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Carey uses his British wit to craft a tale worthy of Dickens

It’s hard not to laugh when talking with Austin writer Edward Carey — or when reading his latest book, “Heap House.”

That’s because “Heap House” — the first in a trilogy set in Victorian England — is a witty, fantastical, sometimes terrifying world, like the best kind of fairy tales. And like many fairy tales, it’s suitable for children as well as adults.

Carey will be talking about his book at 11 a.m. Sunday at the Texas Book Festival, where he’ll be on a panel discussing children’s trilogies with authors Adam Gidwitz and Deron R. Hicks. (For details about Carey’s event and others, check out our summary in today’s Insight & Books section.)

Carey, who spoke with the American-Statesman before the schedule was released, didn’t know any details about his upcoming appearance at the festival, saying with a laugh: “I don’t really fit with anybody. I try my best, but it just doesn’t work out.”

But as readers will soon find out, he fits in just fine, mining a broad knowledge of fairy tales with a darkly humorous view of the world.

As in many such tales, the hero of “Heap House” is a child. He has the rather unflattering name of Clod, and he’s an orphan.

“If you get rid of the parents, then the child is truly vulnerable, and there’s something really exciting about it,” Carey says of children’s stories. “And if the parents are gone, then you can have lots of horrible relations! There’s no end to it!”

Indeed, “Heap House” is full of horrible relatives.

About the story

Here’s the setup: Heap House is the ramshackle mansion of the Iremonger clan, who have made a fortune out of trash — out of objects thrown away by the people of nearby London. “There were small shacks and pieces of palaces in our heap home,” Carey writes, using the narrative voice of Clod. “It was an enormous building, our place, made up of many other ones. But the original structure, hard to find now, had been in our family for several centuries.”

The Iremongers, who are forbidden to leave the home, are quite odd, “all steely and grim and poker-faced. There were so many cousins and uncles and aunts, great aunts and great uncles, hordes of us, Iremongers of every age and shape, all connected by blood.”

And each Iremonger has a birth object that must be cared for throughout life and is bestowed upon them by a rather unpleasant grandmother, who never leaves her bedroom because she can’t leave her birth object behind — a marble mantelpiece.

Clod’s birth object is a universal bath plug. And he has the unusual ability of being able to hear everyone’s birth object, including his own. His bath plug, for instance, says James Henry Hayward over and over.

Uncle Aliver has a pair of forceps as a birth object, and they say “Percy Hotchkiss.” Grandfather Umbitt, the ruler of the Iremongers, has a cuspidor for his birth object, “a personal one … to aim his very own sputum into.”

And why give Clod a universal bath plug as his birth object?

“Have you seen some of them? Some of them are quite beautiful,” Carey says. “I was in a hardware store in London and there was a stack of them, and they were actually really pleasant to hold. They’re useful. And they stop things from going down the drain or coming up. That becomes a sort of symbolism of what Clod is able to do. As the trilogy progresses, he gets more and more powerful, and the plug becomes a symbol for what he’s good at. They’re given the most boring, mundane objects and told that they have to look after them. Not a nice teddy bear, just a plug.”

And that brings up the character of Pinalippy, whom the family has chosen to marry Clod, but she isn’t suitable at all. Clod much prefers a half-Iremonger servant girl named Lucy.

Pinalippy’s birth object is a doily.

“I hate doilies,” Carey says, “I absolutely hate them. I’ve always hated doilies. They are the most unnecessary of objects ever created. They’re terribly Victorian, and it says something about the taste of Victorians that everything feels heavy. When they create a museum, you feel suffocated by the amount of objects. They can’t even let a table be a table. They have to suffocate it with a doily. They’re pointless. Many people may love them, but I loathe them. And so I had to give a doily to someone.”

“It was a lot of fun dishing the objects out, who’d get what,” Carey says. “The heroine, Lucy, is given a box of matches, and the symbolism is not subtle. She is fiery, like Lucifer, and so she’s stuck with it. The birth objects inform the character. The grandfather’s character is a portable cuspidor, like a personal spittoon that’s there to collect his spew. And that says everything you need to know.”

Fairy tales

As you might imagine, “Heap House” has its share of villains, dark and mean. “It’s what interests kids,” Carey says. “They like to be a bit terrified. And I think that’s partly why (children’s writer) Roald Dahl is so keen and exciting. He worries you as a child rather a lot, and that’s thrilling. The Grimm tales were told from generation to generation by people sitting around a fire. The tales weren’t necessarily just for kids, but they were about true lessons in life, a disguised way of getting across the idea that life is dangerous. Don’t go into the woods! But you have to go into the woods, and it is terrifying.”

Carey says that his favorite fairy tale is “Hansel and Gretel.” And for those of you who don’t remember, it’s about two children who are left to starve to death in a forest by a wicked stepmother.

“I like fairy tales where everyone is hungry, where everyone wants to eat something — perhaps you! — where the animals are hungry, where houses are made of food. Everything is about food, and these kids are starving. It’s kind of a perfect little tale about hunger,” Carey says.

“Much of children’s literature is about hunger,” he says. “If you look at Roald Dahl, it’s all about eating. … And then there’s ‘The Juniper Tree,’ which is a terrifying tale in which the stepmother doesn’t like the child who comes with her new husband, and she ends up killing it and eating it. … It’s very disturbing.”

While Carey loves talking about fairy tales, he shares an almost-equal fascination with objects. “I’m interested in how people deal with objects, somehow that objects have a life of their own. … If you go into (Austin store) Uncommon Objects, you sort of feel that they’re breathing. They feel like they have another life. We live with all of this stuff, and we’re so cruel to much of it, we throw things away. And if we throw them away, what happens if they have feelings? I think it’s fascinating. But objects tell the story. When people die, what’s left is all their objects. And they say so much about a person’s life. And the moment they die, everything is cleaned away and shuttled off so that space can be made for the next person. And all those objects become orphans.”

