The Ministry of Time author Kaliane Bradley: ‘It was just so much fun’ | Books

The Ministry of Time author Kaliane Bradley: ‘It was just so much fun’ | Books

Kaliane Bradley (pronounced Cull-yan, which means “darling” in Cambodian) is packing to move house when I visit her in Walthamstow, east London. The move has been made possible by the publication of her first novel, The Ministry of Time, which has a BBC TV adaptation in the pipeline and comes laden with quotes from writers such as Eleanor Catton and David Nicholls.

A time-travel romance cum sci-fi comedy set in near-future London, the novel fizzes with smart observations about the absurdity of modern life, while taking on the legacy of imperialism and the environmental emergency. In her “lucky” jumper and woolly socks, 35-year-old Bradley, an editor at Penguin, is unfazed by the fuss. “I think I might be the first British-Cambodian person to publish a novel. I can’t swear to it,” she says modestly (Google agrees: although Bradley is yet to have a Wikipedia page).

Bradley’s father is British and her mother is Khmer. Her mother moved to the UK during the Cambodian civil war and couldn’t go home. They met, literally, on her doorstep. Her father was living in this house and her mother moved in next door, with her son from her first marriage. Bradley grew up here with her half-brother and younger twin sisters: she shows me the pencil markings on the living room door frame to record their heights. The girls shared one room, her brother slept in the box room (now her study) and kept his clothes in the bathroom because it was so small. They moved out to the Essex borders when Bradley was 10, so they could each have their own bedroom, while renting out the house in Walthamstow. She and her partner, Sam, an academic in linguistics, and their cat now rent the house from her parents.

“I wrote this book kind of by accident,” Bradley says, as we settle over cups of tea and a bar of chocolate in her living room, her bookshelves lined with a mix of Penguin Classics and old favourites. On the wall is a poster of a documentary, Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten, about Cambodia’s lost rock’n’roll scene in the 1950s and 60s: her mum knew one of the young guitarists. Although Bradley had published short stories – and won the 2022 VS Pritchett prize – she had spent years working on what she hoped would be her “great British-Cambodian novel” – “a completely thankless, loveless, miserable task, for obvious reasons”, she says. This time three years ago, she had just started at Penguin but had yet to meet her colleagues because of lockdown. She took refuge in the TV series The Terror (based on a 2007 novel by Dan Simmons), a supernatural horror about Franklin’s doomed 1845 Arctic expedition. She was especially drawn to one of the crew, Lt Graham Gore, who dies two episodes in at the age of 38. Cyber-stalking him later she was struck by a description of him as “a man of great stability of character, a very good officer, and the sweetest of tempers”.

“I was in such a state at this point in my life that I thought, ‘You’d be handling the pandemic better than me,’” she laughs. She was smitten. A dashing portrait of Gore, all eyebrows and epaulettes, now sits in her study.

Gore led her to seek out other polar exploration enthusiasts online, “quite a community, it turns out”. She began writing what would become The Ministry of Time in instalments for them: “a nerdy literary parlour game” imagining what it might be like to have your favourite explorer – Gore – move in with you. “It just kept spinning out and I kept on going,” she says, writing 400 words or so in the evenings. “It was just so much fun.” About halfway through, one of her new online friends said, “I think this is a novel.”

The rest of the book was written in around 12 weeks. “It helps to be completely fixated on a dead guy,” she quips. She sent it out to literary agents under a pseudonym, but it was picked up by her existing agent. Together they spent a year intensely reworking it. The final manuscript was snapped up in a 48-hour bidding deal.

The choice of title (she dropped her working title on advice from her publisher) inadvertently cast a shadow over publication after a Spanish production company accused the BBC (and Bradley) of plagiarising the Spanish TV drama El Ministerio del Tiempo, which ran from 2015 to 2020, resulting in a twitterstorm among the shows fans. “I’ve never seen the Spanish TV series,” Bradley says. “But it sounds like a very different premise, and I’d be surprised to learn that it’s about a romance between a Victorian polar explorer and a British-Cambodian civil servant that takes place in the 21st century.”

