Starboard Blog Tour

I read this book over the course of one weekend and loved it! Here is the link to my recent review.

Guest Post by Nicola Skinner


Up until recently, I wasn’t that interested in Isambard Brunel, bonkers as that sounds now. I’d heard of him, of course: living in Bristol, you can barely turn a corner without seeing his Suspension bridge, or stumble down a street named after him.  But it was only when I began to plan STARBOARD – which features the ship he designed, the SS Great Britain, as a main character  – that my fandom truly began. The more I found out about his creative process as an engineer, the more I felt inspired as a writer. You may ask – what can a dead Victorian engineer teach a children’s author about writing? Um, hello? What can’t he teach us?

First of all, determination. It’s easy to think of him as a captain of industry into whose lap commissions just fell. This is not the case. He had to fight for everything. If he looks like a scrappy little bruiser, it’s because he was one, and he’s all the better for it. Engineering was hugely competitive. He had to persuade people his designs were the best. He had to believe in the idea, before it was a solid thing – much like a writer. Starting a book needs a bit of arrogance and confidence or it would never get written properly. Just like Brunel, we need to find the courage to flap our ink-stained designs about and say, LOOK, here’s an incredible structure, and I’m the only one who can build it.

And holy moly was he inventive. There was almost nothing he didn’t try. Brunel switched from idea to idea, tunnels to railways to ships, hospitals, bridges, barely pausing for breath between cigar puffs. He wasn’t afraid to be a novice, each time, and take on something he hadn’t done before – again, a valuable lesson for writers. And he cared, so much, about what he did. I have seen letters and diaries where he speaks about his bridges and ships as if they were his babies, because he poured himself into his creations, each time. And what is writing, if not the same thing? If you don’t truly care, if you’re not bleeding onto the page, what’s the point?

As much as I love him for what he achieved, I also love him for his failures. His atmospheric railway was eaten by rats. He got quite depressed by how short he was. By the end, he was building things that were almost too big for the world. (His final ship could barely fit into any existing dock.) When he failed, he failed publicly – everyone could see it. But he didn’t let that stop him; he just carried on, ploughing his own sweet furrow. I love that final photo taken of him outside his final ship, staring out at the camera with his truculent genius; ferocious, exhausted, proud, slightly alone, totally dwarfed by what came out of his head. His work was full of risk, passion, and emotion; flames and sparks and doubt and flair and an obsessive desire to go big. And honestly, to a writer, what could be more exciting than that?

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