M.R. Carey has left the zombie apocalypse world of his novel The Girl With All the Gifts in favor of modern-day Pittsburgh, where battered mother Liz Kendall may or may not be having a breakdown. Her latest encounter with her abusive ex-husband ends in shocking violence, enacted by her hands—but not by her mind. In the heat of the moment, another personality seems to take control of Liz’s body and physically repel her ex-husband. So far, so good. But this other self, whom Liz starts to call “Beth,” isn’t satisfied with just protecting Liz and her teenage son from harm. “Beth” likes hurting people, she likes intimidating them and she wants more. As Liz tries to figure out whether she’s experiencing a mental break or something paranormal is occurring, Carey explores mental illness, female rage and the mystery of the mind’s inner workings in Someone Like Me.
Your best-known work might be your zombie novel The Girl With All the Gifts—in fact, your most recent book was its prequel The Boy on the Bridge, which you published last year. What keeps you coming back to the theme of mental takeover—in this case, by an alternate personality instead of a zombie parasite?
It’s a powerful source of existential horror for me. I’m a lot more afraid of loss of agency than I am of most physical threats—and since a lot of my work has horror elements, I find myself visiting those fears quite a lot when I’m thinking about possible stories.
Having said that, I think Someone Like Me is a long way, thematically, from The Girl With All the Gifts. In Girl, Melanie was threatened by a part of her own nature that she didn’t perfectly understand—and the whole thrust of the story was about her accepting what she is and coming to terms with it. Liz Kendall, in Someone Like Me, is in a very different situation and has a different journey to go on. The monster she’s facing is . . . well, it’s not a part of her in the same way that Melanie’s hunger is. It’s more like a dormant possibility, that suddenly becomes less dormant. You’re right, though, that the threat presents in a similar way in the two stories. I hadn’t realized I went to that well so often!
Mental illness, particularly as a response to trauma, plays an essential role in this story. How much research did you do on real-life conditions resembling those displayed by these characters, and did you learn anything surprising in the process?
Without getting into spoiler territory, some of the mental health issues were more relevant to the story’s resolution than others. I did a lot of reading, on both childhood psychosis and dissociative disorders. Less on post-traumatic stress, where I had some personal experience to draw on. I also used my own therapist as a resource. He worked in clinical psychiatry for almost a decade before he moved into behavioral therapy, and he turned out to be invaluable.
I was relieved but not surprised to discover that a diagnosis of a psychotic condition in a child is handled with extreme caution. To take the obvious point, it’s so much harder to draw a clear dividing line between healthy imaginative play and delusional symptoms. Adults draw the line for you, having learned to keep their imaginative lives mostly private. So the range of diagnoses that Fran receives in the novel, which Dr. Southern describes as like throwing darts at a textbook, would actually be an attempt to keep all clinical options open for as long as possible, rather than rushing to judgement and making her problems worse.
Where dissociative identity disorder is concerned, I was a little surprised to discover how much disagreement there still is about its origins and its status. But only a little. I suppose the idea of repressed memories, on which the diagnosis of DID often depends, has become something of a minefield in itself. And M. Night Shyamalan’s sensationalistic handling of the condition in Split probably did more harm than good in some ways. One alter having diabetes when the rest don’t? No. That’s not a mental illness, that’s a miracle.
I’m inclined to hold with the theory that sees all psychological traits as existing on a spectrum, so the dividing line between what we think of as normal and what we label as pathological isn’t actually a line at all, but a broad spectrum. We never see our own mental health issues, but we’re quick to work up taxonomies for everybody else’s. People are complicated. And fragile.
The fictional animated series “Knights of the Woodland Table,” from which Fran derives her imaginary friend Lady Jinx, sounds like something I would have loved to watch growing up. What inspired you to use a cartoon in this manner? Did you have any real-life animated influence in mind?
I was thinking of the Studio Ghibli movies, many of which feature magical transformations. When I imagine Jinx, she’s very much an anime fox, hyper-stylised but still very graceful and beautiful, like the animals and nature spirits in Princess Mononoke or Haku the dragon boy in Spirited Away.
It’s amazing how children incorporate their favourite stories into their own imaginative lives. My own kids played endless let’s-pretend games involving characters from many different media franchises, much as Molly does in the novel. Mash-up games. Children’s entire lives are a mash-up, until around the age of seven or eight. Fran’s appropriation of Lady Jinx is a more extreme example of the same thing—taking something that means a lot to you, an imaginative focus, and rebuilding it around your own needs.
The key players in The Girl with All the Gifts and Fellside are female, and Someone Like Me follows suit, splitting its narrative between a divorced mother of two and a 16-year-old girl. What moves you to focus on female characters? Have you ever dealt with criticism of your ability to channel this perspective (like Stephen King, who began Carrie in a fit of pique after his editor told him that he couldn’t write women)?
I don’t have a good answer to this question. I can talk about the how of it, but not the why.
Immediately before I wrote The Girl With All the Gifts, I collaborated on two novels with my wife, Linda, and our daughter Louise. They were a big departure for me. I’d co-written comic books, but not novels. A novel is a commitment on a different scale. It demands a lot of brainstorming, a lot of arguing things out and blocking things out and experimenting with style and voice. Anyway, I came out of that process in a different place, creatively. The Girl With All the Gifts was the first result, and I was very happy with it.
