The Time Travel Book for People Who Don’t Like Time Travel Books

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Well, no wonder Passenger debuts at #1 on The New York Times bestseller list today. It has just about everything you could possibly ask for in a young adult novel, and then some. As the glowing Times review says, it “succeeds as an adventure, as a romance and as a comparison of cultural norms. This is the sort of book that gracefully walks the fine line between excitement and instruction.” Yes, please.

This swashbuckling page-turner also has time travel. To explain, here’s a quick summary from BookPage

Seventeen-year-old violin prodigy Etta Spencer . . . finds her mother, Rose, hard to connect with at best. But after a sudden, supremely shocking series of events, Etta realizes there’s a lot more going on behind her mother’s stoic demeanor than she could’ve imagined. Rose is a time traveler, which Etta learns after discovering she’s a time traveler, too.

Following said shocking events, Etta wakes up on a wooden ship, surrounded by oddly dressed men with old-fashioned accents. One of them is a handsome, highly capable young seaman and freed slave named Nicholas Carter. Upon deducing that no, this isn’t weird performance art, and she’s definitely not in present-day New York City anymore, Etta struggles to accept her new reality—which is occurring in the 1700s on the Atlantic Ocean.

Passenger is a great time travel book for people who think they don’t like time travel books because unlike many time travel books, which are often firmly rooted in the science fiction tradition and oriented toward the future, Passenger takes a journey to the past,” says Stephanie Appell, our manager of books for young readers. “As someone who loves historical fiction and often wonders what life ‘on the ground’ would be like in different historical eras, I loved it.”

Parnassus is thrilled to welcome Bracken to the store this Thursday, January 21, at 6:30 p.m. and delighted to ship out boxes with signed first editions of Passenger to all ParnassusNext subscribers. In the meantime, Stephanie had a few questions for the author:

You really nailed the sensory details of your settings, not to mention the way every character’s behavior in each setting was influenced by that time and place. We are who we are in part because of when and where we have come from. What kind of research did you do to get these details right? 

aboutalex-240x300AB: Wow, thank you so much! I was lucky enough to study History as one of two majors at William & Mary, and the program there is absolutely incredible. I was taught to look past rote details like dates and battles and look the years through the eyes of individuals in all walks of society. From there, it’s really interesting to look at the way all of these facets of life like law, religion, social norms, etc. weave together to influence people and drive the larger world. (I think this is also the reason I gravitate toward reading and telling character-driven stories!) Everyone is a product of their own time but has also inherited beliefs and practices from earlier generations. I’m endlessly fascinated by that shifting dynamic.

Having that background in history definitely made it easier to set up scenes like the dinner on The Challenger, in which you’re seeing how each of their upbringings and worldviews are colliding. For instance, I’ve always really loved the super passive-aggressive “Sir”s and insults masquerading as compliments you find in the 18th century that allow people stay within the boundaries of polite society but are utterly devastating when delivered. Obviously we’re still guilty of backhanded compliments in the 21st century, but Etta is still startled and amused by the intensity of the charade.

There really was a ton of research to be done, not just in revisiting a lot of the old journals and letters and newspapers I’d previously read in school, but basic things, like the types of shoes they’d be wearing, what they’d be eating, words and phrases that were in use during those periods, typical plants and animals found in the wild and domesticated — you name it. I also paid special attention to the statuses of, and prejudices against, black men and women, as well as women overall, in each period Etta and Nicholas traveled to in order to ensure their experiences there felt as authentic as possible.

YA writers often describe themselves as being either “pantsers” or “plotters” — that is, they either write by the seat of their pants, or they like to outline and know where they’re going before they start to write. How did you manage the intricate web of who-knows-what-when that gradually and effortlessly unspools for Passenger’s readers?

Alexandra-Bracken-PassengerAB: I finally learned the semi-official term for what I am: a headlights plotter. That means I know where the story begins, the major plot turning points, and how the story ends, but I like to give myself a lot of room to explore and play as I’m writing, and only outline a scene right before I work on it. (This is usually the night before — if I’m not reading in bed, I’m plotting!). I’ve found that I get bored while writing if I know absolutely everything that happens. Besides, I almost always change my mind on some point or another when I do sit down to write—something tenser or funnier or even more interesting will usually pop up if I give myself some freedom.

With Passenger, though, I definitely had to be more of a plotter than I usually am. There are so many moving pieces in this bad boy that I had to create a day-by-day calendar of what was happening in the plot, and double check the time zones for all of the locations they visit. (I think Nicholas and Etta have a 30-hour day at one point because of tricky time zone matters!) I also ended up creating family trees for the different time traveler families and start a kind of “Time Traveler’s Guide to Staying Alive in Perilous Times” encyclopedia to make sure I was keeping all of the rules of their world straight.

Etta and Nicholas’s romance is, if you’ll forgive my saying so, deliciously tragic. Were you ever tempted to be a little easier on them? On the readers rooting for them?

AB: And where would the fun in that be?! (Just kidding… sort of!)

Every now and then I just felt so sorry for them — mostly because they were making it so much harder on themselves than they needed to. One thing I really love about them is that they’re both very determined, very forward-thinking souls. The physical attraction is there right from the start (we’ve all been there!) but they really come to like and respect each other’s minds and hearts, too. Unfortunately, there are a number of obstacles in their way they have to get past. Aside from the tyrant of travelers being after them and likely never giving them a day of peace, they both have goals and dreams about their futures that are deeply rooted within their own time periods. And, even more critically, there are anti-miscegenation laws in Nicholas’s time that would criminalize interracial relations.

So there is a lot of back and forth between them about the “risk” of trying to live in one period or another… or if it’s worth it to keep traveling together and give up those aforementioned dreams (or allow them to take a different form).

And finally: what’s your favorite thing about independent bookstores?

AB: The people, of course! The employees are absolutely invaluable. I’m sure I’m not the only one who gets completely overwhelmed by choices — sometimes walking through the doors of a bookstore can leave me paralyzed by options. Enter indie bookstore heroes, who not only can help me find what I’m looking for (and didn’t realize I was looking for), but somehow remember all of this and keep it in mind when making future recommendations. There’s something so powerful about the right reader finding the right book at the right time, and booksellers are absolute wizards at this — no computer algorithm can compare. And they are SO well-read and knowledgeable, it’s crazy. Best of all, they care sincerely about what they do. I’ve seen firsthand the way that indies can support and serve their communities. They serve as the beating hearts of the main streets lucky enough to have them.

Thank you!

Want to hear more from Alexandra Bracken? Subscribe to ParnassusNext, and you’ll receive bonus content from this interview in an exclusive email. And yes — there’s still time to get January’s box!

Alexandra Bracken presents


Wait a second . . . [counts] This makes THREE out of the last five #ParnassusNext selections that have become instant #1 New York Times bestsellers. Congratulations, authors!

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Also by Alexandra Bracken:

The Darkest Minds

Never Fade

Through the Dark (a Darkest Minds Collection)

In the Afterlight (a Darkest Minds Novel): A Darkest Minds Novel

Star Wars: A New Hope the Princess, the Scoundrel, and the Farm Boy