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 Joanne Hall, author of the New Kingdom Trilogy and the forthcoming The Art of Forgetting. When she's not being banished to a desert island, Jo can be found at hierath.wordpress.com.
Jo, 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.
Hello! Thanks for having me on the Barren Island! I’ve packed plenty of sun lotion, because I flare up like a lobster at the merest hint of sunshine, so I’ll probably spend most of my exile flopped out under a sunshade panting like a walrus. I’ve brought a kettle with me, because without a limitless supply of tea, I’m not even getting out of bed, and I’ve brought a couple of swords to hack my way through the jungle. There aren’t … cucumbers … in there, are there?
My fear of cucumbers is completely rational, because I’m horribly allergic to them and they do have a way of creeping up on a person …
I’ve got a scar on the palm of my right hand that I like to tell people is a mystical birthmark leading me to my destiny as the Chosen One, but is actually a result of falling over on a stone when I was three, and not where Lord Voldemort prodded me at all.
I reckon I could take on a shark. Good punch in the nose and they run crying. Bears I’m less sure about, and anything insectile and scuttling will have me up the nearest tree yelling for rescue before you can blink. Think I’m safest staying on the beach, away from the bugs. And the cucumbers …
Not to worry – the Barren Island is officially a cucumber-free zone! 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’ve always loved fantasy and SF, particularly fantasy, and I’ve always written – when I was about five or six I used to write “books” about dragons and witches. I was lucky enough to grow up in the 80s, which was really a golden age for family fantasy and SF films, and luckily my mum and my uncle were big SF fans, so I got to see all the films and borrow their books when I was old enough!
I’d recommend anyone to take The Art of Forgetting onto Barren Island with them, not only because it’s a continent-spanning adventure with swordfights and dragons and treachery and true love, but because it’s so long that it would keep you entertained for a month in exile and it’s thick enough that you could beat predatory jungle beasties to death with it.
A multi-purpose novel, then :-) 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?
One that I kept borrowing from our local library, and reading over and over until my mum took pity on me and bought me a copy, was Witch Week by Diana Wynne Jones. It’s a story set in a boarding school in an alternate dimension, for children who have been orphaned because their parents have been burned as witches, and it's about how their talents begin to manifest. I didn’t get on well at school, and I liked the idea of having powers that set me apart from the other kids!
I was lucky enough to meet Diana Wynne Jones at a signing some twenty years later, and she signed my beloved, battered copy that had survived five house moves and a small fire – the book is indestructible!
You met Diana Wynne Jones … *tries not to seethe with jealousy* 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.
Can I cheat and choose a series of books? When I was about eleven, my uncle lent me David Eddings' Belgariad, which is a five-book fantasy sequence about a quest for a magical orb that can slay a god. It’s a bit clichéd now, but at the time it was like a jolt of electricity through my brain. I’d never read anything quite like it, and at that point I stopped writing stories about talking animals and started writing about castles and dragons and people charging around on horseback doing Noble Stuff – which is pretty much what I write now, and what I love writing! The Belgariad was the seed that turned me into a fantasy writer, and it’s still a bit of a guilty pleasure every now and then.
Then I guess we can let you get away with a series! 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.
My cuddle book? Don’t laugh … It’s Winnie The Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner. I remember my mum reading it to me when I was very little, and when I was ill, and I always go back to it when I feel particularly ill or depressed – when I broke up with my first serious boyfriend I went to bed with an entire tub of Ben and Jerry’s and Winnie the Pooh and didn’t get up again until I’d finished them both. The end of The House at Pooh Corner is one of the most emotional things ever written, not just in children’s literature, but in literature full stop.
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 …
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time by Mark Haddon. I’m not sure what I expected – either for it to be a rather throwaway children’s book or for it to be terribly worthy and a bit preachy. I didn’t like the cover (cartoon dog stabbed with a pitchfork), and when my friend lent it to me I had very low expectations. I thought I’d just pick it up off the table and flip through the first few pages so I could tell her I’d given it a go …
45 minutes later I realised I was still standing in the middle of the room, and maybe I’d better sit down to finish the rest of it! It was really smart, cleverly written, and unexpectedly funny in places. I couldn’t put it down, and it was one of those books where you get to the end and feel disappointed that it’s over.
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.
My instant classic, at the moment, is The Heroes by Joe Abercrombie. It’s set over three days of a battle in an isolated valley, and it’s not quite like any other fantasy around at the moment. If I had to compare it to anything, it would be David Gemmell’s Legend crossed with All’s Quiet on The Western Front. It’s pretty special, and I think people will still be reading it twenty years from now.
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 …
Only one song? That’s just mean … It would have to be “Motorcycle Emptiness” by Manic Street Preachers, which is my favourite song of all time. Although being trapped on a desert island listening to songs about existential loneliness is probably not all that healthy …
My film would be The Princess Bride. I can watch that over and over again and never get bored of it. Maybe the Dread Pirate Roberts will come and whisk me away from my island exile before I overdose on coconuts and existential loneliness? *crosses fingers, looks hopefully towards the horizon*
My other item, because I couldn’t live without it, would be a kettle and an infinite supply of tea-bags. I am entirely powered by tea and I can’t function properly without it. Well, I can, but I get really grumpy and I wouldn’t want to be stuck on an island with me if I had no tea!
Then tea it is. 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.
Well, I’m useless in the heat, so it would have to be somewhere cold and bracing, with epic-fantasy style scenery and no danger of being eaten by dragons. Somewhere off the coast of Norway would do very nicely!
That’s it, then – you’re ready to go. Thank you for joining us, and enjoy your trip!
Thank you for having me!
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.