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 Jeff Pearce, author of brilliant sci-fi novel The Karma Booth. When he’s not being banished to a desert island, Jeff can be found at twitter.com/jeffpropulsion.
Jeff, 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.
Wait! How did I get here? And why did you make me wear that potato sack over my head? I’m going where …?!
Okay, I’m calm now. As for your questions: no illogical fears over unusual birthmarks. I’ve never feared birthmarks. Oh, um, perhaps those were two different things ... Personally, I’d rather opt for manipulating the bear into punching the shark, especially as shark fins are notoriously unreliable for any wrestling matches. Just ask the WWF. No holds or takedowns at all. In their last championship, you heard the standard Jaws theme, “daaa-dum, daaa-dum, dum, dum, dum, dum,” but then everything after that in the ring was kind of a letdown. So in summation: Go, Bear!
I guess we should devote a little bit of space to the crazy person typing. :) I’ve had a rather eclectic career, and if folks are familiar with me at all, they may know me in one genre while others know me in a completely different one. I wrote a set of science fiction and fantasy novels that have done well with the indie circuit. The Karma Booth was recently re-released by Harper Voyager (see review) while Reich TV gained an enthusiastic following.
But I’ve also done a bunch of history and current affairs books that proved popular. One of them, Gangs in Canada, did so well that it was adopted in British Columbia as a criminology textbook, even though it doesn’t read like one—it’s a narrative of investigative journalism, with disturbing anecdotes about initiations with stabbings and drive-by shooting cases.
And more recently, I finally finished a labour of love, my book, Prevail, about the Italian-Ethiopian war back in the 1930s and '40s. It’s an incredible story, and I managed to track down survivors who are still alive today to tell about what happened.
And what about your own work? What are the inspirations behind it? What would make someone else choose it to accompany them into exile?
Interesting questions. Inspiration depends on the project. With The Karma Booth, I was literally puttering away in my washroom one evening when I overheard dialogue from an old Law & Order episode, something like “Executing so-and-so won’t bring your sister back” or whatever. And I thought, Hey, what if it could? And then: Whoa … I knew I had something special, but I wasn’t sure how to develop it. I actually sat on the concept for a full year, tinkering it over in my brain, weighing the possibilities, before I even began writing anything at all.
With Reich TV, what fascinated me was the discovery that German television developed in 1936 or so as the Nazis were tightening their grip. But if you know anything about TV and its history, it can be the great exposer. Think of how creepy Nixon looked in his election debate with Kennedy, or for Britons, how a mother took on Margaret Thatcher over the Falklands War and demonstrated what a heartless bitch the Iron Lady was. With early German television, you simply couldn’t have the Leni Riefenstahl spectacle on live broadcasts that she used in films like Triumph of the Will. It’s why the Nazis hated television—it reduced them to a human scale.
I’m the son of an electronics engineer, and because I know TV used to work on analog radio waves, I figured out it would make the perfect guerilla warfare medium. Well, okay, who’s going to be the hero of this story?
The thing is that George Orwell was quite active around this time. His novel, 1984, takes shots at Communist Russia, but it’s about totalitarianism in general. And I thought, What if you take this brilliant guy and drop him in there? If you know history, you can have a blast with it.
During the heyday of American television in the 1950s, all the best writers were working for it and many future film stars: you could catch Charlton Heston doing a Rod Serling teleplay or Paul Newman in a great drama. Well, suppose TV in Britain or Germany was a little more advanced? Dylan Thomas was already doing stuff for BBC radio—he’d be a natural!
Prevail is a history book, but its roots were as a failed novel—and it’s a good thing it failed, because it prompted me to go back and do more research. As I dug up more fascinating bits, I realized the story would be completely implausible as fiction. You had Marconi, for instance, trying to develop a microwave weapon for the Fascists to take on Britain, which nearly went to war with Italy over Ethiopia. That really happened. You had thousands of African-Americans wanting to sign up and sail over to fight for an African country—in 1935. You had a boy of 15 in Ethiopia decide he would hunt Italian soldiers instead of animals, and he wound up becoming a general in charge of 3,500 men—at 20 years old. If I tried to write all that in a novel, you wouldn’t buy it, you’d never believe it. But it’s all true.
And if there’s a conceit in someone wanting to take any of my books to a deserted island, I think it’s the fact that (hopefully) there are added dimensions to them. I like to think that they provoke you to think, or they offer you a lush backdrop of history or adventure that you wouldn’t normally expect. One of the nicest compliments passed on to me over Prevail was from an Ethiopian academic who apparently said that he loved how I “brought the characters to life.” That’s incredibly gratifying on multiple levels because a) who the hell am I, writing about others' history; b) he found it compelling, which history should always be, just like a good novel; c) the people from a time of 80 years ago came to life for him and others, which means the lessons won’t be lost.
I love the comparison between novels and history. I remember so many tedious history textbooks from my youth, and yet it's one of the most fascinating subjects there is; a little more drawing out of the amazing human stories behind the historical facts wouldn't have gone amiss with teenaged me! 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?
In retrospect, I think the one that was one of my favourites but also the most influential was D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths, which is an absolute delight. You have these beautiful illustrations, and I remember the story of Hermes particularly enthralled me, because he was depicted as clever and mischievous even as a newborn babe. This must have had some influence on my liking fantasy. I was a bit troubled, though, because so many of the stories had sad endings. It’s kind of hard for a seven-year-old to wrap his head around the idea of Greek tragedy.
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.
