Edward Carey’s latest book, The Swallowed Man, is a retelling of the classic Pinocchio fairy tale from Gepetto’s perspective. Gepetto is left alone for much of Carlo Collodi’s original story, so Carey saw an opportunity to both write his version of events and create a visual art exhibition of the weird and wild creations he imagines Gepetto would have made while trapped in the belly of a shark. I spoke with Carey about the timelessness of The Adventures of Pinocchio, how to organize and write a multimedia artistic project, why we all need to feel creative nourishment when we’re trapped and isolated, and what it means to be alive.
I suppose I should start by admitting that I have a huge obsession with Pinocchio, so I was really excited to read your retelling from Gepetto’s perspective. I know I see a fair bit of myself in the character of Pinocchio. Did you see any part of yourself in Gepetto as you wrote The Swallowed Man? What parts of him, the artist, the sculptor, the story-teller, are so fascinating that made you want to tell his story?
Like you, I’ve been fascinated with Pinocchio for years and years. He’s like the patron saint of objects, this living object that desperately wants to be a human being. But the flip side of that is when you get Gepetto in the sea creature, he’s suddenly forced to ask himself the same question that Pinocchio keeps asking or wondering: What is a human being? What actually makes a human being? How can you define such a person as a human being? Pinocchio is actually one of the most convincing children, even though he isn’t a real one. And he becomes supremely uninteresting the moment he becomes a flesh child, and the story ends.
For Gepetto, I think he’s creating to keep alive. And if he doesn’t create, if he doesn’t make art, he ceases to be himself. The question that he must surely have asked during those two years, as Collodi abandoned him in this shark, is the same question Pinocchio asks. I think we’ve all asked ourselves those same sets of questions since March, since the COVID-19 pandemic began: how do I keep myself myself after a huge amount of isolation? Am I still myself? What does it mean to be alive?
I love Gepetto. I think he’s actually like Dr. Frankenstein or the Rabbi of Prague. He’s created a wonderful, glorious monster. He’s a delinquent, Pinocchio. He’s outrageous. I’m a father. I’ve got two kids and they make me question parenthood. What is it like to be a parent? Collodi left that open, and I felt like I had some room to maneuver.
All you have is what Collodi left you, and The Swallowed Man rather quickly upended my expectations. We expect we’re going to see much of Pinocchio from Gepetto’s perspective, but because the material is actually so small about Gepetto himself, you’re forced to create your own tale. Were you inspired by all of this freedom to tell your own version?
It came about when the Collodi foundation in Tuscany commissioned me to do an exhibition for their museum, if I would do an exhibition of art inspired by Pinocchio. And I went “Are you kidding? Yes!”
Pinocchio is such a strange, dark, disturbing tale, cruel and unforgiving and funny, deeply, deeply strange. But what angle do I take? Do I take it from Pinocchio’s angle? It feels like it’s touching too close to Collodi’s world and I didn’t want to touch it, as much as I loved it. I didn’t feel that that would be right in that particular exhibition space.
As I reread it, I discovered, Oh my god, this is two years Collodi’s abandoned this character of Gepetto. And I just thought, That’s it! I will create the art that Gepetto made when he was inside the shark and that would be his way of longing for his child.
So I thought, well, what art would he make in the belly of a shark? Well, he’d do it with whatever he has around. Fortunately for me, Collodi provided him with a ship, and with lots of food, etc. So I thought I’d do something like Robinson Crusoe, I would journal Gepetto’s isolation and his artistic process.
And instead, you focus on how Gepetto makes art from what debris there is in the shark’s belly. It becomes this question of creating to survive, as you said, which definitely does have relevance right now while we are all isolated. We need other types of nourishment. We need a kind of spiritual and creative nourishment…
And we need to find ways of traveling while we’re stuck at home.
Right! I don’t think you were writing this during the pandemic, so has the pandemic brought different aspects out of your work than you anticipated?
Yes, I would get out of the gloom. I was writing that bloody book and I tried to escape it. During that time I had to generate something that would actually make me feel a bit more buoyant. I started doing a drawing a day and posting it to Twitter. And I thought, “I’ll do this for 100 days and it will be done and over.” But as of our interview, I think I’m on day 284 with no end in sight. I’ve almost done what Gepetto has done, somehow, but just with a pencil and a pad. I’m lucky I’m not inside a shark. I’m with my family and the world for me is the four of us and one cat.
I think Gepetto is desperately finding ways to make the same surroundings feel different. I’m sure we’ve all experienced when the isolation is too much and it feels like something you can’t beat. And I have him in the book, creating by mistake, a sort of anti-Pinocchio.