While the title might be a mashup of Orwell’s Ministry of Truth and Graham Greene’s The Ministry of Fear, the guiding spirit behind the book is Bradley’s best-loved writer, Terry Pratchett. “Don’t worry about it,” the narrator instructs us early on in The Ministry of Time, brushing aside any quibbling about the logistics of time travel. Bradley is keen to point out that there isn’t any actual jumping through magic portals on the page: “The whole thing is just people sitting in different rooms experiencing emotions and bureaucracy.”

Along with Gore, she chose four other “expatriates from history” to be part of the British government’s “experiment”: a lieutenant from the battle of Naseby; a beautiful, foul-mouthed lesbian from the great plague of London; an unhappy aristocrat from the French Revolution; and a soldier from the first world war. Each of them is appointed a “bridge”, a contemporary character who helps them “assimilate” to life in modern Britain. Gore’s bridge is a young British-Cambodian woman.

Bradley has great fun with the old “A Martian has landed … ” exercise – explaining miracles such as flushing toilets, Tinder and TV (“You can send dioramas through the ether, and you’ve used it to show people at their most wretched,” Gore reflects after being introduced to EastEnders). He compares modern dating “to trying on clothes for fit” and considers 21st-century attitudes to sex to be rather 18th century. “What is this word housemate?” Gore asks the narrator, and in true romcom tradition they don’t stay housemates for long, despite the nearly 200-year age gap. Most of Gore’s best lines, and his willingness to experiment with south-east Asian cooking, the author confesses, are stolen from her real-life hero, Sam.

For all the sparky one-liners it affords, the time-travel conceit is a clever metaphor for what it means to be an immigrant in modern Britain. “It’s the equivalent of being plucked out of the 19th century and being told you have to assimilate, you have to have these values, you have to be productive for the society. Being told: ‘Now you’re here, this is who you have to be.’”

“People never ask refugees, ‘Are you grateful?’ They ask, ‘How grateful are you?’” Bradley says, quoting from the memoir Landbridge by Canadian-Cambodian writer Y-Dang Troeung, which she published at Penguin. This spark of anger behind the outlandish plot makes it more than merely a game.

“Maybe this is the British-Cambodian novel I was supposed to be writing,” she reflects. “The sense of surprise and alienation and anxiety that you aren’t being grateful enough. Because you certainly don’t want to be back in the battle of the Somme. You certainly don’t want to be in the Khmer Rouge.”

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She sees her own relationship to Cambodia and “the inherited trauma” of its history as a “family issue”, rather than a personal one. Part of the difficulty of the abandoned novel was that “there was such pressure on me to get it right that I kept on messing it up,” she says. She is very cautious when talking about her mother’s past. Through Gore, she found a way to express it. “They are all dead,” he realises of his fellow explorers. The world he knew is gone.

Growing up in east London in the 80s, it wasn’t unusual to be mixed race. She was the only one of her siblings to be sent to private secondary school – “I passed the exams” – which she credits for her “Radio 4 accent”. It was only when she went to university to study English literature at UCL and found herself outnumbered by white people for the first time that she began thinking of herself “as a person of colour in contemporary Britain”.

Like the bridge in the novel, she mainly “passes as white”. But that doesn’t mean she hasn’t been subject to racist insults, many of which she lists in the novel, such as strangers making Pol Pot Noodle jokes. “Why? Why would you do that?” she asks. “These people died horribly and they were my family.”

In a knowing nod to the book world’s recent push to improve diversity, the narrator quips about the industry’s enthusiasm for “underpaid … debut authors of colour who never seemed to publish second novels once the publicity cycle has ended”. While Bradley has no plans to give up her day job, she is already deep into her second novel, an extension of her prize-winning short story Doggerland, once more set in London and a supernatural land of the dead.

It would be hard to write a speculative time-travel novel today without addressing the threat looming over our future. For her, our failure to respond to the climate emergency in the global south is “just another symptom of imperialism, this idea that we can continue exploiting the labour and the resources of countries over there, and we will be fine over here,” she says. “It’s part of the same thread for me.”

While her characters might be on different timelines, her own love story has a suitably 19th-century-novel ending: she and Sam are getting married this summer, and are moving to their own home. Though she won’t be leaving London. “I’m very attached to the city,” she says. In fact, they are moving just a couple of streets away from the home her family grew up in. It’s a sort of time-travel story of its own.

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