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Between the Lines

Interview with Edward Carey
Alva & Irva
The Twins Who Saved a City
Edward Carey

Alva and Irva Dapps are identical twin sisters who live in the city of Entralla. Alva longs to travel the world but cannot bring herself to leave Irva, a recluse for whom stepping outside the house is an ordeal. Although different in disposition and personality, the two cannot survive without one another, so Alva devises a way to bring the outside world to her sister. The result is an obsessive construction plan to model the city of Entralla and thus lure Irva into its streets. As the twins approach the culmination of their respective goals, a tragedy so devastates the community of Entralla that both sisters must temporarily put aside their own desires for a bizarre, if appropriate, place in history.

Edward Carey was born in 1970 in England. Five of his plays have been produced in London, Romania, and Lithuania. He has also worked as a set designer and illustrator. His first novel, Observatory Mansions, was published in 2001. He lives in London.
Q: Your debut novel, Observatory Mansions (2001), garnered the following praise from The Times (London):

"There are no ordinary people; everyone is a seething mass of repressed desires, murderous impulses, and obsessive-compulsive tics. While this view of human nature might sound disturbing, it is conveyed with so much sympathy and acute observation that it is hard not to be beguiled."

This same bit of praise can similarly describe Alva & Irva: The Twins Who Saved a City—a book filled with entirely different characters and with a unique storyline. You obviously have the rare ability to create eccentric roles AND to make us feel sympathy for these peculiar beings. Is there something about downtrodden, socially rejected, and supremely bizarre people that invites your observation and veneration?

A: Yes, they stand apart from the world and look at it in an entirely different way; sometimes they complicate life, and sometimes they simplify it. They just have a very different way of doing things, and the more different they do something the more they make you think about the ordinary way of doing it—and to consider it in a fresh light. I can remember reading a truly wonderful essay by Diane Arbus, in which she discusses those people that stand apart from everyone else, and being painfully moved by it. I haven't forgotten it, or her astonishing photographs.

Q: In the book, there is quite a bit of descriptive detail of the streets, the buildings, and the people of this imaginary city of Entralla—and we understand that you too have constructed a model of the city. Was building Entralla a compulsive effort on your part—in keeping with the model-building activities of Alva and Irva? Did you construct this model in advance of writing the book, or after?
A: Building the miniature city that I was writing about was essential to me, firstly so that I could really understand what it looked like, and secondly because it is what the protagonists of the novel do, and so I felt if I were really to understand them and their obsession I'd have to do the same. I spent many weeks constructing miniature streets and buildings, rummaging through many architectural books and guidebooks, and stealing building designs from different actual cities to construct my made-up one. I was amazed at how delicate a process it was, how painfully slow, and at how much patience it required. And how vulnerable the plasticine was, how easy to dent, and how quickly it grew dusty.

It was a great adventure for me building the city. I started building it (after I'd already made many maps) when I'd completed a few drafts of the novel, but the process of making the city changed the novel. I suddenly began to consider many new things. I could see the city with much more clarity and certain new possibilities for events began to occur to me. I began to wonder how it would be to be a city planner, and what responsibility there is to the people who would have to live with, and in, the decisions you make. Building the city, playing God, was wonderful but certainly I shall never do it again. I remember having a nightmare that somehow a mouse had gotten into my miniature city and was trampling around the plasticine streets, carving destruction as it went; I woke up terrified.

Q: For the benefit of our American readers, would you please explain the composition of "plasticine"—the material used in the construction of the model buildings and the model city in Alva & Irva?
A: The Oxford English Dictionary explains it this way; "a soft pliable substance used for modeling." It's generally a child's toy. The American equivalent would be Play-Doh, I suppose, only Play-Doh doesn't smell quite the same and doesn't have the same texture. With plasticine I think you can work much finer detail, but I'm not sure, I've never tried Play-Doh.

Q: In Alva & Irva, the model city is stored and forgotten for a period of time and then re-discovered and immortalized. Is there an allegorical or historical reference in this plot twist?
A: I think the whole novel is a kind of adult fairy tale; there was no historical reference point to me in writing it. Of the last eight years, I've spent eight months of every year away from England, and being away so much has made me think about homeland and belonging, and I wanted to write about that.

Q: Alva and Irva are twins—inseparable twins really—who alternately love and hate, and praise and torment each other. And both seem to live only partial lives—one half each—as if the egg never should have been separated in the womb. What is your exposure to twins and/or to the social and psychological makeup of twins? Did you research the phenomenon? Or is there a separate purpose to the twin focus in Alva & Irva
A: My grandmother and my great aunt were identical twins. I can remember going to stay with them in the holidays. I remember sitting in the dining room looking from one end of the table to the other, trying to tell these twins apart, a kind of spot-the-difference competition with relatives. I think they were the start of my story, though the twins in the novel have nothing in common with them. I did read many books on twins and their relationships, but then suddenly stopped. I realised what I wanted to do was really very simple; I wanted to have two inseparable characters, one of whom wanted to stay at home, one of whom yearned to travel, and from that everything else began to shape itself—including the layout of the city.

Q: What's next on Edward Carey's literary creation list?
A: I'm busy writing a historical novel at the moment, which is something very new to me. In my first two books the action takes place in cities that don't actually exist. Now I'm busy thinking about, and living in at the same time, a real city. Paris, which I can see from my window, does exist, it's there every time I look out. But my new novel, I think, will be about utopias; there were suddenly, in one particular time in history, lots of really very brilliant people trying to design various different utopias.

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Edward Carey

Edward Carey
photo credit:
Haege Hatviet Moe

Alva & Irva

Alva & Irva