Edward Carey Talks to Alexander Chee About Rewriting a Myth, and the Enduring Power of Pinocchio
A Conversation with the Author of The Swallowed Man
Featured image from the UK cover of The Swallowed Man, by Edward Carey.
The story of Pinocchio is something that has taken several shapes in my life. The first of course was the Disney story, known to most Americans by now. The second involved the discovery of Carlo Collodi’s The Adventures of Pinocchio, a life-changing event—the original novel which would seem to have served as the loosest possible inspiration for Disney’s Pinocchio. The relationship between the Disney and the Collodi was like the mask and the face.
Now we have, in a sense, the mirror, too: The Swallowed Man, by the writer and artist Edward Carey, imagines Geppetto, inside the impossible five story cave that is belly of the massive dog-fish shark that swallowed him, awaiting what seems to him to be death, and writing, at last, the stories he has not told before now of his life as the creator of the wooden puppet who transformed into a human boy. Illuminated by Carey’s exquisitely textured original illustrations, the passages take on the uncertain darkness of both the stomach of the shark and Geppetto’s mind, and the result is a slim novel about art, parenthood, and what it is like to see your creations walk in the world, defy you, and even, maybe, save you as well. And it could not be more timely.
It should also be said: the knack of illustrating your own work is akin to accompanying yourself on the piano as you sing, I think—it requires mastery of the two separate arts but understanding how those arts fit together is the third art to this. It is a regular feature of Carey’s books, and each one has, as a result, its own specific atmosphere, the feeling of a book that both exists outside of time and yet lands, unerringly, in the present. They feel, also, intimately made for you. And as deliberate as his brush strokes are, his words are as well.
Carey is previously the author of Little, Alva & Irva, Observatory Mansions, and the Iremonger Trilogy for young adults. He is an award-winning novelist, playwright and visual artist, and he is also married to my friend, the award-winning writer Elizabeth McCracken. I think they would laugh and complain if I called them a power couple so perhaps it is better to say they are one of Austin’s beloved centers of gravity, transplants who have made themselves at home.
I met him when I had the good fortune of being the visiting writer at the University of Texas–Austin, where they live and teach some very fortunate MFA students, and they made me feel very much at home, such that during my time there I became known as something of a gin pusher. I am the guest who asks you if you have a shaker, in other words. They live in a charming art-filled home—much of it made by Edward—with their two children, who seem to me to be the luckiest of children.
I spoke to Edward Carey on a recent afternoon by Zoom about Pinocchio, Geppetto, The Swallowed Man, Florence, art, and monsters. We had fun, in other words.
Alexander Chee: I was delighted to see you had done this with the story of Pinocchio—or really the story of Geppetto. I have loved that book for a very long time. There is a line about boys and sickness that Pinocchio says that has stayed with me a long time: “I’m a boy you see, and all boys hate medicine more than sickness.” One of those lines that hits you right between the eyes.
Is this a story that’s been alive for you since childhood?
Edward Carey: Yeah, I’ve loved it for a really long time. The Collodi book is so strange, so much more complicated and sophisticated than the Disney version would have you believe. And you mention illness and children—he’s a kid that stands out, he’s not like any other kid. There’s something that sets him apart. The fact that he’s one of a kind, that he feels like the patron saint of objects. Also, in the Disney version he’s some sweet kid, and he’s not—he’s vicious, he’s annoyed and annoying.
The thing about the book that always strikes me as so moving, is how at the end, that awful betrayal, when he becomes a flesh kid. Right at the end, the last line of the book. The wooden Pinocchio stays on stage, lifeless, dead material, and the flesh Pinocchio is laughing at his former self. It always seemed to me like one of the biggest betrayals in literature.
So yes, I’ve loved it. And this came about—you talking about the sick child—I was the writer in residence at the Meyer Hospital, one of the leading pediatric hospitals in Italy, in Florence. Collodi spent most of his life in Florence, and Pinocchio is everywhere in Florence. That hospital has Pinocchio all over it, and the main meeting room has huge bones, as if you’re inside a whale.
A lot of the doctors see that journey Pinocchio makes as a journey of recovery, of ultimate hope in the end, and so those kids have Pinocchio all around them. He’s such a versatile character, and deeply profound. So I love you talking about the child and illness, I think that’s him.