“We throw away people, too,” he says. “People are seen as being useless so quickly, and it’s terrifying. We live in a culture where we pretend that death doesn’t exist. The Victorians were all about that. ‘Let’s celebrate death!’ They wore black and were in mourning for years. Queen Victoria basically turned her back on life after Prince Albert died and mourned for decades. So everything was about death. You would have your hair cut off and weaved into sort of small hair tapestries that you’d have on your wall. It seems so revolting to us now, but mourning was a big thing. Victorians had all sorts of strange objects around them, like mustache cups or eyebrow combs, things like that. I think it’s fascinating how disposable human beings are. … In Victorian England, so many people were just crushed under the weight of empire. Basically, the poverty in London was horrific and terrifying, and people just died by the hundreds every day, in absolute squalor.”

The squalor surrounding Heap House is just as horrific, perhaps even more so. The rubbish that surrounds the home tends to move of its own volition, sometimes swallowing people whole. And then there’s the occasional, much-feared “gathering,” when objects mystifyingly begin to amass into one large being and wreak havoc on anything in their wake. Since Clod is able to hear birth objects speak, he can hear what some of the objects in the “gathering” are saying, and his knowledge threatens to reveal one of the darkest secrets of Heap House.

The book has received favorable reviews. Publishers Weekly says that it’s “full of strange magic, sly humor, and odd, melancholy characters” and that it “should appeal to ambitious readers seeking richly imagined and more-than-a-little-sinister fantasy.”

Carey’s past

The trilogy is very much English, full of eccentricities that tweak our sense of humor. Carey says he has a fascination with England, in part, because that’s where he grew up.

“I’ve never been able to write about England before,” says Carey, who’s in his mid-40s and moved to Austin with his wife, the writer Elizabeth McCracken, in 2010. (Carey and McCracken have two children in elementary school.) Carey’s first two novels for adults, “Observatory Mansions” and “Alva and Irva,” were set in fictional cities. “With this trilogy, I kind of am able to write about England, now that I live in Texas. … I think if you’re a long way from place, you begin to understand it in a different way.”

Still, he realizes that a lot of his inspiration comes not only from fairy tales but also from one of England’s finest novelists, Charles Dickens. “Every kid in England has to study Dickens, and I love him,” Carey says. “He has immense compassion and a tremendous sense of humor. … He was writing with a real passion about his times, and he would walk for hours and hours around London and really witness the poverty and hell that was going on.”

Oddly enough, the story for “Heap House” came from a drawing that Carey made several years ago. “I always drew nonstop as a kid, but it’s never stopped, and I’ve always been drawing,” says Carey, who illustrated his new novel, as well as his previous two. “Whenever I write a novel, the drawings always come first. I drew Clod before I knew who he was, and then I thought, ‘What could he be?’ “

“He was a big-headed child, dark hair, bags under his eyes, wearing an ill-fitting dinner jacket. He looked gloomy enough to be interesting. So then I thought about his family, and since I teach about fairy tales in Austin (at the University of Texas), I got rid of the parents as soon as possible.”

And then there’s the house, which sits atop the mountain of trash. “I guess it’s a mythologized version of the house I grew up in as a kid. It was a very old, very creepy Tudor house (in eastern England), and it made a lot of noises,” he says. “I dream about the place all the time. My parents sold it, and I couldn’t get back to it.”

In fact, Carey left his home at the age of 7. “I was sent off to boarding school,” he says, “and that was just what was done. It happened to my father, who was what they called a Raj kid. They were born in India and sent off to be educated in England.”

Carey says that his first boarding school “was a massive Victorian house suffocating with ivy.”

“It was a very gloomy place, and one of the things that terrified me was a huge painting of Herne the Hunter, which is a terrifying mythical English figure,” he says. “I’d get up to go to the lavatory at night, and I’d have to go past this vast painting.”

Then at 13, following in his father’s and grandfather’s footsteps, he was sent to a naval boarding school, where he stayed until he was 18. As you might expect, he didn’t continue his military training and instead went to Hull University to study drama. “I would have been truly of no use to anyone in the Navy. No doubt about it,” he says. “I had to wear a naval uniform for five years and march up and down and all that sort of nonsense.”

After after writing several “quite dreadful” plays in drama school, Carey says, he turned to fiction writing.

And even though he’s trying out his talents at writing for children, “I don’t think it’s all that different,” he says, noting that his two previous novels are adult fairy tales.

Still, “with kids books, you have to be careful to keep the plot moving,” he says, and “it’s important to have the hero and heroine to be a kid.”

Then he adds: “I’ve never written anything that contained elements of the fantastic. And that was the difference in writing the trilogy. It’s a joy to have objects that could talk and move of their own volition. There are shapeshifters in the second book (which is coming out in the United States in October 2015). It felt utterly liberating. I could do anything.”

As for coming up with the idea of a “gathering” of objects, Carey notes that “Elizabeth and I do hoard, and I just thought, ‘Why can’t objects get together? Why wouldn’t they amass, especially against horrible people?’ … And how do you know that your objects are kept still when you go to bed at night? You don’t. You can’t be sure.”

Still, Carey says he’s personally not fearful of objects, or of having a Hyde Park house that’s filled with them, in part because he and his family try to be kind to objects. “Hoarders are the best people,” he says. “I’m really nervous with people who have nothing.”

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