I don’t know for sure if the book made the greatest impact on my life, but I trace my real maturation as a writer to Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge. As a stylist, he wrote in clichés and often hackneyed phrases, but his style of narrative was so direct that it unlocked for me how to tell a story. Before I found Maugham, I was floundering around, not really knowing what I was doing, and I found certain “literary” novelists impenetrable—because they were boring (gawd, they were boring). Then along comes Maugham, who really learned his novelist’s craft as a dramatist, and his way of doing it was to cut out the boring bits in a scene; to say, “Hey, I’ve got this great story for you. There was this man, see?” And we’re off to the races.
The Razor’s Edge is a gem of characterization and unique storytelling because in any other novel about someone finding spiritual enlightenment, that would be the climax: the epiphany. Bing! You’re done. No, Maugham has the brilliant instincts to say, okay, what happens then? And then he tells you. It’s a novel that’s perfect for anyone in their late teens and twenties, because this is the age when your circle of friends are your heroes, when you feel you’re on the verge of great things, when there’s so much promise. And then it shows you what can happen to that circle as life gets in the way.
I could gush on about this novel, but I’ve done all that before, and anyone who’s interested, if I can shamelessly advertise an old link, can find my thoughts in a longer article here.
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.
It’s a tie. I know, I know—I’m sure you have a lot of folks who want to cheat and offer “ties.” Hey, I’m being exiled! Anyway, I have a nice copy of the big ol’ brick that’s Gore Vidal’s United States, his tome of essays from the 1950s to the 1990s. Vidal had a delicious wit that’s so much fun: “A narcissist is anyone better looking than you are” or “Write what you know will always be excellent advice to those who ought not to write at all.” In the book, his piece on the Top Ten Bestsellers is absolutely hysterical. Any of his essays that skewers the right, academia, the anti-gay lobby are always a delightful re-read.
It’s either that one or The Essential Ellison, a massive collection of works by one of my favorite fantasy writers of all time, Harlan Ellison. This is another writer who can teach so much, yet as you read him, you doubt that you could ever be as good as he is. “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” is truly one of the most uncompromising, searing depictions of brutal, authoritarian violence ever created—and it’s by a machine. There is no copping out with any false hope or a cliché in which the hero wins, but there is a victory of sorts. There are brilliant essays in it like “I Don’t Think We’re in Kansas Anymore, Toto”—the background story to one of the most execrable sci fi shows ever created (naturally, it was a Canadian show. It was called The Starlost, and in a bizarre twist of fate, I wound up writing news copy decades later for one of its stars, who did a stint as a presenter). The book’s a treasure.
And talking of which, 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 …
When I was working on Prevail, I ended up digging a lot into the background of a young journalist named George Steer, who seemed to be everywhere important and who was such a keen and insightful observer, who got quoted in all the older history books about the war in Ethiopia but who hasn’t really gotten his proper due until now (a great biography of him called Telegram from Guernica was done by the great writer Nicholas Rankin).
Steer wrote a wonderful book called Caesar in Abyssinia, about Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia. I needed to rummage through it for research, but Steer has such a wonderful turn of phrase, and the genuine progressive attitudes of the guy and his nobility just shine through his work. It ends with a heartbreaking scene in which he tells one of his Ethiopian friends that the British will eventually keep their word and return to help them against Italy; the last line is that the friend “really believed what I said.”
It’s hard to get, but Faber & Faber has brought out a paperback reprint edition of it.
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.
One of my other favourite writers, Theodore Sturgeon, wrote a novel called Venus Plus X about gender and sexuality. It was published in 1960, and it was so ahead of its time that even by the decade that I got to it, it rocked my world. It makes you think about what it means to be male or female … or to be neither one. It provokes you to consider your own socialized construct of your sexuality. And it’s a science fiction paperback novel from 1960. That’s awesome. It demonstrates so clearly that academics or “literary” novelists can tap out 600 pages, or whatever length of tome they choose, pontificating quite condescendingly with tortured syntax on gender issues and give you a picture, but the guy who knocks out the “Amok Time” episode of Star Trek will show you what your humanity really means … and make you want to cry.
The book has a kind of cult status, I think, but it always should have been embraced more by feminists, LGBT activists, the transgender community, anyone who wants real equality. I do believe in fiction that’s activist, that’s political (but not didactic), and here we are in this era where we can now talk about driverless cars and Google watches, but we haven’t gotten over the mountain of pure bullshit baggage over gender and sex.
Sadly all too true. 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 …
I guess the “one other item” being a powerboat is out of the question, right? Please stop pointing that disruptor at me. And I notice you’re not giving me any food, but the place is called Barren Island. I’m beginning to get concerned …
Okay, okay. For music, I think I’d like Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue album, which has so many shades to it that’s it good for any day. For film, Casablanca, because you’ve got everything in there: great writing, brilliant adventure, razor-sharp wit, heroes, villains, romance, Ingrid Bergman looking unbelievably gorgeous … and for my one other item, I guess I’ll go with the purely sentimental. On a coffee table sits a small brass Buddha purchased at the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, Burma. It’ll remind me of one of the loveliest, most meaningful and rewarding times of my life, when I taught journalism to a bunch of young people, whom I came to love.
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.
This might reduce folks’ respect for my intelligence, but lately I and someone at home started watching this incredibly stupid reality show, Dating Naked. We don’t care about the people so much—we just get really excited about the cool house on this island in the Philippines. Can I go there? Oh, and can you please kick out the show production staff? Oh! And please have someone clean all the furniture--I mean, come on, there have been a lot of naked asses on the couches and such.
Yes, I think we can probably manage a pristine version :-) That’s it, then – you’re ready to go. Thank you for joining us, and enjoy your trip!
So that’s still a “no” on the powerboat?