AC: It’s so interesting that Pinocchio is one of these fictional characters who is effectively like a celebrity, you don’t have to have read the book at all to know his name or have some popular idea of him in your mind. Especially because of the Disney story, which feels like a Freudian screen memory for the original, some complicated psychological plaster laid over the original. In going back to the story for this, what would you say possessed you?
EC: Pinocchio has been in my head for decades, and one of my classes I teach MFA students is on fairy tales. And we talk about so often in fairy tales objects having life, and feelings, and of course Pinocchio is the ultimate version of that.
Years ago I did an adaptation of Collodi’s original and Robert Coover’s continuation of the story, Pinocchio in Venice, for a theater company in Romania. So I lived with in Romania with these actors, who called me Papusha Mika, “Little Puppet,” that was their name for me. But I didn’t think I would write about it directly until I was at the hospital and I wrote some articles about Pinocchio for Corriere Della Serra and La Repubblica and talked about Pinocchio, and the Collodi Foundation wrote to me and asked me, Would I do an exhibition in the hospital’s Parco di Pinocchio, anything as long as it was about Pinocchio? And I said yes, yes, yes! So I took the book and just soaked myself in it.
I realized Geppetto is so completely wrongly portrayed in the movie, and he’s so much more complicated, so much more interesting. But also Collodi doesn’t really talk about him—he leaves him for two years in the belly of that shark—and he tells you nothing about that. And I just thought, what would that be like? He’s a creator, and you know his most famous creation is the wooden child. What art would he make? And because Pinocchio is so often saying, “What’s a human being? What is a human being? Why can’t I be a human being?” I feel like Geppetto, in the shark, is asking the same question. “Am I still a human being now?” With his huge beard, his nails grown long, his skin going to hell, “What am I?” Not being able to communicate with anyone else but making art to survive. So I thought, that’s what I’ll do. I’ll make the art that he would have made inside the shark.Pinocchio has been in my head for decades, and one of my classes I teach MFA students is on fairy tales.
AC: And when was that? What was the year of that fellowship?
EC: Two years ago. To begin with, it was just going to be the art, but then I thought Nah, nah, nah, he’s got to write, he’s got to write. He’s got to write his journal of his isolation. I thought the journal could be the catalog of the art, of the museum exhibit, and then the book took over from the art.
AC: As it just might do. What a wonderful origin story for this.
I think of historical fiction as being an argument with history, and with culture. When you rewrite a myth, I think it is much the same. It seems like you’re going back to argue for Geppetto, to be read a different way, with a different illumination. What do you think… I hesitate to say what do you think Italians misunderstand about the story, but it sounds like in the hospital, portraying Pinocchio as a talisman for wellness, a journey away from the wooden body, that perhaps there’s something they’re ignoring. The cruelty of Pinocchio, which is like a child’s anger at weakness. What would you say you found in Geppetto that is new?
EC: He disappears for two years, and part of Pinocchio’s journey is that he has to find his father and save him. And what I found is what must… it’s a real question of parenthood, of owning that strange child, a story of love and beginning to understand himself. A journey of trying to forgive himself. And there’s such huge wonderful holes in the Collodi original. Geppetto is angry in the book, he screams at his child, he runs after him… So I discuss that whole business of parenthood but also an artist’s relationship to his art. Because for Geppetto, his art has run off, his creation has disappeared in the world. For him to wonder, Well, what am I, the same as Pinocchio, what am I, what am I, becomes Geppetto’s desperate need to say This is what I am!
The book is a mirror of Pinocchio, almost a journey toward death instead of a journey into life, as in Collodi’s story. But it’s about creation, and responsibility.
AC: Is Geppetto’s Otto in this book, is he in the original, or is he your creation?
EC: He’s mine. You have to tell stories! We’ve all been stuck on our bloody own–if you were without anything for two years, what would you do? He has to create. It’s the escape, a way of traveling when you can’t travel. Otto’s not in the Collodi, but I think that whole business of creating shapes, our need for human beings—I know you’re in a much more remote situation, but here in Austin, when I look out the window, all I see are people in masks and I think, where have all the human beings gone? Is this a new species? The longing for company.
