Guest post by Jonathon Stroud
It’s always odd holding a new book in your hands, and looking back at the process by which you came to write it. Very rarely is it a simple, clearly identifiable journey – a broad path curving back neatly to the original idea. More often it resembles an archaeological dig – a series of layers built on layers, drafts on drafts, so that thinking back to the beginning is a task of excavation. If the origins of The Outlaws Scarlett and Browne feel particularly distant, this is probably due to recent events. Time’s done strange things to us all in the last year or so, and the first notes I made for this story, way back in January 2018, feel like missives from another age.
The story itself has looped and switch-backed since then, but some elements have remained constant. An interest in Britishness, for a start. From the outset I wanted to feature a raft journey along the Thames, following it from source to outflow across the heartland of England. I was originally keen on creating a kind of satirical, cut-price Brit alternative to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, where instead of the epic sweep of the Mississippi, you’d have the Home Counties floating by.
But these Home Counties would be a lot less cosy than the ones we know. I had already decided that my tale would be an adventure set in the future. Here, unspecified cataclysms have altered the world. The Thames landscape is stranger and more perilous. There are savage beasts in it too: rapid evolution has taken place, and even the water-rats, toads, and otters beloved of Kenneth Grahame are no longer so small or benevolent. There is a frontier mentality reminiscent of the American West; the human population mostly cowers inside the Surviving Towns, clinging to an outmoded conception of Englishness. Only a few rebellious bandits and outlaws reject this inward-looking existence and venture out beyond the walls.
So far, so good. But who would these heroes be? My original idea – who knows why it appealed to me? – was for a jaded middle-aged man to be the central figure; he would then be joined on the raft by a boy or girl who acted as a spiky counterpoint to his cynicism. Well, it took me a full year of writing to figure out what should have been obvious from the off. It wasn’t going to work.
Characters are key for me: if you can get them to sing together, the rest will surely follow. And, funnily enough, the middle-aged bloke didn’t quite cut it. I tried pairing him with a girl, then with a boy and an infant… Nope, no good. The scenes just didn’t ignite. I needed a radical solution, and a switch of age and gender was the answer. As soon as gruff, boring old Sam Levitt disappeared, to be replaced by swashbuckling young Scarlett McCain, other things began to fall into place. Scarlett was tough, dangerous and formidable – and that made her the perfect counterpoint to my other main character, the naïve and hapless Albert Browne. Their relationship thus became infused with comic energy, and I began to get some narrative momentum.
Lots of elements have been added to the mix since then: gunfights, chases, jokes and cannibals – everything that a good adventure story requires. And quieter themes, too. When my two heroes finally reach the raft, they share it with an old man and a very young child, who are both misfits and outsiders like they are. Their time together thus becomes a microcosm of the family life that Scarlett and Albert have always lacked, and which they don’t yet realise that they need. So much has changed during the writing of The Outlaws Scarlett and Browne – which is appropriate, because change is one of the things the book is about. The final version of our heroes’ trip downriver shows an ambiguously altered Britain – wild and ruined, but also full of richness and vitality. It’s not necessarily a dystopia. It’s just different to what’s gone before. There are many dangers in it – even terrors – but there’s potential too. Inwardness is never the answer. Scarlett and Albert know this. They look up and outwards, tighten their belts, adjust their backpacks, and stride forth to meet the world.
The Outlaws Scarlett and Browne is published by Walker Books, and available to purchase from all good booksellers.
Any opinions expressed may not truly reflect those of the FCBG