Welcome to another interview-with-a-twist in the Barren Island Books series! The rules remain the same: guests imagine they’re being exiled to a remote island with only five books for company, selected from the categories I give them. But the twist is, these guests aren’t authors but fictional characters.
My interviewee this week is Andee Tilbrook, the protagonist of Chasing Azrael – the first book in the Deathly Insanity series by Hazel Butler. Andee is a Gothic archaeologist with a very unusual ability: she can see ghosts. We caught up with her shortly before the start of the mysterious events related in Chasing Azrael …
Andee, thanks for joining us. You're an archaeologist and lecturer at Draethen University. Can you tell us a bit about what your job involves and what you love about it?
Well, my work is threefold, I suppose. On the one hand I’m a teacher, and so spend a great deal of time lecturing, giving seminars, marking work, marking more work, and generally just being on hand to help the students out with their work. On the other hand I’m still an archaeologist, so I have my own research projects going on. This involves hitting the books a lot, writing papers, coming up with new theories and suchlike, but it also involves excavations. That’s the really fun bit. You wouldn’t think it to look at me as I’m quite petite, but there’s nothing better than digging your way into another world. It never gets old (pardon the pun).
My time is generally split between teaching during term time and digging during the holidays. I fit the research and (of course) the marking in whenever I can.
And now from work to your family and friends. Who are the most important people in your life?
An awkward question. James is, and was, the most important person in my life. We met just after I started university, and married not long after that, very shortly after my parents were killed in a car accident. I suppose I was young and grieving, and grew to depend on him for pretty much everything. Which was fine by me, until he killed himself and left me alone … sort of.
I say he left me, but he hasn’t, despite the fact he’s been dead two years now. I can see ghosts. I’m not sure why people think this is cool, but if television is anything to go by I’m given to understand I should enjoy it. I don’t. Despite the fact it has meant James isn’t gone completely, it’s difficult having him there and yet not there. And he’s not the only one I see. The rest of them can be … troublesome.
Aside from James, there are very few (living) people in my life. I’m a solitary creature and (I’m told) quite the misanthrope.
You have said that 'most people run from the Angel of Death, a select few choose to chase him'. Can you explain what you mean by this concept of 'chasing Azrael'?
Chasing Azrael is essentially a reference to anyone who is either suicidal, or has in some way developed an extreme obsession with, or talent for, death. Azrael is a name often associated with the Angel of Death, a figure who – much like the Grim Reaper – is regularly looked to as the personification of death, the figure who comes to claim your life when it’s your time to die.
Most people avoid death, and thus would run from the Angel of Death. Chasing Azrael is an expression I use to describe those people who do the opposite, and actively court death. These are the people who, for their own reasons, either no longer wish to live, or have a fascination with death and dying. Rather than avoiding the Angel of Death, these people are chasing after Azrael; they are running headlong towards their own destruction.
My husband was chasing Azrael his whole life, and finally caught up with him when he jumped off that bridge. There are other ways of chasing him, though; since I was eighteen and saw my first ghost, I’ve had my own obsession with death, one which only deepened when James died. A more extreme version are those who take on an aspect of Azrael themselves, and rather than seeking their own death, bring death to others.
Now, as you know, the idea of this interview is to choose the five books that you’d take into exile with you. So first of all, what was your favourite book as a child, and why?
I always loved fairytales and mythology as a child. My father read a great deal to me, but my favourites were always those by Hans Christian Andersen, in particular The Little Mermaid and The Snow Queen. As I grew older and started reading for myself, I kept on reading them and have found they are the kind of stories that you can read over and over again, and always find more in them with each new reading.
Your love of archaeology is one of the driving forces in your life. So for your second choice, is there a book that really speaks to this passion for you?
There is a book called Gods, Graves and Scholars: The Story of Archaeology. It’s a classic that introduced a great many people to the subject and was one of the first archaeology books I read when I was quite young. My dad was a history professor at Oxford so there were a lot of books like that lying around. I wouldn’t say it’s the best archaeological book in the world, but it certainly has a lot of sentimental value for me.
We understand you're an excellent cellist, though it's been a while since you've played. So for your third choice, what is your favourite book with a musical theme?
Definitely Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist by Rachel Cohn. I spend a lot of time reading for work so it’s really nice to unwind with a book like that, which is such unadulterated fun, and also really explores the hearts of people who have music in their souls.
You also have a love of all things Gothic. So for your fourth pick, what is your favourite Gothic novel?
That’s easy – The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole. I have four dogs, all of whom are named after characters in that particular novel.
And finally, death and the dead are very important to you. Is there a book, either fiction or non-fiction, that you feel deals with this subject in a helpful manner?
Despite it being another children’s book, I’m going to go with Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson. It may be a tale about children, in part written for children, but it deals with some very deep issues and the characterisation is flawless. It’s certainly one I’ve read a lot since James died.
Now you’ve chosen your books, we’ll also let you select one song/piece of music, one film and one other item of your choice to take to the island with you …
Song … I Don’t Want To Miss A Thing by Aerosmith, that’s always been my all-time favourite. Film … that’s a toss-up between Rebecca and Rosemary’s Baby. One other item? Damn you, now I must choose between my piano and my cello … yeah, the cello wins.
Many thanks for joining us, Andee. Enjoy your ‘exile’!