Mike Carey has given us a new form of zombie. That’s hard to do in this day and age with slow zombies (Walking Dead) and fast zombies (Boneys from Warm Bodies), viral zombies (28 Days Later) and pathogen zombies (all the rest). But now we have a brand new form of zombie: fungal zombie! In The Girl With All The Gifts, Mike Carey (famed writer of comic books such as Lucifer, X-Men: Legacy, and The Unwritten) brings us a world where a fungus, Ophiocordyceps unilateralis (a very real fungus that infects insects and takes over their brains), has infected humans turning them into zombies (called Hungries in the book, the Z word is never mentioned).
The books follows an infected girl, Melanie, who has somehow retained her mental abilities while still infected with the fungus that makes her crave flesh. The book is an epic journey around London and is now being turned into a movie (of a sort) starring Glenn Close called She Who Brings Gifts. Mr. Carey was kind enough to give Gabbing Geek an exclusive interview and provide some never-before-heard insights into his book, movie, and new world he’s created. There are spoilers after the break, but if you don’t mind or have already read the book he gives us some fantastic, never before revealed information. Jump after the break for all the Hungry goodness!
First, thank you for taking the time to answer these questions. I just finished The Girl With All The Gifts recently and was fascinated by your fresh take on an incredibly popular genre. Now that you’ve created a brand new kind of zombie (without saying as much), do you ever catch yourself looking at a moldy piece of bread or fruit with a bit of concern?
Oh, I always did! As a teenager I convinced myself that I’d contracted a rare fungal disease colloquially named farmer’s lung, which you can only catch by working with bales of hay or straw that have gotten damp and mouldy. I’ve always tended to operate on the assumption that the whole rest of the world is out to get me.
In the case of parasites (fungal, bacterial or whatever) there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that this is the simple truth. When I first learned about cordyceps I thought something that grotesque and extreme had to be unique, but it really isn’t! There are literally thousands of parasites that use the mind control trick, and some of them (eg Toxoplasma gondii) use it on mammals. It’s only a matter of time…
What was the one scene/section/moment of the book that you wanted to include or tried to write into the story but ultimately it didn’t work?
There was a whole elaborate sub-plot where Melanie tried to arrange a surprise party for Miss Justineau. I wrote about six or seven thousand words before I realised that it was just crazy. There was no way the structure of the novel would sustain that amount of running on the spot. It was necessary to proceed to the fall of the base in pretty short order. But I was kind of sad to lose Melanie’s acrostic poem about Miss Justineau…
There was also a final chapter that jumped forwards in time a few years to give us a glimpse of what Melanie’s brave new world would be like. I cut that out on my wife’s suggestion, and I think she was right. It changed the way the final beats landed, and to some extent it detracted from them by forcing a change of perspective.
I think Orbit put that up on the website so you can still read it there, but it didn’t have a place in the book.
[Note from Ryan: You can get the chapter by following this link to Orbit’s website]
Wait just one second! You can’t just drop a hint like a Justineau acrostic poem without telling us more! The “S” would be for her fabulous Stories of course. And I could see Melanie stretching the “E” to Extraordinarily Lovely. But what does she do with TWO “U”s?
Well, you asked for it. At least, I’m going to assume you did. * Ahem *. Melanie’s acrostic poem for Miss Justineau, revealed for the first time.
Most teachers tend to be quite boring.
It may sound mean but it’s no lie.
Sometimes it’s hard to keep from snoring
So slowly do the days go by.
Just wait a minute, though, there’s one
Up above all whose praise we sing,
So wonderful that when she’s gone
The class all sit there wondering
If we just dreamed her up one clear
Night when all was calm and quiet
Expecting that she’d disappear
As spray does when the driers dry it.
Unthink that thought. We all deny it.
In my own defence, it was meant to be endearingly clumsy, but you can see why it didn’t make the cut.
By the end of the book the streets of London are infested with either Hungries or feral Hungry 2.0 children. After destroying London, do you ever sometimes look around while in the city and feel a bit guilty for killing everyone there, even if only in your mind?
I’m sorry to say that I feel no guilt at all. Gene Wolfe, in his Book Of the New Sun, implicitly compares historians to executioners and writers of fiction to torturers. We commit terrible crimes in our imaginations. Every time we pick up a pen, someone in some fictional world somewhere is going to get it in the neck.
Joking aside, I felt genuinely uncomfortable writing some of the scenes of cruelty against children. As a parent that stuff hits me very hard. But there was no way of getting around it. It was part of the conceptual core of the story. You have to see Caldwell’s dissection of Kenny both to understand her and to understand Melanie’s final decision.
Speaking of the children, as the feral Hungry 2.0 children took shape in your mind and the book, how much did you find yourself comparing them to, being inspired by, or purposefully distinguishing them from Lord of the Flies children?
I have to confess that I’m not a fan of Lord Of the Flies, even a little bit. I don’t think human beings automatically tend to evil when social restraints and expectations are removed. With or without social frameworks, every one of us is always a mass of contradictions, with some selfish impulses and some altruistic ones. Nothing spectacular is revealed when you take the rules away, although you may find the balance tilting a little.
