Welcome to Barren Island Books, the author interview series that’s in no way related to a popular music-based radio programme. You know the rules by now: my guests are exiled 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 those books for a long, long time …
My interviewee this week is Graeme K. Talboys, author of Stealing Into Winter - out today from Harper Voyager! When he’s not being banished to a desert island, Graeme can be found at www.graemektalboys.me.uk.
Graeme, 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’m an old hippy raised on Hawkwind and Michael Moorcock with more than a smattering of New Worlds magazine and festival going – which are the only bits of the ’60s I remember with any accuracy. I was born in London and now live in rural Scotland, the journey between being, appropriately enough, a circuitous epic. These days I pretty much devote all my time to writing and reading (when not doing those chores I promised to do six months ago). All my fears are logical and the only distinguishing marks are the scars I’ve accumulated over the years. I have been known to try to herd cats (with about as much success as you would expect), but otherwise leave animals to their own devices. It’s their world, after all.
Very wise! And what about your own work? What are the inspirations behind it? What would make someone else choose it to accompany them into exile?
I’ve always written stories, ever since I could string words together. And I’ve always read voraciously – having been able to read from an early age and lived in a house with books. There are so many literary influences, I couldn’t point to one (a list of my favourite authors on my website will give you an idea of the type of thing I enjoy and which, together, make up part of what has shaped my approach to writing).
Not all my influences have been literary. Music has also played a huge part in shaping the way in which I see the world. As has live theatre and film. The inside of my head is a bit like a kaleidoscope. Lots of bright glittery prisms making patterns. Give it a shake and new patterns form. It keeps me entertained for hours and out of those patterns stories emerge.
If you really wanted to pin me down to one or two names I’d have to go with Mike Moorcock and Joanna Russ, J G Ballard and Ursula le Guin. Four. Four names. And Mervyn Peake. Five. What they have in common is the ability to write riveting, intelligent stories. Ones that put arm around your shoulder and lead you all unsuspecting into places you might not have gone on your own.
I would hope that I am doing the same, finding that balance between good ideas, good writing, and a story that really does want you to turn the pages and keep turning the pages long after your should have turned out the light. Fantasy is the perfect way of doing this as it knows no barriers. Dream and hallucination is on the same footing as ‘reality’, the impossible is always possible. That’s what it is like inside our heads and I believe story should reflect that.
Absolutely! 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?
Difficult, but after much thought this has to be The Future Took Us by David Severn. Two teenage boys are whisked a thousand years into a post-apocalyptic future. Here they discover an agrarian society living under the heel of an elite that is obsessed with mathematics to the point they are experimenting with time travel. It turns out the only book to survive the long war that engulfed humanity was a mathematics text book. The boys become involved in a rebellion in order to gain access to the way to return home. It’s fairly straightforward, but the writing is intense and the descriptions of the future world are extraordinarily well developed for a child’s book written in the late 1950s.
I’ve never come across it, but it sounds really good! 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 has to be T H White’s The Once And Future King. I was introduced to this when I was eleven by my English teacher, Bill Euston. That is, he introduced the class to The Sword In The Stone and encouraged us to read the rest if we felt like it. Although the later books in the series were a bit over my head at that age, I have read them all regularly ever since, perhaps every other year. I had already been interested in the Arthurian stories and this approached them in such an invigorating way that overturned all the stuffy moralising to be found in other so-called children’s versions. It was also formative in my spiritual development, but that’s a whole other story. By turns whimsical and dark it is story-telling at its best whilst managing a depth of philosophical and social exploration you would be hard pressed to find anywhere else. And of course, an interest in T H White led me to the work of Sylvia Townsend Warner. What’s not to like.
Indeed, a true classic :-) 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.
Oh, so difficult. Not least because I’m going to ask for a complete works. I did consider asking for a complete Michael Moorcock, but I knew that would be stretching credibility a bit far. So I’m going to ask if I can have a complete Swallows and Amazons. I’ve loved these books since I was a kid, the whole ethos that children can be trusted to organize themselves and look after themselves with minimal input from ‘natives’. I lived in Norfolk when I first encountered them and quickly grew to love the Lake District as well. Can’t sail. Can dream. Love them. And if you are going to be strict and make me stick to one book (you wouldn’t do that, would you?) it will be The Picts And The Martyrs.
Oh, I guess you can have the complete set, seeing as it’s your book birthday :-) 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 …
I’m not sure there is one of these. Plenty the other way round. I always pick up a book in the expectation of enjoying it and have encountered many I have not enjoyed. The nearest I can get, I suppose, is starting to read a book my mother asked me to get for her once when she was ill and wanted something to read. I opened the book on the bus back home from town and was hooked. I’m not sure I would otherwise have come across the author although I’m glad I did, and I cannot now remember which title it was, but the writer is Margery Allingham and it was one of her Albert Campion novels. I now have all her books. If you want Golden Age detective novels, hers are by far the best as far as I’m concerned, with Gladys Mitchell a very close second.
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.
Ice by Anna Kavan. It’s a book about obsession. The apocalyptic background of a world freezing to death is a reflection of the central character’s emotional breakdown as he hunts across the world for the woman he is obsessed with. It sounds bleak and it is bleak. It is, nonetheless, a compelling read filled with striking visual imagery. I love all of Kavan’s work, but this is by far her best.
Another one I’m unfamiliar with but will have to check out! Anyway, 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 …
One song/piece of music? I’ve just been looking at my CDs. I can’t imagine having just one piece of music. That’s torture. I’ll just stick with my current favourite which is Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack to Interstellar. That counts as a single piece, doesn’t it?
The film was easy. No doubt at all that it would be Tarkovsky’s Stalker. The finest movie of all time, based on the best sci fi book of all time (Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky).
The item was also easy. I have to be able to write. It’s an addiction. If I cannot write I get withdrawal symptoms and become increasingly tetchy. I’m not sure I’d dare see what happens if I prolong that. So if I can’t take my laptop there has to be an endless supply of paper and gallons of ink for my fountain pen.
Done! 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 suppose this is a cheat. It’s not that remote. I can see it from my front door when the weather is good. The Isle of Arran in the Firth of Clyde. I’ve always wanted to live there. I even know the cottage I’d like to live in on the south-eastern shore. It won’t be a hardship. The island has its own distillery. There’s a bookshop. A supermarket. Regular ferries.
If that’s too easy, it will just have to be Pengaver. And if you want to know where that is and what it’s like, you’ll just have to buy Exile And Pilgrim, the second book in my series.
I don't think an island with its own distillery really counts as barren, so Pengaver it is! So that’s it – you’re ready to go. Thank you for joining us, and enjoy your trip!