Welcome to Justin’s Debut-Dance Ball, a virtual party to celebrate SCBWI-BI members’ debut publications. This month, Justin welcomes middle grade author, P.G. Bell (Peter) to his ball, and invites him to take a turn on the dance floor, whilst he asks the questions only a newly-published writer can answer! 

Peter, this is your party and you get to choose the tunes. How about some music to get us dancing? (Although if you don’t choose the Locomotion, I’ll be very disappointed.)

I’m going to embarrass myself terribly by confessing that I don’t really listen to music these days, bar the occasional film or TV score. Somewhere in the last 20 years or so I just fell out of the habit. It’s probably for the best though, as I dance like John Sergeant on Strictly.
(Sounds like the band’s decided on some Locomotion anyway…80s style with Kylie.)

Many congratulations on your debut novel The Train to Impossible Places. How does it feel to be a first-time author?

It feels fantastic, thanks! Bewildering, a bit frantic, but fantastic. It’s been my dream to be a professional author for almost 30 years now, so to finally be here is pleasantly surreal.

How did you celebrate landing your publishing deal?

By getting started on my edits! My editors sent me their notes within a few days of the contracts being signed, and I was very excited to make a start. My wife and I may have opened a bottle of something bubbly though.

Tell us about your launch party. Was it more British Rail buffet or Orient Express dining car?

I was a bit greedy and had two. My UK publisher, Usborne, organised the official one in Hatchards book shop in Saint Pancras. It’s a beautiful shop, and the Usborne team decorated the place with parcels and bananas (which makes sense if you’ve read the book). It was a very proud moment, and it was great to celebrate the launch with my editors and the rest of the team and introduce them to my family. Two days later, my wife and I held another launch party for our extended family and friends at an arts centre in Cardiff, which was a lovely experience. It was very humbling, but hugely encouraging, to see so many familiar faces there to support me and the book.

The Train to Impossible Places by P.G. Bell, illustrated by Flavia Sorrentino. Usborne 2018

Ten seconds to describe The Train to Impossible Places. Go! 

Suzy, an eleven-year-old rationalist, stows away aboard a high-speed postal train bound for magical realms, and ends up with the fate of several worlds in her hands.

As if launching on one continent wasn’t enough, your book is being published simultaneously in the USA. Did your American publisher require any changes to be made? 

They’ve been great from start to finish. The book is actually co-edited by Rebecca Hill and Becky Walker at Usborne (UK) and Anna Poon at Feiwel & Friends (US), who are on the exact same wavelength. They provided me with joint notes, and the only divergence was to Americanise a few phrases here and there.

Do you have any plans to promote your books across the Atlantic?

I’d love to do a US tour, but there are no plans in that direction at the moment.

In Suzy Smith – your main character – you have created a science-loving heroine. What prompted you to write a character with a scientific interest?

I knew a lot of the adventure was going to be quite anarchic and bizarre, so I wanted a main character who would push back against that. That’s why it made sense to make Suzy a rationalist – most of us would be overjoyed to learn that magic exists, but Suzy is positively offended by it. But she’s also curious, and that’s what drives her to join the Express and its crew.

I love hearing about the weird and wonderful (and often downright appalling) jobs people have found themselves doing. On P.G. Bell’s CV I notice “lifeguard” and “roller coaster operator”! In what ways have these – or any jobs – found their way into your stories? 

Well the roller coaster operation probably surfaces in the more high-speed passages, when the train is racing up and down towers, and through tunnels. But every job I’ve ever had has taught me something about myself or other people, and a lot of that experience is peppered throughout the story. But mostly they taught me that I’m no good at doing a proper job, so I’d better stick to writing.

The Train to Impossible Places by P.G. Bell, illustrated by Matt Sharrack. Feiwel & Friends USA 2018
The covers for both editions are wonderful. Can you tell us a bit about them?

They’re gorgeous, aren’t they? The UK cover art is by Flavia Sorrentino, who has a wonderful expressionist style. It’s quite classically charming, whilst being wonderfully off kilter. And the US cover is by Matt Sharrack, who’s a former Dreamworks animator. He’s got a simpler, cleaner style, but he crams in loads of details. They’re both very different takes on the story, but I love them both and I feel very spoiled.

Usborne invited you along to the London Book Fair to help launch the book. What was that experience like? 

A bit intimidating! It was the first time I’d been called upon to stand in front of a crowd and talk about myself and the book, and I had no idea just how massive the book fair was until I walked into the main hall. It’s vast! I was there to introduce myself and the book, before my editors unveiled the final cover (which ended up not being the final cover, but that’s how these things go). I can’t even remember what I said, but there was such a warm and encouraging atmosphere to the whole thing, that my fears quickly vanished. It was a great thrill, and a huge privilege.

When I was a kid, I read every Doctor Who novel my local library could supply me with; as a fellow Whovian I’m guessing you did the same? If you were asked to write a Doctor Who story, what kind of challenge would you set the Doctor? 

Yes! My local library used to stock the Target novelisations of the old Doctor Who serials, and I read every single one I could get my hands on. In those days, it was the only way to discover these old stories from the ‘60s and ‘70s. And they were such good books! Pulpy and punchy and quick to read. If they ever offer me a writing gig on the show, I’d love to pit the Doctor against my favourite monsters, the Cybermen. They’re scarier than the Daleks because, when they’re done right (which isn’t often), they’re people, like you and me, and they think they’re the good guys. They’re trying to help us by making us like them, and that’s much scarier than just blasting people with guns.

And now, as the music fades, there’s just time to for you to tell us what we can expect next from P.G. Bell, the author.

I’m hard at work on another adventure for Suzy and the crew of the Impossible Postal Express. The city of Trollville is threatened with destruction, and Suzy has to race against time to avert disaster. It’s been great fun to write, and it’s due out in Autumn 2019.

Thank you, Peter for joining me at the Debut-Dance Ball. Just as well you took the lead during the Chattanooga Choo Choo…it would have been a train wreck of a dance otherwise!

The Train to impossible Places is out now, published by Usborne in the UK and Feiwel & Friends (US Macmillan) in America. 

Photo of P.G. Bell by Tiffany Mumford 2018

P.G. Bell is a native of south Wales, where he was raised on a diet of Greek mythology, ghost stories and Doctor Who. He's had all sorts of jobs over the years, from lifeguard to roller coaster operator, but all he's every really wanted to do is write stories for a living. He lives in Wales with his wife Anna and their two children. The Train To Impossible Places is his first book. 

Follow Peter:
Twitter: @petergbell 
Facebook: www.facebook.com/pgbellwriter 
Website: www.pgbellwriter.com 

Justin Nevil Davies

Justin Nevil Davies leads two distinct lives. In one, he flies around the world as cabin crew. In the other, he writes middle-grade novels with the aim to make kids laugh. Sometimes, his lives converge. Justin is co-coordinator of SCBWI South East Scotland. 

Follow Justin: 
Twitter: @flyingscribbler 
Instagram: flyingscribbler 
Blog: The Flying Scribbler 

Louisa Glancy is a features editor for Words & Pictures
Twitter: @Louisa Glancy 

Feature Illustration by Louisa Glancy

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