We’ve clambered on board the 8.04 slow train from Ashbury to Euston today as, well, this is where we arranged to meet the girl on the train…(very apt don’t you think?) and sure enough there she is, sitting and……. staring out the window…. We arrive with cupcakes (naturally) and some rather nice looking frothy coffees from the new fancy coffee shop nearby.
Thanks for meeting up so early! And to have our chat on the train is so perfect given the subject and title of your novel. We we so excited you agreed to chat with us today! Right here’s your coffee, and the lemon cupcake is it? Lovely. Right then, can we ask a few questions now before the ticket man comes?
We believe that your time spent on trains in and around London inspired the novel. What was it in particular?
I moved to London in 1989 – before then I’d lived in Zimbabwe, where commuting by train doesn’t happen. Taking the District Line into college was a totally novel experience for me – those of you familiar with London will know that although it’s an underground line it actually travels over ground quite a bit of the way. It’s also very slow (or was then, in any case) and was constantly afflicted by signalling problems, so I got plenty of time to look into people’s houses as we went past. Perhaps it was because I was new to London, an outsider, perhaps it was because I was feeling a bit lonely having left all my friends behind in Zimbabwe, but I loved looking into those flats and houses, and imagining the lives of people who lived there – lives which I imagined to be far more interesting than my own at the time.
Looking into people’s windows as you go past on the train and imagining their lives is a fun pastime for so many. Why do people find that fascinating do you think?
Glimpses into the lives of others are compelling because they are so fleeting, I think. You never really get a chance to take a good look, you just have this tantalising peek, so your imagination has to fill in the blanks. And imagination makes things richer, darker, sexier, more exciting.
Your writing is very addictive – the action unravels yet gets more tangled. How did you write this? in a linear form or in each voice in turn?
A bit of both. I started out writing a linear narrative, but I found that in order to make the voices distinctive, it was actually better to write them separately. That also helped me keep all the action straight in my head, because the time line jumps about a bit.
Rachel is not your everyday heroine. What did you want to portray through her?
She isn’t, but I think she’s a real and recognisable character. Some people will dislike her, but I don’t: she is damaged and vulnerable, and she makes some terrible decisions, but the fight hasn’t gone out of her. Not completely. And as the book progresses we start to see some of her strength, and a glimpse of the person she once was and could be again. The problems she faces – infertility, depression, alcoholism – are common enough, they are faced by millions of people who will recognise her struggles and I hope will empathise to some degree.
Do you enjoy travelling by train? What don’t you like?
I love train journeys. If there’s a reasonable train alternative to plane travel, I’ll take it. I tend to get lots of work done on trains: they are a great place to write – you can observe your fellow passengers, or the scenery, or you can just disappear into your own head. And you can get up and walk to the bar car for a gin and tonic.
Have you ever been on a train such as The Orient Express? Which train journey would you love to go on?
Sadly, I haven’t been on The Orient Express. I would love to do it one day. I’d also love to take the Blue Train from Pretoria to Cape Town – twenty-seven hours through the heart of South Africa. The Bergen Line in Norway, which is one of the highest tracks in Europe, is another dream journey of mine.
Where is the best place you have visited by train?
When I was eighteen, I took a train from Rabat to Meknes in Morocco. I was by myself, and it was very exciting and a real eye-opener: people were so friendly, they shared food around the carriage, and we chatted away in bad French. It was lovely.
We read your book on the train and got very suspicious of fellow passengers. What has been the strangest or funniest thing you have seen on a train?
I once saw a drunk guy fall onto the tracks in Paris: that wasn’t funny, it was quite frightening actually. Fortunately someone managed to pull him up onto the platform before the next train came along.
By the time we get to the end of our journey, we are still loving the atmosphere and noise of a train carriage. We’ve had cupcakes, coffee and a lovely long chat. Thanks Paula! We’re only pleased as much as created this journey on the exact train in the book, that we didn’t meet any of your ‘characters’! Now that would a literary recreation too far…
Thanks again Paula!