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 Jason LaPier, author of sci-fi murder mystery Unexpected Rain – out now from Harper Voyager! When he’s not being banished to a desert island, Jason can be found at jasonwlapier.com.
Jason, 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 was born and raised in upstate New York, but now I live in Portland, Oregon with my wife and our dachshund. In past lives I have been a guitar player for a metal band, a drum-n-bass DJ, a record store owner, a game developer, and an IT consultant. These days I'm a software architect, and I spend my spare time doing Oregonian things like gardening, hiking, and drinking microbrew. I would totally punch a shark, from behind, if we were both on land.
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 had been trying my hand at novels for a few years and had a few false starts – in other words, I would get working on a novel, get really jazzed, and then get about 100 pages in and hit a roadblock. In 2009, I took the National Novel Writing Month challenge and I wanted a fresh start, so I went back to my roots: classic sci-fi. I didn't want the scope of something too epic (which is always tempting), and I also knew that to make it through a month of nonstop writing, I'd need a strong plot before I got started. A murder mystery set in space was the perfect happy medium of futurist sci-fi setting with a strong plot backbone.
Giving myself a sort of "standard" setting and plot let me get more creative and deep with my characters. I love the dynamic of a hard-nosed tough guy paired up with an all-brains softy, and with the darkness of murder hanging over the story, I was able to broaden these characters a great deal, giving them the drive to solve the case.
Sounds awesome – I’m looking forward to reading it! 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 a tough question because I did so much reading as a kid – my mom was a librarian and I was the only child to show up to kindergarten already able to read an entire book. As I got a little older, I devoured Encyclopedia Brown and Choose Your Own Adventure books. The earliest book I remember re-reading over and over is The Hobbit. Specifically, we had the version that had images from the animated movie that had come out in the 70s, so I could read the text and take a break by looking at the creepy pictures of goblins and giant spiders.
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.
Cryptonomicon, by Neal Stephenson. Being a reader from a young age, I always toyed with the idea of writing fiction myself. Really though, it was when I read this book that for the first time I really thought to myself: I want to tell stories like this. Cryptonomicon has these two parallel timelines: one is World War II and all the secret code decryption work that was going on at Bletchley Park that led to the invention of the modern computer (hey, fun: I just Googled "Bletchley Park" to get the spelling right and it shows a map with a little animated code-decryption underneath it). The other timeline is modern day, where this technology company is trying to create a "data haven", a heavily guarded place somewhere in the world outside of any government control where freedom of speech is guaranteed. The way the the earlier timeline directly influences the later timeline is just a sheer pleasure to read. Being a budding computer geek at the time, I was sucked in by the technology, but fell in love with the writing. Also, both timelines have that tough guy / nerdy guy pairing - an influence on Unexpected Rain that I hadn't noticed when I was writing, but realized later.
I haven’t read Cryptonomicon, but I really should – Bletchley Park is right on my doorstep, and I love anything to do with the codebreakers! 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, that's easy: The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams. And since this is a desert island, I'll take the Ultimate edition that combines all the books into one. There are a few books I've read twice, but this is the only book I've read more than twice – more than five times before I lost count, starting when I was in high school. I go back to it every few years to recharge. It's hilarious and adventurous and just plain fun, romping through space and meeting aliens and impossibly avoiding death time and time again. The characters are like old friends to me.
Since I myself own all five parts of the trilogy in a single omnibus edition, I can’t really object to that cheat! 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 …
If I read non-fiction, it's usually science or technology related, sometimes psychological or historical, but all of that is less than 5% of my reading, because I generally prefer fiction. So when it comes to biographies, I very rarely pick them up, and I still don't know why I came home with What is the What one day. It's written in the first person from the perspective of Valentino Achak Deng as an autobiography, but the author is David Eggers. They worked side-by-side to create the story together. I had no idea what to expect when I read this book, and I definitely didn't know it was going to literally make me cry. It's the amazing story of this man who was one of the "lost boys" of Sudan, driven from his village as a child and forced to make his way across Africa on foot with no clothes, food, anything, into refugee camps, and eventually to America. Eggers masterfully arranges this story to provide maximum tension, emotion, and connection to the voice of the storyteller. It's sad and beautiful and amazing and inspiring. The happy ending is that they used the profits and attention of the book to establish the Valentino Achak Deng Foundation, which returned to South Sudan to build a school in Achak's home town.
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.
I'm going to cheat again and take the omnibus version of another trilogy: Area X (The Southern Reach Trilogy), by Jeff VanderMeer. This book just came out last year, but I'm going to wager that it becomes a classic. Area X is the code name for this section of land and coastline that has been mysteriously cut off from the rest of the world by an inexplicable barrier. There is one portal through the barrier, and so the government sends expeditions through to explore it. Inside, Area X is an ecological anomaly, and nature is in the process of reclaiming the land, rapidly decaying any buildings and populating it with freakish creatures. Each of the three books has a very different literary style, but all of them are creepy and mind-bending.
Oooh, sounds interesting! OK, 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 …
Wow, just one song? I'll have to go with "Paint it Black" by the Rolling Stones, because I sometimes like to pretend that's my theme song. I'd like to take the film Moon because it's amazing and it doubles as music because its soundtrack is so beautiful, but I think instead I'm going to go with Serenity for its rewatch value. Lastly, hmm ... I'd like to take my wife, but she might object to being called an "item", so instead I'll take my guitar to give me something to do with my hands.
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.
Put me on a spaceship and set me adrift in the black! But I don't want something large like the Enterprise - I want something cozy like the Millenium Falcon, or Serenity, or heck, since I already talked about H2G2, how about the sneaker-shaped Heart of Gold? At least I'd have the computer to argue with when I need company!
Hmm, I suppose a spaceship qualifies as a kind of island. Heart of Gold it is. Just don’t ask for tea.
So that’s it, then – you’re ready to go. Thank you for joining us, and enjoy your trip!
Wait, I'm going now? No – wait – I changed my mind – about the guitar! I want to take a case of whiskey instead! Noooooo!