Author Letter: The Inspiration Behind The Cautious Traveller's Guide to the Wastelands by Sarah Brooks

Author Letter: The Inspiration Behind The Cautious Traveller's Guide to the Wastelands by Sarah Brooks

Dear Reader,
 
I’d like to invite you on a journey – a long and winding one, that began over twenty years ago, at a train station in Beijing. I’d been studying Chinese and had decided, along with a couple of friends, that we wanted one last adventure before heading back to the realities of home. And what could have been more of an adventure than the Trans-Siberian Express? So, we hefted on our backpacks and set off for Mongolia, and then took a direct train from Ulaanbaatar to Moscow. It was the kind of journey you take when you’re twenty, and think you’re invincible; when you have a summer ahead of you and an unstoppable curiosity about the world. The kind of journey that brings friendships made in half-understood languages, late evenings drinking liquor you don't really like, but drink anyway, and long hours watching forests unfurl outside the windows. It was the kind of journey that follows you, even long after you’ve come back home.
 
I definitely tried to be serious, and sensible; to settle down, like I thought you were meant to do as an adult. But I couldn’t quite shake that itch to be moving. And although I didn’t know it then, a little seed of a story had wedged itself in my mind. A story about a train, and the people who travelled in it, and a landscape that was hungry.
 
I kept wandering – to Japan and China and Italy – and that little seed of a story developed as I learned languages, stared out of train windows, marvelling at the world outside, and worried about landscapes that were changing too quickly
 
Eventually, though, the rails brought me back home, to Yorkshire, and the life of a PhD student (yes, I really did do everything possible to avoid the real world for as long as I could). Whilst living in China I’d become obsessed with a collection of seventeenth century Chinese ghost stories, or ‘tales of the strange’. These were stories of beautiful ghosts and fox spirits, of animal demons and underworld bureaucracy and strange vegetation. I loved the way in which the boundaries between the human, the natural, and the supernatural worlds in these stories were blurred and unstable. I loved the fact that you were never sure whether an encounter with a supernatural creature was going to be terrifying or wondrous, or both.*
* In case you’d like to find out more, the author of the tales is Pu Songling (1640-1715), and there’s a great Penguin Classics edition of a selection of the stories, translated by John Minford, and including some lovely woodcut illustrations.
 
And so, whilst I was meant to be thinking Serious Academic Thoughts, what I was actually doing was letting my mind wander… And the little seed that had been planted on the train began to bloom into life, becoming a story about those strange, vivid encounters with people and with places that can only happen when you’re far from home; about the ways that travel can change your mind, and the ways we change the landscapes we move through. It turned out to be the story of Weiwei, Marya and Henry Grey, who all want different things from the train, and from the land it’s travelling through, and who all find out that there’s a price to be paid.
 
It also turned out to be a story about a book – a travel guide – that inspires and challenges, and that sets its readers off on an adventure. I imagined the writer of the series of Cautious Traveller’s Guides to have originally been something like the authors of the real-life Baedeker’s or Bradshaw’s guides, keen that the Victorian traveller might see the most improving sights, stay in the cleanest hotels, and catch their trains on time. I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of the nineteenth century traveller, finding their world opening up as transport and communication improved, in a restless, relentless pursuit of progress. And the fact that Time itself became tied to the railways (with the introduction of Railway Time, beginning in 1840) has always struck me as something that a fantasy writer might have made up.
 
 But what would happen to this confidence in progress and control, I thought, if you tried to write a guide to an impossible place — one which endangers the body and unsettles the mind? What would the writer do, in the face of this impossibility? Would such a book become infamous? Would it stop its readers from risking the dangers, or would it urge them on?
 
Goldsboro readers know the power and promise of a book, so I think I can guess what your answers might be — that the warnings would only serve to make you curious; that, like the characters in the novel, you'd be unable to resist the urge to stare out of the windows at the changing landscape outside, even as the guide warns you not to. I think that you might be the kind of readers who feel the pull of adventure; who see a train and wish you were on it, travelling out of one world and into another. I hope you enjoy the journey, and that it takes you somewhere you weren't expecting.
 
Thank you so much for climbing on board.
 
Sarah Brooks
 
 
* In case you’d like to find out more, the author of the tales is Pu Songling (1640-1715), and there’s a great Penguin Classics edition of a selection of the stories, translated by John Minford, and including some lovely woodcut illustrations.
 
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