A Train to the Centre of the Earth and An Chicken Intent on World Dictatorship

Angela Kecojevic and Ray Star discuss their climate fiction YA debuts. Train is a YA Sci-fi debut exploring the devastating effects of a ‘snowball’ planet, and a group of passengers who must board a hi-tech train into the earth to fix it. Nerys is on a journey of self-preservation and survival in the harshest of conditions, she and her peers have lost so much yet still have the desire to make the world great again, even with so many odds stacked against them.

Earthlings (The Beginning) is book one of a YA fantasy trilogy highlighting the realities of speciesism with a unique twist; humanity is at the bottom of the food chain, and an unexpected species rules the land. The protagonist Peridot, upon discovering she is magick-born, must learn how to control her powers, and ultimately decide whether to use them to help save humanity or if perhaps, the world would be better off if she left them to their fate.

Both novels underline the impact that humanity has left on the planet, whilst exploring ideologies to combat the problems we face today, with the hope of inspiring positive change within our readers.

Angela: Ray, it’s been a delight connecting with another Climate Fiction author. Earthlings (The Beginning) was a thrilling read, and certainly different from any other climate fiction novel I’ve read. Where did the idea for the book come from?

Ray:Likewise Angela, thank you! I loved Train and I’m so glad you enjoyed Peridot’s tale too. Writing Earthlings has been a genuinely life-changing experience for me in so many ways, and it’s all down to Peridot.

Her name stems from a ring my dad asked me to wear so that we could be together even after death parted us. I didn’t know at the time that he was terminally ill with pancreatic cancer and that less than a year later, that day would come. But sadly, it did. And so, his ring came to be mine. I’m wearing it now as I type, a plain silver band, scratched and worn, with a peridot stone embedded in its prongs. In Dad’s passing, Peridot’s life came to be.

It’s a funny old world like that. What goes up, must come down, where there is life, death eventually follows, and in darkness, more often than not… we find the light. Peridot was the light for me, and I hope readers are drawn to her shine.

Her story is the world, pretty much as it is now, only reversed. Humans no longer hold dominion over the lands, and an unexpected species rules in our place. The idea was to give readers insight into our fellow Earthlings lives, by putting us in their pawprints, if only for the briefest of moments, to hopefully inspire positive change for animals and the environment.

Angela, I thoroughly enjoyed Train, it captivated me from the first page, and I cannot wait to read the next instalment. What was your inspiration for the story, and what compelled you to write it?

Angela: I’ve always been fascinated by dystopian novels, especially books like Divergent, The Hunger Games, and The Maze Runner. The world-building was extraordinary, and they offered frightening ‘fictional’ glimpses into worlds that were deeply neglected and almost destroyed. The YA market took these books to heart. They fell in love with powerful protagonists, following their bleak and complex quests to make the world right again. 

I considered the prospect of Earth being at war with us. Blaming us for harming her, and not taking care of her. Inspired by the Jules Verne classic ‘Journey to the Centre of the Earth’, I wanted to create a story that would test the boundaries of our imaginations.

“A train?” Someone recently asked. “To the centre of the earth?”

Yet, I wonder how many times a similar question was asked before mankind contemplated landing on the moon? I took my idea and ran with it, remembering Verne and his vision, a vision that led him to the creation of many other extraordinary adventures. Writing a book needs a little faith and a little imagination. Mine sent me hurtling down a hole into Earth!

Instead of dealing with a typical post-Apocalyptic planet, Earthlings, for me, uncovered a bleaker, harsher world that went far deeper than mere physical appearance. It highlighted a battle for control between humans and animals, something that spun the moral compass in a thought-provoking direction. Was there a turning point in your life when you decided to champion the animal world?

Ray: From as young as I can remember, I have always loved animals. If I see a worm struggling on concrete, I’ll dip him or her in a puddle then pop them back in the earth, if an animal is lain by the side of the road, I’ll stop and take them to the local wildlife hospital, if a dog walker passes, I’ll have an entire 10-minute conversation with their four-legged companion and forget to say a single word to their human. My love for animals runs deep in my veins and into my very soul.

But, for nearly 30 years of my life, I consumed them. I ate animals for breakfast, dinner, and lunch. I wore their fur, I sat on their skin, I applied make-up that had been tested in the worst imaginable ways on their young. There were so many ways that I lived a life as far apart from an animal lover as I now know to be possible, but I was blind to it. I didn’t make the connection that my lifestyle was harming the beings I professed so deeply to love. Animal agriculture is in the top three when it comes to climate change causes too, and I couldn’t ignore my contribution towards this any longer.

Dad passing made me see the world we live in for what it really is, the good and the bad, the ugly and the beautiful. When I found the beauty, I wanted to try and help it stay that way, and the Earthlings tale began to take form.

