Interview: Mike, Linda and Louise Carey (The City of Silk and Steel)

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I’ve been a big fan of Mike Carey’s novels since discovering Felix Caster but The City of Silk and Steel is something else. It’s a really enchanting tale and I’m really pleased Mike, Linda and Louise agreed to answer a few questions for me:

I guess the most obvious question is how did you all come write a single novel?

Mike: It was a long and tortuous process! To begin with, I had a very rough idea for a story about the many women of a harem and a single prince all travelling together in a semi-mythical Middle East. I couldn’t get anyone interested, and it fell by the wayside for a while. But then I mentioned it to Linda and Louise and they both separately started to play around with it, adding in elements – and characters – of their own.

Then there was a long period when we were planning it as a joint work, with a very vague idea of writing it some time before we died. That was a really enjoyable but slightly aimless time. There was no pressure on us to ever actually get anywhere, so we just chatted and worked up ideas and talked about stuff that might go into a book like that. Gradually the idea of the story and of how we wanted to tell it came into clearer focus in our minds, and particularly the idea that it would be structured in this loose, not-entirely-sequential way, with frequent flashbacks and flashforwards and shifts in perspective.

And then we accidentally pitched it to a publisher and got it commissioned! And suddenly it wasn’t just fun and games any more, it was real.

What was your favourite part to work on? [everyone]

Linda: I’ve got a lot of affection for The Cook’s story, which wasn’t in the original plan at all and just popped up out of nowhere as I was writing. And I really enjoyed writing some of the monologues for Bessa At Once and Ever – giving voices to some of the more marginal characters.

Louise: I agree! Bessa At Once and Ever was pure pleasure – getting to write in all those different voices. It felt more lyrical than narrative, riffing on themes and ideas in a very unmediated way.

Mike: I loved writing the embedded short stories that are sprinkled through the main narrative. I’d done very little short story writing before and I really developed a taste for it. There’s something incredibly exciting and liberating about the short form, and it’s kind of ironic that I discovered that while writing a novel.

If it hadn’t have been a collaboration would one of you still written the story or is it something that only worked because of you working together?

Would you work together again?

Louise: Yeah, if mum and dad will have me.

Linda: In a heartbeat!

Mike: Definitely. Writing this novel was a huge turning point for me, creatively. It’s made me a lot bolder in the choices I make when I write.

The narration feels like someone has transcribed a storyteller, was it the subject matter that inspired the story within story style? Or by chopping it into bits was it easier collaborate?

It was very much a case of finding the right voice for Rem, and a great many things flowed from that. The way we approached it was that we all went away and wrote sample chapters in Rem’s voice, then came back together and read them aloud to each other. We were both chaotic and painstaking, if that makes any sense. We talked and talked for a long time about what worked and what didn’t, and we converged on a style that we all felt comfortable with.

And inevitably, it’s quite close to the very plain, straight-faced style of the Thousand and One Nights itself. There’s a reason why that approach works so well for this kind of fantastic, semi-folkloric material.

Strong female characters feel rare in fantasy (as men seem to dominate the narratives) you’ve shown that women in a fantasy story can have varied lives and be strong leads especially in the male dominant society you present. Was it enjoyable to put men in the background for once?

It was certainly fascinating and rewarding to write a story in which women’s relationships with each other make up the central focus throughout. There’s a sort of dialectic of power and powerlessness that runs through the book, and the defining trait of the republic the women try to build is that it cuts through that and makes everyone equal at a single stroke. We enjoyed importing those very modern ideas about the social contract into a story set in a distant past.

As an influence Arabian Night-esque fantasy is rarer than those inspired by Tolkien, though last year we did have ‘Alif the Unseen’ and ‘Throne of the Crescent Moon’, you show what a rich resource the region and it is for storytelling did you come across any tales that affected the direction of The City of Silk and Steel took?

Mike: maybe at the back of my mind there were things like Stanislaw Lem’s Cyberiad and John Barth’s Chimera. But I read those books – and The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor – a long time ago. In a more indirect way, Borges and Gene Wolfe were part of the DNA of this book, but probably only for me. They both do stories-within-stories in exquisite and enthralling ways.

You tell the backstories for several of the characters were any that you wanted to tell but have to leave out?

Louise: Not backstories, but forward stories. I wanted to explore what happened to some of the characters after the end of the story. I had a whole plot worked out that involved Soraya going into a city in which women lived in a state of enforced silence. They were only allowed to speak on rare occasions, and only in prepared words that weren’t their own. And of course Soraya would then have been involved in changing that status quo.

Linda: I would have liked to tell Soraya’s backstory, and those of some of the older women in the harem. And to focus in on some of the children. I got very fond of them while I was writing them.

Mike: I would have loved to tell a few stories about people who only appear at the very edges of the narrative – like Kephiz Bin Ezvahoun and Rudh Silmon. They’re really only plot devices at the moment, but Kephiz in particular has an interesting voice. There was scope there to make him a bit more three-dimensional.

I really could see The City of Silk and Steel as graphic novel could Mike, as an experienced comic book writer, make this happen? [everyone]

We’re all pretty much agreed that it would make a great comic book and a great movie. We’d love to explore either of those options.

What are you all working on now? though Mike is there any chance of the next Felix Castor? Please!

We’re about two-thirds of the way through our second collaboration, which we think of as Many Mansions because that was the original working title. Mike has a book out from Orbit later this year, The Girl With All the Gifts – and on the comic book front is still writing The Unwritten for Vertigo and Suicide Risk for BOOM. Louise is busy finishing off her degree studies and Lin is on an MA course, so they don’t have any solo projects on the go at the moment.

The sixth Castor novel got pushed out of the way by two mainstream thrillers, The Dead Sea Deception and The Demon Code, which Mike published under the pseudonym of Adam Blake – and then by The Girl With All the Gifts. But if he can get Orbit to commission it, he’s hoping to get back to it very soon.

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That was truly fascinating. I never thought of knowing some of the characters forward stories. I can’t wait to read Many Mansions as they’ve created something truly magical with The City of Silk and Steel as you’ll see from my soon to be published review. I am a little sad that we might never get to see how Felix’s story ends. But I’m checking out Adam Blake – who knew??

The City of Silk and Steel is published today by Gollancz

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