M.R.Carey (née Mike) reinvigorated the shambling zombie novel genre with 2014’s The Girl with All the Gifts, which embraced tropes and then smashed them with glee, becoming an immediate word-of-mouth bestseller in the bargain. Now, he’s returned to the world of that book with the not a sequel, not quite a prequel The Boy on the Bridge. On the day of its release, he joins us to talk about the pleasures of walking backward.
I just wrote a novel, The Boy On the Bridge, that’s very much in the same continuity as another novel that I wrote. It’s set 10 years before that other novel, The Girl With All the Gifts, but it’s not a prequel. Not really. For one thing it’s not about the same people. It’s a new story with a new cast, but in the same world and against the same wider backdrop.
There were a lot of reasons why I wanted to do this. The Girl With All the Gifts was enormously enjoyable to write, and I was reluctant to walk away from it after I’d handed in the final draft. But a straight sequel was more or less impossible, because of the way the story ends. Everything has changed, irrevocably, and the sequel would in effect have been taking place in a different world with different rules.
So I started thinking about what artists call negative space – the bits in between the substantive bits of my story, the details glimpsed in background or only partially explained in passing. I ended up writing a story that expands one of these background details, a massive mobile laboratory called the Rosalind Franklin, and puts it very much in the foreground. The Boy On the Bridge is the story of the Rosalind Franklin’s first (and last) expedition.
I was determined that the story should stand up by itself and not depend on any knowledge of The Girl With All the Gifts. But I realised as I wrote that since the story was set in what would have been the recent past for the characters in that book I could wave to them in passing in small but pleasurable ways.
A lot of the characters here are scientists. They’re involved in an urgent and not at all theoretical debate about the nature of the disease that has transformed their world. So it makes a lot of sense that we should hear what some of the rival theories are, and that lets us revisit one of the major characters from Girl, Dr Caroline Caldwell. We get a sense of her in her context, clashing with her peers both about ideas and about professional ethics.
As for Miss Justineau, the compassionate but compromised teacher whose actions in Girl indirectly change the course of human history, we get a glimpse of her too. Not a glimpse from before the story started, in this case, but an insight of a different kind. She’s never mentioned by name, but she’s a presence all the same.
In other ways, too, the events of Girl haunt this new novel. At a certain point the Rosalind Franklin is directed away from its planned itinerary to a disused RAF base in Bedfordshire. This base, currently overgrown and deserted, has already been given the designation Hotel Echo: it’s where the action of The Girl With All the Gifts will pick up ten years later.
You do have to be careful, though, when you’re walking backwards. It means you can see your ultimate destination receding behind you, and your readers can see it too. There are some beats that need to happen but can’t have any dramatic force because they’re simply inevitable. The trick, I think, is not to steer away from these fixed points but to arrive at them by devious and unexpected routes. The human enclave of Beacon is still precariously surviving in The Girl With All the Gifts, so a threat to its future can’t raise tensions. But an attempt to rebuild it as a military dictatorship can – especially when its ramifications start to impact on the Rosalind Franklin’s mission and the relationships between her crew members.
There are also, of course, ways of changing the perspective on a plot point to reveal unexpected complexities behind it. Reading Girl in the light of the new novel will give readers a different understanding of the chain of command at base Hotel Echo and the uneasy relationships between its civilian and military personnel. Not to mention the role the survivalist scavengers known as the junkers have played in Beacon’s and the base’s history.
Writing the new book was surprisingly easy. It felt like a dance in which the two stories took turns to be the leading partner. I’m pretty sure that would be catastrophic on the dance floor, but it felt great at the keyboard.