“Plagues and Pencils” (University of Texas Press, 2022) documents the first year of the coronavirus pandemic through the eyes of writer, playwright, and illustrator Edward Carey. While Carey’s illustrations are not new to his readers, this diary records the tumultuous events throughout the year, shows readers how imagination can derive enjoyment from the routine, and reminds us that, maybe, small things can help us survive.
Carey’s previous novels include “Little” (Riverhead Books, 2019), “The Swallowed Man” (Riverhead Books, 2022), and the young adult “Iremonger Trilogy.” He teaches at the Michener Center and the English Department at the University of Texas at. Carey responded to these interview questions recently by email.
Thao Votang: In “Plagues & Pencils” you tell readers that when drawing faces, you start with the nose. It made me think about how I was taught to draw a face: an oval shape with a vertical line down the middle, then a perpendicular line halfway across the oval to mark where the eyes ‘should’ fall, and then nose and mouth below that. Were you taught to draw in school or have you taught yourself along the way? Do you use reference images, draw from memory, or some combination?
Edward Carey: I studied art at school until I was 18 but not after that. For the most part I’m self-trained. It’s probably a terrible thing to start with the nose, but that’s how I do it and there’s no stopping it now. I use a combination of reference images and my imagination. If I’m working on a novel I generally work entirely from my head.
TV: How do your art and writing inform each other? Do they illuminate different ways to get around things when you’re stuck in either?
EC: Generally, the art argues with the writing and vice versa and slowly I try and make them agree with each other. Drawing characters is for me a way of really getting to know them. I feel if I can’t see them physically, I only partially understand them. Also, when the writing gets a little lost, drawing helps me rethink. To begin with I had to rather beg to add illustrations to my books, but now I don’t have to so much. Drawing is also a great way of not-writing, writers are always looking for ways to not-write.
TV: I saw on Instagram that you’re currently working on illustrations to go with a new edition of your first novel. What is it like to revisit “Observatory Mansions?” I wondered how your drawing style might have changed over the years. Or perhaps not?
EC: It was a little strange to go back to a book written over 20 years ago and I was very surprised at how cruel it seemed to be, I hadn’t exactly remembered it that way. Around the same time as I did the new illustrations, I recorded it for the first time. Very strange to be so close to an old version of yourself. It was nice to be back too, though. For a little while. The original illustrations were large etchings on zinc plates, now I was working with pencil and paper. I think my style has changed a bit, but it’s still certainly a little gothic, a touch bleak perhaps, somewhat grotesque I suppose. I can’t help it. It always comes out that way with me. It’s what interests me.
TV: The “Iremonger Trilogy” and “Little” both take place in European settings. The houses you describe, the abundance of things (especially in the Iremonger series), the Dickinsonian of it all sticks out in my memory even years after reading those books. There is a magic you capture in these places, and in “Plague & Pencils,” there is a longing for England. You’ve also lived in Austin for about 12 years, is that right? The longing for England while living in Austin for most of the year made me wonder how or what parts of where you live go into your writing. Do you think that the landscape of where you live now will enter into your novels? I haven’t had the opportunity to read “The Swallowed Man” quite yet. Maybe some of it is in there?
EC: “The Swallowed Man” is almost entirely set within the belly of an enormous shark and so the landscape can only ever be what small puddle of light could be illuminated by a candle. We’ve been in Austin for 12 years now, yes, I’ve written a few pieces for Texas Highways, which has been great because I discover wonderful parts of the state I wouldn’t otherwise know — actually, a piece I’m working on now is about a festival in Galveston called Dickens on the Strand. But I’ll never be Texan, I’m always an alien here. I appreciate the amazing landscapes but I don’t understand them, I am not a part of them, I cannot properly read them.
TV: You mention the archives at the Harry Ransom Center to assure readers that there are things you do like about Austin. I thought about this when you later wonder why you continued to draw in the face of the brutality of events happening across the United States. You write, “things couldn’t get worse, people had been saying for weeks and months, but in fact they could, they did get worse, they got worse and worse.” Reading those words in March of 2022, makes me nauseous because of the ongoing worldwide violence. But there is something in the writing, right? Then and now. The recording of the names and what we see, because, as we know, evil and ignorant people will try to erase it.
You go on to write, “Don’t think about how long it will go on for, focus on the now. Today is here, tomorrow is unknowable.” Do the drawing and writing always keep you focused? What do you do when you need more?
EC: We all need a place where we can breathe, where we can escape a little but also where we can think and assess. For me drawing is especially helpful in this, I sort of zone out and when I come back I feel that things are a little more possible again, and time has been captured with a pencil, a small proof of something, no matter how small. So, I suppose the drawing helps me escape rather than focus. Just the mechanical business of it, the pencil making marks, the marks adding up, something slowly appearing, that’s always been enough, ever calming, no matter the subject of the drawing, ever getting lost between the lines.
TV: In one of the entries you write, “I felt brief connections, small waves. It was not much, but it was something.” Have you sensed a shift in how you consider your relationships with others since the pandemic started? Did people’s reaction to your drawings change how you thought of yourself as a known writer, with the power to keep others focused or inspired?
EC: It was wonderful having people reacting to the drawings and I was very buoyed up by that, it certainly kept me going and some people said they looked out for the drawings every day and that meant a great deal to me. But it was a limited communication, of course, it was what was available at the time. I think we all rather forgot how to communicate, I think we’re still trying to remember how. At least I am. I’m not really used to seeing people again yet, but I’m doing my best. I suppose the main difference between my own reaction to making so many drawings was before I hadn’t realize what solace there is in drawing, and what hope.
TV: What are you reading, listening to, or looking at for inspiration these days?
EC: Right now I’m reading “Thrust” by Lidia Yuknavitch which is wonderful, over the summer I read a novel about King Lear’s queen “Lear Wife” by J. R. Thorp which was outstanding. I’m always reading fairy tales, I love their boldness, their cruelty, their hope, their truth. I’m about to teach a class on fairytales to MFA writing students at UT, so there will be lots of people, lots of inspiration and probably quite a few drawings too.
Edward Carey will be in conversation with Austin Kleon and signing books at BookPeople at 7 p.m. Sept. 14.