The feral kids are learning to be human with no examples. They show fondness for each other, are protective of each other, but they’re not big on empathy because other living things trigger their feeding frenzy. And there’s a lot of abstract thought that they haven’t gotten around to yet because they’re just kids, albeit very smart kids. Left to themselves they’d get there in the end. They’d make a society, a set of rules that make sense, and they’d start to figure out the world. But Miss Justineau’s presence gives them a very precious and invaluable short cut.
Some of your Hungries end up retaining a scrap of their humanity, some last impulse of a significant action or emotion. If you were infected by Ophiocordyceps and were lucky enough to retain a fragment of your humanity, what would your fungal-infected corpse be doing over and over?
A zombie from 28 Days Later, a zombie from The Walking Dead, a Boney from Warm Bodies, and a Hungry from your universe all meet in an epic throwdown. Who is destroyed first and who wins the battle?
Hmm. I think it might depend on whether the hungry is first or second generation. The slow zombie would probably go first – and if the hungry is generation 1.0 then he wouldn’t last very long either. The boney would be a lot more formidable, and could easily defeat a fast zombie from 28 Days. But a second gen hungry would probably win out. Intellect boosted by the connectivity of the fungal mycelia, and smell masked so no other zombie would feel a need to attack him… yeah. He’d be the last man standing, I think. Or the last girl, if it was Melanie.
I know the natural inclination would be to answer this question “a little of both” or “it depends on your perspective” but if you had to choose only one answer, would you say the ending of the book is ultimately optimistic or pessimistic? And would you give a different answer for the myth of Pandora or do you view it the same given the parallels you draw between your book and her myth?
I’ve always seen the ending of the novel as upbeat. Obviously the death of the old world is terrible, and the deaths of the characters we’ve followed makes us feel the tragedy on a personal level. At least I hope they do. But a new world is being born, and it’s the only happy ending that’s even halfway possible in the world of the story.
Stepping away from the fiction for a moment, this is actually the way I feel about our own society. It’s fundamentally broken and probably can’t fix itself. But when it falls apart, as it seems that it must do some time in the next century or so, it’s possible that something better will take its place. At any rate I find that a more plausible prospect than any significant changes for the better within the framework of global capitalism.
At the beginning of the book, Melanie wishes she’d been given the name Pandora. Does she eventually change her name to Pandora? And now that Miss Justineau is being kept in a jar, will Melanie change her teacher’s name to Hope?
I think she’ll keep her given name – because it was Miss Justineau who gave it to her. Despite all the changes she goes through in the course of the story, and how far her understanding has been advanced, I think she’d want to keep faith with Miss J.
The other half of the question gave me pause. Because I’d been seeing the hope at the bottom of the box as representing the possibility of a new world rising out of the ashes of the old. But of course Miss Justineau’s survival is an integral part of that. She’s the link between the old world and the new, and the education she offers is going to allow the children access to the knowledge of the human civilisation that preceded them. Without that they would have a much longer and more arduous journey to undertake.
So perhaps Miss Justineau and Melanie get to share the name Hope.
On the movie front, the cast has been announced for She Who Brings Gifts and you’ve got some great leads with Glenn Close and Paddy Considine. People interested in your story now obviously have the book, but think ahead to the future when the movie is out (or will be shortly)–for someone new to your Girl universe would you prefer they read the book first or see the movie? And which do you do when a movie is coming out based on a book?
That’s the weird thing, in this case. The movie wasn’t based on the book, and the book wasn’t based on the movie. They were both based on the short story Iphigenia In Aulis, and they happened at the same time. It was pretty thrilling. I was charting two different (but broadly parallel) routes through the same narrative space.
And I think it worked to the benefit of both. It certainly made the novel more cinematic. Perhaps it also made the world-building in the screenplay bed in more easily and more convincingly.
So to answer your question, either version makes an equally good entry point. Neither one depends on or derives from the other, and each has got some elements that are unique to it – even though Melanie’s final choice plays out the same in both versions.
In my own choices as a reader and a viewer, I can go either way. I’ve certainly sought out books after seeing the movie adaptation, as with The Prestige and John Dies At the End. I’ve also, many times, gone to see a movie because I know and love the book – as with the Studio Ghibli adaptation of The Borrowers (Arrietty) and Gone Girl. Sometimes it’s just a question of wanting to revisit a world that’s left a strong impression on you.
Not to have you reveal any details (unless you want to of course) but if you could be an extra on the movie for one day what scene would you most want to be in?
I’m actually going to be a hungry for some of the scenes where the base falls. Colm and Cami have set that up for me, for which I will be eternally in their debt. I’ll be in the throng of monsters charging headlong at Miss Justineau when Parks rolls up in the humvee and provides an eleventh-hour barricade.
Or maybe I’ll be with the slower hungries strolling along behind. I’m not as fit as I used to be.
I know you’ve been asked the sequel question before so I won’t ask it directly. But Girl sprouted (bloomed? sporadified?) from a short story you wrote about Melanie in class. Is there any chance you’ll bookend the story with a tale of Justineau teaching some time in the future? What if I gave you $8 to do it?
That would be quite an enjoyable story to write. Some kid – maybe Melanie’s son or daughter – taking something from a lesson with Miss Justineau and running with it. No plans at present, but who can say? After all, $8 buys a burger, fries and a beverage…
Thanks again for answering our questions and best of luck finishing the movie. The $8 offer still stands, by the way. Just let us know where to Paypal the funds.