Since then, as you say, I’ve mostly written stories with female protagonists—although the novel that follows Someone Like Me has a male narrator. It’s mostly not a conscious decision, or at least it’s not a decision that arrives in a way that’s separable from the story idea. I come up with a premise, and the premise quickly knits itself together into a sense of the story. The characters come into focus bit by bit as I noodle with the idea. Just lately, when I can see them clearly they mostly turn out to be women—whereas back when I was writing Lucifer and Castor they were more often men.
Nobody’s told me yet that I can’t or shouldn’t do this. In fact, some reviewers of The Girl With All the Gifts assumed that M.R. Carey was a woman rather than a man. I was very proud of that.
Someone Like Me is so casually American in its atmosphere and tone that the reader could be forgiven for forgetting that you are a British author. What made you decide to set a novel in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and were there any challenges involved in conveying the setting accurately?
We have very good friends in Pittsburgh, and we’ve visited them there on numerous occasions, so I had a reasonable level of background knowledge of the city and the area.
But “Why America?” is the question that comes first. The answer is that it felt to me like a story that made more sense in America. Some of Liz’s predicament arises from the fact that she has lousy health insurance, which isn’t a thing in Britain—or at least not in the same way. And dissociative identity disorder, similarly, is in some respects an American artefact. Or at least it’s perceived as one. I’m aware that this is contested, but a large percentage both of the diagnoses and of the literature on the condition come from the USA. So locating Liz in America seemed appropriate and useful to the story. It seemed like a fitting place for it to play out.
And then once I’d made that decision, all sorts of serendipitous things dropped into my lap. Things relating to the history and geography of the city, I mean. Researching the settings was really enjoyable and exciting.
Anger—particularly women’s anger—is a very hot topic at the moment, and in many ways Someone Like Me is an exploration of the pros and cons of rage. Whereas Liz’s passivity puts her life at risk, Beth’s unrestrained fury is a blunt-force weapon that endangers her and her loved ones as often as it protects them. What role do you think anger plays in the life of a healthy person?
I think it’s both useful and dangerous. There are times when anger is the only sane response to a situation, but even then it’s very much a question of what you do with it and how you channel it. It’s volatile and dangerous stuff, as we’re seeing in political and cultural forums at the moment. I used to fly off the handle really easily when I was younger, but I always felt terrible afterwards. I suffered from a kind of emotional hangover of shame and self-disgust. These days I lock myself down more tightly, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I know the conventional wisdom is that you shouldn’t repress emotion, but you have to be aware that when you let it out, there are going to be consequences.
Right now I look around me and anger is pretty much all I see. Most of it is inexplicable to me. People seem to be experiencing emotional earthquakes about very trivial things. We now know that some of these earthquakes are deliberately stoked by Russian bots and hackers, but still. What are you doing with your life if developments in a movie cycle or TV series reduce you to incoherent rage? If anger and the expression of anger become the cornerstone of your social identity?
Yeah, the more I think about it, the more I’m in favour of bottling it up.
You were a comic book writer long before you became a novelist, and you wrote the screenplay for The Girl with All the Gifts while you were writing the book. Do you see Someone Like Me having a life in another medium?
It’s funny you should ask! The rights have already been optioned, by Hillbilly Films, and I’m in the process of adapting the novel into a TV miniseries. It’s been a really exhilarating process so far, and we all seem to be on the same page as to how the story should be structured. Inevitably the TV version would be different from the book, but the changes we’re making feel organic and positive. It’s enormously exciting to discuss how Lady Jinx would be rendered in a live action drama, and how we might go about dramatizing Liz’s interactions with Beth during the various stages of their relationship. That’s always part of the challenge, of course—pinpointing the things that have to change, in crossing to another medium, and finding ways to preserve the things that are essential. As far as that goes, working in comics has honed my instincts for visual storytelling in some really useful ways.
You work with a number of perspectives in this book. Which was your favorite to write?
Probably Fran’s. It’s strange how it came to be her story at least as much as it was Liz’s. She wasn’t even in the original pitch. She came along afterwards, when I was thinking about how Liz’s crisis would spill out to affect the people around her. I thought how good it would be, potentially, to repeat some of the same ideas in a different key. And there, very suddenly, was Fran. And Fran brought Jinx with her, and that was that.
What I relished more than anything in writing her was allowing her amazing strength and courage to be revealed slowly. When we first meet her, she’s folded herself into this very small space just to survive—and then when she needs to she unfolds and stands up tall, and you realise how much more there is to her. That’s the effect I was aiming for, anyway.
Incidentally, this was another big change that came in around about the same time that I started to focus on female protagonists. I made the shift from single point of view to multiple, and I’ve never looked back. I love the freedom and flexibility you get from being able to light up your story from any angle you want.
And yet, now I think of it—the next novel, the one that has the male narrator, also goes back to a single point of view. The story tells you how it wants to be told, in some ways. If you’re lucky.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Someone Like Me.
Author photo © Charlie Hopkinson.