It's 1875, and all of London's trash is banished to a wasteland known as "the heaps." The Iremonger family presides over this grim realm from Heap House, a mansion itself made up of parts of other buildings. Cut off and inter-marrying for generations, they have developed their own versions of English names: Moorcus, Pinalippy, Timfy.
This whimsically gothic scenario is the brainchild of the English-born writer and illustrator Edward Carey. "Heap House" (Overlook: 406 pp., $16.99, ages 10+), his first foray into fiction for young readers, is part of a trilogy.
Iremonger family traditions are idiosyncratic. Each baby is assigned a birth object — a hot water tap, a toast rack, a single woman's shoe — which he or she must always keep. Young Master Clod Iremonger was born with the power to hear the birth objects announcing their own names. (His birth object is a bath plug called James Henry Hayward.) When a birth object gets lost, Clod is summoned to find it. Along the way he meets a rebellious servant girl, Lucy Pennant, and they team to solve the growing mystery in Heap House.
Carey has written and illustrated two novels for adults, "Observatory Mansions" and "Alva and Irva: The Twins Who Saved a City." He spoke by phone from Austin, Texas, where he lives with his wife (writer Elizabeth McCracken) and their two young children.
The young protagonists of "Heap House" suffer a lot in the course of their adventure. Did you experience great adversity in childhood?
Not really! I had a very happy childhood. But I was sent off to boarding school at quite a young age, this massive Victorian house that was suffocated in ivy. I think there is a part of that school in "Heap House." One of my brothers said to me, "You do realize the name of the cooks in Heap House, Groom, was the name of the cooks at our school." I hadn't even realized I'd done that.
What inspired you to turn to children's fiction, after publishing two novels for adults?
Part of the joy of writing for kids is that you have to have a real adventure story. You can get really involved in the fantastic in a way that perhaps you can't so much in adult fiction. In this trilogy, objects actually speak and sometimes have lives of their own. That was something I've always longed to do.
The Iremongers are both enthralled and enslaved by their possessions. The relationship seems to reflect the magical thinking of childhood, but more than that it's a comment on the materialism of our species and its consequences for our planet. Do you have a complicated relationship to objects?
Yes, Elizabeth and I collect all sorts of things. We shouldn't be allowed out of the house because we always come back with something else. But in the book I wanted to explore how, as a child, your first companions are your toys, and you give them voices, and you animate them. And you convince yourself — and that's part of the magic of childhood — that these things are actually alive. Then, when people die, all their objects are left behind them, orphaned. Recently my great aunt died in Wales at the age of 109. Some of her objects came over here to Texas, and it was if bits of her were somehow now here, these large, heavy-looking wooden objects, and looking at us with a great deal of disapproval.
I think all the old objects that are around us are still part of lost time. They're clues, the single clues to lives that have been. And we're so cruel to objects! We just throw them out.
It must have been fun to assign the characters their birth objects.
It was tremendous fun. I knew right from the start that Clod would have a plug. They're not very highly regarded, but they're enormously useful. And I knew that Pinalippy, whom Clod is assigned to marry, would have a doily, because I despise doilies.
Was it freeing to you as a writer to set the story in Victorian London rather than today?
Totally. I inhaled Dickens as a kid, and I've always been fascinated by the Victorians. So many ridiculous objects they had! They created things like mustache cups, so you wouldn't wet your mustache when you were drinking tea. And eyebrow combs. What's happened to all the eyebrow combs? Marvelous things.
"Heap House" has been described as Dickensian and compared to the work of Lemony Snicket. Dickens was not specifically writing for children; Lemony Snicket is. What do you think is the difference between adult fiction and children's fiction? Or is there one?
I find it frustrating sometimes that everything needs to be pigeonholed. I hope that "Heap House" is as much for adults as for kids. Some of the writers I really love — Neil Gaiman, Robert Louis Stevenson, Poe — are read by all ages. But with a children's book, one of the things you absolutely have to have is a plot that moves. I had a huge section about an aunt called Moyball, who had a load of seagulls in her room. It had nothing to do with the plot whatsoever. As much as I loved Moyball and her seagulls, my editor said, "But, you know, what would happen if you took Moyball out?" It was a revelation. I was like, "Yeah. Sorry, Moyball."
Do you think your work is part of a trend toward darkness in children's literature?
I hope so! Well, I didn't mean "Heap House" to be as dark as it turned out to be, but I wasn't going to stop it from being dark. Fairy tales, before they were sanitized, were very dark, and kids love that. "Coraline" by Neil Gaiman feels like Beckett for kids. I think there's plenty of room for that. And I think there's a danger of being too patronizing to children, having things too sanitized.
How do the illustrations figure into your creative process?
The whole trilogy started with a drawing of Clod. ... I was doodling away, and I drew this really unhappy-looking, ill-faced child, with a parting and pink circles under his eyes, in an ill-fitting dinner jacket. ... And I wondered, "Well, who are you?"
Do you have an ideal reader in mind?
Somebody who might be sort of picking up objects on the side of the road and caring for them. At readings, I give out birth objects. Like a pen nib, but it will have a label next to it with a person's name. And I watch the children holding these objects in the palms of their hands as if they were ducklings.
Has becoming a father changed you as a writer?
It's maybe a difference of compassion. Before, I'd be quite willing to dispense with my characters, and now I don't do it with as much glee. I'm slightly more careful. That doesn't mean I don't dispatch most of them, but I do it with maybe a little more tenderness.
Gray is a writer in Los Angeles.