The purpose of Earthlings was set in my mind from the moment I started writing, was it the same with Train? Did you plan to write in the genre of Climate Fiction?

Angela: Yes, I guess I did. The devastation had to come first, and there is something about a frozen planet that is breathtakingly shocking. Every novel based on an almost apocalyptic landscape created characters who would fight for things to return the way they once were. (You would hope that we might have learned from some of these great books!)

Writing about surviving on Dead Earth felt right. I wanted to highlight how our need, as a planet, to understand nature and science can often take us a step too far. We disturb nature, we experiment on things that should be left alone. Quite often, it’s an answer to a scientific question that really doesn’t need answering.

Your main character Peridotbegins her life on a remote island, hidden from the ugly truth about the changing world she now lives in. Do you think, like Peridot’s beginnings, that there is a lot of ignorance to both climate change and animal rights in the world?

Ray: Most definitely. I am an example of precisely that – for 30 years of my life, I purchased products that hurt and killed animals, all the while claiming to love them. I’m frustrated that it took me so long to realise my own hypocrisy when it was right in front of me all along, I just didn’t see it.

Writing Earthlings completely changed the way I live my life. Along my journey came the desire to want to save animals, and then, on a grander scale, the desire to help save our planet too. That statement, in hindsight, seems rather daft, as I’ve come to realise that the planet doesn’t need saving. 

We do

Mother Nature is suffering, on an unfathomable level. But. She is also adapting, evolving, changing – as we have forced her to do so. Ultimately, she will survive these changes. Perhaps that’s why it’s called climate change. Not climate end. 

It’s almost an ironic narrative, that those who will not survive the harshest realities of climate change are those that created it. Us. Humans. And sadly, innocent creatures who have not contributed towards climate change, are likely to be wiped out along with us. Unless of course, we change. Become aware. Live consciously. Evolve.

Mother Nature is the ultimate force on this planet (other than time) that is not to be reckoned with. You can rage wars across her lands, detonate bombs on her fields, pillage her forests, pollute her rivers, and massacre her children, but you cannot, and will not, ever, destroy her. 

Mother Nature will always adapt. Mother Nature will continue to live on. One way or another. The question I’m left wondering is, will we?

I felt the cold reading Train, to the point I had a hot water bottle whilst reading the end chapters! What made you focus on the frozen planet aspect?

Angela: The cold is harsh and unpredictable. Throw in a world that is at war with Earth herself, and the results are devastating, both physically and mentally. The cold throws us off balance, and yet it makes us strong. We learn how to cope, how to survive. We are often much stronger than we believe! I wanted my characters to face a world that was tough, where they would need to change their habits. It was by no means easy. Suddenly, you need to think about the complications of a frozen planet, I had to ask that all-important question: how would I survive if Earth began to die?

Earthlings reached deep into my conscience and made me think about the way animals are placed in society. Did you always want to write a book that would question the relationship between animals and humans?

Ray: That’s pretty much in a nutshell the purpose of Earthlings. I want readers to be hooked on the magick and the mystery of Peridot’s powers and her ancestral heritage and along the journey, hopefully, the sub-narrative of reversed speciesism may sink in. By saving animals, we will save the natural world we know and love and ultimately, save ourselves in the process. If Earthlings awakens this thought process in even one reader, it’s served its purpose.

One of the hardest parts of writing Earthlings for me, was the research aspect. I had to witness a lot of things I do not ever wish to see again. Did you have to research a lot for Train to be as realistic as it was?

Angela: I spent a fair amount of time at Didcot Railway Centre in Oxfordshire. The staff were amazing and let me clamber aboard as many trains as I liked! I loved wandering around the old-style carriages – sitting in carriages like Harry Potter did on the Hogwarts Express! It was such an enjoyable experience back then. But I also researched high-speed trains. The bullet train in Japan is something else. It inspired me to create Hero 67, the train at the centre of my story.

The hardest part of my research was the accuracy of climbing. Flint and her fellow passengers must abseil into various parts of Earth. No easy feat! I headed off to Oxford Brookes Climbing Wall (Oxford) and had my first ever climbing lesson. Again, the staff were outstanding and even showed me how to use an ice pick. It was tiring, and yet it allowed me a glimpse into an unfamiliar world. I knew this was one area of the story climbing enthusiasts would judge harshly. Although with science fiction – there is an element of the imagination that can allow for a little leeway.

I loved the developing friendship between Peridot and Euan in Earthlings, especially as Peridot previously tried to hide her loneliness. Euan is her first true friend, and you’ve portrayed this beautifully. How important was it to give Peridot both human and animal friendships?

Ray: Two of the main canine characters, Phoenix and Freyja, are my own animal family members, I don’t view them as pets, they are as important to me as my nearest and dearest. Heck. They are my nearest and dearest, we’ve been through thick and thin together, many, many times. I tried to incorporate that as much as possible within the human-animal relationships in the story. I needed to give animals their instinctive non-human traits, yet humanize their relationships to allow for maximum empathy and understanding from readers.

