The Trials Of Koli: Interview with author M.R.Carey

The Trials Of Koli is the second novel in M R Carey’s The Rampart Trilogy. We sat down with the author to discuss dystopian fiction, climate change and being shot in the head in the movie of his other book, The Girl With All The Gifts.

The Trials Of Koli: Interview with author M.R.Carey

Set in a dystopian future where the world has been ravaged due to the catastrophic Unfinished War and complications with climate change, The Rampart Trilogy is written by The Girl With All The Gifts author, M.R. Carey. The first novel, The Book Of Koli, was released earlier this year and the second book The Trials Of Koli is out now. With killer trees, impressive tech and an array of diverse and interesting characters, The Rampart Trilogy is dystopian fiction at its very best.

We sat down with M.R Carey to discuss the series and what dystopian fiction looks like during a real life global pandemic…

How did you first come up with the idea for Koli’s adventures?

It was a weird process in this case because it was a short story that came first. Just as The Girl With All The Gifts. But in this case, the short story was a million miles away from where the novels landed, and it wasn’t even science fiction, it was a fantasy! It was set in a sort of medieval world with magic, and really the only things that survive are the voice in some aspects of the protagonist. I just liked the voice. I like writing that sort of rough-hewn, barely literate, Huckleberry Finn-ish kind of voice. So I tried to transplant some aspects of that character into a different world so I could tell a bigger story and the more I read, the further it went away from his origins and it became post-apocalyptic with the sort of eco-catastrophe theme.

Are short stories how you usually begin your novels?

I definitely use short stories as a kind of test ground for ideas. Those are the only two times where it really took off, but there have been many more times when I sort of had a bug in my brain and throwing that out into a short story first to see whether there was anything I could do with it.

That’s the nice thing about short stories; you sort of get to the job and get out fast! But if there’s anything that has merit, then you can try it out, see where it takes you.

I obsess about voice. Ever since just before The Girl With All The Gifts, with The City of Silk and Steel [that I] co-wrote with Linda Carey and Louise Carey – we had to harmonise on the voice so it worked for all three of us. So with those novels, we went away and wrote test passages and then read them aloud to each other and argued about it until we ended up with the voice that worked. Ever since then, I’ve made that the first step in the process – getting the voice right.

In this future, people have returned to a basic form of knowledge and language, giving Koli, in particular, a very unique voice – what inspired you with that idea?

I was very much inspired by Mark Twain, specifically Huckleberry Finn. I wanted a narrator who’s perspective is limited, and it’s great to discover this world alongside somebody who knows barely more than you do. It’s a great starting point. So partly it was that and partly it was following the logic that this is a world where there have been various man-made and natural catastrophes, and one of the traumas that the world has been through is a deliberate and concerted attempt to destroy literacy. To destroy the written word and we find out the sort of the roots that in the third book.

Koli comes to written language very late in life and he does it in his own haphazard style. I think it brings us closer to him. It sort of forces the reader to have a certain parallax as they look out on this world.

Apart from Mark Twain, did you have any other inspirations while writing the series?

Not directly but I think if you if you write anything post-apocalyptic that’s set in the UK, then John Wyndham is looking over your shoulder. It wasn’t a direct or deliberate thing, but I think you can see echoes of The Chrysalids in there. I like ruins and I love post-apocalyptic settings. I love stories that encourage you to look back. To turn around and look back at our world; that it’s something that’s impermanent.

There’s an incident in Trials where the village is overcome by a deadly virus and the people need to socially distance and isolate, which feels very similar to the current global pandemic…

I would probably handle it differently now. I wrote it last year before Covid and it was very uncomfortable seeing so many of the things I was looking at, the ideas I was playing with, unspooling in real life.

The Rampart Trilogy plays off of things that are happening in the real world. Particularly looking at our relationship with the rest of the biosphere and what sometimes gets called our stewardship of the natural world. But I probably would have avoided the epidemic [in the novel] because it’s just too on-the-nose and almost a cheap and obvious thing to do.

When I was writing Lucifer I did a story called ‘Nirvana’, which ended with an airplane being brought out of the sky to hit Tiananmen Gate. Jon J Muth was doing the art for it, and it was the weekend of 9/11. Wow. He was doing that page, but then 9/11 happened. He phoned me up and said “we’re not ending the story like that anymore” and I said “no, no we’re not”.

Koli’s world has been ravaged due to climate change – why did you decide to go down this route?

