From the Editor's Desk: Pornsak Pichetshote chats with Mike Carey and Josh Dysart about research
Anyone who knows me knows that when it comes to fiction, I’m kind of a technique freak. I love learning how it’s all put together. And for a guy interested in that, editing is a great seat to have. For example, I edit two completely different books, THE UNWRITTEN and UNKNOWN SOLDIER. THE UNWRITTEN is a fantasy book written by Mike Carey that involves a conspiracy so big it encompasses the entirety of world literature; on the other end of the room is UNKNOWN SOLDIER -- an action book written by Joshua Dysart that’s very much about revealing the conditions in war-town Uganda to a new audience. And one of the things I find so interesting is not only are Mike and Josh fans of each other’s work, but both have admitted to me that they’re kind of in awe at the amount of research the other one must do for their books.
So I thought I’d do a short group interview. Get the two of them together to talk craft and how they use research. Is it similar? Is it different? Some of their answers honestly surprised me…
MC: I guess one of the main differences between THE UNWRITTEN and UNKNOWN SOLDIER is that almost all my research is secondary - it's reading books and articles. I can do first-hand research on locations, but that's about it.
For an arc like “Jud Suss,” where the precise reference both to the text and its place in history is really central to what we're doing, I'll take the research very seriously and go out and read all the relevant texts I can find. In other cases, though, I'll sometimes just make a glancing reference to something I know very little about, and use the internet to shore up the reference. So I'm not consistent about research. Sometimes I'm meticulous, other times I bluff. I like to think I make the effort where it matters.
JD: How strong is your compulsion to get it all "right"?
In UNKNOWN SOLDIER, I couldn't justify hammering the worst aspects of these people's lives into a pulp action book unless I'd gotten as close to the real experience, and to them, as possible. There's a new kind of colonialism in the air these days. A well-meaning appropriation of the cultural landscape of the "developing world" by the "developed.”
The only failure, to my mind, this book ever faced was in becoming that very thing (I like to think the “Easy Kill” arc was about the complicated landscape of post-colonial good intentions to some degree).
But it's one thing to go on a vacation to an interesting place. It's another thing entirely to sit alone and pour over book after book. Do you feel that same way about the works of fiction you are invading and plundering?
MC: Well, I continue to be schizophrenic in my relationship with all our source texts. Where something is really germane then we let it emerge explicitly in our story: the rest of the time, we take the view that people will recognize the ribs of a story sticking through our structure. And while on the one hand, I'd really hate to have people who know and love the books have an "oh but that's not..." reaction. On the other, I firmly believe that these books are beyond our power to hurt or blemish. You know, they're mostly books that have stood the test of time and turmoil and cultural change. If we get it wrong, we don't hurt the great originals, but we do cheapen ourselves, sell ourselves short: and that’s the reason why research matters to us.
I think - I'm sure - that the moral imperative, and the sense of responsibility, is very different in your case.
JD: Yeah, but the danger of lecturing the audience is huge in UNKNOWN SOLDIER. A big part of our process is weeding through the massive amount of information attached to what I want to say about something and then trying to eliminate whatever isn't absolutely necessary to the understanding of the story.
The only thing I really refused to compromise on at the beginning was the complexity of the conflict and the fact that real human beings were involved on all sides. Once we established that I felt comfortable couching information in visuals, plot points, text pieces in the back and whatever other way I could get it to the reader.
MC: One of the things I really respect and admire about the book is that you’re never sermonising. Everything comes naturally out of story and character, and goes back there. That’s a tough trick to pull off with material this powerful and disturbing. The end of “Easy Kill”, in particular, was amazing.
JD: Mike, I think you're one of the smartest writers in comics, and THE UNWRITTEN, as I've said to you in private, is a masterstroke. You're one of the few people in comics that I try to learn from whenever I sit down to read your work.