- Can you tell us briefly about the storyline and the characters?
The hero of this story is Kate, who’s 11 and a little bored with her humdrum suburban existence. Fortunately, she has a mysterious uncle named Herbert who gives her an unusual birthday present: a giant real-life steam train called The Silver Arrow. The train turns out to be part of a worldwide invisible railway that serves animals who are in trouble, a bit like the Knight Bus in Harry Potter. We should all have mysterious uncles!
- There is a strong environmental message in this book. Was there a specific event that inspired you to write about endangered animals and habitats?
There are a lot of things — really you see something every day. Last year I read about a mission to the bottom of the Mariana Trench, the deepest point in the world’s oceans. The scientists found a plastic supermarket bag down there. You just can’t get away from it.
- What was your process for researching about the animals and environmental issues?
In terms of the environmental issues, I wanted to proceed cautiously. It’s a really politicised issue, so you want to stick to the facts, and zealously vet your sources. In terms of the animals, I just followed my nose. I mean what exactly does happen to you after you’re bitten by an eastern green mamba, one of the most venomous snakes in the world (and also one of the fastest)? What is the connection between Shakespeare and the invasion of North America by European starlings? Animals just get more interesting the closer you look.
- This is your first time writing for younger readers. How was it different from writing for older readers? What was most enjoyable? What was most challenging?
My one rule for writing for kids was never to talk down to them and never lie. Kids don’t know everything grown-ups do, but they’re just as smart, and they’re very, very alert to dishonest and half-truths. They can smell them. They’re also incredibly alert readers—they miss nothing, and they remember everything. They’ll punish you for any mistakes, but they reward you so, so much for everything you do right.
- What’s the best advice you have received that has helped you as a writer?
Sometimes you look at other writers and the amazing things they do and just think, what’s the point? I’ll never be able to do that! Why am I even trying?! When that happens I try to remember something a famous writer once said, which is that it’s OK for a writer not to do everything. You don’t have to punish yourself for things you can’t do. If you have one strength as a writer, just one thing you do well, that’s enough.
- Kate thinks that the animals have every right to hate humans. But “Hate is a human thing”. What do you imagine the planet and humankind will be like in 100 years?
I think the planet will be a lot hotter, and humans beings will be a lot humbler.
- The magic train becomes a loved character by the end of the book. What is the next destination?
There’s a lot of this world that we haven’t explored yet. We know so little about how the invisible railroad works, who the other trains and drivers are. There may well be an invisible submarine service too, and an invisible airline too. There may even be an evil train out there. Meanwhile, Kate and Tom are growing and changing. And there are so many more animals! I want to do wolverines!
- We love that you mention Hogwarts in the book. Which books or movies influenced your imagining of the story?
There are so many! Roald Dahl, E.B. White, Enid Blyton … probably the biggest influence was Hazao Miyazaki’s movies, especially Spirited Away. Once, when I was a professional journalist, I was assigned to interview Miyazaki, and I was so moved I started to cry in the middle of it. It was extremely embarrassing. But I got the impression he was used to it.
- What is your next project and what age group are you writing for?
Like a lot of writers I always have a few different projects going at once. The next one people will see will probably be a movie I wrote called The Map of Tiny Perfect Things, which is about two teenagers who are stuck in a day that repeats over and over again. They talk a lot and fight a lot, and of course, they fall in love. It’s my first movie, and the first thing I’ve written for teenagers, so that was an adventure. We shot it this spring, but we had to stop because of the virus … there’s one more scene left to shoot
- We read that your wife is Australian so maybe you’ll visit us when the borders open! Where would you like to visit in Australia and what animals would you like to see?
I love Australia! My wife is from Sydney—she grew up in Paddington—and we try to go back every year. We always go to the zoo, where I saw my first fishing cat, who became a character in the book. I’m desperate to go to Tasmania, and Byron Bay, I am a major fan of fairy penguins and quokkas. I haven’t seen a thorny devil yet, but I’m looking forward to it.