A Biff Bam Pop! Exclusive Interview: JW Ward talks with The Unwritten’s Mike Carey Part Two

If you missed part one of the Biff Bam Pop! exclusive interview with Mike Carey, writer of the Felix Castor novels, X-Men: Legacy and Vertigo’s Lucifer, you missed quite a treat.  To catch up, click here.

In part two, Mike Carey describes the evolution of his latest Vertigo series The Unwritten, his creative process and what else is coming from him in the very near future.

Oh, and spoilers on.  Better safe than sorry…

The Unwritten #1Biff Bam Pop!: A Vertigo series you’ve been working on of late is The Unwritten.  How’d you come up with that concept?

Mike Carey:  I’d worked with Peter Gross on Lucifer for the better part of seven years.  He came on board with issue #5 on that book and was on it for the whole of the rest of the run.  It’s probably the single most rewarding relationship I’ve had with an artist, or one of two, the other one being Mike Perkins.  Both guys I keep on coming back to again and again because we just click.

A year before Lucifer wound up, we knew where we were going with it and wanted to get something else going at Vertigo.  We must have pitched two or three dozen different ideas and nothing would stick, I don’t know why, we just had a bad run.  He went his way for a while, did the American Jesus stuff with Mark Millar.  I went my way and did Crossing Midnight with Jim Fern, but we kept on talking.  We met up at San Diego one year and Pornsak Pichetshote was the Vertigo editor, and we started talking about the idea that became The Unwritten. It was something completely different at that stage, but Pornsak said as we were all saying goodbye, “Don’t let this conversation stop.  When you get back to the U.K., let’s carry on talking.”

That idea eventually became The Unwritten, but it was a very torturous and strange process.  It originally started out as two separate ideas that we were talking about and then they dovetailed.  Mine was about the golden trumpet, the idea of a musical instrument that could change reality.  There’s something in Hindu mythology that does this, a trumpet that sounds when one age of the world ends and the next one begins.  Peter’s idea was about following one character’s story both in reality and in the fiction; two different versions of their life.  We kind of put them together, then added the magic ingredient, Christopher Milne, or Christopher Robin from the Winnie the Pooh books – I’d been looking at an online discussion of his autobiography.  All those things together somehow became the book.

BBP:  One of my favourite issues was issue 11, the “Willowbank Tales,” a great done-in-one story.  Is Winnie the Pooh the direct inspiration for that one?

Mr. Bun, aka Pauly Bruckner, trapped in "The Willowbank Tales" of The Unwritten #12.MC:  We’d always said we wanted to do a Winnie the Pooh story.  We knew we couldn’t because it’s a Disney property and we they would have sued our asses off to kingdom come.  So we had to do it in disguise.  The idea of putting Pauly Bruckner, Mr. Bun, into that story came quite late.  When I was finally trying to work up a story set in a kiddie fiction universe, I thought, “What’s the most unlikely character you could put into that scenario?”  Thus Pauly Bruckner was born.

As we talked about Gaudium earlier, about how he started out as a plot function and became a character, Mr. Bun was the same.  We conceived him in relation to that one issue, but then we decided that story was worth returning to.  He comes back in issue #24, and we’re going to do an issue based on him probably in the next few months, and there’s going to be an arc where him and Tom are going to be interacting in a different way.  It was just an idea that seemed to have legs, so he’s become a bigger part of the ongoing story.  We were also very fortunate to have Kurt Huggins and Zelda Devon doing finishes on that issue. Peter says what we’re doing on The Unwritten is like jazz comics.  He does layouts for every single page, but on a lot of the issues we get other people in to do finishes.  It’s like his style, but seen through all these layers and permutations of other people.  I think what Kurt and Zelda did over Peter’s roughs in that issue was utterly phenomenal.  It looks like the illustrations for an Alison Uttley or Beatrix Potter book.  It’s got that wonderful innocence and simplicity about it, but then there’s this incongruous element thrown in there.

BBP:  When it comes to the question of process, how do you approach creating a story?

MC: I guess I work top-down, which is probably the way that most people do it.  I start out with whatever the seed of the story is, it might be a plot concept or character concept.  For the (Felix) Castor novels, the character of Castor comes first.  The idea of having an exorcist, but an exorcist who is like a Raymond Chandler private detective, who’s in it for the money.  He’s not a man of spiritual faith, but just a guy who’s got the gift and makes people pay for the gift, eking out a not particularly good living on the mean streets.  With The Unwritten, it’s the Christopher Robin idea of a guy who’s famous on someone else’s terms.  With Lucifer, in some ways it was to carry on the story from The Sandman, but the cardinal idea that became the book was Lucifer playing God, creating his own cosmos and the situations that would put him in.

