A passion for adventure
By GAYLE HANSON
Correspondent | March 23,2013
Sarah Stewart Taylor’s latest novel, “The Expeditioners and the Treasure of Drowned Man’s Canyon,” is about siblings in search of a treasure.
Vermont novelist Sarah Stewart Taylor has a penchant for adventure that has led her to pen books with a wide-ranging sense of place and appeal. She penned four Sweeney St. George mystery novels based on the adventures of the ginger-haired art historian with a penchant for cemetery art and vintage clothing, and a graphic novel about the pioneering aviatrix Amelia Earhart. Her latest, “The Expeditioners and the Treasure of Drowned Man’s Canyon,” is about a trio of siblings in search of a treasure of gold amidst a dystopian world in which dirigibles ply the sky and computers have long since gone kaput.
Not too shabby for someone who published their first book 10 years ago.
“As a child I loved reading adventure novels, Jules Verne, Robert Louis Stevenson. I loved the mystery and intrigue,” says Taylor, of Hartford, explaining what drew her to writing in the first place. “I also loved those classical mystery writers like Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh.”
But Taylor’s Sweeney St. George also embodies the kind of richly eccentric characters created by such modern British writers as Ian Rankin, author of the popular Rebus novels, and Val McDermid, whose stories are achingly ordinary even as they shock the reader.
Currently a writing teacher at White River Junction’s Center for Cartoon Studies, Taylor was asked by the center to provide the story line for a graphic novel.
“I’ve always liked reading graphic novels and it was very exciting to teach writing there,” she recalls. “We were doing a series of stories that were biographies of famous Americans and one of the ideas that I had was Amelia Earhart. It was an opportunity to learn how to write a script for a graphic novel.” While she found Earhart a challenging subject, she became intrigued by the man who became her husband, and launched and managed her career.
“George Palmer Putnam was known as the boy explorer,” Taylor recounts. “At a very young age he went on these amazing adventures.”
Putnam visited everywhere from the Great American West to the Arctic Circle, mapping his travels and giving talks at the National Geographic Society when he returned.
“My mind just started working. I had always been fascinated by maps themselves and exploration. I was a complete Anglophile as a kid. I was interested in colonialism and imperialism from a romantic viewpoint. When I went to college I took classes in African history and British imperialism and I began to become interested in the idea of what exploration means to the people who aren’t the explorers. The darker side of it.”
That dark side is evident in ‘‘The Expeditioners’’’ first tale. The setting is a post-apocalyptic world in which what once had been charted and explored is no longer known. And the world which once had all the mod cons we have today, has slipped into something altogether different, which many reviewers have called “steampunk.”
The term, which was coined in the early 1980s, was originally used to identify a genre of storytelling that was set in the Victorian age, and featured real and imagined inventions and devices that were powered by steam. Authors William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s book “The Difference Engine,” which features Charles Babbage’s early computing machine, is considered to be one of the progenitors of the style. Nowadays, steampunk includes stories, fashion, and anything with a clock gear glued on it. Terry Gilliam’s epic adventure film “The Time Bandits” has lots of steampunk elements, and British author Philip Pullman’s adventure trilogy “His Dark Materials,” which includes the popular story “The Golden Compass,” are among the best known books for young adults that embrace the steampunk ethos.
But if the backgrounds are rich with steampunk details it’s the characters that propel “The Expeditioners” forward. Left with half of a treasure map by their deceased explorer father, the three kids go off to seek their fortune. And, as with Sweeney St. George and Amelia Earhart, Taylor has created a formidable and appealing female character, M.K., who has a love of gadgets and a passion for engineering. The quirky young woman embodies the spirit of tomboys everywhere and is a delightful break from Disney princesses and female characters in need of rescue.
“She’s really good at building and fixing things,” says Taylor. “Since the book came out I’ve heard from a lot of girls who really identify with her, who think of themselves as tomboys. When I first started writing her I thought she would be a secondary character, but I kept wanting to put her in more and more scenes.”
Being a parent of three children, writing about three children who are on their own trying to fend for themselves in a hostile world, has given Taylor a lot of food for thought.
“Like most women my age I had my children a little later. I have young kids and I’m hitting middle age and my kids really need me. They are so fragile,” she said. “I’ve talked to my friends about this, but as I was writing this book I realized that I was thinking about what it would be like to send my own children off into the world, how I could prepare them. It was completely unconscious as I was writing, but that’s something that I think every parent wrestles with.”
With ‘‘The Expeditioners’’’ first story out on bookshelves everywhere, Taylor has started work on the second series for the indomitable trio. This time the story will take them to an underwater world. And if that conjures up images of Jules Verne’s “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea,” Taylor doesn’t mind.
“I love that book,” she says, and you can almost hear the gears of her mind turning.