In The Outlaws Scarlett and Browne, his first title since 2017’s The Empty Grave (fifth in his bestselling Lockwood & Co. series), British author Jonathan Stroud kicks off a new upper-middle-grade fantasy/adventure series, in which two unlikely allies navigate dangers outside society’s boundaries in a flooded future England. We corresponded with Stroud about chaos, characterization, and cannibals.
Your prior series deal in alternate histories as well as fantasy, and you are also the author of two children’s histories of ancient Rome. How have your thoughts about history contributed to this series’ vision of “a future, transformed England,” per the publisher’s blurb?
Certain recent events in British history (notably Brexit) have been much on my mind, and contributed to me wondering whether I should do a book that explored the state of the nation. Being a fantasy writer, of course, I almost immediately morphed this into an adventure set in a very different kind of broken Britain, altered by great cataclysms, and with cannibals, giant beasts, and bandits wandering about. But contemporary themes remain. The surviving towns in Scarlett and Browne’s world are intensely inward-looking and parochial, hostile both to outsiders and to change. I think this is more or less a universal problem. My heroes, conversely, are young and open-minded; they aren’t afraid to face up to the challenges of the world around them.
You’ve previously written about an epidemic of ghosts, and this series opener centers epidemics of cannibalistic beings and magisterial Faith Houses alongside flooding conditions. How have real-world events, such as the pandemic and global warming, informed your view of what might afflict a society and its individuals?
I wrote most of The Outlaws Scarlett and Browne during the pandemic, but the actual themes and concepts were already in place. Nevertheless, a sense of no longer being able to take the world for granted certainly infuses the book. It was a strange experience to write about isolated, cut-off communities in a hostile world at a time when I was unable to leave the house. More generally, all my books focus on individuals attempting to cope with the injustices of the societies they live in. We follow their quest to effect permanent change. In that regard, they echo the challenges we all face every day.
Themes of control and chaos seem to resonate throughout your novels, here anchoring plenty of tension and rollicking action. What’s your process for choreographing the layers? Do you storyboard like a director would, or take another approach?
“Control and chaos” is actually a perfect summary of the writing experience for me! I tend to flip between an orderly, rational kind of thought process—which likes to make neat chapter plans and compiles files of notes about the underlying themes—and an improvisational, seat-of-the-pants kind of creativity, which throws itself into the middle of scenes and sees where they end up. It’s the latter side that usually comes first: I write lots of fragments that get me excited, and which conjure images and the beginnings of ideas. Eventually, I have to draw back and try to arrange them consciously into a structure that works. Then I throw myself into battle again. Seesawing between the two sides helps give the result a lot of its energy.
Scarlett and Browne engage in quick, witty banter via distinctive voices. When you’re building out a new series, do you sketch the characters first, or does writing their dialogue inform their characterization?
Almost always it’s the dialogue that comes first. It’s a single scene—an interaction between two characters. Out of this, gradually, come their personalities, their objectives, their fears and desires, their stories... and finally the world they inhabit. I build steadily outwards from this core. So the Bartimaeus books began with an argument between a boy magician and an irate djinni. The Lockwood & Co. series started with a conversation between a boy and girl standing on a doorstep in modern London, preparing to go in and tackle a ghost. Scarlett and Browne were originally just two bickering outcasts on a raft floating down the Thames. I had no idea in those moments who any of these characters actually were, or what their story was—but I liked the spark of their conversation, and I wanted to learn more.
Do you resonate more with Scarlett, or with Browne?
A tricky one! I’d like to be more like Scarlett McCain—i.e., fearless, indomitable, hugely capable, able to take out her enemies in a variety of inventive ways—but I suspect I’m closer to Albert Browne. There are good things about this: he’s hopeful, optimistic, curious and kind. Unfortunately, he’s also wildly impractical, and thus a sitting duck for cannibals, sinister operatives, and giant otters. Yep, this would definitely be me.
Netflix is currently working on an adaptation of Lockwood & Co. Are you involved in the project, and if so, how? What’s it like to see your work translated into a different medium?
I’m acting as a consultant on the project, and so I’ve been privileged to get a few glimpses into what is going on. And it’s hugely exciting—the effort that’s being put in to faithfully translate my world into a new form is extraordinary. The talent involved is incredible, and I can’t wait to share the end result.
And what’s next for you?
Right now, I’m busy writing the sequel to The Outlaws Scarlett and Browne. In fact, I should have handed it in last week, and I sense a posse of cudgel-carrying editors gathering outside my house. Perhaps I’d better get back to my scribbling...
The Outlaws Scarlett and Browne by Jonathan Stroud. Knopf, $17.99 Oct. 5 ISBN 978-0-593-43036-1