So you start with whatever that bare bones idea is, and you build it up into a few paragraphs of text and you would throw that at an editor and say, “What do you think?”  If they like it, they’ll ask you to elaborate on it.  Most of my initial pitches are a side or two sides (of paper) at most.  Either you’ll get approval at that stage, or more likely, you’ll be told to work that up to a full page with more structural and character arc information, which is the sort of stuff you’d be thinking about anyway, especially the character arcs.  If I do this, who are the people and what’s going to happen to them?  Where are they at the beginning of the story and at the end of the story?  Most stories stand or fall by the concepts and the character development.  All of that stuff is in my head at a very early stage.  And then after that…you know The Shawshank Redemption? You know that scene where Red, after getting out (from prison), is working in a supermarket and he asks his employer for permission to use the toilet.  The manager is a bit appalled and tells him he doesn’t have to ask permission, but Red’s been in jail for years and always had to ask permission and can’t go without.  I’m like that guy.  I’ll do obsessively detailed plans, scene breakdowns, even if the editor hasn’t asked to see them.  I got into that habit with Shelly, on Lucifer, because she always insisted on seeing those breakdowns and she would actually argue with me about it. “Do you need three pages for that scene?  Maybe you can put a splash in here.  Maybe you should expand this.”  Now I need to go through that stage of budgeting pages or if it’s a novel, just budgeting chapters.  It helps, even if you never stick the plan, it’s great to have it.  It’s there when you need it, and when you don’t, you can ditch it.

BBP:  I know Wikipedia isn’t always to be believed, but your bibliography over there lists over three text pages of the work you’ve done.  No one can accuse you of suffering from writer’s block, but do you ever suffer from it? 

MC: I never have.  I have good days and bad days.  I have unproductive days.  It’s not like writer’s block.  Certain times, you’ve got to manoeuvre yourself into position to start a project or get back to a project.  I’m finding with novels, for example, I’ll be working on a novel for a couple of weeks and then I’ve got to do a comic because the deadline is right now.  So I stop and I write the comic strip.  I can’t always go straight back to the novel.  I’ll have to poodle around for a morning or sometimes for a whole day, just re-reading what I’ve already done, making endless cups of coffee, looking out the window and playing ‘80s games on the Sega Mega Drive, just until something clicks again and you’re in the right mindset and you can get back to work.  It’s not like writer’s block, it’s a fallow period before you can get busy again.  For a while, I used to feel really guilty about that, and then I realized that actually it’s part of the process.  Something’s happening inside my head that needs the time.  That’s my excuse anyway <laughs>.

BBP: What can your fans expect from you in the future?

MC: I’ve been working on a thriller, kind of, which is pseudonymous.  It’s not a Mike Carey book, it’s somebody else.  That’s just come out in the U.K., and that was done as an experiment and a complete change of mood.  The other thing that I’ve been doing that I’m very proud of and excited by is Steel Seraglio.  The Canadian publisher, ChiZine, one of the biggest reasons why I’m here this weekend, have commissioned this novel that I’ve co-written with my wife, Linda and our daughter, Louise.  It’s a fantasy novel in an Arabian Nights mould.  It’s set in an ancient Arabian city-state, it’s written as a suite of short stories that become a novel.  It’s the adventures of a group of concubines that are cast out from their city and try to re-take it as an army.  We’ve had massive fun with that book.  It was an astonishing thing to do to collaborate with two other writers and produce something that we’ve tried to harmonize in one voice.  That comes out next spring from ChiZine.

I’m going to write the sixth Castor novel next year, which has been commissioned for ages and I just haven’t managed to get around to, but that’s a very important thing that I’ll be doing shortly.  The Unwritten carries on, and for the next five months we’re going bimonthly. We’re having the regular issues and we’re going to have a one-off issue accompany each of the regular issues.  We’ll get to tell five of those little free-standing stories, getting the backstory of characters like Pullman, Madame Rausch and Wilson-Taylor; people we’ve met in the main narrative but haven’t always been able to go into a lot of detail about their past.  We sold Karen (Berger, Vertigo’s Editor-in-Chief) on these “0.5” issues, #31.5, #32.5 and so on.  In some ways, those one-offs are the most fun thing to do.

BBP: Mike, thanks so much for coming to Toronto and for all the great work you do.

MC: Thanks!  It’s been a real pleasure to talk.

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