Jonathan Stroud wrote his first novel – Buried Fire – while working as an editor at Walker Books. He is the author of two internationally bestselling series: the award-winning Bartimaeus sequence, which has been published in 36 languages worldwide, and the critically acclaimed Lockwood & Co, which is currently being adapted by Netflix. His other novels include The Leap, The Last Siege and Heroes of the Valley. Jonathan lives in Hertfordshire with his wife and three children.
The Outlaws Scarlett & Browne (Walker Books)
Author Jonathan Stroud introduces The Outlaws Scarlett & Browne, a thrilling post-apocalyptic series in which bandits Scarlett and Browne find themselves joining forces - and dangerous adventures follow.
Q&A with Jonathan Stroud
1. You've got some big series behind you (Lockwood & Co, Bartimaeus), and now you're writing The Outlaws Scarlett & Browne series. What marks out an idea as one you want to pursue?
It has to be something that makes me want to uncover the story, in precisely the same way that a reader will (hopefully) want to discover it later.
To begin with, all my projects are just half-formed ideas or images. With Outlaws, I had a glimpse of two ragged characters floating on a raft down the Thames, in a strange future version of Britain… It intrigued me, as did the idea of a story set in the wild outdoors (my previous series, Lockwood & Co, took place almost entirely in London). This was enough to start me writing, and the fragments I produced were sufficiently interesting to keep me scribbling.
2. Can you tell us a little about The Outlaws Scarlett & Browne?
The Outlaws Scarlett and Browne is set in a future Britain where a large but unspecified catastrophe (the 'Cataclysm') has made big changes to the landscape and the creatures living in it. The remaining humans mostly hunker down in small, fortified 'Surviving Towns', keeping the wilderness at bay. They cling to old, rigid ideas of community - and anyone who doesn't conform, or who is physically 'different', is thrown out (or worse).
Scarlett McCain is one such outlaw, who specialises in robbing banks. She's young and skilful and solitary by choice - until she meets a hapless boy named Albert Browne. Scarlett agrees to help him across the wilds - which is a mistake. There's more to him than meets the eye, and soon Scarlett's life becomes dangerously complicated…
3. What inspired this series, and the idea of a pair of 'cowboys' in the wild badlands of a post-apocalyptic UK?
I always liked the idea of a 'British Western' - it seemed to hold lots of possibilities. Like many of us, I've been thinking a great deal over the last few years about what it means to be British. We live in a period where many preconceived notions are changing, being challenged, or are under threat.
My story is about a world where everything has changed, and the characters have to decide how they respond to that. Most people remain in the Surviving Towns, looking inwards - they're not keen on addressing the wider world outside. But my heroes do precisely that - they go out beyond the frontiers and face the dangers - and opportunities - waiting there.
4. How did you go about planning and building this world?
From the beginning I was keen on basing the book around a journey down the River Thames, following it from source to sea. That gave me an immediate cross-section of the world to explore. I also rather liked the idea of a downmarket UK version of Huck Finn, with the mighty Mississippi replaced by the more modest Thames.
In my version of the British landscape, the genteel countryside would have become much more wild and dangerous, with sinisterly evolved beasts and far fewer settlements. London would be replaced by a lagoon, with ancient, eroded skyscrapers sticking out of the shallow sea. With these elements in place, I was able to extend the world as I wrote, a bit like stringing beads onto a necklace.
5. Did you do much research into how the UK might be affected by climate change - and were you scared by it? Or did you just make it up?
I think it's difficult not to be scared by climate change. The only bit of actual research I did was when I was drawing maps of my future Britain to go into the book. I wondered how the coast would look if the seas had risen by certain amounts, and I found a useful website that showed all sorts of horrible projections.
Interestingly the east coast was radically altered, and the west coast hardly at all. I went for a rise of 5 metres in the end, with the crucial and fantastical difference in my version that in place of Greater London, there's an enormous oval lagoon.
