Edward Carey is my new favourite writer. Once I knew I was going to the schools days for the Auckland Writers Festival, I went to the library and got a dozen books out, among them the first in Edward’s YA trilogy, the Iremonger trilogy, called Heap House. Upon picking it up, I was immediately lost in the gothic world of Victorian England, deep within the gloom, dirt and muck of the world of the Iremongers. The chores had to wait. And I decided I must meet the brilliant man behind this book.
While Edward Carey is British, he lives in Austin, Texas with his wife, writer Elizabeth McCracken and their two children. All of them are over for the 2016 Auckland Writer’s Festival, with Carey and McCracken taking turns doing events and juggling kids.
The Iremonger trilogy is set in dark days of the Victorian era: Prince Albert has died, and Queen Victoria has been angry for years, taking it out on the poor. The main characters Clod, and Lucy Pennant come together initially in Heap House – the home of the Iremongers, rulers of the world of rubbish, the heap-farmers elite.
Each of the books in the series is illustrated throughout, with illustrations of Heap House (above, source Edward Carey’s website), then Foulsham, then Lungdon in the front of each title; and portraits of characters throughout. As the series carries on, we get a broader view of what is happening and why, and gain freedom to go into the world at large. “I wrote the books inside out to begin with, and I didn’t know what I was doing, and that was fine, but I couldn’t see the shape of it, and I wanted to do something as ambitious as I possibly could. I felt like it would be cowardly of me to set something in Victorian London without actually setting foot in it. And so it was something I wanted to build up to. I was very conscious of getting into landscapes that grew and grew, and for the people to get smaller and smaller as their land gets larger and larger.”
His illustrations, done in the style of daguerreotypes, are grim, quirky, and altogether brilliant. I wondered who inspired his art most of all. “There are some artists I go back to – mainly writer-artists, people who do both writing and illustrating: Alisdair Gray, the Scottish artist; Tove Jansson; William Blake; Bruno Schultz. I can’t imagine separating the two as a process.”
During the schools session, he noted that his own creative process always began with a drawing. He was speaking to 10-14 year olds, and I wondered how he enjoyed speaking to kids. “It was strange to shift from writing for adults, to writing for young adults. With the writing, I sometimes find the compartmentalisations rather frustrating. But I enjoy talking at schools because the kids, they often want to be writers themselves, and they get really keyed up about it, and its great hearing about their thoughts. They seem more engaged than I think I was at their age.”
I explained a little to Carey about the controversy we had here in NZ which saw Ted Dawe’s Into the River banned, and wondered whether he had crossed any invisible line (according to his publishers) of what is acceptable in YA. There is rather a high body count throughout the series, but they are for the most part, not gory deaths – merely disappearances of a sort. He says, “Some people have told me that this is really really really dark, and I think that’s fine. You must never patronise in any way, and the books can be dangerous, as long as the story feels real. The idea of banning is – kids work it out for themselves, don’t they.”
As Heap House opens, the first thing we learn is that Clod, our hero as it turns out, can hear objects talking. They say their names, over and over again. In the house in which he lives, each person is given a ‘birth object’ to keep with them always, and these objects make noise – have names, in fact. Normal names, ones like you and I have – while Clod and his kin have names just a little off-centre: Pinalippy, Otta, Ormily. The objects range in size from a marble hearth (Grandmother’s object), to a pencil shaving. Clod’s particular object is a plug. He is an aristocrat of dirt, part of the large and inimitable Iremonger family.
“This idea, of things with lives, started while I was in China with other authors – one of the places we went to was a museum that hadn’t been finished yet. And they had put all these baths in one room, and they seemed to be talking to each other, these baths. And they seemed to really have so much life, and really kind of want to wander around and climb into each other. The open plugholes in many of them were like mouths, and many had feet. There were different rooms where the same type of objects were all amassed, and it threw out what a museum usually is, and felt like the objects had basically curated themselves.”
The Iremongers with birth objects feel empty when they don’t have them close – they are constantly fidgeting with them, holding them, sometimes talking to them; even their nicknames are based on their birth objects. The Iremongers are promised to each other at birth, and showing each other their particular objects is almost like seeing each other naked. I wondered whether Carey reflexively assigns people he knows objects. “No, that would be cruel. The grandmother does this in the novel – you never get to choose yourself. It was fun sometimes giving an object that sums up the character, but in other times giving ones that are contrary to the character.”
