Kaliane Bradley’s debut novel, The Ministry of Time (Avid Reader Press, May 7), about a Victorian polar explorer transported to the 21st century and the British civil servant working as a “bridge” to help him adjust, started out as a lark.

During lockdown in April 2021—soon after starting a new job, yet to meet her colleagues, and feeling anxious and isolated—Bradley began watching The Terror, an AMC TV series about Sir John Franklin’s lost expedition to the Arctic in 1845, in which 129 men vanished.

“The characters were mostly white men wearing greatcoats, with mutton chops and accents similar to mine. It was difficult to tell them apart,” the British Cambodian writer, 35, recalls over Zoom from her London home. Seeking clarity, she sought out a fan wiki online. There, she saw the name of Commander Graham Gore, a naval officer who was a minor character in the drama, and found her way to his Wikipedia page.

It was love at first click, or, as she puts it, “eyes across a crowded textbox.” Bradley was captivated by a daguerreotype of Lt. Gore—depicting a dashing man with curly hair, fetching features, and confidently crossed arms—and by the flattering descriptions of him in letters from the time.

“I was like, This man sounds so competent. I bet he would be handling lockdown really well. He has sailed all over the world, fought in these wars. I bet he wouldn’t be crying because he can’t get the VPN to work,” she says.

Bradley developed an instant, intense interest in Gore—some might call it a crush—and his expeditions. She found an online community of amateur polar exploration buffs and began writing a character sketch to amuse herself and them. “I wanted to offer them a silly piece of writing. What would it be like if your favorite polar explorer was your housemate?” she says.

Bradley spoke to Kirkus about how those initial jottings turned into the novel that our critic, in a starred review, calls a “breathtakingly sexy…rip-roaring romp.” Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Your Gore research was the impetus, but then did you give yourself license to go wherever you wanted?

Total license. I originally wrote the book as a literary parlor game, to entertain my friends. I wasn’t thinking about developing a fictional character; I was thinking about making them laugh. I have no textual evidence that Gore chain-smoked; there is a mention of him smoking a cigar. I went mad with the extrapolations. I was having so much fun creating this character, Graham Gore, that I wanted to have a conversation with him, but the only way I could was to write his half of the conversation.

How much of you is in the book’s other characters?

There’s quite a lot of me in the sister who wants to be a writer. At first the bridge wasn’t British Cambodian. I was writing a different book, which was to be my serious book about Cambodia, the Cambodian diaspora, and the British Cambodian community. It wasn’t working. But there was a character similar to the bridge in it, someone who has a complicated relationship to power, is ambitious and interested in exploiting the way she is perceived for her own gain without understanding how this makes her vulnerable. I just plucked her up and put her in this.

Were you concerned we wouldn’t sympathize with Gore?

I was. This romantic lead is an imperialist, who believed in the empire and the right of Britain to kick in other people’s doors and stamp bloody shoes all over. I wanted some reckoning with that, something that says these people were dangerous to the Inuit communities, [that] they shouldn’t have been there. I sometimes found writing Graham frustrating because he’s a man who doesn’t want to answer questions, to give too much away. I wanted there to be a reason why he’s like that.

Were you also trying to explore what it means to be a refugee?

I’m glad you called that out. In the early version, I was thinking about this idea of being pulled from a place and time and let loose in a culture you don’t understand. As I developed the bridge and she became British Cambodian, it became a hugely important part of the book. In this novel, time travel represents a kind of explosive immigrant and refugee experience, being pulled from one place into another and having to assimilate, being told the only way you can continue to exist and be welcome is to become a perfect 21st-century British person.

What was the hardest part of writing the book?

There’s a lot of playful genre crossover—spy thriller, workplace comedy, romance, which I think is the core of the book. I was inspired by bureaucratic spy thrillers, John le Carré. The Ministry of Fear by Graham Greene inspired the title. Trying to get that balance right was difficult.

Were you worried about losing the joy and humor that drove you in the beginning?

It was an act of protecting that joy. Rewriting is so much trouble. This is the ninth draft of the book. I got to a point where I was like, no one’s going to care about this. I was so exhausted. I had to think, OK, imagine I’m just writing for these friends again. It had to be for them. I couldn’t imagine this terrifying, invisible, mass audience.

How much fun did you have looking at today’s world through the perspective of the time-traveling expats?

That was the most fun thing. Originally the book wasn’t so much a spy thriller. There were lots more fish-out-of-water comedy scenes. There was a whole thing with washing machines and going for a jog, which just baffles the expats. One thing that obsessed me, which didn’t get into the book, was thinking about what people throughout history would have made of traffic lights—they’re quite weird, right? Everyone has to agree that red, orange, green mean the same thing. I zoned out at a lot of crossings.

What about the sex scenes? They’re steamy.

They are among the few scenes that remain almost entirely intact from the first version. It’s embarrassing to admit this. They were the easiest bits to write. Very sorry to historical figure Graham Gore. My dad has read the book; he said he skipped over those sections.

What do you hope people will take away from the book?

Graham Gore and the bridge are flawed people. They make mistakes. They have traumas they are reacting to and don’t understand. But at the end, the bridge is willing to admit to mistakes and open to doing things differently. I hope that’s true of everyone. I hope we can come away from decisions we’ve made that have harmed people and think, I don’t have to keep doing this, I don’t have to keep being that person, I can be someone new. And as a broader community, we don’t have to say, Well, we’re on the path of climate crisis. There’s nothing we can do about it. We can work together; we can change the future. It’s not set in stone.

Amy Reiter is a writer in Brooklyn.