6. How did Scarlett and Albert Browne's characters develop? When did you know you had their 'voice'?
The strange thing here is that in the project's infancy, Scarlett was a middle-aged man. He had her world-weariness, her capability, her set of unusual fighting skills. He got really irritated by the kid (or kids - it varied in early drafts) that he picked up in a wrecked bus in the Wilds, having furious arguments with them as they travelled on. And it didn't quite work.
Then one day I binned the bloke and replaced him with Scarlett, and suddenly the scenes came alive. And with Scarlett suddenly firing on all cylinders, Albert took proper shape - his naivety and (seeming) haplessness contrasting very nicely with her grumpy cynicism.
7. Albert Browne has a special skill, but not an enviable one. When did you decide he should be 'gifted' with this?
I knew from early on that one of my characters would have some kind of 'gift', and that it would be deeply problematic for them. For a long while I wasn't quite sure how to make it work, but eventually I realised that it would sit in sharp contrast to Scarlett's skills.
She is extremely practical, physically skilled and in control of herself - this makes her formidable and dangerous. Albert is just as dangerous as Scarlett, but he is physically inept, impractical and seemingly helpless; crucially, as far as his 'gift' is concerned, he entirely lacks control. They are opposites in many ways, and each complete something in each other.
Albert's gifts don't seem to make him very happy, so I don't think I'd want them. I wouldn't mind having Scarlett's virtuoso butt-kicking skills, though: that would come in useful on an almost daily basis.
8. There are some real horrors in the story - who were your favourite villains / creatures to create, and why?
I very much enjoyed creating the Tainted, cannibal humans who infest the outer regions of the Home Counties wilderness. They remain offstage for most of the book, but references to them transmit a sense of slowly pervading dread. Even when they finally show up, they are not actually seen properly: I try to leave as much as possible to the reader's imagination.
The main scene involving them features Scarlett and Albert losing something very important to them, and having to retrieve it… It's full of steadily mounting suspense and terror, and I really enjoyed writing it.
9. How long might you survive if you found yourself, post apocalypse, in a world like this? What would get you first?
I'd be eaten so fast it would be unbelievable. My practical skills are inherited from my maternal grandfather, who famously once put up a wall cupboard upside-down, and who built a sturdy garden wall with about 90% of the bricks underground, and only about 2 courses actually visible. So I'd never manage to make a raft or an animal trap and, while fretting about this, I'd be quickly snaffled by a passing wolf.
10. How many books are you planning? What's coming up next for the pair?
My current plan is that there will be three books about Albert and Scarlett. I'm working on the second in the series now. Outlaws was really about my two heroes running away from things. Now that they've discovered each other, the second book will see them taking advantage of their apparent freedom, and doing lots of swashbuckling things.
But, as they'll discover, they're still tied to their respective pasts, and we'll find out a lot more about Scarlett's history here. Plus there'll be plenty more gunfights, chases, brushes with cannibals, and other life-affirming things.
11. Where was most of The Outlaws written, and what impact did the pandemic have on your writing and writing schedule?
I wrote it almost entirely in my office, which occupies a spare bedroom at home. There's a direct correlation between the expansiveness of the landscapes I write about, and the mundanity of my actual surroundings.
I'm fortunate that the essential mechanics of my daily life and work weren't hugely affected by the pandemic. I was able to keep writing on a daily basis, with the biggest disruption being the need to home-school my 5-year-old.
More generally, though, I think that the restrictions and constrictions we live under has a definite debilitating effect on all of us: everything seems to be taking longer to get done.
12. Once we can travel anywhere, where will your top destination be?
I hanker after high, wild places, particularly the fells of the Lake District. When restrictions lift, it won't be too long before you find me at the top of Crinkle Crags at the end of the Langdale valley.
13. What are your favourite escapes when you're not writing, and we're not in a pandemic?
I get pulled in two directions, to the country and the towns. Sometimes I just want to walk in the aforementioned hills and mountains, or along the expansive Norfolk beaches. A trip to the countryside always does the soul good and rejuvenates the mind.
But I also like losing myself in the teeming byways of London. This is a different kind of exploration, and equally refreshing. Like all good journeys, being immersed in a city does a great job of replenishing the imagination.
Thank you for joining us on ReadingZone!