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Fantasy, History and the Railway: An Interview with Sarah Brooks

By Katie Farr, Lucy Powell, Jess Scaffidi Saggio, Ayman Sabir and Iona Fleming

 

The journey of writing The Cautious Traveller’s Guide to The Wastelands started with Sarah Brooks’ experience of travelling from Beijing to Moscow on the Trans-Siberian railway in her student years. Thereafter Brooks spent time researching both the Trans-Siberian Railway and Siberia itself. She felt this to be important as Siberia “has a very complex history in terms of the land itself and the tragedies that happened there,” citing Christian Wolmar’s To the Edge of the World on the Trans-Siberian Express as a great influence on her work. Though it was important to be well informed, Brooks knew she wanted her own story and would somewhat “diverge from the history.” She always kept in mind how influential the railway has been in “the way it connects China and Russia, and what it’s done to people’s lives and the environment,” maintaining a balance between fact and her fictional plot.

 

“There is a sense of romance and promise of adventure” in a train, Brooks says. The enclosed world of a train carriage forces proximity to “people of different backgrounds, ages and classes,” allowing a writer to explore cultural differences and tensions. Tension is also created by the simultaneous freedom and danger, the odd sensation of being “neither here nor there.” Brooks found that the train worked well with the novel’s coming-of-age theme, particularly with the character Weiwei. The train stands in for "a rite of passage,” representing the journey away from innocence, its relentless forward momentum ensuring that, for the characters, “there is no going back.”

 

The writing process for this book was a very long one, with Brooks “expanding it for years [since 2012], just writing bits and pieces.” Brooks is a big reader and has “always liked books that move between genres.” This fondness inspired the mixture of genres presented in The Cautious Traveller’s Guide to The Wastelands, which Brooks initially wrote for her own pleasure, “putting all the things [she] likes into it.” Brooks is “happy for [the book] to be thought of as crossing genres,” reflecting her reading tastes.


While navigating the story’s genre, it was important to Brooks to make the world simultaneously real and fantastic. Positioning characters in a world that had strange elements was challenging because Brooks had to ensure that she was “placing them in a world where they knew a certain amount of strangeness existed” without giving away too much. It was also important to accomplish this balance in the setting, with the Wastelands area portrayed as something that people were afraid of. Despite the question of how fantastical to go, Brooks loved creating “a world to sink into.”


Brooks describes herself as a “fantasy reader at heart” because she loves the “possibility,” “discovery” and “surprise” of the genre. Blending the historical genre into the novel allowed her to create a solid “connection to the real world.” In historical fiction, Brooks loves world-building, citing writers such as Hilary Mantel and Maggie O’Farrell as inspiration. Because of this historical aspect of the writing, she had a good excuse to research the real Trans-Siberian Express.

 

Fantastical inspirations for Brooks include Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrel, with how it “enfolds” the reader in a world that is “very real and also magical.” In writing The Cautious Traveller’s Guide to The Wastelands, Brooks attempted to “find [her] way back to that certain kind of atmosphere” that she loved so much. Other influences were Natasha Pulley’s The Watchmaker of Filigree Street and Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, with its similar magic atmosphere of the circus, and how it was a “closed world in itself [...] a magical world within a real world.” In addition to the 19th-century fiction she grew up with, reading these authors’ books helped Brooks with creating characters based in the 19th century.


As an academic in East Asian studies, Brooks’ PhD looked at Chinese ghost stories and their exploration of the relationship between humans and the supernatural. “Compared to European stories,” Brooks argues, “there’s a lot more emphasis on the connection between the human and the supernatural, rather than the separation.” While these 17th-century stories often featured human men with supernatural women seducing and/or helping them, Brooks instead focuses on a human/supernatural friendship between two young girls. Another aspect of East Asian literature which influenced Brooks is the “emphasis on the connection between the human world and the natural world.” Though Brooks was unaware of the story’s environmental element until her editors mentioned it, she explains that “it’s almost impossible now not to have those environmental issues or worries," and so inevitably the modern world comes into the book.


Although written in third-person point of view, Brooks still tried to keep the voices in her novel separate. As the book took a long time to write, Brooks felt that the three protagonists (Weiwei, Marya and Henry Grey) developed “their voices and their own stories quite naturally.” As the three protagonists were of distinct nationalities and ages, they came out “quite separately,” and she focused on the fact that they each experienced the train “in a very different way.” Brooks enjoyed writing in each perspective; Henry Grey’s arrogance, for example, was “quite liberating to write" as a female author, while she felt “much closer” to Marya and Weiwei as their stories were “what [she] started with.”

 

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