We seem to have reached the latest of many tipping points [with climate change]. I’ve been reading a lot of articles this year, in which environmentalists are saying we’re probably at the point now where just reducing our carbon footprint isn’t going save us. We probably need to do something more radical.

Geo-engineering is looking more and more likely as one of the routes that we will try. You know, when you start messing with the eco-system, there’s no way to do a test run. You can’t reverse it. Once it’s done, it’s done and it’s kind of terrifying. So I was exploring some of those fears. Not just the climate breakdown, but some of the terrible things that we might accidentally do when we try to transverse climate breakdown. I think those are very real threats.

Did you do much scientific research before writing the books?

Only in the sense of reading, so Popular Science magazine and Scientific American, and New Scientist. Not serious research, just dipping in here and there. The interventions that get mentioned [in the trilogy] are genuinely being discussed. They’re all real in that sense.

In the novels, the trees have been bioengineered to gather food in any way possible which has meant a side-effect of them even killing humans to use their decomposing bodies as food. Where did you get that idea?

I said that John Wyndham’s ghost was sort of poking me in the back. I think the Triffids were present there. I just liked the idea of a situation where the appalling mess that we’ve made of the biosphere [come back to bite us].  We kind of don’t have an ancestral range. We can live anywhere, we’re really adaptable, really versatile. So I was looking for those limits. What would it take to make the world a deadly place for humankind? What would it take to push us to the brink of an extension event?

It also means that people are apprehensive about summertime and love cold, dark days…

Yeah, there’s a lot of things that get turned on their head! Another theme [in the novel] is faith – faith versus reason, which again just feels like something that’s playing out in real-time. At the moment, we’re going through an age where it seems that a lot of people are turning away from reason, turning away from science into various kinds of subjective realities. So that was on my mind as I was writing as well.

The Trials Of Koli is out now…

In this future world, technology is also given an almost spiritual reverence…

There’s a point [in the second book] where somebody says that ‘I’ve come to the conclusion that all of the tools that we pick up and use, eventually use us too’. I can remember reading an article by Stephen Jay Gould that says human evolution had shifted from our body matrix to our tools – to the things that we make. It’s the technology that evolves, [not us]. It’s not a process that we’re necessarily in control of – someone once said: “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.”

In Book Of Koli, you see things only from Koli’s POV but in Trials we see things from Spinner’s POV as well – why did you decide to go down this route?

The idea was to expand the cast each time, so the third book actually has as another voice that comes in. My original pitch was to not have not a trilogy, but quadrilogy. The first book would just be Koli and then there would have been a second and third… and then it will come together for the fourth book. My editors were not keen on that idea and they were probably right actually! I always intended to kind of have my cake and eat it!

I like quest stories. The Girl With All The Gifts and The Boy On The Bridge both take the form of journeys. I wanted to do that again here but I also wanted to stay in [Koli’s village] Mythen Rood, keep a focus on Mythen Rood, and look at a community under stress, in an extreme crisis. So have the stories diverge and then converge again.

In Trials, Koli travels from his village in Calder Valley towards London (visiting Birmingham on the way). What made you decide to set the book in those places?

I’ve just been to the Calder Valley and I was just struck by the incredible beauty. When I was casting around for a place that was up north and a bit remote, I thought ‘Calder’ and it was a sufficient distance to make to London seem like a difficult objective to reach.

The segment in Birmingham in particular has some incredibly vivid imagery in the aftermath of the Unfinished War…

I [wanted to] invite the reader to look back on our time, to see our time as something long gone; something [that was] fragile and impermanent. So I wanted to visit a place that would have a real-world resonance for at least some of my audience, and to show how the landscape had changed to give an idea of the impact of the Unfinished War.

Koli befriends an AI called Monono within a piece of tech called a DreamSleeve, which is a portable digital music player. What was your inspiration behind this?

I’m a very, very late adopter when it comes to technology. I still have a lot of vinyl and CDs, but I discovered the iPod Classic maybe three-four years ago and it really changed my life! Just to be able to have your music collection with you wherever you go. So the DreamSleeve is very much an iPod Classic in my head, but with an AI.

I guess one of the other things in the story is [this idea of the] ‘person’. There’s an argument about how far Monono can be seen to be sentient. Her very name sort of evokes the kind of the aching sense of loss that you feel when you reflect on the extinction of a major species, the loss of biodiversity. When she was alive, when she was a real human being, she was tormented by that. So she embodies a lot of the things that play out through the story. Her friendship with Koli was one of the first things that came together when I was planning out the story. The friendship, the way it develops, and where it ends… which I can’t say too much about just yet. In the second book, she takes Koli to Tokyo, so it was also a way of sneakily revisiting the present time.

