The Unwritten #1, due in May
Could you imagine being the most popular fictional character of modern time—but having a less-than-stellar real life?
This is one of many interesting thematic devices present in Vertigo’s The Unwritten. Reuniting the creative team responsible for Vertigo’s Lucifer, The Unwritten
is the story of Tom Taylor—a man whose father, Wilson Taylor, was the
most prolific modern writer on the planet; his books, a series of
novels about a boy wizard modelled and named after his son, having been
consumed, in one form or another, by close to 60% of the world. But,
after writing his 13th novel in the series, Taylor disappears off the
face of the Earth. Now, years later and still somewhat famous from his
father’s legacy, Tom Taylor languishes as a Z-List celebrity—only to be
made aware that his life may be an elaborate fiction itself.
Newsarama sat down with Mike Carey to talk about the particulars of The Unwritten and about the realm of popular fiction in the world of today.
Newsarama: To get things started Mike; let’s talk about the premise of The Unwritten...
Mike Carey: Okay—we have our main character, Tommy Taylor, who
is world famous; but he’s world famous as a fictional character. His
father, Wilson Taylor, wrote a series of extremely popular novels about
a young boy wizard, and it’s very obvious that the character is based
on his own son. He has the same name, just for starters – Tommy Taylor.
These books became the most successful publishing phenomenon in the
history of the world. It’s estimated that something like 60% of the
world’s population have been exposed to these stories in some form or
another; they’re just insanely popular.
Now, as a man, Tom Taylor is kind of jaundiced about the whole thing.
He doesn’t like the fact that he’s famous as a fictional boy wizard and
he’s tried to pull himself away from his father’s legacy, but he fails
to escape his connection to this fictional character. Everything else
he’s tried to do with his life has basically failed—nothing has come
from any of his personal endeavors. And now, as a man in his late
twenties, he finds himself working the convention circuit; signing his
father’s books and appearing at launches of computer games based on the
books and so on—and he hates it. He’s loosely based on the real-life
Christopher Robin Milne, A.A. Milne’s son, who was written into the
Winnie the Pooh books and spent a large part of his life rebelling
against that legacy. So that’s where we find Tom at the start of the
story – but then things start to get worse for him when a woman at a
convention challenges him, alleging that a lot of things about his life
don’t seem to add up. It seems that a lot of the documentation that
proves his identity have been inexpertly forged. So she asks him, “Just
who are you really?” He’s then faced with the terrifying possibility
that he may in fact be a fictional character rather than a real person.
The other aspect of the book is a kind of conspiracy thriller element
in the form of a shadowy group of people who have an unfriendly
interest in Tom; they seem to have plans of their own for him that he
doesn’t fully understand. They are ‘The Unwritten’ of the book’s title.
Whatever their ultimate goal is, it seems to involve
narratives—especially the stories that have been the most popular or
the most influential over the history of civilization.
NRAMA: Readers will probably draw an instant connection to the Harry Potter media phenomenon as well…
MC: Tommy Taylor, our boy wizard, definitely belongs as one
incarnation of an archetype which includes Harry Potter, Tim Hunter,
Christopher Chant/ Chrestomanci from the Diana Wynne Jones novels, Jill
Murphy’s Worst Witch and so on. Young magic-users are a type, and they appear in endless permutations in 20th Century literature.
NRAMA: Do you find that this popular archetype is rife for scrutiny or parody?
MC: Well, I wouldn’t describe what we’re doing as parody,
really; I mean, there have been a lot of parodies already. What we’re
doing is more in the line of a meditation on stories. We’re using Tom
and Tommy as a tool to explore the role that popular fiction occupies
in peoples’ lives and the amount of belief and emotional investment
people make in fiction. This is very much a story about stories and the
part that stories play in our personal lives and the life of cultures
NRAMA: You’re working with Peter Gross and Yuko Shimizu, correct?
MC: Right - this is the first time Peter and I have worked together since Lucifer;
working with him is an extremely enjoyable experience for me. I love
Peter’s work and we have a great working relationship—I feel like when
I’m writing for Peter I’m at my best creatively.
NRAMA: The scope of this plot spans all of printed literature—who is the editor who is working with you to keep this story concise?
MC: It’s Pornsak Pichetshote—who was also my editor on Crossing Midnight.
Peter and I know Pornsak really well, and we’re very comfortable with
working with him. At the New York Comic Con Vertigo panel, Karen
[Berger] described Peter and me as a “two-headed beast” when it comes
to this book because we’ve developed it in such an organic way—but the
truth is, we’re a three-headed beast with the third head being
Pornsak’s. Or as Peter said somewhere, maybe Pornsak is the tail that
wags the whole animal…
NRAMA: Again, with such an immense scope, how much
back-and-forth goes on between the three of you? How involved were the
three of you in your choices for what pieces of fiction were ultimately
deemed as prolific?
MC: It’s really astonishing how smooth our process has been.
Initially, when we knew that Lucifer was coming to an end, Peter and I
tried to get a book going, but for various reasons, none of the pitches
we put together at the time got very far; or, they’d get far enough
along in the pitching process, but they’d ultimately fall before the
final hurdle. Around the middle of last year, we both became available
again and we saw that we both had gaps in our schedules that would
allow us to work on another project together. We threw ideas at each
other that, initially, seemed to be unconnected ideas.
Peter was thinking about a character who had a fictional alter-ego. The
story would start amidst the fiction and use aspects of the fiction to
explore the guy’s real life. I had this story about a guy who—are you
familiar with the Yugas? The different ages of human history in Hindu
The Unwritten #2, due in June
NRAMA: No, enlighten us.