Euan is one of my favourite characters, he has experienced the realities of speciesism but doesn’t let the pain he’s suffered affect his treatment of others, not even the animals who made him endure his suffering. Many in his situation, would gladly watch the world burn, instead, he gives his fire to Peridot. With so many books that focus on a romantic relationship, it was important for me to focus theirs solely on friendship. Everyone needs that one friend that would go to the end of the earth for them, that is what Peridot and Euan find in each other.

I loved how the protagonist Nerys created her alter ego Flint to deal with the harsh realities of her world, what was the motivation for this? 

Angela: Flerovium, Lithium, Iridium, Nihonium, Titanium. FLINT. Nerys chose the toughest of Earth’s elements to create a new name in a ceremony called The Naming. I was terrible at science when I was younger, but somehow, this sprang to mind when I was thinking of an interesting name.

We get an exciting yet terrifying glimpse of the world through the eyes of the animal kingdom in Earthlings. Alan was one character that stayed with me long after I’d finished the thrilling final chapter! Without giving too much away, what gave you the idea to give a chicken such a powerful role in the story?

Ray: I’m so glad you asked this question. Whilst there was practical reasoning for Alan’s species being the brains behind the enslavement of humans in the Earthling world, (they have the numbers) on an emotional level, I just couldn’t fathom for a moment what life would be like in their claws. For that reason alone, a chicken had to be the dictator in the tale, to give insight into what their life genuinely entails. Going back to the research aspect of Earthlings, the slaughter process for chickens is something that I still lose sleep over. I would not wish it on my worst enemy, I had to share their plight with readers.

On a happier note. I didn’t want Earthlings to be portrayed as a doom and gloom novel, I want the story to be uplifting, empowering, and in some chapters, funny. An evil chicken intent on world dictatorship seemed to tick that box, and Alan was born.

One of my favourite parts of Train was how the fate of the Earth was in the youth of today’s hands, was this an intentional message to the story:

Angela: Yes. This might sound cliched, but I often feel that the youth of today are given a slightly harder time. Luckily, they are more outspoken and passionate about climate issues than my generation might have been. I wanted to create a story that would show how much they care about the planet. Flint, my protagonist has guts and bravery, something today’s youth most definitely has!

The fantasy element of Earthlings revolved around ‘magick’. Crystals, herbal lore, and stars play an important role in Peridot’s life.  Is this something you’ve always been interested in?

Ray: Nature aligned rituals and magickal practises are a routine part of my daily lifestyle and whilst I wanted to share this with readers, it also gave Earthlings the opportunity to reach a much wider audience. If Earthlings had been solely about the message, the message would never have been heard. Incorporating magick into the story allowed endless possibilities within the narrative of the trilogy, which helped when writing a story about talking animals intent on world domination!

Along with the alter ego of Nerys and Flint, I felt drawn to Reed, and, without giving away any spoilers, the mystery behind his involvement in certain aspects of the story. Was his character to allow understanding for people in similar situations, that find themselves complicit in practices through family ties or work commitments they wish to be free from?

Angela: As the love interest of Flint/Nerys, I didn’t want to make it too easy on the reader. Flint, after all, created a tough exterior in order not to care or to hurt. It wasn’t going to break down easily, especially with the frightening mission that lays ahead! I wanted to show a young man dealing with his feelings for another passenger, dealing with his family’s expectations, at whatever cost. I wanted to show teamwork amongst the characters.

Ray: What would you do in Reed’s situation?

Angela: A tough question! Reed never expected to find a passenger he cared about, he was too busy preparing to save the world. I think he had no choice (without giving too much away!) in keeping his true identity a secret. Given the severity of a dying planet, I think he only had one way forward, and I’m pretty sure he made the right decision, even though it came at a cost.

Not only was Earthlings printed on recycled paper, but you also plant a tree per book sale and won the 2021 Environmental Achievement Award. Congratulations on both counts! That is a mammoth achievement. Can you tell me a little more about this?

Ray: Thanks so much, it really meant a lot to me to win this award, I try to raise awareness for animals and the environment at any given opportunity and I also try, where possible, to raise awareness of the devastating effect that literature has on our environment.

Our industry prints over 4 billion books per year and the majority of these are printed on virgin paper. The industry standard is to use Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) mixed paper which is a mix of virgin paper from both certified and uncertified forests, but there is no genuine accurate way of tracing the sustainability – Greenpeace cancelled its membership with the FSC in 2018 for this reason.

A solution to the adverse effect the books we know and love have on our environment, is to print on Post Consumer Waste (PCW) recycled paper. We have a huge recycling problem on a global scale so this ticked two boxes for me, but there will still be a carbon footprint to my books, and I opted to plant a tree per book sale via Ecologi too. I can’t write books about trying to save nature and pillage it in the process. It would make Earthlings meaningless.