Once Clod understands his attachment to the objects for what it is, he rejects it. I wondered whether this was a moral stance for Edward. “It’s in there, how we deal with objects, our obsession with objects and what it’s doing to the world we live in, the amount of stuff we throw away all the time. But that’s only part of it, some of it is to do with the beauty of objects. Like, consider the bath plug. Quite seriously, it’s a beautiful object. But we don’t look at it aesthetically. But I didn’t want to give any massive moral message, I don’t think that’s a writer’s job, and I think when a writer does it, it’s dreadfully dreary and it should never be allowed.
“But I do think those themes of you know, the world falling apart, being strangled by the amount of possessions around, and of the possessions fighting back, I did hope that readers would look at the objects around them while they are reading, and wonder if they had some sort of conscious feeling.”
Edward once tried to write a historical novel, and says it was a disaster. “I adore and admire Hilary Mantel, but I can’t research – it kills me, I want to imagine everything.” In Victorian London there were dirt heaps everywhere, and people did farm them, but nothing of the scale of the Foulsham heaps. “The Heap was just an idea of how much dirt Victorian London at its highest peak was creating. And also, how the poor were being crushed all the time. And they were just cogs – not even cogs, just rivets in this massive machine that just smashed them.”
The heroine of the novels, Lucy Pennant (right, from Edward Carey’s website), is raised in Foulsham, then brought as a servant to the Iremonger’s mansion, Heap House, because they believe she is their kin – mistakenly, as it turns out. When she arrives, the other servants want to know her story, because they don’t remember their own. I wondered why it was important that the servants be called by one name – Iremonger – and know nothing about their own stories. “Our stories are what we are, if we don’t have these stories, we’re nothing. There’s something terrifying in humans being around in every age not being able to keep their own stories. I can’t think of anything more terrifying. If your own past is – we are all the stories of our lives. If we can’t access these, then who are we, and what are we?”
Lucy Pennant and Clod Iremonger have a seemingly unlikely relationship. “For Clod, Lucy is the most exciting thing he’s ever seen. She’s not family, she answer back and doesn’t play by the rules, and she is utterly herself. She is the moral force of the whole book. And Lucy surprises herself with her depth of feeling for Clod. It’s a tremendously complicated relationship, they really spark off each other – every time she sees him, she punches him.”
If you have read this interview and are still wondering whether the Iremonger trilogy is for you – it’s a little bit like Anna Smaill’s The Chimes in its treatment of objects and memory, it feels a little like Ben Aaronovich’s Rivers of London series with its magic and grime. It has gallows humour and so many perfect lines that it aches. Pick it up and be engrossed.
We had a quick chat as I wrapped the interview up, about bookstores, and Carey’s favourite independent bookstores around the world. As it happens, we have a bookseller, Steve Bercu, from BookPeople in Austin coming as a guest speaker to the conference next month.
“There’s a fantastic bookshop in Austin called BookPeople, but my favourite bookshop in America is Prairie Lights in Iowa City. I have old dear friends there who run it – Paul Ingram gives incredible recommendations of books – you go in there and he’s just talk talk talk, non-stop. My favourite bookshop in England would be Mr B’s [Emporium of Reading Delights], a bookshop in Bath. I know all the people there now, and I did their catalogue cover a couple of Christmases ago. Mr B’s has now started publishing their own books. They print a few hundred, and if it works, they print more. Independent bookstores, if they go, it’s just awful. A city without them – it’s as if the city doesn’t have a pair of lungs.”
“My favourite thing about bookshops is going there and spending a couple of hours, and getting lost, and learning from just going through books. Events all depend on the reader – I once saw Seamus Heaney read, and it was one of the best readings I’ve ever been to. Those are thrilling, you walk away with joy in your step.”
Edward Carey is in conversation with the wonderful Eleanor Catton at 5.30pm Friday 13 May, at the Lower NZI Room in the Aotea Centre. Please do go along and learn more about this talented author/illustrator. And do buy his books at the book stall at the Festival – they can be difficult to find elsewhere, though I am sure, not for much longer.
Interview by Sarah Forster
Heap House (Iremonger #1), Hot Key Press, ISBN 9781471401572
Foulsham (Iremonger #2), Hot Key Books, ISBN 9781471401619
Lungdon (Iremonger #3), Hot Key Books, ISBN 9781471401671