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 Harriet Goodchild, author of After the Ruin (due to be released by Hadley Rille Books in September 2014). When she's not being banished to a desert island, Harriet can be found at www.hmgoodchild.com.
Harriet, thanks for joining us.
Thank you for inviting me. I’m honoured to be here. I’ve had my eight pieces of music picked out for a while now but it was far, far harder to choose just five books. A good exercise in thinking what I like, and why.
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.
Can I reconsider this exile? You didn’t tell me about the wildlife! I’d worry more about the bears, since they’re much brighter than sharks and we have to share the same habitat. If it came to a wrestling match the bear would have me on the mat within the first five seconds.
Illogical fear: chest freezers. I’ve worked in a lot of places with -80 °C chest freezers and every time I open one, leaning over to rummage around for the right box that is, inevitably, the one right at the bottom, I worry someone will tip me in and shut the lid. This fear may not be entirely unrelated to having seen Shallow Grave at an impressionable age.
Birthmarks, none. I’d be hard-pressed to fill out the ‘Distinguishing Features’ section in an old style passport as I am entirely ordinary in appearance. I do have a large scar on my left knee from falling off a wall when I was seven. I’d been told not to climb the wall but, being seven, didn’t listen.
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 stories in my writing are inspired mostly by folk songs, most especially the Child Ballads. I listen to huge amounts of folk music. I like the stories, I like the way different singers emphasise different aspects of the song, I like the way there is no definitive or final version of the text, that stories shift one into another, I like the images, the blurred lines between the real and the supernatural and that there is no real distinction between the two. That is the mood I want to conjure in my writing: the real world, heightened. That’s my preferred version of fantasy. I suppose, like many (most?) authors I write what I want to read. If I don’t enjoy it, why would anyone else? The landscapes in the book are mine, real places changed to take what I need from them for the story.
Why would someone take it? I’d hope because they wanted to read it!
Your description alone makes me want to read it, so you've succeeded there. 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?
This is Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. Few books have so perfect a marriage of text and pictures, the creatures with aspects of the familiar mixed up with the other and the strange. I have the text of this by heart; it’s a short, muscular, rhythmic poem of a book, highly patterned and repetitive, and there are few things better to read aloud. When I was a small child I was fascinated by it, approaching and avoiding in equal measure. I’d ‘listen’ with my eyes tight shut and my hands pressed not quite tightly enough over my ears and whenever my father asked if I wanted him to stop reading I’d shake my head. Most children’s books are very, very safe, and morally uplifting to boot but this is not a safe book, at least not until the very last line. The wild things are real. Whether they are real outside Max’s mind, whether they are indeed Max, we can discuss for hours, but they are real and Max is the wildest of all.
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 the easiest choice of all. It has to be Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. When I first read it I was truly stunned: I had not known writing could be that good. I read a fair amount of historical novels, and of those a good few cover the same period and the same people. Some are well researched, some (probably fewer) are well written. This book is in a different league entirely. She’s a scrupulous historian (if she says Cromwell met More in Whitehall on such and such a day, you can be sure he did) but the history never limits the story. Cromwell is a towering figure, a politician who reshaped his time as much as Henry VIII himself, and here is a man who never forgets either a good deed or an ill one. I also especially enjoyed Mantel’s version of Thomas More; think of it as a counterbalance to that in A Man for All Seasons. It’s a wonderful book, a wonderful story. It made me laugh, it made me cry, it made me think. I can’t really ask for more from any book. But in the end it showed me a different way to write; a new perspective on the world. Of course, being Mantel, she then repeated the miracle with Bring up the Bodies. I’ve heard arguments – and would be loath to counter them – that that is the better book but you can’t get that first visceral shock of recognition – Yes, this is what writing should be like – twice and so Wolf Hall is indeed the book that changed me.
All right, a confession: I haven't read Wolf Hall. I know I should have, but I haven't. Clearly I'm going to have to rectify that.
