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 Irene Soldatos, author of Bad Bishop (coming 31 October from Safkhet Publishing). When she's not being banished to a desert island, Irene can be found at irenesoldatos.eu.
Irene, 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.
Frankly, I’d rather not wrestle a bear, nor punch a shark, if it’s all the same with you. But if I must choose one, I suppose I’d rather wrestle the bear. Illogical fears there are many – there, for example, choosing the bear over the shark. That’s illogical. Sharks just give me the heeby-jeebies. Some people find them sleek, graceful, and beautiful, and various other silly things like that. Dreadful creatures, if you ask me.
Other dreadful creatures that cause me illogical fear – though, really, it isn’t fear. It’s overwhelming, paralysing disgust – and which are guaranteed to send me into full out, incoherent, panic mode, jumping on chairs and/or, preferably, running away, are cockroaches. If I could, magically, wipe them all from the face of the earth, or teleport them to Mars, or something – although there they’d probably evolve into the Bugs of Klendathu – I’d do it without a second thought. Happily, there aren’t many in the UK (unlike in Greece).
Not one for heights, either, if you must know. As I said. Illogical fears there are many. No unusual birthmarks though.
Right. Better choose a cockroach-free, flat island for your exile, then ;-) And what about your own work? What are the inspirations behind it? What would make someone else choose it to accompany them into exile?
Oh, heck. The inspirations behind it? That’s a bit like asking: what’s made you into what you are, then?
I suppose I can summarise it as: an interest in history and people throughout history, as well as a love of good-old, well-written, layered fantasy and magic. There must always be magic, or the potential for magic, in the world. In this world. Most of the time I’m a physicalist/materialist and a rationalist, but only because I can’t seem to convince myself to be something else. I’d like to be a panpsychist. Or something of that description, or even an idealist, but my brain doesn’t seem to want to play ball. Nevertheless, since, philosophically, the argument is still raging, I indulge myself, and pretend I believe in things I’d like to believe in – so long as they don’t contain clear logical errors or contradict scientific fact. And when I say scientific fact, I mean things like dinosaurs, not things like loop quantum gravity theory, or M-theory. Fascinating stuff that, by the way. I wish I had the maths to understand it better.
What would make someone choose my work to accompany him/her into exile, I couldn’t say. I can’t even imagine that someone would. I suppose if he/she had similar interests and likes layered stories, then, maybe ...
In that case I'd be one of them, for a start! 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?
Hmm ... this is really difficult. How far back do I go? My mother started teaching me to read when I was three; and I took to it like the proverbial duck. I found ALL books interesting and wanted to read more. What to take with? Meg and Mog? I don’t think I’ll ever tire of Meg and Mog. Then there were the incredibly dark and creepy Russian fairy tales my grandmother used to read for me – and later I read repeatedly for myself. Those are definitely a serious contender here. But there’s also the Worst Witch. How I loved those books!
(Mm, I think I can see a pattern emerging here ...)
Oh, but I also really liked Peter Pan. I really liked Peter Pan. And a bit later, Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons. Devoured those ... Aaarrgh! *thinks about it for three days*
Okay. I think it’s going to have to be the creepy Russian fairy tales. Classics like that never get old.
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 one’s easy. (Because I’m not taking into account non-fiction for the moment.) I read it when I was fourteen. Maybe a touch on the young side. But it determined for me what a novel should be like. My mother thought it’d bore me stiff, all those philosophical discussions, but they were my favourite parts of the book. Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose.
Oooh, great choice. I came to it a little later than you – first-year philosophy undergraduate* – but loved it just as much. 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.
