Edward Carey is a novelist, visual artist and playwright. He has written and produced several plays. His debut novel OBSERVATORY MANSIONS (with author’s illustrations) is sold in 14 countries and was described by John Fowles as ‘proving the potential brilliance of the novel form’. Most recently he has written the first part of the Iremonger trilogy, Heap House. Thanks to Edward for this inspiring chat.
Since reading Heap House, I can’t get the objects out of my head and the splendid twist at the end. What was the genesis of your idea, was there an object with an ‘aura’ (as Walter Benjamin suggests) that got you thinking?
I was on a trip to China with a large group of writers and one of the places we went to was a museum, still being constructed, that was saving a lot of old objects from China’s past. What seemed so extraordinary to me was that the curators had sorted all the objects together. There was a room filled only with old bathtubs, another with scissors I think, another with doors I seemed to remember. To me they looked like members of the same family, who grouped on mass like that, seemed deep in conversation with one another. I think that was one of the flints for me, that and seeing the heart breaking objects left by mothers’ delivering their babies to the Foundling Hospital in London. A thimble there can quite break your heart. I’ve also always wanted to write about Victorian London, it seems such a cruel, fascinating, filthy place, where the morals of the rich indulge in ‘telescopic philanthropy’ (that’s Dickens’ phrase). It’s a wonderful thing that Kingsley’s children’s book ‘The Water Babies’ helped the 1864 Chimney Sweepers’ Act pass through, protecting children from hideous employment. Also, the Victorians were obsessed with objects, and how fascinating and ridiculous so many of them are: the moustache cup, the doily, all that dark heavy wallpaper, those bonnets! It seems to me, thinking of those pictures of Victorian middle class homes quite crammed in with unattractive objects that the objects themselves want to speak to us, are desperate to break free, they seem to me often to have more life than the very serious paterfamiliases staring out at us.
Virginia Woolf famously had a crystal green pear on her desk, do you have any special things you keep on your desk?
I’ve got a small bronze sculpture of Caliban from ‘The Tempest’. It might be by Mervyn Peake, but most likely it’s not. Whoever made it, I love it.
Do you harbour any creative superstitions?
When I read Heap House, I was reminded a lot of Dickens’ Golden Dustman, Nicodemus Boffin and his splendid dust heap that he combs for reward. Is Dickens an influence?
A huge influence. Dickens’ language is so wonderful, his sense of humour, the breadth of his vision, how much he cares for his society. His huge urban fairy tales are endlessly exciting, but the power of his prose, the joy of repetition in his sentences, the rhythm of them, the dialogue, it’s all second to none. One of the most stirring things my young mind ever heard was a teacher reading out the first chapter of Bleak House, it’s hard to think of prose ever being better or more exhilarating. It’s begging to be read aloud, you can see why Dickens’ public reading contributed to his early death. Of course there’s sentimentality, of course there are many terribly two dimensional young women, of course there are absurd coincidences, but all those crumble to nothing next to the brilliance of characters like Miss Haversham, Mr Micawber, Magwitch, Boffin, Smallweed, Betsy Trotwood, Pecksniff, Mr Panks, Bradley Headstone, Wiliam Dorrit…I’m just getting started. Dickens indelibly conjures characters in a single sentence, for example here’s someone from Bleak House, ‘Mr Chadband is a large yellow man, with a fat smile, and a general appearance of having a good deal of train oil in his system.’ It’s getting cold, even here in Texas where I live these days, time to get out the Dickens again.
I think also, one of the greatest things about Dickens is that he proves you can exaggerate wildly and still be believable.
I’m with you on Dickens, I’ve not read all – but I do love that illusion he creates – these complex tales of co-incidence, mixed with social justice and vivid character, mixed with his authorial peering past to talk to the reader, now. What is it about Victorian London that captures your imagination?
