STRIKINGLY INVENTIVE STORYTELLER. Edward Carey is an English novelist and illustrator who settled in Austin in 2006 and teaches at the University of Texas. His Italian publisher Elisabetta Sgarbi recently made a short film based on his story “Gatto e la casa dei fantasmi” (“The Cat and the House of Ghosts”) which she showed at the 41st Torino Film Festival.

You can listen to the podcast of this inteview here.

Edward Carey, can you tell me about “The Cat and the House of Ghosts”?

Elisabetta sent me a strange invitation out of the blue, asking if I would write her a short story about a cat. I said, “Of course. What sort of cat?” She said that there was a cat who came to live in her parents’ garden that was wild and wouldn’t go away. Her parents became obsessed with it, but never allowed it in the house. When Elisabetta had been living in the house during the pandemic the cat had come into the house, and it seemed like the cat owned the place and was communicating with the memories of her dead parents, so I wrote a very short story about a cat I’ve never met and a house I’ve never been to.

The cat’s name Gatto actually means cat in Italian!

Exactly. I sent the story to Elisabetta, she said she loved it, and I thought that was it. But then she would call again and ask, “Can you do me a drawing of this cat?” I did a drawing of the cat. “Can you do me another drawing of the cat?” I drew several drawings of the cat, and she said then, and only then, “I’m making this film and we’re using your words and some of your drawings.”

Is it a ghost story?

Yes, the cat has a quite a haunting look about it and has a certain wisdom. It makes me think of Claude Lévi-Strauss when he said “animals are good to think with”. There’s something about the way that Elisabetta focuses on the cat to meet the ghosts of her dead parents.  The idea that the cat is missing people that are no longer there and smells them still is very, very strong.

“For me, the whole process about creating a book is marrying both writing and art.”

Edward Carey

A sketch of Elisabetta’s cat by Edward Carey

Edward Carey, how come as a young person you worked at Madame Tussauds Museum and later wrote a novel called “Little” about the girl who was adopted by an eccentric wax sculptor in the 18th century and became Madame Tussaud?

After I studied drama at the University of Hull, I thought it would be interesting to spend a month or two working at Madame Tussauds waxworks in London. I stayed longer because I found it so fascinating, one of the best ways of observing human beings that I’ve come across. The way that the humans behave with the wax figures is alarming and strange. You end up feeling very sorry for the wax figures, who you have a sort of relationship with. My job was to try and protect the wax people from the flesh people, and the flesh people got in the way a lot. I also learned to keep very still. People came up to me and started looking up my nostrils, then I would quietly speak to them and they would scream. This was entertainment, but I became addicted to the story of Marie Grosholtz who married Monsieur Tussaud. It’s unfortunate that his name is famous, because he was a waste of time as a human being and nearly destroyed her finances. Marie left him in Paris and went to London and never saw him again.

Where she created the famous wax museum?

She cast the head of Louis XVI, both alive and after he had been guillotined. The same with Marie Antoinette. She cast Voltaire, Benjamin Franklin and Rousseau. The list of people is extraordinary, right through all the revolutionary figures. She cast Jean-Paul Marat after he was murdered in his bathtub by Charlotte Corday because Jacques-Louis David, the painter and propagandist, demanded that Marie take a cast of Marat. It was summer when he was murdered and the body was putrefying and David wanted to have a solid version of it from which he could paint his terrifying and famous portrait. Marie was in Paris at this extraordinary time. She witnessed all these events like a golden cockroach walking through history. Everybody else dies, but she survives. In the Museum of Madame Tussaud, the most extraordinary figure is her last self-portrait as an old woman. She looks like Punch, with a big nose pointing downwards to the chin that seems to be yearning for it; they feel like they want to touch. This tiny figure has extraordinary presence, and it feels like she is in charge of all the other waxworks. Madame Tussaud used to sit beside Madame Tussaud; the waxwork and the flesh versions sitting together.

Herself almost a figure from folklore?

It is as if she’s walked out of a Breughel painting. She brought the French Revolution in three dimensions in colour to London, where people could witness it. They made waxworks of the best and the worst in society, of kings and murderers, the two extremes of human experience. It was fascinating because all the characters of the French Revolution were extraordinary different human beings. You have someone who’s beautiful and terrifying, like Saint-Just, or you have Mirabeau, who’s like a rancid lion, gone to seed. And then you have the children: Joseph Bara, who was murdered and became a revolutionary martyr, or the dauphin who ended up being killed. All life is contained in the waxworks.

Why do you always illustrate your books?

I always draw the characters I write about, it’s the best way I have of getting to know them. Like many English people I grew up on a diet of Charles Dickens, whose visual sense was hammered into me as a child, and my new novel “Edith Holler” is shaped as a Shakespearean tragedy in the theatre. Set in Norwich, Norfolk, in 1901, bad things happen. In five acts, the novel goes to its awful conclusion. In theory you could cut out the illustrations in this new book and construct a child’s theatre such as the Victorians had.