She was great to write. I really enjoyed writing her particularly, and once when she comes back and is fully sentient, the balance of power shifts and she becomes much more interesting at that point.

There’s also a transgender character, Cup, in the novel. Why did you decide to include her?

The short answer is we need to have transgender characters in stories, because there are transgender people in real life. Representation is important and it doesn’t really need any more justification than that.

In this case, as I said there was a short story first. In the short story, the POV character is a young trans woman in a world of highly gendered magic. Everybody around her thinks that she is a boy because she looks like a boy, and they teach her male magic And she can’t do it. It’s just wrong. It’s the wrong fit for her. Then there’s a big reveal at the end that she can summon a female demon.

So I wanted to have that character be in the novels. Once I realised that I needed to have a sensitivity reader. I have trans friends, but good intentions can only take you so far. You need to make sure that you’re doing it right. So I approached Cheryl Morgan and asked her if she would read for me and also talk to me about the issues that were being raised and educate me. She pointed out some really useful sources that I could use.

We had a very extensive conversation about what it would mean for Cup to be a transwoman going through male puberty, which then became more important to the story. So I realised that I couldn’t half-ass it – I had to acknowledge it properly and play it out properly. So initially it was a decision because of the relationship between the short story and the novels, then it became much more important as it went along.

The next novel, The Fall Of Koli, is out next March – meaning the entire trilogy will be released in just one year. How did you manage that?

So the first one just came really fast. I wrote it in blinding speed. Three months maybe. I was bewailing the fact that I wanted to write this story but no idea how to pitch it. [So I took some advice to just] write it. To just show it to my editors and say ‘it’s this’. Which is not something that I’d ever done before. So I wrote 35,000 words and just said ‘it will be this’ and then they said ‘all right then’. So I went away and wrote the rest in double-quick time. Then when we were discussing the possibility of the trilogy [they] said ‘do you think you can keep this pace up?’ and I recklessly said ‘yeah no worries at all! Easy! Super easy, barely an inconvenience!’ haha.

Has that always been the case with your novels?

The Girl With All The Gifts happened really fast, but The Boys On The Bridge didn’t. Fellside was agonising. Fellside went through five drafts and took almost two years to write. Someone Like Me was quite bumpy because there were a lot of things that I got wrong about the American setting and I had to go back and fix them. When it works, it works and it’s really exhilarating thinking ‘this is coming together, it’s clicking!’.

Your previous novel, The Girl With All The Gifts, was made into a successful feature film, which you also wrote the screenplay for. What was it like to see your novel on the big screen?

It was absolutely wonderful. I still look back at it as one of the high points in my life. I was working on the screenplay at the same time as I was working on the novel, so I was kind of living in that world. We went to all the tech recces when they were choosing the settings [for the movie] and I can still vividly remember going to the abandoned factory that we used for the production base. That’s where they built the interior of the base and the cells where the children are kept. I remember walking into that space and just thinking ‘oh my God, it’s like I’m inside my own head!’. It was really exciting and really fun.

I know many writers find the process a bit alienating because, to be honest, the last person you want on a film set is the writer, they’re just gonna get in the way! But Colm McCarthy, the director, was incredibly kind. He allowed me to be in the film! I got a little cameo as a zombie, I got my head blown off on screen, which was nice. So yeah I had the positive version of that!

Finally, what can we expect from the third novel, The Fall Of Koli?

Well, obviously we end [Trials] on a cliffhanger as Koli and company seem to be coming to the end of their quest but then they encounter this strange obstacle. They do find the source of the signal. They also find the answers to a lot of questions about the past. About the things we hinted at – the Unfinished War, Dandrake. We revisit all of those things in the final book in a way that’s quite urgent and quite terrifying.

There’s [also] a sense in which the past comes back or threatens to come back in quite an alarming way and then Koli is faced with some very, very difficult decisions.

At the same time, we’re going to pursue the Mythen Rood story and the clash between Mythen Rood and Half Axe. Which is going to turn into the first war that this world has seen in quite a long time. It’s a war that’s going to expand to take in most of the people that we’ve met…

The Book Of Koli and The Trials Of Koli are out now. The Fall Of Koli is out on 21 March from Orbit.