Life as Fiction? Mike Carey on Vertigo's 'The Unwritten'

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 and civilizations.

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 philosophy?

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 exciting.

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.

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