What is your favourite play?

King Lear is a favourite. I find Lear’s descent incredibly heartbreaking. It makes me think of my own late father, and I can hear the voice of parents that Shakespeare gets so beautifully as Lear tries to play one child off the other. It is absolutely devastating and causes his own tragic end. The scene in the hovel where King Lear is there with Kent in disguise and with Edgar in disguise as a madman, and the Fool is the only sane person, is very strange and utterly beautiful.

Your drawings illustrate your books, but do you also exhibit them?  

Yes, I have twice exhibited in Italy. I have exhibited in America, in Ireland, and in England.

“My son found a coin from Elizabeth I’s reign.”

Edward Carey, was your book called “B: A Year in Plagues and Pencils” your response to the pandemic?

Yes. To begin with the drawings I made connected directly to plague, but as the pandemic wore on I drew any number of different things. People would write to me and ask me to draw a capybara or a hippopotamus, or they would ask for a particular writer or artist or bird, and it became a way of communicating. But after George Floyd had been murdered by a policeman I couldn’t carry on just drawing animals. This agony was going on, so in some of the drawings I lean into political events. Every day without fail for 500 days I drew a diary in pencil. 

Do you always use the same make of pencils?

I always use a Tombow B by the Japanese maker. It is softer than a Faber-Castell B. The Tombow 2B is too hard for me, but the B is perfection. I have them sent from Japan to a small art store in Austin, where I also buy the Bristol paper that I use. 

You strike me as still very English because there are lots of animals in your books and you have an equal love for people and animals.  

I grew up in the countryside in Norfolk, walking and walking, and also reading. For many writers the books that you read as children have such a profound reaction in all your life. I read books by Alan Garner, and Susan Cooper’s “The Dark is Rising” sequence. Diana Wynne Jones as well. They make the English countryside come alive in such a profound way. As a child it seemed to me that I could read the British countryside; that it was full of the possibility of strange creatures, of folklore, felt very real, and I’ve just finished a sequence of 80 drawings of figures from British folklore.

Do you have a nostalgia for London?

London is the city I dream of the most. I lived there for years. “The Iremonger Trilogy” that I wrote is set in an imagined and heightened Victorian London, and was inspired by being down on the Thames foreshore, mudlarking at low tide in the dirt, London’s dustbin for hundreds of years where you find pieces of the past. Clay pipes you see all the time. My son found a coin from Elizabeth I’s reign. Bones. It’s as if you’re witnessing some sort of apocalypse when you’re down there. London is mighty and terrible and I find it ever inspiring, but I haven’t lived there for years so I write about London of the past. I look at Charles Booth‘s poverty maps, when he mapped out the wealthy and the appalling situation of the poor in Victorian London. Then there was the time of great empire, long gone. Then Brexit happened and now Britain is on its knees.

Did you vote for or against Brexit?

Against of course. Nobody wants Brexit. It’s a terrifying loss. I was in Rome when it happened and I burst into tears when they announced it for Boris Johnson. Living in Texas I feel I have a freedom to write about Britain in a way that I might not have if I lived in the country. “Edith Holler” my new novel is set in the theatre and I wrote it during the pandemic when the British government seemed to be dismantling the arts and were giving no support for it; theatres were just being lost. The damage caused by this Conservative government is terrifying. England is many cultures and many different people, and has been for a really long time. It’s not something new that it’s been a great mixture. I don’t quite know what will happen to it, but I write about it now as a foreigner. I don’t have 100% faith in Keir Starmer, but I hope there will be a change at the next election. We need to be a different country.

Will the monarchy endure?

I am very bored of the monarchy at this point. The younger me would have said of course there will be a monarchy. But the older me, I don’t care one way or another. I have lost interest in the monarchy.

How is the English language now?

The English language can be used in many different ways, and writers that grasp all the new ways of English are not necessarily English at all. Someone like Nabokov used it as a second language, as a greater freedom. One of the different uses between English writing and American writing is that English writing could be funnier; we’re less frightened of humour than the Americans. But that is a generalization and I can only speak as a short Englishman living in Texas.

Edward Carey

Fake Jaques Louis David portrait of Madame Tussaud – painted by Edward Carey for the novel ‘Little’

Edward Carey

Wax deathmask made by Edward Carey for his Tussaud novel

Edward Carey

Puffin pandemic drawing by Edward Carey

Edward Carey

Pandemic drawing if Franz Kafka by Edward Carey

Edward Carey

Geppetto self portrait in squid ink

Edward Carey

Edward Carey: Bust of Pinocchio made by Geppetto in the whale

Edward Carey

Pinocchio painting by Edward Carey

Edward Carey

Elisabetta’s cat by Eward Carey

“Our job as teachers is getting these writers to have a voice, to think of something for themselves, and it’s amazing the work they come up with.”

