A Q&A with Kaliane Bradley, Author of May Indie Next List Top Pick “The Ministry of Time”

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Independent booksellers across the country have chosen Kaliane Bradley’s The Ministry of Time (Avid Reader Press) as their top pick for the May 2024 Indie Next List

The Ministry of Time follows a civil servant tasked with monitoring Commander Graham Gore — a man pulled from his time into the modern day — who uncovers more than she bargained for. 

The Ministry of Time is a rare story that mashes up favorite time-worn tropes — from Star Trek to spy thrillers to Victorian romances — in a crucible of colonialism and the pitfalls of diversity in a near-future London. Oh, and it’s sexy as hell,” said Amanda Qassar of Warwick’s in La Jolla, California.

Here, Bradley discusses her work with Bookselling This Week.

BTW: What made you latch on to this expedition and Commander Gore as the subject of this novel?

Kaliane Bradley: There are two different things at play here. One of which is Graham Gore.

I was watching a TV show called The Terror. It aired in 2018, but I was watching it in lockdown 2021. And I was struggling to follow what was going on. It's a great show, but I had lockdown brain. 

I just thought, “I'm not quite sure what's going on. There are a lot of people that are all talking, they all look the same — they're all white guys with mutton chops and big, arctic coats…” So I looked at the fan wiki. And under the bloopers section they referred to a guy called Graham Gore. 

I went to his Wikipedia page and read about him. And as I was reading it, I just thought, “My God, this man sounds so competent and chill and nice.” 

It was April 2021. I had just started a new job in January. And I hadn’t met any of my colleagues because we were still isolating, and I couldn't get the VPN to work. And it was very stressful. 

I was like, “I bet Gore could get the VPN to work. I bet he wouldn't cry. He’d just handle this lockdown. He'd have no problems and be fine.”

So that's why I kind of latched on to him. 

And then the Franklin Expedition…I found this online community of polar exploration enthusiasts. Some of them were very into Franklin Expedition, or into this TV series. But others were interested in other historical expeditions. I got very deep into it.

Because it is fascinating. Part of it is hubris. The British Empire shouldn't have been sending people off to the Arctic — to Inuit homelands — to tramp around dying stupidly because they haven't paid attention to the way you're supposed to dress, the way you're supposed to eat, the way you're supposed to live in this land. 

But the kind of astonishing levels of courage (and stupidity and imperialism) but also optimism that you would get there. You’d find this Northwest Passage and somehow make it through the Arctic.

And then the fact that 129 men vanished and we didn't find the ships until 2014 and 2016. That's nuts. What happened up there? What was going on?

BTW: How did you choose what time periods to pull from?

KB: So, none of the other expats are historical characters. 

For Margaret and Arthur, I'd wanted to pick time periods that loom large in the British cultural imagination and feel like they are part of our national and cultural identity. So the Great Plague of London and the subsequent fire. And obviously, the First and Second World War both loom so large in British cultural imagination, and I wanted them to be representative of certain moments in British cultural history. Because when you actually meet those two expats, they're not representative of anything at all. They are just through their own people.

Maggie isn't a traditional Jacobean woman or what we would imagine that means. Arthur isn't what we would imagine a typical Edwardian man would be, in the same way that the bridge is not necessarily a typical British person, because this idea of typical is a false one. And this idea of history as a narrative is an imposed one — one that we can choose to conform to or resist.

For Thomas Cardingham, who comes from the English Civil War, and Anne Spencer, who comes from the French Revolution, I just went to my friends and said, “Can you think of any big disasters, where if someone was pulled from history, no one would notice because there were so many bodies?”

So that's what I got. English Civil War and French Revolution. Thank you to my friends who know a lot about disasters.

BTW: What went into the decision to have an unnamed protagonist?

KB: There's a kind of hierarchy of naming in the book. Because the bridge narrates most of the book, she doesn't need to name herself to herself. As far as she's concerned, she's the center of the universe. 

The next layer along are people that she obsesses over, monitors, or is very invested in. So all of the expats have full names — Graham Gore, Margaret Kemble, Arthur Reginald-Smyth, because she's thinking of them in a kind of 360 way. She's thinking of them as a surveillant.

The next circle people she can relate to, but doesn't think about as whole characters, as whole people. So Simellia, Adela, Quentin. They never get surnames. She doesn't think of them with surnames, because she doesn't think of them as entire people. As a result for all three of these characters, she makes mistakes about who she assumes they are and what she assumes they're doing. And this kind of blindness on her part leads to some complications in her narrative journey,

The furthest outer circle are people who she doesn't even think of as people. They're just functions of their jobs, their institutions. They're the Brigadier and the Secretary. So one represents what she thinks is the Ministry of Defense, and one of them represents what she thinks is this new unnamed ministry.

BTW: The Ministry of Time has an amazing balance of low-stakes, almost cozy domestic scenes, as well as the more high-stakes action you might expect from a time-travel/spy thriller. Was it difficult to achieve that balance?

KB: It was so hard. And I think — I know that the version of the book that's published is draft number nine. 

It's partly because when I started writing, it was just silly. I was just having fun. I was trying to amuse some friends.

“Just imagine it. If my favorite polar explorer lived in the 20th century, wow, he'd probably be really confused about Spotify.”

But as I kept on writing, I realized that the story was kind of closing in on these characters, and I had to write the story. I got to about halfway on the first draft and was like, “I don't have a choice. I've got to just deal with this.”

When I did the redrafting and I was thinking more seriously about what I wanted to say with the book, I found that I didn't want to drop either of those tones, because they both felt true to me. They both felt they were serving a purpose for the characters and for the story. And I just had to find some way to balance it and make them both ring true, which I hope works for some people anyway.

BTW: I heard the BBC picked up the book for an adaptation…? What has that experience been like? 

KB: Yes. So it's being produced by A24, and the BBC have commissioned it. From what I understand that doesn't necessarily mean it's going to be. But it's closer to being made than it was. We can but hope. 

BTW: How does that feel?

KB: Completely nuts.

BTW: This was your debut novel, though you’ve also written and won prizes for your short stories. Any idea what’s next?

KB: One of the two short story prizes I won in 2022, The V.S. Pritchett, I won with a story about a mysterious lighthouse on a heath. And it becomes clear over the course of the story that the heath is this kind of borderland between the lands of the living and the dead.

And I have since started developing a novel. It’s partly set in this liminal space and partly in contemporary London. It started as a kind of a Greek mythology retelling, in which I throw out all the rules of Greek mythology, because all the old gods have retired And then in contemporary London, there's like a neo noir mystery going on. Once again, I'm gonna have to find some way to marry these two tones. We'll find out if I'm successful.

BTW: Can you talk more about the role of books and indie bookstores in your life?

KB: So, I work as an editor at Penguin Classics. I've been in publishing for quite a long time. And before I worked in publishing, I worked as a bookseller.

I worked partly at Waterstones, which is our big brick-and-mortar chain here in the UK. And my now-fiance worked in a different, rival Waterstones. We started dating when we were working at those two different shops. 

But I also used to work on the Charing Cross Road in London, which is historically a place where there are a lot of independent book shops, especially secondhand book shops. I worked in a secondhand bookshop called Any Amount of Books for six years. It was a really, really wonderful place. 

And as a result, I experienced firsthand the way that independent bookshops really become community hubs. 

I have very fond memories of the many customers we used to have, who knew that this place was a safe place for them. They knew they could come here, they could talk to people, they could browse the books, that they'd be accepted as part of this community.

And I don't think I would be anywhere near as good an editor, and by extension writer, if I hadn't worked in bookshops for many, many years. I'm very glad I did.