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 Jim Webster, author of Swords for a Dead Lady and Dead Man Riding East. When he's not being banished to a desert island, Jim can be found at jandbvwebster.wordpress.com.
Jim, 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.
When I was a kid my little sister always accused me of being too logical. So perhaps I just have logical fears?
About me? I’m English and live in South Cumbria. I’m married with three daughters, all of whom have sort of left home. I was born on a farm and I’m still here. We’re nicely rural but most of my friends build nuclear submarines for a living.
I can do an awful lot of things ‘sort of adequately’. I’ve been driving tractors since I was eight, I can weld, I’ve worked with cattle, sheep and pigs, I can fill in forms and deal with inane bureaucratic demands. I’m not old enough to have worked with horses, but I grew up surrounded by the generation who did.
I’ve done freelance writing/journalism after a fashion for thirty years. I’ve done some consultancy; I’ve even spoken truth unto power, which is fun when power suddenly discovers it cannot fire you because it never employed you in the first place, but invited you because it claimed to want an honest opinion. I’ve never been an employee, but I’ve been an employer, and I’ve never had a mortgage but when I was nineteen my share of the overdraft would have bought a small house locally.
Bears you don’t wrestle. You drop a glove on the floor and keep running, hoping they’ll stop to investigate the scent.
And what about your own work? What are the inspirations behind it? What would make someone else choose it to accompany them into exile?
My source of inspiration? It has to be Jack Vance. I remember buying his book The Dragon Masters when I was about fourteen. I have bought every new Jack Vance book that I’ve come across since that day. His writing was just a revelation for me. The worlds, the cultures he describes, are as much an integral part of the story as the characters. When you read a Jack Vance book you don’t merely have the excitement and the suspense of a plot, you travel to fascinating places at the same time. What also excited me about Jack Vance is that he crosses the boundary between fantasy and sci-fi, sometimes in the same book.
I have two books published, Swords for a Dead Lady and Dead Man Riding East. The third, Flames of the City, should be out in a couple of months if things go well. They’re fantasy novels set in The Land of the Three Seas. This is a fantasy world without elves, dwarves and the usual paraphernalia, and with magic taking a back seat. No Dark Lords were injured in the writing of these books.
My stories grew out of the background. As a form of light relief, a friend and I have been swapping short in-character emails for years set in The Land of the Three Seas. If I write as Benor, he will reply as Maurshott. Slowly adventures happen, characters are created, places are visited and described, and minor incidents fill out the emails.
It’s fascinating the way incidental characters can grow as you describe them in passing. One is Rupike Galostingar, who has not yet appeared in a book. I, in character, mentioned him. “I remember old Rupike Galostingar. He used to ride naked down the high on a barrel of ale pulled by six ladies of doubtful virtue (as my grandmother used to describe them).”
My friend replied, in character and in passing, “That must have been a while back. He was grandfather to Izilika, who Wittenbog married, and while he lived to a fine old age I wouldn't have thought you could have been more than eighteen, twenty at most, when he used to take his barrel rides. My father supplied the ladies, by the way, and I can say with confidence that I for one had no doubts whatsoever about the state of their virtue.”
So why should anyone read these books in exile? Because the world within them is an escape from the world you’re in. Perhaps because there's lots of action, some humour and a little pathos; or perhaps because they’re a good yarn, and by the end of the book you’ve enjoyed it, lost yourself for a while in a very different sort of world, and had fun.
Mmm … I am now speechless with envy and wishing for a friend like yours to worldbuild with.* So without further ado, 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?
I suppose I first have to mention Enid Blyton. My mother taught infants and juniors, and was a great believer in Enid Blyton’s books because children loved them and read them. So I owe a great debt to Blyton. Also to my mother herself, who taught me to read before I went to school – indeed, I can never remember not reading.
She also got me going to the library, we used to go every Monday evening after school. Again those were the days when libraries were all about huge numbers of books and I read all sorts of things. At the age of ten I picked up the memoirs of General Grivas from the library bus and my headmaster was shocked to see me reading a description, with diagrams, of how to make an improvised landmine. (Innocent days, those.) It probably occurred to him at this point that here was an imaginative boy with access to Ammonium Nitrate by the ton.