Henry Mayhew’s extraordinary book ‘London Labour and the London Poor’ is filled with interviews of London workers and vagrants, downtrodden, determined, inspiring lives of people who would otherwise never have been heard. Mayhew’s book makes the Victorian city live again, there are opinions from doll’s eye makers, mousetrap makers, rat catchers, Punch and Judy men, mudlarks, sellers of nutmeg graters…they are all extraordinary accounts, and they are all true and very idiosyncratic, some of the characters you encounter make you think that perhaps Dickens didn’t exaggerate at all. Victorian London was London and the British Empire at their height, it’s a huge, impossible huge, machine. Thousands of people must have been lost in it, it’s a terrifying playground, always deep in fog and mud. It’s a place that is endlessly rich for fiction.
I’m a huge fan of Mayhew’s book as well – the passionate gathering of the first hand accounts of people that history has almost forgotten. I can’t help but hope that the original daguerreotypes show up one day. Perhaps in a dust heap somewhere. Which leads me to my next question – your illustrations are very daguerreotype-ish – what is it about early photography that captures your imagination?
Those illustrations of mine are indeed an attempt at daguerreotypes. I think what I find most arresting about them is the smudges of acid, and the scratches at this distance of time, as if the past is still trying to break through. I love the formality of them and the ghastly heavy Victorian objects surrounding the sitter, I love the fact that they don’t smile. I love the fact that there are many pictures of babies wedged between mother’s and nannies knees to keep them still for long enough. I love wandering into antiques stores and seeing them and wondering…who were you, you were someone, you were real what was your life like? I have an album of daguerreotypes of my family, and what a stiff lot they were, what I really love about these is that there’s some writing underneath each one explaining who they were, and in some case why they were not liked.
What is your writing/ illustration process like? What comes first for you, the text or the images?
A bit of both really. Often a drawing is what sets the whole thing off for me. I drew Clod Iremonger before I ever wrote about him. A moon faced child with dark circles under his eyes and a slightly oversized head. The rest grew gradually from that. As I write I draw my characters, it really helps me to understand them properly, and to have more ideas too. The drawings often disagree with the writing, and slowly I make them come to terms with each other. Mostly.
Do you have a favourite place to work or tools that you use?
Not really, I have a sort of office in the house where we live, it’s generally in an absolute heap, I’ve a few drawings by people I admire on the wall (that I love) I wouldn’t part with that wall for anything. Among the drawings I have is a late sketch that is (I think I can say certainly this time) by Mervyn Peake of a donkey drawn three different ways, it was a 40th birthday present from my wife, and I will keep by my writing desk always. (That and the little Caliban un unknown authorship.)
As a child what were the books that captured your imagination?
The Weirdstone of Brisingamen by Alan Garner, because it haunted me so and stull haunts me today.
The Asterix books by Goscinny and Uderzo, because they inspired me to draw and made me laugh and because (when Goscinny was still alive) the writing was wonderfully nutty.
Men and Gods by Rex Warner, the book I had on Greek Myths, still wonderful!
Charmed Life by Dianne Wynne Jones, I loved this book so much and all her others, her young characters felt so real to me, not two dimensional, but difficult and itchy.
What three books do you feel have influenced your writing and illustration?
The Collected Fictions of Bruno Schulz
Poor Things by Alasdair Gray
Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake
All three of these are books illustrated by their authors that I continually return to and keep inspiring me. Schulz, for me, is the most astonishing writer, intimate and painful, his sentences, his delicately constructed world, his sketches (that somehow survived the Holocaust, though a novel did not) are truly heartbreaking. I might add Leonora Carrington, Tove Jansen, William Blake and Kathleen Hale, but I’m only allowed three.
What can we look forward to with book 2 in the Iremonger Trilogy?
A lot more objects on the move, Clod discovering more powers, Lucy and her school friends, the whole town that neighbours the dirt heap. There are new characters and a lot of the old ones returning. The Iremonger family are growing ambitions towards London. Rubbish will not behave. Do not trust a thing.