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 James Kendley, author of The Drowning God - coming soon from Harper Voyager Impulse. When he’s not being banished to a desert island, James can be found at kendley.com. Stay tuned for more information at the end of the interview!
James, 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.
Oh, I’m a middle-aged guy who writes paranormal thrillers about things I saw from the corner of my eye during eight years in Japan. I have ridden an elephant, eaten various varieties of still-living food (to be polite), and played Sir Isaac Newton in a television commercial, but I am otherwise unremarkable.
That sounds pretty interesting to me! 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 Drowning God was mostly inspired by the Japanese folk tales it brings to life but also by the claustrophobic and inescapable horror of the works of Kobo Abe. The absurd surrealism of Abe’s world always seems to tighten to the point that the characters have no choices left, revealing that they had no choices to start with (no claims on Kobo scholarship, BTW, so take that with a grain of salt). So that’s the starting point, but The Drowning God, despite the thrills, chills, and unrelenting creepiness I tried my best to infuse it with, is a downright subversive work in today’s horror market: a claim that the universe is based on infinite love and infinite mercy, and the good fight is worth fighting. That, I think, makes it a desert island book.
Just don’t read it alone.
Unless you’re stranded on a desert island.
It sounds like the perfect horror novel for me - I like a gleam of optimism in my darkness! 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?
The Odyssey. I briefly considered The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe or Jack Pumpkinhead of Oz, but neither of those really changed my life. I wanted to wander since I was little, and even though I only did so during that magical time between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the fall of the Twin Towers, I think The Odyssey was behind it.
And there’s a lot of meat on those bones. It’s still a damned good story.
Agreed! 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.
Samuel R. Delaney’s Dhalgren. I read it at 12, and I spent almost 20 years imitating the dense imagistic poetry woven through this urban dystopia. After I read it through the third time, I couldn’t not write.
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.
Anything by the late Iain M. Banks, especially the Culture novels. It’s ripping space opera, but hilarious and playful, the product of an agile, active mind. Purists may disagree, but I would start the Culture novels with The Player of Games. Excession won’t be available, because I’ve taken it to the island. Sorry.
Excession it is! 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 don’t read books I don’t expect to like, and I’ll drop a book like a bad habit when my expectations aren’t met. Sometimes on the second page.
Dava Sobel’s Longitude is one I didn’t expect to love. I admired the compelling storytelling and the masterful handling of exposition. Haven’t read it in 20 years, but I’m ready to go back.
BONUS: The Hunger Games. Sometimes it’s just nice to see a storyteller building in the cliffhangers, thrills, and chills in a way that compels the reader to keep turning the pages. I appreciate craft in mass market works as well as masterpieces.
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.
Nah. Let’s leave it to critics and scholars to call things classic.
Hey, want good, scary fun? Try Vampires at Midnight (aka The Midnight People), edited by Peter Haining. This 18-story collection is an education in vampires from the Gothic roots of vampire lit to the postmodern nuclear sci-fi bloodsucking that set the stage for today’s wave of zombie fiction. Maybe this is a classic. Maybe we should pass it on to future generations so they don’t think vampires were always sparkly and hawt.
To be honest, I think we’d be doing the world a service! 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 …
Only one each? Torture. I’m in the hands of sadists at this point.
One piece of music? Can’t decide between XTC’s English Settlement and Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells.
One film? Prospero’s Books or The Wrong Box.
One other object? A Swiss Army knife or a convex mirror.
Since I’m notorious for my inability to make decisions, I handed this one over to a coin toss, and the results are ... Tubular Bells, Prospero’s Books, Swiss Army knife! Hopefully that’s an acceptable combination :-)
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.
Excellent! Just set me down in a locale from the third book in The Drowning God series, tentatively titled A Hideous Spark: Tioman Island, Mersing, Johor, Malaysia, Latitude:2.430917°, Longitude:103.836115°.
No need to clear off the casino and golf course and whatnot. It’ll all be jungle again after a few monsoon seasons…
That’s it, then – you’re ready to go. Thank you for joining us, and enjoy your trip!
About the book
To uncover modern Japan's darkest, deadliest secret, one man must face a living nightmare from his childhood.
Few villagers are happy when Detective Tohru Takuda returns to his hometown to investigate a string of suspicious disappearances. Even the local police chief tries to shut him out of the case. For behind the conspiracy lurks a monstrous living relic of Japan's pagan prehistory: the Kappa. Protected long ago by a horrible pact with local farmers—and now by coldly calculating corporate interests—the Kappa drains the valley's lifeblood, one villager at a time.
As the body count rises, Takuda must try to end the Drowning God's centuries-long reign of terror, and failure means death…or worse.
About the author
James Kendley's first published novel, The Drowning God (HarperCollins, July 28, 2015), was chosen out of more than 4,500 entries for Harper Voyager Impulse's digital-first campaign. Kendley has written and edited professionally for more than 30 years, first as a newspaper reporter and editor, then as a copy editor and translator in Japan (where he taught for eight years at private colleges and universities), and currently as an educational publishing content wrangler living in northern Virginia.