MC: Well, there is an idea that there are four great Yugas—four
great ages of the Earth—and the transition from one to the next is
marked by a huge, climactic event. So I had this idea for a story about
this guy who blows a magical horn that brings about the end of a Yuga
and gives birth to the new world. Everything changes…except for him. He
then tries to find the woman he used to love in the old world who now
has a completely different life and no memories of him. So there’d be
this Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind riff going on, but with magic thrown in.
Well, initially, these stories seemed to be a million miles apart. We
were each coming up with elaborate ideas and, at some point, we sort of
realized that these two ideas fit together and created something vastly
different from what either of us had initially intended—but more
NRAMA: And just how long have the two of you been planning this?
MC: I guess the better part of a year now. Initially, we were
kicking it around with no great sense of urgency—and then, there was a
moment where we showed what we had to Pornsak, in the first of many
conference calls, and over time we found a way to make it all work.
NRAMA: What do you think has been the biggest challenge with
this project so far? When you have three people coming from different
directions into one focal point there has to be some challenge to
collating all of that information and forming all of these unique ideas…
MC: I guess it could be a problem, potentially, but it really
hasn’t felt like that at all. We’d have these long, long phone calls
where we kicked things around, and then fleshed out the details when
something seemed to stick. Then I’d go away and write it up, which made
me a sort of gatekeeper at that stage, but it was really just
formalizing decisions we’ve already made collectively. Honestly, this
has been such an easy and organic process; the world seemed to be
pushing ideas onto us—at every stage, the book has been helped along by
a series of very curious coincidences. One of us will pick up a
magazine or turn on the radio and find some story that naturally feeds
into the project and where it is we’re taking it.
NRAMA: Almost like a perfect storm…
MC: Yes! It’s definitely bizarre and it continues to happen. Have you seen the first cover yet?
NRAMA: Yes, in the posted solicits. It looks quite interesting.
MC: Yuko’s done a fantastic job, and all of her concept sketches
were amazing but that was the one we eventually decided to go with—and
she’s completed it now and it’s going to appear on the cover of
Previews. Well, on my way home from New York Comic Con, I saw the cover
of a magazine—I can’t remember if it was the Economist or Time, but it
was one or the other—and it was essentially the same image but
inverted. It’s the hand clawing its way up from a tangle of words. We
keep experiencing these weird echoes and synchronicities all the time.
NRAMA: Throughout literature there have always been notions of
secret organizations—groups like the Illuminati—who have been
manipulating the world from behind the scenes for centuries; let’s talk
about this unwritten cabal that lurks in the background of the book.
MC: I don’t want to say too much about The Unwritten
right away because it’s going to be a while before our protagonist
finds out what their goals actually are. As you said, the concept of
the universal secret conspiracy acting behind the scenes of everyday
life has been around for a long time. The name of this cabal is very
significant. None of their members, with one exception, has ever been
named or mentioned in a literary text. They stand outside the entire
corpus of human writings for very specific reasons. Before this, no one
has ever named them or described them or pointed a finger at them. You
could say that the prevalence of conspiracy theories and stories in
today’s era and the fact that, from about 1950 to present, the
conspiracy thriller has become such a ubiquitous genre has something to
do with this group.
NRAMA: Earlier, you also mentioned that Tom suffers from his
fame; this seems to be a recurring theme in 21st Century living with
the advent of reality television and the lack of privacy that can be
forced on an individual by means of media and notoriety. Does The
Unwritten make a sort of social comment about the burdens of notoriety?
MC: Very much so; I think that one of the underlying themes of
the book, outside of the impact of fiction on the real world and the
consequences that storytelling has on humanity, is the current emphasis
on the life of the celebrity and the obsessive chronicling of the lives
of celebrities. It is one incarnation; one sort of twist on
storytelling that has become a very large part of our lives.
Having said that, Tom is a very minor celebrity; his father, Wilson, is
the true celebrity—he’s the creator of the books and he’s adored and
revered. He also has the more interesting story because after he
published his thirteenth book, he vanished off the face of the Earth.
No one has seen him since. Tom is more or less riding his father’s coat
tails— and it’s something he doesn’t really enjoy. He’s a Z-List
celebrity who doesn’t live the lifestyle and is not in constant
connection with the media; he works the convention circuit.
NRAMA: Is there a definite boundary between popular fiction
(authors like King, Barker, Rowling) versus what academia deems as
lit-worthy (authors like Joyce, Hemingway, and Pynchon) in terms of the
subject matter you’re seeking for this book?
MC: I don’t think there is a boundary; in different countries,
at different times, very different kinds of stories have become
influential for a whole slew of reasons. For example, during the Soviet
era, people would line up around the block to get hold of the latest
book of short stories, or the latest poetry pamphlet—because the
government controlled what was printed and considered a lot of popular
fiction to be subversive. So people would take whatever they could get
their hands on. A lot of what is considered ‘literary’
fiction—difficult, erudite, heavy with references—had huge audiences by
Western standards. Some of the most influential fictions in one part of
the world will be deemed disposable tat in another part of the world.
From the point of view of our book, the Bible is a fiction in the sense
that it is a story which has replicated itself over two millennia and
has become hugely influential in cultural terms. You could argue that
scientific theses are narratives about how the world works.
Philosophies are narratives and so on… We’re interested in fictions
that have left an impression on the world.
NRAMA: Ultimately, what is your primary concern in terms of the
stories you work on? Is it execution of craft or technical mastery?
MC: Oh… (laugh)
I don’t know—I think I mainly see it in terms of telling stories to
people. Like an expanded version of telling bedtime stories to your
kids. This is going to sound really, really corny and I can’t remember
where I read it but some writer, when asked that question, said, “You
write to see your words become the light in someone else’s eyes.” That
doesn’t happen very often, but that’s what I think writers should
aspire to do.