Reading Railhead

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Photo: ICS, Swindon

I’ve been on the road with Railhead this week. On Thurdsday morning publicist Phil Perry delivered me to Queen Elizabeth’s Hospital School in Bristol, an impressive Hogwarts-like building on the edge of Clifton (the building is mostly Victorian, but the school has existed since 1590).  Librarian Annette Robbins had arranged for me to talk to the year 8 and 9 pupils in the school’s excellent little theatre.

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QEH, looking sunnier than it did on Thursday…

The only trouble is, doing all those shows with Sarah McIntyre over the past three years has made just talking about books feel rather dull, so rather than just stand there droning on about where I get my ideas from I’m basing my Railhead events around readings from the book – lots and lots of them. And in order to make it a bit more of a performance I have slideshows and movies and music running while I read. That makes Railhead events worryingly dependent on the tech working. Luckily QEH has an unflappable technician named Russ who got it all running without any drama, and it seemed to go down well. There was plenty of time for questions for the audience, too, my favourite of which was, ‘Do you have a literary rival?’  I’ve never really thought about it, but I suppose I should…

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From the Hive Monk video.

From QEH Phil drove me to Sidcot School in Winscombe, where I’d been invited to speak by librarian Wendy Worley. Founded by Quakers in 1699,  Sidcot’s motto is the Quaker admonition to ‘Live Adventurously’, though they probably don’t mean the dubious sort of adventures which the heroes of Railhead dive into. Another beautiful little theatre; equally helpful tech support, and more good questions from the year 8 and 9 pupils.

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With headmaster Iain Kilpatrick and some of the Sidcot pupils.

From Bristol it’s not that far up the rainy M4 to Swindon. Swindon’s librarians, with funding from Swindon Association of Secondary Headteachers, organise a week-long Youth Festival of Literature, during which authors and illustrators do events at various local schools and at the Wyvern Theatre (where Steve Cole will be appearing on Thursday).

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I think I was the first on the bill, bringing my Railhead show to Isambard Community School (and to some pupils from other local schools, who had been bussed in for the morning).

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Once again the staff, pupils and facilities were great.  (Afterwards I did a short video interview with Aaliyah, who is in the centre in the photo above: I’ll post a link here when it’s ready.) It was great to see so many young people engaging with books and reading, and I’m grateful to ICS librarian Stella Rogers and her colleagues for asking me to be part of the festival. And thanks to everyone who listened, and everyone who bought a copy of Railhead. I like to do a little drawing in the books I sign, and with Railhead I started out drawing Hive Monks…


…but the queues were too long this week, so I had to come up with a little doodle of a train instead.

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On the way home I checked Twitter and found that Jake Hayes of the children’s book blog Tygertale has put together a soundtrack for Railhead. (You can find a link to it on Spotify in his Railhead review). He’s correctly identified a lot of the musical influences that went into the book, and added a lot of things I’ve never heard before but which sound just right.  (Although my favourite version of Kraftwerk’s The Robots is now this one…)

I don’t often do school visits these days – the travelling involved that it takes up too much time, and the expenses involved mean that most schools would probably rather book an author who doesn’t need a train from Devon and an overnight stay. But if you want to catch the Railhead show yourself, I’ll be doing it again at the Bristol Old Vic next Saturday (14th November) for anyone who wants to come along.

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Not looking quite so authorial in this one – I think I was being a Hive Monk.

Meanwhile, Sarah McIntyre has also been on tour, doing picture book and pugs events in Skudeneshavn, Norway. You can read about her adventures there and see some of her beautiful portrait drawings on her blog.


Railhead in Bristol



Photo: Sarah McIntyre

I’m already planning my journey to Bristol next week, where I’ve been invited to do a Saturday Stories event at the Old Vic on Saturday, 14th November (10.30 am). I’m a bit bored of just talking about my books, so I’m planning to read some excerpts from Railhead, illustrated with videos and artwork, and interspersed with a few explanations of how it all came about.  And, of course, there will be a chance to get books signed afterwards. If you’re in Bristol, or near Bristol, please come along! Tickets are £4 (plus £1.50 booking fee if you pay by credit card). More details here.

Railhead A – Z: A is for Alternative Forms of Transport


‘What I need,’ I thought, when I’d been struggling on and off for a few years with my space epic (working title, ‘Space Epic’) ‘is an alternative to spaceships…

I’ve always enjoyed space stories. I first started reading science fiction back in 1977, when the original Star Wars film made me realise that outer space could be just as good a backdrop for fantasy as Tolkien-esque worlds of myth and legend. (Actually, I didn’t see Star Wars until 1978, but its bow-wave of publicity hit these shores the previous autumn, and I surfed it all the way to the sci-fi section of my local library.) For the next few years I read nothing much but SF, while watching Blake’s Seven and Star Trek and poring over the space art of illustrators like Chris Foss.


So, almost as soon as I had finished writing my Mortal Engines books, I started toying with the idea of a space epic. I’d enjoyed creating the world of Mortal Engines. Surely the next logical step was to build a whole bunch of worlds, and have new characters travel between them?

As it turned out, building the worlds was the easy bit. It was the travelling between them which was difficult. I’d assumed that it would be fun to write about spaceships, but somehow I just couldn’t make them work. How could I make mine different from all the other spaceships in books and films?

My first idea was to have my story obey the laws of physics. In films, the heroes can often zip between planets which orbit far distant stars. In real life this would take hundreds of thousands of years, because nothing can travel faster than the speed of light and a spacecraft would have to go quite a lot slower. For Luke Skywalker or Captain Kirk this isn’t a problem, because their ships can dip through ‘hyperspace’ or use ‘warp drive’ to make the trip in a few hours, but I set myself the challenge of doing without such things. The planets I had invented were all going to be in one solar system, and although my spaceships were fast and futuristic, they didn’t have any way round the speed-of-light barrier. This made me feel as if I was writing Proper Science Fiction.

Unfortunately, it also made me feel as if I was flogging a dead horse. My characters took months to get anywhere, and as soon as they fired up their engines anybody with a telescope on the neighbouring planets could work out their trajectory and know where they were going. This made storytelling tricky, unless I told the sort of story which is entirely set aboard a spaceship – and that wasn’t the sort of story I had in mind.

So my space epic was abandoned, and I wrote other books instead. But every now and then I would remember it, and try a different approach. It had some characters I liked, some strong scenes. I wanted to finish it. I wondered if perhaps I should let my spaceships nip through hyperspace after all? Or maybe they could fly through wormholes in the space-time continuum (which is the other handy Science Fiction way of getting from A to B without schlepping across a hundred thousand light years of empty space)? But no, what I really needed was a complete alternative to spaceships…

And then I thought, ‘if you had wormholes to travel through, you wouldn’t need spaceships – you could go through them in a train.

Suddenly I knew what the book was going to be about. I imagined a galactic empire linked by an ancient railway, whose trains can pass from world to world in the blink of an eye on tracks which run through mysterious portals. Suddenly the story had an anchor in reality, which I think all good fantasy needs. Almost none of us has travelled on a spaceship, but almost all of us have travelled on a train. And when I get on a train in Devon and get off in Manchester, or get on a train in South London and get off in Richmond or Hampstead, it really does feel like travelling from world to world.

I threw away almost everything from the earlier versions, and settled down to start writing. It even came with a readymade title. It wasn’t called ‘Space Epic’ any more. It was called RAILHEAD…


Photo: Sarah McIntyre

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