While there have been stories about people traveling back in time for love, usually the connection is a specific person or the traveler’s home or, uh, a mailbox. But in the following email interview, writer Andrea Faye Christians explains why her romantic historical fantasy novel Suspension (paperback) is more about a bridge to the past.
To start, what is Suspension about, and when and where does it take place?
Suspension is set in the present day, and is essentially a time travel fantasy tale that combines historical fact with fiction. The story hinges on Carla Thompson, 31, who is borderline depressed. Still hurting over her failed marriage, and having recently returned from a hiatus in France, Carla resides in a shabby flat in Bristol, England, and has no social life. One evening, she falls asleep after drinking too much wine and smoking a joint. Initially, she fails to realize that the out-of-body experience that follows is not a dream and that she has died and is now trapped between worlds. Whilst struggling to come to terms with her state, Carla witnesses her own autopsy and later attends her own funeral. She finds herself irresistibly drawn to the majestic Clifton Suspension Bridge, where she finds relief from the loneliness of her existence as she watches the world go by. Here she encounters a distraught young Sicilian woman. The tragedy that has befallen Sabrina soon becomes apparent and launches Carla’s time travel adventures and leads to the discovery that she is a predestined Dream Walker. This revelation comes from Isambard Brunel, the 18th century legendary civil engineer who designed the bridge, and now acts as guardian to its secrets. Initially reluctant to take on her role, Carla encounters an eclectic mix of characters including a recalcitrant Ernest Hemingway and a vivacious Jamaican medium, Matilda. Carla slowly starts to understand the importance of her role in helping others while she exorcises her own demons. When she finally finds true love, she is forced to make an impossible choice.
Where did you get the idea for this story? What inspired it?
In 2015, I was based in Malta, a small island in the Southern Mediterranean, and Bristol Airport in England was the most convenient airport to visit my parents in Swansea, South Wales. Part of the route home meant passing directly under the Clifton Suspension Bridge, which has always impressed me as an incredible engineering accomplishment for the era in which it was built. There is a darker side to the iconic bridge’s history, though, as it is also a popular suicide spot. En route home one day, I gazed up at it, and a story started to come together about it being not only a bridge in the physical sense but also a portal that allowed people to pass back and forth in time. When I started researching about the man who built it, Isambard Brunel, I discovered that he had overcome incredible odds and was not only a genius, but was also charismatic and something of a rock star / celebrity in his time. Sadly, he never lived to see it completed, but during his career Brunel built many iconic structures including London’s Paddington Station and the Thames Tunnel. I realized that combining this enigmatic character with historical events with some fantasy woven in would make for a great story.
So is there a reason why Carla is 31-years-old as opposed to 16 or 46 or some other age?
Yes, there is. I initially envisioned her as being in her mid-thirties because I wanted her to have lived and loved. I originally put her at 34 years old, but as she had met her ex-husband at university, I decided to make her slightly younger to make the timescales fit better.
I also feel that this is an important time in life when many of us step back to take stock of where we are. Carla’s life had not turned out the way she’d hoped, but I also wanted her to be young enough to evolve and develop, because that is an important aspect of the story. She feels she is anything but extraordinary — but of course she is.
And in a similar vein, is there a reason she goes back to the 18th century as opposed to the 19th or 16th or, conversely, the 25th?
Aspects of Suspension tie in with historical fact. One of Brunel’s most famous accomplishments was the building of the Thames Tunnel, which linked both sides of London and was heralded as the world’s first underground shopping mall. It was mostly dug by Irish navvies, who worked under appalling conditions as the Thames was terribly polluted at the time. Many workers died of diseases such as cholera. The tunnel also flooded during construction, and several laborers drowned. Young Brunel was literally plucked from death by his right-hand man. I used this event to suggest that Carla and Brunel are linked somehow. In the story, it is Carla who saves him by pushing him up from the depths of the murky water so that he could be hauled to safety. The flood happened in 1828 and construction of the bridge was postponed for several years.