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, this one too was so very, very easy! Whenever I’m run down, or ill, or just in a bad mood I turn to my shelf of Georgette Heyer’s novels. I could choose almost any one of them and within half an hour you’d hear me gurgle with laughter. Narrowing it down, I pondered briefly about taking Venetia or Friday’s Child, which both build to wonderful and witty near-farces of cross-purposes, schemes, counter-schemes and misunderstandings before their inevitable happy endings, but if I can have only one it has to be These Old Shades. It was the first of her books I ever read and, even now, long after I’ve read all the rest thrice over, it’s the one I think of whenever someone mentions Heyer’s name. Avon is the classic villain-hero, cynical and world-worn, Léonie the resourceful and sparkling heroine, there’s a cast of eccentric supporting characters and a completely hiss-boo French baddy. Perfect romantic, wish fulfilment reading when you’re stranded on a deserted island with no hope of rescue.
You are the first BIB interviewee other than myself (yes, I did interview myself) to choose Heyer, and for that I'm almost tempted to let you have an extra book … but I'd better not. Rules is rules.
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 …
This was the hardest book to choose. I’ve read books I expected to like but didn’t, and a fair few I didn’t expect to like and didn’t (sorry, fellow members of my book club!) but since a) I know what I like and b) I like a good many things, ‘didn’t expect to like but did’ is a fairly small category. It does exist and the best of it is The 85 Ways to Tie a Tie by Thomas Fink and Yong Mao. I bought it for a colleague as a joke, based solely upon the title, but, as you do, ended up flicking through it. After a bit, I sat down to consider it more carefully and finally I went back to the beginning and read it properly. And then went out and bought a fresh copy for my colleague. It does exactly what it says in the title but it is funny and clever, easy to read in bite-sized pieces and all in all is a triumph of popular science writing. After reading you’ll consider ties in another way entirely and wonder why so many men fail to match knot to collar size ... I’m tempted to put this forward for unrecognised classic as well. Oh, and on a deserted island, knowing a few knots might come in handy.
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.
Here, I’m going to be difficult. Two books came instantly to mind: Rosemary Sutcliff’s Sword at Sunset, which is the most heart-achingly beautiful retelling of the Arthurian legend you are ever likely to read, and James Robertson’s epic tale of modern Scotland, And the Land Lay Still – and, in the end, I’m not going to take either of them. Both are classics, whether I take them or not. And besides, quite selfishly considering my own wellbeing on this island, Sword at Sunset is pretty well a part of me and so it’ll be with me regardless of whether I have a physical copy or not; and And the Land Lay Still is a book to talk about for hours, arguing about its themes and ideas, and alone on a deserted island I’d not be able to do that. So instead, I’m going to choose Robert Graves’ Complete Poems. He’s known best for I, Claudius but I reckon he’s the greatest lyric poet of the twentieth century. He dissects the human heart with a lover’s passion and a surgeon’s precision. There’s so much more in his poetry besides, myth and legend and autobiography; the full horrors of the Great War. Everything you need to know about humanity is in his poems, from the despicable to the sublime.
Right. 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 …
Only one song! That’s going beyond heartless into the positively cruel. I spent ages choosing this, playing the two final possibles over and over. The first was Allegri’s Miserere (sung by The Sixteen) and the other Lau’s singing of The Unquiet Grave (Child Ballad no. 78). In the end, I tossed a coin: The Unquiet Grave it is.
The film is Casablanca. Comfort watching, just as Georgette Heyer is comfort reading. Alone on a desert island, listening to The Unquiet Grave over and over, I’m going to need a lot of comfort.
The other item of my choice is Titian’s Portrait of a Young Man with Hat and Gloves. It hangs in the National Gallery in London but I reckon it will look even better propped up against a tree. I’ve been near obsessed with this picture for years now and I would willingly be exiled to an island if I could take it with me.
Nothing is impossible for the BIB team, so consider the painting yours (we'll deal with the public outcry over the disappearance of a masterpiece when we come to it). 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 spent much of my childhood on a Scottish island. There are very few places more lovely in the summertime. For exile, however, I’d like to choose one that’s rather warmer, very much less damp, free of midges and with fewer howling gales. Sandy beaches, pleasant vegetation, not too much wildlife that will want to sting, crunch or scare me to death: one of the Greek ones would do fine.
Actually, scrub that for an idea. Send me to Gont.
An excellent fantasy choice :-) 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.