Michael is a broken man. He’s waiting for the 09.46 to Gloucester, so as to reach Crewe for 11.22: the platforms are long at Crewe, and he can walk easily into the path of a high-speed train to London.
He’s planned it all: a net of tangerines (for when the refreshments trolley is cancelled), and a juice carton, full of neat whisky. To make identification swift, he has taped his last credit card to the inside of his shoe.
What Michael hasn’t factored in is a twelve-minute delay, which risks him missing his connection, and making new ones. He longs to silence the voices in his own head: ex-girlfriends, colleagues, and the memories from his schooldays, decades old. They all torment him. What Michael needs is somebody to listen.
A last, lonely journey becomes a lesson in the power of human connection, proving that no matter how bad things seem, it’s never too late to get back on track.
Journeys intersect. People find hope when and where they least expect it. A missed connection needn’t be a disaster: it could just save your life.
Train Man has been called a “profoundly affecting” and “beautiful story” by Ruth Jones (author of Never Greener) and I am delighted to welcome the author, Andrew Mulligan, to The Shelf today to discuss the process of writing difficult topics and creating realistic characters, and the importance of making human connections.
Hi Andrew and welcome to The Shelf of Unread Books. First things first, can you please tell us a little about your debut novel Train Man?
It’s my first adult novel – I’ve written several children’s books, but TRAIN MAN was an opportunity to do something different, and peer into an altogether darker place. A man is on his way to kill himself, having decided life can only get worse. He’s in good health physically, but feels the demons have him cornered – I mean that metaphorically, as this is not a fantasy novel. He meets people who confirm these feelings, and people who challenge them: his journey ends up being extraordinary.
Train Man deals with some very difficult topics, including depression, suicide, and the effects of poverty. How did you go about ensuring that these topics were handled sensitively, and were you every worried about using the book to discuss these issues? Or did you always see the book as a way of widening the conversation around mental health?
The book is a novel, and first and foremost it obeys the general rules of fiction. Characters come to life through their fears and objectives, and we have a rising sense of jeopardy as those with whom we empathise suffer. The issues raised are not handled sensitively, nor is there any conversation about mental health: the book is about people trapped, the way we all feel trapped at least some of the time.
Your main character, Michael, has his life altered by a chance encounter at a train station. Why did you choose to make train stations and journeys such a central part of the novel? Do you think there is something about these transient places that encourage us to reflect on life and on the journeys we undertake through it?
The railway is an obvious metaphor, with its connections and delays – the beautiful combination of meticulous planning and total coincidence. I spend a lot of time on trains, and – yes – the rhythms do encourage introspection of a kind. You’re in a tin, looking out at the unfurling world. You’re making progress, whilst still – and if there isn’t some barbarian shouting into a phone you can actually think. In fact, you have time to think. You may even find yourself attempting conversation, lifting the blinds, peering into someone else’s world. And it’s amazing what people carry with them, as it were.
Train Man is a testament to the power of human interaction and the kindness of strangers. Was this something that you deliberately wanted to bring out in the book, or did that aspect come about whilst you were writing the novel?
I’ve never been able to write dark, miserable novels that confirm our fear that life is terrible. For many of us, life is a constant adventure, even if there is much to get dismayed and angry about. The book isn’t about the kindness of strangers, though, for many of the strangers are quite ruthless. My hero meets people locked in their own egotism, playing their self-promoting little games – the book is about non-conversation and concealment, as much as it deals in revelation. Ultimately, the human contact is positive – but most of us know that to be the case. A chance encounter with a smiling check-out operator in Tesco’s really can change the day. It’s quite frightening how vulnerable many of us are to those tiny intersections.
Given the intense nature of the subject matter, I imagine Train Man was sometimes a difficult book to write? Can you tell us a little more about your writing process and how you managed to balance Michael’s dark mental state with an overall message about the importance of human connection and a sense of hope?
It wasn’t a difficult book to write, because the mix of live-action and reminiscence always seemed very real. I became very attached to my characters, very quickly – and I find my writing degenerates fast if I’m not enjoying the writing process. I usually look forward to getting back to the laptop. In any case, Michael is like most of us: he wants to be cheerful. He knows he’s lucky, if only because he has his health. He’s not in a war-zone. But those things fail to mean anything when all you can think about is your failure to connect, and the absence of meaningful structure. The wind is in his house, and he can only see failure. He can only focus on the pain he’s experienced and the pain he’s inflicted, and I wanted to release him from that. I never doubted that he would be released.
Are there any books that inspired Train Man? Or books and authors that you think anyone who enjoys your novel should seek out?
Train Man was to be a radio play, because all I could hear were the voices. I wanted the babble of non-communication, and I was reading a lot of Anne Tyler as I wrote it: nobody writes real dialogue quite like Anne Tyler, and I kept ‘An Accidental Tourist’ beside me – an outstanding book about a man unaware he’s having a breakdown.
And finally, what is next for Andrew Mulligan? Is there another novel in the works that you can tell us about?
I’m working on the next children’s book, plus a commission for Radio 4. The next adult novel is nearly done, but it’s become demented. I listen to the news too much, and the insanity has found its way into the characters. They’re doing and saying terrible things right now, and I don’t seem able to stop them – so I fear it won’t be ready for some time.
Thank you so much to Andrew for taking the time to answer my questions and discuss Train Man!
Train Man by Andrew Mulligan is published by Chatto & Windus and is available now in hardback and ebook from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Waterstones, Book Depository and Amazon.
You can read reviews and find out more about the book on the other blog tour stops, so do go and check those out! And many thanks to Anne Cater from Random Things Tours for inviting me to take part in this tour.