Edward Carey’s new novel Heap House is his first for younger readers; it’s also a magnificently creepy work regardless of what age you are when you encounter it. Set in and outside of London in the late 19th century, it’s the story of Clod Iremonger, a sixteen-year-old who hears mysterious voices coming from inanimate objects, and Lucy Pennant, who comes to work in the sprawling Iremonger family home. Family secrets, objects that don’t behave like they should, and secret histories all play a role in Heap House, the first novel in a trilogy. I reached out to Carey via email about his novel’s origins, his memorable illustrations for it, and more.
Starting out at the beginning: where did the idea for the Iremonger Trilogy come from? And how did the structure of Heap House, which balances Clod and Lucy’s narratives with “found” objects, come about?
The very first idea for it came when I went to visit a not-quite finished museum just outside Beijing. There they had different objects from different centuries sorted and roughly positioned into different rooms. In one room there were nothing but bath tubs, baths from so many different time periods all stacked together, they seemed to me to be communicating with each other, talking, whispering. It was as if the baths had all decided to congregate together themselves and so had moved into this one large room, to create a bath commune. That got me thinking about objects being alive, having feelings. We’re so casual with objects we throw them out, we are so dismissive of them so often. A person spends a life amassing objects and when they die they’re often dispersed so quickly.
The other starting point was when I was absent-mindedly drawing one day and I found I’d drawn this very odd-looking ill-looking child, big head, dark circles under eyes, not much neck, in an ill fitting dinner jacket. Who are you, I wondered. I thought I rather liked the look of him, he seemed very miserable and I wanted to find out why. Somehow along the line I connected him with the bathtubs in China, and then rather than giving him a fob watch on a chain attached to his waistcoat, I thought I’d give him a bathplug instead, I thought that would suit him much more. And certainly he’d really look after that bathplug. So then I though about objects having their own feelings, and that Clod Iremonger (that’s the name I gave the unhappy looking boy) had a particular malady: he could hear objects talking. After that idea everything else began to fall into place.
Heap House is set at a particular point in history–what prompted you to choose that specific time? Do you see the Iremongers’ story intersecting more directly with more familiar history in future volumes?
Right from the first drawing Clod Iremonger looked Victorian, he looked like he was sitting (uncomfortably) for a daguerreotype. These books were always going to be Victorian. All English children are given Charles Dickens to read at school as if it were a sort of medicine, to some people Dickens tastes like treacle to others tar-water. I’ve always loved Dickens and found the London he created both horrifically true to the squalor of the times but also wonderfully funny and superbly grotesque. I’ve never written about England (where I’m from) before, I’ve always found it impossible, but now I live so far away from it (I live in Texas, which isn’t very English) I’m having a go at it. The first two volumes of the Iremongers’s history is set in a fictional vast rubbish heap, the second in a shanty town outside it, but the third is set in London itself, so the trilogy slowly moves towards more familiar ground. Queen Victoria even makes an appearance.
But for me writing about objects sits very easily with Victorian times, they had so many objects, Victorian homes (middle class ones, anyway) were suffocating in objects, doilies everywhere, and all that grim dark furniture, and all that horrible (and horribly awkward) clothing. Victorian objects are wonderful: moustache cups (cups with a special lip so you don’t get your moustache wet whilst sipping tea), eyebrow combs, vinaigrettes (small vials that middle class women kept with them – filled with scent – so they didn’t have to smell the poor).
How much of the cosmology of Heap House did you chart out before you started writing it?
I had to map Heap House the building fairly early on (in an earlier version the roof was filled with tons of chimneys but also a lot of stolen outhouses – privies). But before I started I knew it would be in a vast house in a rubbish heap and that was about all I knew, I wanted to leave it open for exploration as I wrote on. I tend to leave things open as I write so that I can keep changing my mind. I’m writing volume 3 right now and only have some fairly vague ideas of who will survive.
What appeals to you most about the structure of trilogies?
The sheer scope of them, the number of characters you can employ, the time they can span, but also, and, most of all I think, the progress that the characters make over the course of the books. I always knew this would be a trilogy. Volume one set in a house (Heap House), volume 2 set in a town (Foulsham, the town that stands between London and the waste heaps), and volume 3 set in the city of London itself (though the Iremongers call it Lungdon).
Certain secrets are revealed over the course of Heap House, but there are still others that are left mysterious. Do you have a sense of when in the trilogy each major piece of information will be revealed?
Not really. I probably should. I try to keep it undecided as I write, but I do have a list of things that must be dealt with in each volume. But all three books end with some sort of physical catastrophe, so I was always writing towards those.
How did you go about selecting the particular characters to illustrate, and then placing those illustrations throughout the book?
I’ve always drawn the characters I write about, it’s the best way for me to really try to understand them. Each of the internal illustrations in Heap House has the same rule: a posed daguerreotype of a miserable Iremonger person, holding the particular object that they have to look after for life. And then each chapter is named after an object, so the writing and illustrating came together that way.
Before now, did you find that your writing and illustration work dovetailed quite so much?
It’s been one of the greatest pleasures for me writing this series. Hot Key in UK who published the book first let me illustrate and gave me pretty much free reign, so I kept pushing myself, adding double page illustrations and endpapers. There are many more illustrations in Volume 2, and there’ll be even more in 3.
For my first two books which were adult novels I made artwork too. Observatory Mansions (my first) had 8 etching illustrations inside it, but when it was published in different countries they often left the etchings out, which I felt was a shame, and only in France was I allowed to do my own cover, all the other publishers simply refused (they may well have been right). For Alva & Irva: The Twins who saved a City (my second) it was different, for that book I made a sculpture of twins standing in a miniature version of the city they lived in. The novel’s written as a guide book to a city that doesn’t exist, and each chapter is set in a different location of the city and so each chapter has a picture of different buildings throughout the city, each photographed from the sculpture.
Writing and illustrating a trilogy though has been something else, I can’t believe I was let free to do it, I’ve always wanted to do something like this.
Heap House is your first book for younger readers; did you find yourself writing it in a different way from your other books?
I had to be very careful to keep the plot rolling, I think the pages have to turn otherwise you’re in real trouble. I did have a character called Aunt Moyball who lived in a room filled with her pet seagulls but she had nothing to do with the plot, she just fed her seagulls and that was it, I was quite fond of her but she had to go. I’ve always read children’s literature, I keep going back to Stevenson, J.M.Barrie, Andersen and Grimm’s tales, but also to newer writers whose work I find absolutely inspiring like Diana Wynne Jones (though she died a little while ago, some new books are still appearing), Sally Gardener and Patrick Ness. I teach fairy tales here in Austin at the Michener’s Center and before at the Writers Workshop in Iowa. I’ve always wanted to write something for younger readers, but hopefully something that adults could appreciate too, a sort of Victorian fairy tale. I’ve never written about purely fantastical things before (talking objects for example) and I’ve always wanted to, this seemed to be my chance. I’ve always loved the passion of the heroes and heroines in children’s literature, the danger, the strangeness, the rushing off to strange places; that it’s perfectly all right to suddenly be somewhere totally impossible, or to have bizarre creatures turn up, or to suddenly develop odd powers. I love all that, I wanted to try and go there.
Photo: Tom Langdon