I also read as much by H Rider Haggard as I could find, but back then our library still had books by the legendary big game hunters. I read their books as well, so I sort of imbibed the whole idea of a mysterious dark continent from Rider Haggard, but the other writers somehow took the same world and gave it a reality and coherence, without losing the mystery.
In case this makes me sound too precocious I also loved Winnie the Pooh, Peter Pan (which is for me perhaps one of the greatest Fantasy adventures) and Wind in the Willows.
One book which did have an impact was Hannibal: Enemy of Rome by Leonard Cottrell. I bought it myself with my own money. A paperback which even went to school with me at times in the inside pocket of my blazer. Not only did it introduce me to Hannibal, it introduced me to the ancient world, and because Cottrell quoted big chunks of Livy and Polybius, it introduced me to them as well. For some reason the ancient world grabbed my imagination and has never let go.
Well, that's certainly a lot of books, but we'll pack the Cottrell for you. 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.
JRR Tolkien, Lord of the Rings. This opened the door, showed what could be done. It’s probably the book I’ve re-read most often. I think I mentioned on my blog that I was fifteen, perhaps sixteen, when I inveigled family into buying me Lord of the Rings for Christmas. I read it in three evenings! Indeed, on one of those evenings a young lady approached me with other plans and I confess I was so far into the story that I stuck with the book. Perhaps if I’d taken her up I’d be writing in a different genre.
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.
This is comparatively easy. During 2001 the UK had a Foot and Mouth epidemic. I suppose for most people it was a bit inconvenient, but for someone farming in Cumbria it was grim. Seriously, it was so grim that in 2002 when you were talking to people, they would talk about something happening ‘last year’ and you’d realise it happened in 2000. They’d just obliterated 2001 from their memories. When things get tough and I just have to ‘get out of it’, I will sit down and read Terry Pratchett, any of his Discworld books. In 2001 things were so grim I discovered I was re-reading my old Asterix the Gaul books. Anyway, I think I’m going to assume that this island isn’t going to be too hard, so I’ll take Pratchett. It probably doesn’t matter which one to be honest, perhaps Soul Music.
Soul Music 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 …
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. A slim paperback, I was perhaps 15 when I read it and it sucked me in. It’s the tale of one day in the life of an ordinary Russian who has ended up in a labour camp. That’s it. Nothing really happens, he doesn’t escape, or die, or achieve justice. It’s just his day and he lives through it. But it is brilliantly and evocatively told. It was a set book at school and I took it home with a feeling of dread and found I’d read it in one sitting.
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.
For a classic I’d suggest Herodotus, The Histories. A tale of a clash of cultures, of world views, of larger-than-life individuals. You have heroes on both sides, men of great cunning, men of immense cynicism and all the time a writer who somehow respects their humanity. Given that it has been read and reread since 425 BC, that’s one hundred and twenty generations already. For me Herodotus falls very firmly into the category of ‘author I’d most like a few drinks with.’ When you think of the tales he put in the book, I’d love to hear those he left out.
Right. 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 wasn’t sure whether we got the traditional Bible and complete works of Shakespeare?
*embarrassed cough* I believe my esteemed guest may be thinking of the traditions pertaining to the popular music-based radio programme that is in no way related to Barren Island Books.
In that case, for my item, I’ll take a Bible. If the Gideons have got there before me and there’s one there already, then I’ll take a decent billhook to help me survive on this island.
For music, that's tricky, very tricky. I think it might have to be Pink Floyd, ‘Shine on you crazy diamond’.
A film? Can I have all three films of The Hobbit in a jumbo boxed set? I enjoyed the first one, and I’d hate to sit on the island wondering what I’d missed.
Past, present and future are all one to us here at BIB, so of course you can! 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.
Personally I think it’s a pretty poor writer who isn’t willing to risk living in a world of his own creation. (Mind you, there are philosophers out there who claim that that’s what we all do anyway.) I could cope with the Land of the Three Seas. Just to sling a pack on my back, cut myself a decent walking stick and set off. To sit in wayside inns drinking sweet wine and talking to strangers met by chance. It’s a tough life, but I think I could cope.
That’s it, then – 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.
* Interested parties please apply to the usual address.