Anyone reading this will most likely agree; trying to make a difference in the world is hard. Having my efforts recognised and winning an environmental award relit the fire I need to keep trying.

Apart from the journey into Earth and dealing with a frozen planet, there is a more sinister side to the Power Players in the story. Can you tell us a little more about this?

Angela: I was always fascinated by the expression ‘vanished off the face of the Earth’. Train covers two important elements: climate change and science. I wondered how far humankind would go to find out answers to Earth’s great mysteries. We have no idea what scientists are experimenting on behind closed doors. So, I pondered the question set around a dystopian world, a world that was freezing at an alarming rate: what if scientists were responsible for the disappearance of a third of the population? A frightening thought that I pray never happens. But I hope it makes for good reading!

I’m very excited to get started on Dominion, the second book in the Earthlings trilogy. I can’t wait to find out if Peridot will control her magick, and how will the battle between the two species plays out. Is this the final adventure for Peridot (I hope not!), or can we expect to read more?

Ray: This is something I’ve debated often but I am sad to say, Peridot and the gang will be in this trilogy and this trilogy only. After the trilogy is complete, I’ll be writing the prequel titled The Changing which will be Peridot’s mum’s tale of how the Earthlings world came to be. That will be the completed Earthlings tale… I’ll be so sad when it’s over, it’s been such an amazing experience writing it.

We finish Train not knowing what lies ahead for the characters, have you started writing the next instalment (please say you have, I need to know what happens!), do you have a date in mind for book two?

Angela: I wanted to slam the breaks on the train just as the passengers began their descent into Earth. What happens next in the story is rather surprising, and I felt it needed a whole book to tell it! So, yes, book two, Earth Station, is in the making and it really does follow in the footsteps of Jules Verne!

Once you finish the Earthlings trilogy and prequel, is there anything else you are working on for the future?

Ray: I have a duology I’m planning to write that will be focused on the oppression of nature-aligned people throughout the ages. This will be a two-book series focused on witch trials throughout history and of course, have a touch of magick thrown in.

Thanks so much for such insightful questions, it’s been great chatting with you Angela.

You too Ray – until next time!

Find out more about Train and Earthlings (The Beginning).

Ray Star is an Award-Winning author of YA Fantasy and Climate Fiction from Essex in England. When Ray isn’t writing, she is happiest spending time with her children, partner, family, and friends or walking with her dogs spending time in nature. A firm believer of magick, Ray can often be found stargazing under the moon with a tarot deck in one hand and a strong cuppa in the other.

​As an author of Climate Fiction, Ray’s books are published on recycled paper where possible and she plants 1 tree per book sale via Ecologi. It is Ray’s dream to one day open The Peridot Animal Sanctuary and Wildlife Reserve in England and that dream inspired Ray to close her business of 15 years to pursue a writing career.

Angela Kecojevic has written for the Oxford Reading Tree programme and is also the author behind award-winning adventure park Hobbledown. Train, her YA sci-fi debut, explores the devastating effects of a ‘snowball’ planet and a group of passengers who must board a hi-tech train into Earth to fix it. Angela is a sixth form librarian and a creative writing tutor. She lives in Oxford with her family. 

Published by Lauren James

Lauren James is the twice Carnegie-nominated British author of many Young Adult novels, including Green Rising, The Reckless Afterlife of Harriet Stoker and The Loneliest Girl in the Universe. She is a RLF Royal Fellow, freelance editor and screenwriter. Lauren is the founder of the Climate Fiction Writers League, and on the board of the Authors & Illustrators Sustainability Working Group through the Society of Authors. Her books have sold over a hundred thousand copies worldwide and been translated into six languages. The Quiet at the End of the World was shortlisted for the YA Book Prize and STEAM Children’s Book Award. Her other novels include The Next Together series, the dyslexia-friendly novella series The Watchmaker and the Duke and serialised online novel An Unauthorised Fan Treatise. She was born in 1992, and has a Masters degree from the University of Nottingham, where she studied Chemistry and Physics. Lauren is a passionate advocate of STEM further education, and many of her books feature female scientists in prominent roles. She sold the rights to her first novel when she was 21, whilst she was still at university. Her writing has been described as ‘gripping romantic sci-fi’ by the Wall Street Journal and ‘a strange, witty, compulsively unpredictable read which blows most of its new YA-suspense brethren out of the water’ by Entertainment Weekly. Lauren lives in the West Midlands and is an Arts Council grant recipient. She has written articles for numerous publications, including the Guardian, Buzzfeed, Den of Geek, The Toast, and the Children’s Writers and Artist’s Yearbook 2022. She has taught creative writing for Coventry University, WriteMentor, and Writing West Midlands.

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