Q&A with writer M. R. Carey
The zombie genre often threatens to grow stale. But then someone periodically come out with a book or film that revitalizes the form. The 2014 zombie novel 'The Girl with all the Gifts' put a fresh spin on the usual zombie tropes and was made into a film in 2016 with Glenn Close.
We spoke with author M. R. Carey about the book and other aspects of his career.
Q: The Girl with all the Gifts seems like an obvious deconstruction of the zombie genre. For example, the generation gap between old and new zombie tropes (shambling zombies versus fast-moving infected) seems to become a literal one in the story. What were your intentions with this?
It was a story that very literally built itself around its central character. So initially that was all I had – the idea of a young girl who is a monster but doesn’t know it. When it came to building the world I worked outward from that situation and tried to find a framework that would make it feel viable as a story.
So rather than go for the zombie apocalypse as a setting I decided to make that a given. It’s happened about twenty years before the story even starts, and what we’re dealing with is a slow, steady decline of the human species – but with the possibility of a renaissance if we can only find a cure for the zombie pathogen, which is a mind-controlling fungus.
The timing was good for me. A lot of other writers were finding the same thing – that it was possible to take for granted whole big swathes of backstory because readers would be familiar with a lot of the furniture of the genre. I was able to use that familiarity as a springboard, in a way, and take the story off in a direction that felt new.
And you’re absolutely right that it becomes a generational struggle. In a way there’s sort of a parable there about how each new generation has to do a kind of slash-and-burn on the values and assumptions of their parents. And yet has to rely on their parents, to some extent, to give them the tools they need to interrogate and remake their world.
It felt as though most “plague-zombie” stories had mainly been about the destructive side of that arc – the breaking of the old world. I set that against the birth of something new and different. So you could say my apocalypse is a little more hopeful than some.
Q: Where did you get the idea for plant spores as the source of the problem?
Serendipity, mostly. In the short story I just bluffed. I referred very vaguely to a virus and left it at that. But when I started work on the novel and the screenplay I decided pretty quickly that wouldn’t do. The search for a cure is one of the engines for the entire novel, so there has to be something robust there, that will stand examination. I went shopping for a pathogen.
And I found Ophiocordyceps almost immediately. I’d already seen the footage from the David Attenborough documentary where Cordyceps infects ants and caterpillars. I went back and re-watched it, and then did a little (very basic) reading around. It seemed like the perfect candidate. Something that already exists in nature and works in a fascinating, terrifying way. Cordyceps is a neural hijacker. It takes over the nervous systems of the insects it infects, making them into little mind-controlled spore carriers.
All I had to imagine was that organism adapting to attack mammals. It’s not entirely implausible that it could happen – maybe not with Cordyceps but with some other, similar organism; a fungus, a bacterium or maybe a worm. In nature there are lots of parasites that work in exactly this way, turning their hosts into what you can very reasonably call zombies.
And it worked very well, I think, as an element in the story. The only annoying aspect of the whole process was that there was a video game, The Last Of Us, that used the exact same mechanism. They were in production at the same time as I was writing – both the novel and the movie screenplay – and there’s enough similarity to make it seem like one of us cribbed from the other. But the game didn’t even come out until six months after I handed in my completed draft.
Q: Are you planning a sequel or any other expansion of the story?
There is already a companion novel, The Boy On the Bridge, which came out this year. It’s very definitely not a sequel. For the most part it’s set ten years before the events of The Girl With All the Gifts, and it has a completely different cast of characters. You could see it as a story set in the negative space of the first novel – an untold tale of Melanie’s world. Having said that, if you read it in the light of The Girl With All the Gifts there are all sorts of things it kind of unobtrusively pays off. Hints about what the human refuge of Beacon is like, and what was happening there in the years immediately before Melanie and her classmates were found and captured.
After that… I have an idea for another story, but it might end up being a short story or a novella rather than a third novel. I love that world, and I always enjoy spending time there.
4. What are your thoughts on the film version?
I couldn’t be happier with it!
It was a really amazing process. I was writing the novel and the screenplay side by side, spending all my waking life with the story and picking alternative paths through it. Creatively, that was incredibly exciting – and rewarding, in terms of how each version of the story played off and informed the other. We went different ways, but for really good reasons. I think the novel and the movie are two equally valid tellings of Melanie’s journey – and there’s almost nothing I would want to change about either.
I think I was amazingly lucky with my collaborators. Colm McCarthy and Camille Gatin, the director on the movie and its lead producer, were brilliant and inspiring to work with. For a long time it was just the three of us in a room, bringing this thing into shape and then into life. And then we got the BFI on board to help us with their development resources and suddenly everything accelerated in a way I’d never experienced before. We got a green light, and funding, in the space of a year after we had a draft. That’s an astonishing thing, and I still kind of marvel at it.
Q: Could you describe the development of the Marvel Zombie franchise? Will you write future installments?
You know, I missed that whole wave by inches. I wrote the issue of Ultimate Fantastic Four immediately BEFORE Mark Millar introduced the zombie superheroes and their world. I actually wrote the moment when our Reed Richards meets the zombie Reed Richards for the first time, not realising what he is. But then Mark came on board for the twelve issues that followed, and my run took up again after that. In the meantime the Marvel Zombies had become a huge thing, but they were happening in another part of the Marvel Universe and I never got to write them. I would have loved to. Mark’s version of the Frightful Four is my favourite, I think, which is saying a lot because as a teen-aged boy I was a huge fan of Medusa.