Jonathan Stroud’s latest series takes us off down the Thames on a journey of adventure. But this trip is fraught with danger, as Damian Kelleher discovers.
For some, 2020 turned out to be rather a quiet year for obvious reasons. For Jonathan Stroud, bestselling author of the Bartimaeus Sequence and the hugely popular Lockwood & Co, it’s hardly the case. In May 2020 came the announcement that Lockwood and Co, his series of YA novels about a psychic investigation agency, was to be made into a Netflix series by Joe Cornish (of Adam and Joe show fame). This month, the first in a new series of dystopian adventures by Jonathan, The Outlaws Scarlett and Browne, is published.
The excitement levels are rising. The TV incarnation of Lockwood & Co is currently in pre-production – there will be 8 hour-long episodes for Netflix – with Stroud playing a consultancy role on the project. ‘They’re working away – they’re casting it – and I’ve seen the first script which is absolutely brilliant,’ Jonathan tells me over Zoom from his home in Herts. ‘I’m hoping that all the restrictions will fall away by the time we get to the summer so I can swagger on to set and observe it up close. To see one of my books being produced like this is a wonderful thing, and the production company, Complete Fiction, have spent huge amounts of time looking through the books and setting up the writers’ rooms where they work out how they’re going to do it. I can see how much effort and thought has gone into it. I think it’s going to be very special.’
Jonathan admits that he’d rather be a consultant than getting involved in the actual script writing – ‘I’d cause far too much trouble!’ – and anyway, he’s had ‘other fish to fry’, as he describes it.
Rather big fish, too. In recent weeks, social media has been buzzing with anticipation as early reading copies of The Outlaws Scarlett & Browne began to receive rave reviews. Philip Reeve described the book as ‘perfectly paced, beautifully written, bursting with black humour’ and Eoin Colfer called it simply ‘a classic in the making’. With this book, there’s also a strong sense that Stroud is ‘coming home’. The Outlaws Scarlett & Browne was snapped up by Walker Books, the company where Jonathan first started his career in publishing, working as an editor.
‘I know, I’m absolutely thrilled,’ says Stroud. ‘There’s something very wonderful about it. The downside is it shows how ancient I am! When I looked back I realised the last time I set foot in the Walker offices was 1998! It’s all quite a long time ago. But it’s very much the place I started as a writer. Learning my trade on the editorial side has been absolutely crucial; I’ve always been grateful for those years at Walker, learning how to play around with text, and not being afraid of tearing things up, changing things around; it’s a vital part of the trade. And it was Walker who published my first few books which are what got me going. So it’s very satisfying to come back in a slightly more grey-haired version. The building hasn’t changed in some ways; I’m sure it’s still the same carpet.’
As with so many of Stroud’s books, The Outlaws Scarlett & Browne is high-concept fantasy, but this one embraces several different genres. Set in a dystopian future England, our once familiar island is a wilderness awash with water – London is now a lagoon – and there’s the kind of lawlessness and breakdown of society that’s synonymous with the Wild West.
‘It’s about opening your door and looking outwards’
‘There’s been some kind of great cataclysm in the past,’ Jonathan explains, ‘it’s referred to but they don’t dwell on it – and you get this frontier mentality because there’s suddenly a dangerous landscape with dangerous creatures. Lots of little towns which have familiar cosy names are actually fortified now, and the people stay inside – they don’t want to go out. Only people like Scarlett are brave enough to venture out and explore. Really, it’s about opening your door and looking outwards, going out into the world and meeting challenges head on.’
Running throughout the book – in every sense – is the Thames. Here it’s a swollen river that sweeps the narrative along and carries Scarlett and Albert off on a journey packed with heart-stopping escapades. There’s water, water everywhere, and peril above and below the surface.
‘Right from the start I was playing with this idea of a river journey,’ says Jonathan, ‘a river journey down the Thames in some kind of old-future version of Britain – and it was going to be a sort of cut-price version of Huckleberry Finn in the home counties on a much more pathetic scale! But I liked the fact that it was giving me an opportunity to talk about Britishness and British communities. Over the past few years we’ve been buffeted around one way and another by various things and it was nice to do my own version of that.’
As with so many novels, Stroud admits that getting this book right took many twists and turns, and finding his characters was the key to writing his novel. ‘It took me a while to work out what I was doing and getting the characters right. Last year I finally figured out who my two key characters were and how they would come together which is the engine of the whole thing. And once I’d got that there was a sense that I was getting somewhere with it. I was so happy to have created it, and yes it was great fun. And an awful lot of hard work.’
The unlikely pairing of damaged, dangerous Scarlett McCain and naïve, hapless Albert Browne is the novel’s great strength, but these characters only took the spotlight after the author had initially headed off in a different direction.
‘What I didn’t know to begin with was quite who my characters were going to be. It was going to be some slightly jaded middle-aged bloke – I can’t think why I pegged it on that figure! – and for a long time I was writing about this guy who hung out with these kids and it didn’t quite work. So in the end I pushed him overboard and made Scarlett McCain my key figure. As soon as she took centre stage I knew it was the way to go.’
Scarlett makes an outstanding outlaw. She’s practical, competent and great with a gun, but it’s only once she meets innocent and enigmatic Albert that another side to her personality emerges, and sparkling dialogue between the two ensues. For future books in the series, there’s sure to be more of Scarlett’s whip smart sarcasm, and razor-sharp retorts from Albert that are guaranteed to drive her up the wall.
‘I felt I got it right when I realised they were balancing each other out,’ Jonathan explains. ‘Throughout the book she shows Albert how to look after himself and she gives him something he didn’t have, but he does the opposite. It’s nice as a writer to have a couple of characters where you know that one is going to annoy the pants off the other one. That’s a good dynamic.’
Damian Kelleher is a writer and journalist specialising in children’s books.
The Outlaws Scarlett & Browne by Jonathan Stroud is published by Walker Books, 978-1406394818, £7.99 pbk.