sanity. So what happens when that life-line gets cut or poisoned? It was another turn of the screw, as far as the plot was concerned.
I might also have had some real-world events at the back of my mind. We’re having our own Beacon moment right now, with a whole lot of people in almost every major country questioning the value of democracy and flirting with other models of social organisation. That’s only gotten worse since the book came out. Last night we had Donald Trump on our TVs talking about Xi Jinping declaring himself China’s president for life. Trump’s response (verbatim): “I think it’s great. Maybe we’ll have to give that a shot some day.”
As with most apocalypses, mine has its small element of social comment.
OM: And yet, the ending of this novel offers a vision of hope for the future. Was that important to you? And, does this mark the end of your time in this fascinating universe because of this very definitive ending?
MC: It was very important, yeah. It’s one of the central themes of these books, that life is indomitable. Not necessarily human life, of course. The fact that we managed to keep a toe-hold in Melanie’s brave new world was never a given. But still, it’s comforting to me that the dance goes on, and I really do believe it will. Looking at the existential threats that loom over us now, it’s hard to be optimistic about the immediate future. Global warming and resource depletion are already starting to have a terrible effect on us, and that’s only going to get worse over the next few generations – almost inconceivably worse. But it’s not the end. I don’t want to sound Pollyanna-ish, or flippant, or callous. I just mean that something will survive. Something of us will survive. We’re neither smart enough nor stupid enough to completely destroy ourselves.
Yay! One small cheer.
So in that sense, GIRL and BOY together do in a weird way reflect the way I see the future going. I seriously doubt there’ll be any actual zombies coming our way, but the toppling of our global civilisation and our having to come up with something very different in order to survive – that seems very plausible to me.
And I do feel like I’ve said all I have to say about Melanie’s world now. I have some ideas for short stories that might be fun as add-ons to the whole, but I’m not planning a third novel.
On the other hand, after I finished GIRL, I wasn’t planning a second. Sometimes things just happen.
Those of you lucky enough to live here in the UK can see Mike Carey on a whistle-stop book tour of Waterstones’ bookshops on the following dates at the following venues:
8th March Waterstones Brighton,
16th March, Waterstones,
Oxford, 22nd March Waterstones, Bath.
And, failing that, you can come and meet Mike in person on September 15th at Covcon in Coventry along with a growing list of comic and media guests.