Edward Carey, would you describe yourself as a writer or as a plastic artist?

Both. I can’t do one without the other. It’s very essential for me. For one book I made a piece of sculpture that was photographed throughout it. For the one about Madame Tussaud I carved her full length as a fully movable wooden puppet. For me, the whole process about creating a book is marrying both writing and art. That’s the only way I can work, because I need to physically feel it and I need to physically see it.

Do you write for both adults and children?

My trilogy originally was written for children, but was published in Italy for adults, and in France Livre de Poche still publishes it for adults. Now it’s in Spain being published for adults. I can lean in either direction. There was a time when people thought that if you had illustrations in a book it belonged to a child, but some of mine are very dark with nasty things happening in them. The one about Madame Tussaud goes through the bloodbath of the French Revolution.

Your book “The Swallowed Man” is about Geppetto, the father of Pinocchio, the famous carved wooden marionette with a big nose. Geppetto remains inside a huge fish for two years and you imagine what he’s doing or thinking during that period?

Geppetto is in the dark lit by candlelight and he’s creating art to stay alive. If he didn’t do it, he would fall apart. He’s battling with his sanity to keep going. This novel came about because Parco di Pinocchio in Collodi in Tuscany commissioned me to do an exhibit on Pinocchio. I teach my graduate students every other year a course on fairytales, an essential source for writers, and so I know Pinocchio and have adapted it for the stage in Romania. I adore rereading Pinocchio, but whenever I see films of it they always get Pinocchio wrong because really he’s a delinquent. He’s an outrageous child. He’s not the sweet little kid in the Tyrolean hat that you have in Disney. He’s closer to Frankenstein’s monster. I thought I would make the art that Geppetto would make if he was in this fish, because he’s an artist. He created his son, that is his most famous piece of art. I made a life for Geppetto, but he was searching for his son so he draws his son throughout his confinement. That book is about the hope of creation and the need to create.

Is the confinement of Geppetto a metaphor for how you lived during the coronavirus? 

I didn’t know the pandemic was coming when I wrote “The Swallowed Man”, but yes, they have a relationship.

Can you teach people how to be a writer? 

No, but you can introduce it. You can give the undergraduates many examples of great writing and encourage them. There are certain things they need to know, but you can also help give them permission to go further. There’s a great story about Gabriel Garcia Márquez being shown Franz Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” by a friend, and not understanding that that was possible in literature until he read it. It gave him permission to go to places that he would never have gone otherwise. Our job as teachers is getting these writers to have a voice, to think of something for themselves, and it’s amazing the work they come up with. 

How is the situation of American universities? 

More and more they’re trying to shrink the universities and to shrink the humanities. They are all for controlling the speech of students. It’s tremendously depressing. In Texas, a Republican state, they’re trying to clamp down on writing about race. The Liberty Institute, basically a Republican think tank, is on the University of Texas campus. Things that are so precious about the universities are being threatened all the time. If Trump gets in again one fears for American democracy. That’s a big thing to say, but I can’t see that it could survive another Trump term. 

What kind of background do your students have?

My undergraduate students are mostly Texans. Some of them are the product of Republican right-wing parents, but Austin is the liberal city in the State of Texas where there is a Democratic stronghold. These incredible young kids are enormously politically passionate and completely aware of their rights and if their rights are being infringed upon. My graduate students are 90% not from Texas but from different parts of America or the world. They’re very well educated and they come from completely different countries with all the history and knowledge that comes from those countries, so these writers educate each other and write about sometimes very political things. Many of the students in the Michener Center for Writers and those in the New Writers Project go on to publish novels and become professional writers.

Do you agree with Flaubert, who said that talent is to work every day?

I don’t think you have to write every day; but once you’re working on a project, it’s better for the novel if you can do the first draft in a relatively concentrated period of time. So I write every day then, because writing is a muscle that needs exercise.

Do you like writing both long novels and short stories?  

Yes, but short stories not so much. Gatto the cat is a short story, and English Heritage asked me to write a short story for a book inspired by English folklore. I did the two green children of Woolpit, who appeared in this Suffolk village hundreds of years ago and who had green skin.

What are you writing at the moment?

I have 200 pages of something, but I won’t say more as it’s very dangerous to talk about a novel until you get to a point.

How long does it take you to write a novel?

“Little” took 15 years to write, and I wrote my trilogy in between. One book can take six months, another a year and a half or two years. Some novels behave and some don’t. I abandoned a big one and said I would never touch it again, but I went back when I could see it clearer and now it is published.

Will story telling ever die?

As long as humans are around there will always be story tellers.

And that’s what you are?

I hope so. That’s what I want to be.

Thank you very much.

Thank you.

All images courtesy of ©Edward Carey.