Suspension sounds like it’s a romantic historical fantasy story. Is that how you’d describe it?
That pretty much sums it up although it is also a thriller with several unexpected twists and turns in the story.
While Suspension is your first novel, I’m guessing it’s not the first thing you’ve written.
You’re right there. Suspension is not the first thing I’ve written, but it’s the first I’ve finished.
Are there any writers or specific stories that had a particularly big influence on Suspension but not on anything else you’ve written? Because it reminds me a bit of both Octavia Butler’s Kindred and Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife.
During the writing process I deliberately stayed away from reading other people’s work, as I wanted it to be as authentic as it could be. This may sound bizarre, but I’d never read sci-fi or time travel fantasy books before I wrote Suspension. Though I did enjoy Anthony Minghell’s 1991 film Truly Madly Deeply and the 2009 film The Lovely Bones based on Alice Sebold’s book.
There’s a lot of me in in the story — bits and pieces that happened in my life or the lives of friends. For example, the out-of-body experience at the start was recounted to me by a friend, who had gone in for minor surgery. The landlord, Frank, was based on my lovely former landlord Joe, and the flat is like one I once lived in. When it comes to the characters, I take facets of people and weave them together. I guess that a lot of writers do that, but others are totally fictional such as Bill Lamps, the taxi driver. But he feels so real to me that I’ve taken him into another novel I’m working on called Chemo Club.
How about such non-literary influences as movies, TV shows, or games? You already mentioned Truly Madly Deeply and The Lovely Bones…
None that I can think of directly, though I did enjoy Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Charmed back in the day.
Now, Suspension is the first book of your Time Bender series, with a second one already in the works. What can you tell us about this series?
At this point, I think I need to explain what a Time Bender is. In reality, we are all Time Binders. It’s what sets us apart from animals, and why we are not still living in caves. That’s because, unlike animals, humans learn from each other. Take the Egyptians, who gave us paper, astrology, medicine, ink, and a host of other things, or the Romans, who gave us roads, running water, drainage, etc. That is Time Binding.
Without giving too much away, in the sequel I’m taking that concept and spinning it to a point where someone is travelling through time and trying to use events for their advantage. Our man is a seriously bad baddie, and again he’s based on a real character.
The second book is a real rollercoaster ride that takes Carla back to 17th century England and then to medieval Germany and then throws her into the future. That novel has required a lot of research but is proving exciting to write.
As for a third book, I’m not one of those meticulous planners but I know I have plenty of material for another story. I’d like to see the response from readers before I make that decision.
But each book will be a stand-alone story. While the end of the first story does hook straight into the second, they can also be read out of sequence.
Do you know yet what the second book will be called or when it will be out?
The title hasn’t been finalized yet as I’m still mulling around ideas in my head. We are aiming for a Spring 2023 release.
Finally, I asked earlier if Suspension had been influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games. But do you think Suspension could work as a movie, show, or game?
I’m so glad you asked me this question! When Suspension came into my head, I initially envisioned it as a script for a six-part mini-series or a film. At the time the BBC was doing lot of mini-series, and it seemed like a good location choice. There was only one problem. Despite having worked as a freelance features writer for more than 20 years, I didn’t have the faintest idea how to write a script. So, I wrote it as a novel instead. It is very cinematic – especially the ending of the second book.
And if the BBC took you up on this idea, who would you want them to cast as Carla and the rest of the cast?
That’s a tough one to answer. There are so many great actors and actresses out there. The main protagonist is red haired and has one blue and one brown eye (that’s something that runs in my family) but obviously hair and makeup could easily resolve that. Carla is an interesting character: feisty and fiery but also vulnerable and there are many great actresses who could play her.
As for Brunel, I was impressed with Colin Farrell’s interpretation of Penguin in The Batman. He would be my first choice. There’s Ernest Hemingway, too, to consider. Not an easy one to portray. I think a great director is also hugely important. I like films that are quirky and a little off beat. Martin Scorsese, I hope you are reading this.