AC: It must have been such a dream to have all that material nearby, and you were, as you said, in the city of Pinocchio. And Florence, Italy is such a wonderfully strange city, with the utterly blasé locals trying to pretend the tourists aren’t there, and the way the city feels illustrated—the ancient art, the new graffiti—are there Florentine Easter eggs, as it were? How much of this is about a love for Florence?
EC: I know you know Florence well, but I sat in the church and experienced for the first time the wooden Christ carved by Michelangelo when he was 18, made out of linden tree—
AC: Yes! The thing that stands out in my memory about that Michelangelo Christ is that to me it was the first one I’d seen that conveyed the pain of crucifixion to me. And not like he had fallen asleep against the cross. It really did look like agony in a way that was startling to be alone with.
EC: And it was so beautiful, and no one was there and I was just walking around it. As you know, it is suspended, there’s no cross there, and I just thought, That’s Pinocchio. That life in it. And I found myself feeling that I understood the puppet in a different way. Because often when we see the puppet, it is a crudely drawn thing, but it’s living, it is living, this object. And I thought Oh Geppetto is more like Frankenstein than some little toymaker, this is a monster he’s created, but of extraordinary beauty. And looking at that figure by the young Michelangelo, I was just so moved by it, it is so lifelike.
AC: It is sort of punk rock, right? It isn’t like the other Jesuses in Florence that are sort of pretty or erotic…
AC: And that’s the thing about Florence that I think is worth remarking on in relationship to this novel, it is a city where it is easy to imagine a figure like that coming to life, because they are always half coming to life around you.And it was so beautiful, and no one was there and I was just walking around it. As you know, it is suspended, there’s no cross there, and I just thought, That’s Pinocchio. That life in it.
EC: Thinking about those, I’m sure there’s particular pieces of art you’re always running to revisit when you go back, and for me it is the Mary Magdalene by Donatello, which I think about all the time, and I thought, this could be the state of Geppetto. In the new museum to the cathedral they have a copy of her that you can touch, and actually touching her, I was thinking about that as I wrote about Geppetto. She’s almost the total opposite of the Michelangelo Christ, almost already dead.
AC: I just saw that you sold your Year of Sketches. Do you want to say anything about that?
EC: Sure! It’s a bit like Geppetto back in his whale all over again, but we’re all there.
I was writing a book set inside a kid’s hospital, inspired by my time in Florence, and I had to put it aside as it was just too difficult to do with COVID. So I was thinking of what the hell else am I going to do, and I’m always drawing—I can’t stop drawing—it is the only thing that chills me during the day. I’d just drawn a scribble of a young man, and sometimes I post my drawings on the internet and so I did and said, “I’m going to do one of these a day until it is all over.” Without really meaning to do this, by accident. And it’s sort of grown, and I didn’t expect it to take a year, and God knows now how long it will take. But it’s been a delightful way of communicating, as sometimes people say “will you draw such and such?” And one of the drawings is of you!
AC: I was very moved to get it. Thank you.
EC: My pleasure, of course. But it’s been that way of marking time. I’ve never marked every single day, I’ve never written a journal, never written a diary, and suddenly I’ll lay them all out, every 50 pages, and I go, “Oh my god, this is how long we’ve been here,” and you’ve seen our house—it’s pretty small. We’re running out of house to lay these bloody drawings out on.
But it’s become a way of marking those moments, when America was so unhappy, and seeing all of that police brutality that had to be marked as well as the pretty things. I had to draw Trump, as well as all of the people murdered by police brutality. Had to try and pour a year…I mean it wasn’t supposed to be a book. But it’s become a book. A book by accident.
AC: And what is the B for?
EC: B is for the grade of pencil. They’re all done in pencil drawings. But also it’s been a year where we’re all just trying to be. And so that’s the title.
AC: Wow, that is beautiful. Well, thank you for telling me about all of this.
EC: Well thank you! I wish you were here to drink some gin and do your marvels with the cocktail shaker. We’ll have to wait for another time for that.
AC: Soon enough.
The Swallowed Man by Edward Carey is available now via Riverhead Books.