Ah, here, you see, this is very difficult again. When I need a pick-me-up, I read British humour. No better remedy in the world. But what to choose? Just one? It can’t be just one, though Tom Sharpe’s Indecent Exposure is something that I read continually for a whole year, whilst I was translating it into Greek, and I never stopped laughing. It takes some doing that, knowing the humour and the jokes backwards and them still being capable of making you laugh. So, Indecent Exposure is definitely one of the contenders here. So’s pretty much any one of Pratchett’s Discoworld novels that I might randomly pick off my shelves, but if I paused to choose, it’d probably either be Wyrd Sisters, Pyramids, Equal Rites, or Thud!. But again, see? I listed four of Pratchett’s books there. How would I choose?
Ah-ha. *canny look*
I know. I’ll take with me Wodehouse’s The World of Blandings. That’s a Blandings Omnibus in case you’re wondering, and no, I don’t think I’m cheating. *arches eyebrow and stares defiantly*
Well, technically you are cheating, but we've seen worse here at BIB and so we'll let you get away with it! 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 interview seems to alternate between easy and difficult questions. Here’s an easy one again. The book I’m going to take with me I picked up because two friends whose taste and judgement I trust, independently of each other, recommended a specific book series from this particular author. I had a look at the book series and decided it wasn’t for me. Not what I really wanted to read at that particular point in time, at least. But this author had also written other books and other book series. And one of these I was prepared to give a try, though the blurb and description didn’t remotely do the book justice, and I might even describe as misleading. As was the cover. But I bought this book nevertheless, on the strength of the first two pages that I read, though I still harboured grave doubts as to whether I was going to enjoy it.
It is, in fact, that first book and the whole four-book series – but with me I’ll only take that first book – nothing short of magnificent and probably the best fantasy novel I’ve ever read. It is Sarah Monette’s Melusine. It is literary and erudite, and layered, and beautifully written with consummate skill. And it’s not for the squeamish or faint of heart, or possibly for the under 16s.
I can’t sing its praises loudly enough or from high enough rooftops.
Yes! I have to say, it's nice to come across someone else who's read and enjoyed Melusine. I agree that it should be much better known. 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.
Ah, see, another difficult question again. Difficult, because I can’t choose between two books of the same American author. One is incredibly funny, historically accurate, and original, the other incredibly sad, historically accurate, and a tour de force in characterization. The one had me laughing for weeks after I’d read it, with the other I was depressed for weeks afterwards – though I already knew the whole story and how it ended before ever reading it. But if you twist my arm, and I can only pick one, I can choose between Gore Vidal’s Live from Golgotha, and Julian, and I will choose Julian.
As before, I don’t have a strong enough voice, nor can I find rooftops high enough. This here interview is about as high a rooftop as I can command, and from here I’ll shout to everyone who’ll listen: Read this book!
With a recommendation like that, how can I refuse? 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 …
Pff. One song/piece of music? Don’t be silly. It’ll be one of these tiny mp3 players that can take hundreds and hundreds of pieces of music. No? Just one? How ’bout one popular piece of music and one classical? You can’t possibly make me choose just one or the other, you’re not that heartless. Ah, I knew you’d say yes!
So, it’ll be Queensrÿche’s Roads to Madness; and Bach’s Harpsichord Concerto in D minor BWV 1052.
Film ... Can I swap it for a TV series? Yeeeees. I’m sure I can. This is easy. I only vacillated for a moment, thinking about Fawlty Towers, but no. It’ll be Yes, Prime Minister, season 1 – or all of them if you let me! ;-)
Item ... I could think of many good things to take with me on a barren island. My chess set, for instance. Pen and paper. But it can’t be any of those things. It’ll have to be a photograph of my family: parents, brothers, husband. Can’t be anything else, really, can it?
Right you are. 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.
Will it be cheating if I say Crete? It’s quite a big island, so I suspect it isn’t quite what you had in mind. But how ’bout this? Chrysi island, uninhabited, 9 miles off the southern coast of Crete, will that do?
Sounds perfect (though I hope for your sake there aren't any cockroaches). So that’s it – 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.
* Yes, I am a mathematician-slash-philosopher. Like Leibniz, I suppose, except (and I hardly need to point this out) I'm not a genius.