P.G. Bell lives in Wales with his wife and two children and enjoys Greek mythology, ghost stories and Doctor Who. Here he talks about his fantasy adventure for children The Train to Impossible Places and what’s in store next for Suzy and her friends…
Without giving too much away, can you tell us about The Train to Impossible Places?
It’s a high-speed fantasy adventure about Suzy, a sensible, science-loving girl whose world is turned upside down by the arrival of a magic train in her house one night. It’s crewed by trolls (and a bright yellow bear), it’s powered by nuclear bananas, and its job is to deliver post to a countless number of magical realms that, as far as Suzy’s concerned, have no business existing.
Suzy is a wonderful character – brave, clever and determined. Who inspired her?
It’s odd, but Suzy walked out of my imagination pretty much fully formed. I knew right from the start who she was, and what her attitude to the trolls and their bizarre magic was going to be. She sees it as her job to push back against all the craziness, and try and bring a little common sense to bear. She doesn’t often succeed.
As I was reading, I picked up echoes of Terry Pratchett’s humour and world-building and C.S Lewis’s magic and mystery. Did either of these authors influence your writing?
You know exactly how to flatter me! I discovered Pratchett in my early teens and fell in love with his writing straight away. He’s certainly been an influence, and I wanted to capture some of that same humour in The Train To Impossible Places. I’m also a great admirer of Lewis’s work, though it’s had less of a direct influence on my own.
You talk a lot about the negative impact The Ether Web has had on the Impossible Places. What aspects of modern life do you enjoy? What aspects of today’s society do you think are dangerous or damaging?
Despite my apparent reticence for it in the book, I really do love the internet. I was 18 when we had it installed at home, and it changed everything. I imagine it must be how the Victorians felt at the advent of electricity. It’s a real pleasure being able to reach out across the world in search of information and like-minded people. We all feel less alone in a way. But at the same time we’ve got to be careful just who is controlling these flows of information, and the direction of the flow as well. There are some very rich and powerful organisations in charge of the net nowadays, and we’ve handed them unprecedented access to our lives. We need to be wary of what we’re telling them about ourselves, and where that information ends up.
Wilmot’s shoulders slump when he asks, ‘Why send a letter when the web is quicker?’ What do you think letters provide us with that texts and emails don’t?
There’s a touch of the personal about them. They show that someone’s gone to a bit of extra effort to get in touch and share their thoughts with you, even if it’s just a postcard. And there’s a permanence to them that e-mails and IMs just don’t have. I still have letters that a few friends sent me 25 years ago. How many old WhatsApp messages am I going to hang on to?
Science, physics and Fuzzics are important themes in the story. What are your feelings about the recent findings that women are underrepresented in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) occupations and only make up 14.4% of all people working in STEM in the UK? How do you think The Train to Impossible Places tries to tackle this issue?
That’s a tough one. I didn’t write book with this disparity in mind, although I’d be thrilled if it encourages more young women and girls to pursue science to a higher level. I’m not a scientist myself – physics and chemistry were my worst subjects at school – but I did spend several years working as an assistant in a university science library, where a great many of the clientele were women from across the world studying everything from architecture to astrophysics. There’s clearly no shortage of talent available. We need to ask ourselves why there’s a lack of desire, opportunity, or both.
The story zips along at a brilliant pace and is full of twists and turns. What did you edit out of the story to ensure it stayed so taught and exciting?
The first draft was about 2000 words shorter than the final book, so I actually ended up adding quite a lot, on the advice of my editors. It’s unusual for me, as I usually over-write and then edit down. The sub-plot with Lord Meridian and Captain Neoma was added in the edits – prior to that, it had just been Suzy and the crew, and Lord Meridian only showed up in the final chapter. I’m glad you think the pace still holds up though!
Do you remember how you felt when you saw the marvellous illustrations by Flavia Sorrentino? What do you feel they bring to the book?
I remember seeing her test sheet – effectively her audition for the job – and thinking straight away that Usborne had made the right choice. She’s got a wonderful expressionist sensibility that manages to be both warm and charming, yet slightly off-kilter. It’s the same sensibility I was aiming for with the story as a whole, so Flavia’s illustrations are the perfect fit. I can’t wait to see what she does for the next book!
I wondered if you could give us some clues about what might happen in the sequel to The Train to Impossible Places, which is due to be published in October 2019 and called The Great Brain Robbery?
Suzy and her friends have reunited for the relaunch of the Impossible Postal Express. But before they can get back to work, Trollville is rocked by the first earthquake in the city’s history. It’s clear that something sinister is afoot (or rather, underfoot), and Suzy sets out across the Impossible Places in search of answers.
It’s a slightly different beast to the first book – as much a mystery story as an adventure. We get to discover some brand new Impossible Places and explore some familiar ones in greater depth. Suzy makes some new friends and enemies along the way. And Wilmot gets an adventure of his own this time!
What has it been like writing a sequel to The Train to Impossible Places? Was it nerve-wracking or has it been enjoyable to revisit this wonderful world again? Did you always envisage a sequel to the story?
I’ve loved diving back into the Impossible Places, and cooking up new challenges for Suzy and the crew. And while it’s been fun, it’s also been a steeper learning curve this time around – sequels come with a certain weight of expectation that I’ve never had to deal with before. Thank goodness for my editors: Rebecca Hill and Becky Walker at Usborne, and Anna Poon at Feiwel & Friends. They’ve helped guided me through the process, and have kept me focussed on the core of the story when I wanted to wander off on weird little tangents. It’s been tough at times, but the whole thing has come together really well, and I’m very happy with the result.
Finally, can you describe The Train to Impossible Places in three words?
Fast. Funny. Weird.