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 Jane Dougherty, author of The Green Woman series (the first of which is The Dark Citadel). When she’s not being banished to a desert island, Jane can be found at janedougherty.wordpress.com.
Jane, 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.
What I am is the perpetual emigrant. My parents, who were both of Irish descent, emigrated to Yorkshire shortly after I was born. I still have a fondness for Yorkshire even though after leaving to go to university in Manchester, then London, I never went back. My future husband thought it would be a wonderful idea if I got a job in the wine trade while he played at being a student in the south of France, so we’d be able to a) live in France b) have lots of free wine. Sounded like a reasonable plan, so that’s what I did. First stop Paris, then Picardy, and Bordeaux for the last seven years. We also picked up five children along the way, which put paid to the job, but gave me the time at home to start writing.
None of my fears are illogical. I’m only frightened of really big spiders, bad drivers, heights, crowds, and doctors. The only birthmark I have is a Mongolian blue spot, which I suppose counts as unusual given that all my blood is green. I have a simian crease on both palms, but I suspect I ought to keep quiet about that. Don’t do bear wrestling at all, and sharks should have gone on the list of favourite frightening things.
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 first book of mine to be published is the first in a series I wrote with my teenage children in mind. A couple of them devoured the library’s stock of fantasy, never entirely satisfied with what they read. I took their complaints on board and wrote them a story without royalty, brainless hulking heroes, wicked, scantily dressed queens, magic swords, or talking animals. The result is grey, verging on black, grim, but with a dash of fantasy/myth to give it a bit of colour. I hope I gave them a bit of food for thought on the nature of evil, and the place of right in the notion of heroic.
I can’t see anyone wanting to take the first volume into exile with them as it would be highly frustrating. Wait until the whole series is out and they can take the boxed set.
Good plan :-) 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 childhood favourite, even more favourite than the Narnia books (Aslan gave me the creeps) was John Masefield’s The Box of Delights which I read over and over, then read again when each of my children read it. Even though the social context of the story was completely alien, I felt completely in tune with the dream elements. As a child I had recurring nightmares about wolves, and the phrase ‘The wolves are running’ still sends shivers up my spine.
I don’t think anyone has chosen The Box of Delights before, which is a surprise, because it’s definitely a classic! 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.
Alberto Moravia’s Racconti Romani. I have a long-standing love affair with Italy and things Italian. I love Italian literature and although I have no first-hand experience of Rome just after the Second World War, reading Moravia’s stories took me right there. I already knew Rome quite well and making the imaginative leap was easy. It was the first time I became aware of the story as depicting a slice of real life, not a completely invented world. I think it was also the first time I thought to myself, I wish I could write like that, rather than simply, I wish I could 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.
Probably T.H. White’s The Once and Future King. As a child I read The Sword in the Stone dozens of times, and discovered the other three books in my mid-teens. The seriousness of the writing changes as Wart grows to be King Arthur, without ever straying too far from the magical atmosphere of the first book. Read as a child, the series makes an adventure story to which we know the ending, but hope each time it will be different. As an adult it becomes the story of a tragic love triangle set against Arthur’s sense of his responsibilities as moral leader. T.H. White struggled with the moral dilemmas of might and right, with Hitler very much occupying his thoughts. Arthur’s chewing over of the moral consequences of his decisions is something I much appreciate, and is a dimension often lacking, especially in fantasy literature.
Agreed – and good to see another children’s classic on your list that hitherto has been neglected by BIB guests! 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 …
Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence. When I studied American literature at Manchester one of the courses was, inevitably enough, Henry James, with Edith Wharton tagged on as light relief. I had a bellyful of Henry James, who took up most of the year, and we only got round to looking at Wharton towards the end. I hadn’t read anything of hers and was not looking forward to it, assuming she would be like H.J. but rougher. What a pleasure it was! I have never understood James’ popularity — uncharismatic characters, very little plot that takes forever to get not very far, with the most beautifully crafted, long-winded sentences I’ve ever read. Edith Wharton was a breath of fresh air. Hard to believe they were contemporaneous, even hung around together. After reading The Age of Innocence I ditched James and went on to read everything of Wharton’s I could find.
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.
Salammbô by Gustave Flaubert. I’m always banging on about Salammbô because I love it. It’s one of those classics hardly anybody’s read, not even in France. It was panned by critics (later, when archaeologists had a bit more info about Carthage) for inaccuracies. But who cares? The descriptions are sumptuous and the characters are wonderful — Matho, the mercenary leader, is one of the best barbarian male leads I can think of. It seems boorish to criticise Flaubert for details he could not have known about when he wrote the story. It’s the atmosphere I find rings so eerily true, and the image of the sacrifice to Moloch that young Hannibal escapes has remained with me, as readers of the sequel to The Dark Citadel will discover.
And with that tantalising piece of information about your next book, you’re done! We’ll get your chosen 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 …
I’ll take that to mean a song and a piece of music, because, frankly, one song isn’t enough, is it? Music, I want to have the human voice too, so that’s opera or … the Mozart Requiem. I’ll have that, please, and if I can have just a small little song too, I’d like to have Anthony Kearns singing Danny Boy. It’s a lovely song, he has a beautiful voice, and I love a good weep. Film, Casablanca please, and the item will have to be my dog, Finbar, because he’d pine away without me.
Heh. I meant a song or a piece of music, but I have no choice but to allow you to take advantage of my ambiguity :-) 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 had thought of Narnia, as long as I didn’t have to meet that awful lion. Seems as though half the UK have applied for visas, though, so maybe not. If you could arrange to drag a bit of the south west of Ireland, somewhere round Bantry, Garnish Island say, into the Mediterranean, that would be lovely.
No problem. 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.