Welcome to Barren Island Books, an interview show in no way related to a popular music-based radio programme. Every Thursday, I will be exiling my latest guest to a remote island with only five books for company, selected from the categories I give them. It’s up to them to make sure they choose wisely, because they’re going to be stuck with these books for a long, long time …
My interviewee this week is Cherry Gregory, author of The Girl From Ithaca. When she's not being banished to a desert island, Cherry can be found at imprint.li/cherry-gregory.
Cherry, thanks for joining us. First of all, could you please tell us a little bit about yourself – just so we know who it is we’re sending into exile. Illogical fears, unusual birthmarks, whether you’d rather wrestle a bear or punch a shark, that kind of thing.
I have no unusual birthmarks, but I do have terrible eyesight, so please let me take my glasses or else I won’t be able to see the books, never mind read them! I don’t think I have illogical fears, or at least my fears feel pretty logical to me. They include the state of the world, such as the Syrian question, the environment and the stupidity of the government. Now, wrestle a bear or punch a shark? I prefer bears to sharks, so I’ll choose punching a shark.
And what about your own work? What are the inspirations behind it? What would make someone else choose it to accompany them into exile?
The inspiration for The Girl from Ithaca came when I was nine or ten years old, through a book I will take with me as my favourite childhood book. It introduced me to the tales of the Trojan War. Being captivated by the stories, but disappointed there weren’t any female heroes, I used to make up my own stories about a younger sister of Odysseus. Odysseus’ sister remained with me through my teens and into adulthood and I did sometimes think of writing the stories down, but time moves quickly and soon studying, exams, work and family took my attention and energy. Just over four years ago, when I was in remission from cancer, I’d been made redundant from work and my daughter was going off to university, I suddenly realised I had time to write my story! I knew that if I didn’t do it then, I never would. So the story of Neomene of Ithaca was born. It’s a story of the Trojan War, but also a journey through life as Neomene grows to realise there’s bravery beyond being courageous in battle and women can be as heroic as men.
It sounds wonderful. So now let’s move on to the books you’re going to take to the island with you. First up, it’s your favourite childhood book – perhaps the one that got you interested in reading in the first place, or the one you read over and over when you were young. Which will you choose, and why?
My favourite childhood book is Tales of the Greeks and Trojans by Roger Lancelyn Green, illustrated by Janet and Anne Grahame Johnstone. I stumbled upon this beautiful book in a book sale when I was nine. I’d never heard of Greek myths or the Trojan War, but it was the dramatic illustrations that grabbed my attention and made me buy it. As soon as I got it home and read the first page, I was captivated. When I was older, I read more books about the Trojan War, but it was this book I went back to time and time again.
Next, the book that made the greatest impact on your life. This could be one that inspired you to become a writer, or one that made you look at the world in a whole new way – maybe even one that resulted in real-life romance or adventure.
This is a hard choice, as a number of books have encouraged me to look at the world in different ways, but after a long deliberation, I select The Long Walk by Slavomir Rawicz. It tells the true story of Polish officer Slavomir Rawicz and a small group of companions who escape from a soviet prison camp in Siberia and walk the 4,000 miles to India. I can still remember where I was and how I felt when I read it for the first time. It was a true inspiration to me. I thought my problems were bad enough and yet with this book I saw how one brave and modest man had faced enormous odds and still won.
For your third book – and you’re probably going to need this one, all alone on a remote island – I’d like you to choose your greatest comfort read. You know, the one you turn to when you’re sad or ill or just need a little pick-me-up.
I think I will take the collected works of the poet Walter de la Mare. His poems include several I learnt and loved as a child, including Nicholas Nye (“Thistle and darnel and dock grew there, And a Bush in the corner of May …” makes me smile every time I read it) and The Listeners (“'Is there anybody there?' said the Traveller, knocking on the moonlit door …” – full of mystery and a little bit spooky!) De la Mare’s poetry is great to dip into at night or when I need some reassurance. It’ll serve me well on the desert island.
Yes, I always think a poetry collection is a good choice; it's so multifaceted that you'll find something new in it even after multiple readings. Fourthly, it’s your unexpected treasure: a book you didn’t expect to like but did, maybe one outside your usual genre or that you picked up with low expectations but were pleasantly surprised …
A few years ago, I was on holiday on the western coast of Scotland. For those of you who have never ventured to this beautiful and peaceful part of Britain, I need to explain that when the weather is good, there cannot be a more idyllic location to relax and explore. But when it rains, it can set in for days on end. It was during one of those days-on-end rainstorms that I ran out of books in my caravan! I didn’t feel like reading my husband’s books on electronics and technical drawing, so I looked at what they had in the small shop nearby. Not much, unless I was interested in wild flowers and Scottish butterflies. Then I found Planet of the Apes by Pierre Boulle. I’d seen some of the films and although I’d enjoyed them enough as movies, I didn’t think I was going to enjoy the book. It was far deeper and more philosophical than I expected; it spoke a lot about humanity’s stupidity and arrogance. It’s definitely a book worth reading.
And finally, I’d like you to choose your instant classic – the book you think most deserves to be read and reread by future generations. It’s up to you whether this book is already considered a classic or is something more obscure.
My book is already a classic: 1984 by George Orwell. I think its message has become more relevant today than when it was written in 1948. So many aspects of life that the main character, Winston Smith, has to endure are now part of our lives too: constant surveillance, double-speak by politicians and meaningless wars.
Excellent – 1984 is one I return to on a regular basis myself :-) We’ll get those five books packaged up ready for your journey. Since we’re not completely heartless here at Barren Island Books, we’ll also let you take one song/piece of music, one film and one other item of your choice into exile with you …
The song I would take is The End of the Line by the Travelling Wilberrys, because it’s cheerful, encourages accepting yourself and others (“Doesn’t matter if you’re old and grey …!”) and sings about battling on to the end. For the film I think I’ll go for pure entertainment, so I’ll choose Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. My other item would be my old teddy bear, who’s been a trusty companion for most of my life.
Aw. That's so heart-warming, we'll even let you take your glasses as well! Now, before we whisk you away, you have one last decision to make: where you want your remote island to be located. You can choose anywhere you like for your exile, in this world or another.
I’ve never been, but I would love to go … the Greek island of Ithaca.
Well, you really ought to be given the chance to visit the island of your inspiration, and we're happy to oblige. That’s it, then – you’re ready to go. Thank you for joining us, and enjoy your trip!
If you are an author and would like to take part in a future edition of Barren Island Books, please get in touch with me via the Contact page.