Q&A interview with P G Bell (author) and Rebecca Hill and Becky Walker, editors of
The judges found this bursting with ideas, loved the energy of the storytelling, and the way that the characters are strong and vivid enough to keep readers engaged.
Have you always wanted to be a children’s writer?
I've certainly always wanted to be a writer of some sort, and I spent almost 25 years trying my hand at everything from thrillers, to horror, to radio dramas, to journalism. But now that I'm a children's author I feel like I've finally found my voice, and I'm loving every moment of it.
Tell us about the inspiration for The Train to Impossible Places
It started life as a bedtime story for my eldest son, who asked me for ‘a brand new story that no one's ever heard before.’ I knew it had to feature a train because he was crazy about them at the time. And I grew up on books like Enid Blyton's The Magic Faraway Tree, and a whole host of fantasy and pulp sci-fi adventures. They were all about discovering and exploring new worlds, which has always excited me, so I decided to follow in their footsteps - whenever Suzy steps off the train, she never quite knows who or what she's going to find, and we get to explore it all with her. It succeeded in keeping my son (and me) entertained for a few evenings, and I hope it's now doing the same for other young readers.
What was it like working with Rebecca and Becky on the book?
I know writers aren't supposed to look forward to getting notes from their editors, but I honestly do because everything Rebecca and Becky have done has made my work better. They're honest, insightful and enthusiastic, and are always ready to tell me which bits of a story are working and which aren't. Where I fall short, they encourage me to consider solutions that I would never have imagined by myself.· Quite simply, they've made me a better writer.
What’s your favourite scene in the book and why?
Probably the scene in which Suzy first encounters Lady Crepuscula at the top of the Obsidian Tower. It was great fun to write, and I had a whale of a time making Crepuscula as disagreeable as possible. To my surprise, the more menacing I made her, the more resolute Suzy became. I love it when characters start bouncing off one another, and Suzy and Crepuscula have a dynamic that's been really fun to revisit since.
What made The Train to Impossible Places stand out when you read the manuscript?
The Train to Impossible Places starts, quite literally, with a flash and plunged us head-first into an adventure like no other. At once an astonishingly-imagined world, with trolls, yellow bears, evil witches and ghostly pirates, not to mention the extraordinary train itself, it is also a thrill-ride of fun, fuzzics, danger and daring. It is impossible to put your finger on exactly what makes a book so special, yet this story really wasn't like anything else we'd ever read. Laced with wit and originality, it was clear to us from that first flash that Peter was a huge talent, and that we knew, without a shadow of a doubt, his story-telling would allow children to travel out of their own worlds, let their imaginations run wild, and above all, turn them into readers.
What were the main elements you worked on editorially with Peter to help him make the book even better?
The Union of the Impossible Places, made up of all the places that ‘don't quite fit anywhere else’, is indeed, impossible in its very name. However, with the reader in mind, we worked with Peter to weave in a fraction more cohesion, and he worked pure magic to give the reader more of an overarching idea of the Union as a whole. Our other focus was on teasing out Peter's unforgettable characters even further. They are the beating heart of the story, and Suzy, in particular, is the essential link between our own world, and that of the Impossible Places – giving us the possibility to dream that we too might one day find a train coming down our hallway… We worked closely with Peter to heighten Suzy's role, to ensure she was always driving the action forwards, as well as looking at the balance between the ensemble cast, which Peter handled with aplomb!
What would you say is the hardest thing for debut authors when working on their manuscripts?
With debut authors, we always keep in mind that it can be initially daunting to have someone new commenting on your work, as well as having to tackle the different editorial stages – from the main edits, to the copyedit and beyond. Every single author is different, and each book can pose individual challenges, so I think it very much depends on the circumstances. It's our job as editors, however, to ensure that we identify what an author might find hard, and to help them through this in whichever way we can, as well as building a long-lasting relationship that we hope will carry far beyond their debut!
What advice would you give to anyone writing a fantasy adventure?
Hooray, firstly! Fantasy is such a wonderful, expansive genre, and we are continually blown away by the sheer scope of imaginative new adventures that we see. Every writer will tackle their story differently, however a few words of advice would be, firstly, to know your world inside out. Ask yourself questions, test the boundaries, the outer limits, the possibilities and the pitfalls. One thing that struck us about Peter's world was that, while complex and gloriously enormous, it was clear that he was in control, and that he loved every single character, quirk, wormhole and upside-down-but-not-quite town. Similarly, and particularly for a middle-grade audience, find the balance between exposition and exploration. We need to know what your world is about, and to situate ourselves in it, but we also want to go on adventure – and, fast!
Thanks to PG Bell, Rebecca and Becky for answering our questions.
Photo of Rebecca Hill - Dan Gulliver