The anti-Pinocchio shows how the urge to create, or to not create, can get bleak, or desperate, or dark…
And it can be dangerous. What would it have meant to Pygmalion to have created something that came to life, and that was terrifying? Not the beautiful woman that Pygmalion creates but a frightening child that grows and knows when it lies. Terrifying! And the original is full of darkness of course.
The last image in the book is one of the greatest betrayals in all of literature when Pinocchio, the flesh child, this tedious little child, stares at the puppet it once was. Which is such genius. And the last line of the book is him laughing at his former self. Each time I read it again, it’s wonderful. It’s so extraordinary.
I think while Gepetto is clearly being digested, which probably is not a particularly pleasant feeling, he’s on this rotting ship and it’s rotting. Not only his life but the life of everything he loved feels like it will go on without him, without him seeing them again. I feel like we’re all in that situation, unfortunately.
How did you go about making the art and the book at the same time? Did they kind of arrange themselves for you, or did you have to work the story around the art?
I kept thinking, what could he make in a shark’s stomach? So first I decided he’s got to have a journal. Then what more? Could I make likenesses of Pinocchio out of hardtack? How could he paint? Well, with his beard hair! But I can’t grow a beard, so I asked a best friend of mine if I could have some of his beard hair. And he cut up some of his beard, and I made it into a brush and it paints quite well, actually!
Then what would he do when he runs out of ink? And I thought, a squid, you can get it that way! So some of the drawings in the book are from squid ink. I was playing with that way of creating. I wanted it bigger and bigger and I just thought, what if he could get little bits of pottery from all over the world?
One of the things I’ve missed so much during this pandemic is going mudlarking. You can get out onto the Thames in London and pick all sorts of old stuff out of the muck. You find clay pipes, Georgian and Victorian artifacts, even Roman mosaics. I thought we, Gepetto and I, could make a small boy out of these broken pieces to bring Pinocchio back.
I had the story sort of timed out the plot by using Collodi’s details. When Pinocchio comes into the shark and rescues him, Gepetto’s on his last candle. I sat in the darkness as I wrote this and just kept thinking, what are you going to do today?
Often, as I’m sure many of us have done, he’s wondering whether he can cope with this isolation. Sometimes his creations are a positive thing, like when he paints a skyscape on an animal bone and calls it his window. But sometimes that art can turn against him and make him confront what a cruel parent he was.
It’s an urge that Gepetto has to create humanness in things that are not particularly human. Your take on Gepetto really hones in on that instinct that he has of not just making the one thing, Pinocchio, into a real boy, but everything, anything into a full person.
That sort of sympathy is essential as a human being to create something great, I think. And it also has to be a muscle.
Preparing for the exhibition in Italy, I saw Michelangelo’s wooden Christ, carved when he was just 17. And it’s as if his carving was Pinocchio! And imagine if that came to life. It’s a miracle, but it’s also terrifying.
So often the modern adaptations of Pinocchio don’t focus on that aspect. Pinocchio isn’t sweet. He’s outrageous! He disobeys the rules, but he’s also searching for life. And he has more life than many of the other characters.
A lot of your work, not just The Swallowed Man, is set in the Victorian era. I wonder what draws you to that period of history in general, to that kind of grubbiness or darkness the setting implies.
As a child growing up in England, I was fascinated by the Victorians obsession with objects. They were almost drowning in objects. The objects were almost alive.
I got a bit lost in my writing at one point in my life, soI started asking myself what sort of writing do I love? What made me want to be a writer? I adore fairy tales. I write about Victorian times because I have the freedom to. I can’t write about modern London. I haven’t lived in London for years. So I felt like I had to find a place where I had freedom to write. And I could make stuff up. I will never write a realistic novel; I can’t do it if I wanted to. It would be dreadful! I like magic. And I like strangeness and the dark.
But that doesn’t mean escaping into a Victorian fantasy land. I still think there’s ways for fantasy to reflect our current time. Talking about that time of total empire, when lives were crushed by its force, will always be relevant. It feels particularly relevant now.
And that’s how fairy tales have always worked. Anything can happen in them, but that doesn’t mean they’re not reflecting or critiquing current events. They’re about timeless, universal questions that we will always have.
Fairy tales can tell you what it is to be a human being. They’re guidelines on how to survive.
The Swallowed Man
By Edward Carey
Published January 26, 2021
Michael Pittard is an English lecturer at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. He has an MFA in poetry from UNCG and is a former poetry editor of The Greensboro Review.