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 M T McGuire, author of the K'Barthan Trilogy. When she's not being banished to a desert island, M T can be found at mtmcguire.co.uk and there’s a bit more about her books at www.hamgee.co.uk.
M T, 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.
Hmm … well, you’d never catch me anywhere near a bear; they scare the crap out of me and obviously that would be messy and since I’m on my own on this island, and I dislike housework, I don’t want to have to start by washing my knickers and mopping up poo.
However, while I doubt I’m actually up to punching a shark I’d definitely eat one. They taste very good and they last a long time. I’m a bit of a bon viveur, to be honest. I believe that life’s too short to drink bad wine and that a meal missed is an opportunity wasted – or do I mean waisted, seeing as that’s where all mine seem to have ended up? I’m a lardy, middle-aged, petrol-headed dreamer. I drive a Lotus, I have almost but not quite convinced myself that it flies, and if I come to stay round your house you can guarantee that I’ll be looking for a gateway to Narnia in the guest room wardrobe. I confess, I haven’t found one yet but I live in hope.
And what about your own work? What are the inspirations behind it? What would make someone else choose it to accompany them into exile?
If you were going into exile my books might be quite useful for five reasons:
Inspirations are always difficult because there are so many. There are the visual arts, music, a LOT of music, the whole Beatles … just … THING: their music, their humour, their ethos. There are cars – that Lotus out of The Spy Who Loved Me. Add a dash of 1960s Avengers/Prisoner/Man from U.N.C.L.E./James Bond/Get Smart/original Star Trek/Randal and Hopkirk (Deceased) and throw them into a mind positively steeped in Dr Who and you may get where I’m coming from with K’Barth. On the other writers front, if I manage to write anything like the stuff I like or anything people who enjoy Pratchett, Wodehouse, Douglas Adams, Bill Bryson or Red Dwarf would enjoy, I’ll be happy. Naively, I always hope that as long as I like my books myself, there has to be another person somewhere who will too. Time may prove me wrong about this.
I have to say, it sounds like an awesome mix! 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?
Quietly, surreptitiously, this is down to the Narnia books. Any one of them will do, unless I’m allowed the boxed set, phnark! I loved them but especially The Magician’s Nephew. Remember the green and yellow rings, the pools and the White Witch? The portals in my own books owe a lot to those green and yellow rings. Well, those and the pockets people like Bugs Bunny used to have in cartoons (huge, capacious and large enough to accommodate a giant hammer the size of a car with which to hit Elmer Fudd over the head).
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.
This one has to be The Colour of Magic by Sir Terry Pratchett because, obliquely, that’s how the whole writing-a-book dream turned into something real. I read it aged about 20. I’d been trying to write stories for a long time; some of the people I showed them to even liked them, but no-one could imagine a commercial use for my style. Then I read The Colour of Magic. It’s not Sir Terry’s best book but it was just like the stuff I was trying to write at the time. Only, Sir Terry had done it properly.
Reading The Colour of Magic was a revelation: like hearing a new Beatles song or driving a properly engineered car for the first time. The scales fell from my eyes and I realised that actually, the kinds of things I wrote could sell, if I could work out how to do it right. Strangely, despite being heartened that someone was succeeding with the kind of style I was aiming for, I actually stopped writing because I felt as if Sir Terry was going to write all my books for me. So I concentrated on humorous verse and did stand-up instead.
The stand-up went on until I got married, moved to Cambridge and sat down. I had a big career setback. It had to happen sooner or later; I’m an arts graduate, with dyscalculia, and I was trying to find a job in Cambridge, the city that runs on Maths. Cambridge, the kind of place where you probably have to have maths O level to be able to clean the bogs (that’s a joke but you get the picture). Anyway, to cheer myself up I decided that I’d have another go at writing that novel I’d always wanted to write. After all, I reasoned, no two people are the same – even if Sir Terry was writing my stuff for me my take would be different to his.
Then I guess we owe a big thank-you to Cambridge for the existence of K'Barth! 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.
Well, this is where I’m going to have to cheat but luckily, as Lord and Master of Hamgee University Press, it’s not so hard. So, my publishing arm is going have to produce a Barren Island omnibus edition which, as yet, does not exist. This omnibus, published just for me, will contain the entire works of Dr Seuss and all the Asterix books. I might need a special trolley to move it around but when I’m not lost in it, it’ll be handy to sit on.
I’ve never really got the hang of being a grown-up and these are two of my biggest favourites, even now. I love Goscinny and Uderzo because they are officially kids’ books but the humour is so adult. There are so many jokes in there for the parents that I didn’t get first off. So one of the things I loved growing up with them was the way that, each time I read them, I got more of the jokes … Even now, I can read them and find new things to laugh at, jokes or just details in the pictures that I haven’t seen. And I love the names – I have a horrible feeling they may even have come up with General Moteurs before I did (I know they had General Electric), but even if they did, I don’t think his first name was Ford. There was the centurian called Crismus Bonus, Getafix the drug-producing druid, characters called Timeandahaf, Justforkicks, Vitalstatistix and the Egyptian who joined the legion: Ptenisnet. Blimey! Even just typing those I am laughing. Anyone who has read my books will see the influence of Messrs Goscinny and Uderzo all over them in names like General Moteurs, Colonel Ishoo, Corporal Punischment, Professor N’Aversion, Major Pileup and place names like Smirn. While in names like Snoofle, Plumby, Denarghi and Nar we are straight into the world of Seuss with its Lorax, its Zax and Sneetches. And do you remember poor Herbie Heart who had taken his Thrombdimulator apart? Deary dear.
With Dr Seuss it was the drawings that really did it. I spent many of my formative years desperately hankering for Tweetle Beetles to be real. His illustrations are just out of this world. I would kill to be able to create such bizarre creatures, with such expressive faces; indeed, I would go a long way to get an original Dr Seuss drawing but they seem to be slightly rarer than unicorn poo. But I digress. The creatures strolling through Dr Seuss’ pages are the direct ancestors of many species now living in K’Barth, not to mention the Grongles, who don’t – or at least, only in an invasive capacity. Even the Great Snurd (of K’Barth) Company Ltd – K’Barth’s only vehicle producer – is a name recycled after I gave it to a Dr Seuss-type creature I was trying to invent that never came to anything.
Sorry, am I scaring you? I am, aren’t I? OK, moving on.
*resisting urge to stop interviewing and spend day reading Asterix* If you insist. Then 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 …
Well … I read quite a lot of serious stuff. So, this is not a brilliant book, per se, but it is an amazing story and that’s Khassan Baiev’s The Oath. It’s the autobiography of a plastic surgeon who does very well in Russia but gives it up to return home to Chechnya and treat the wounded in the civil war. As his country tears itself apart, he ends up spending his own money to buy medical supplies after the hospital’s run out so he can continue to do his job. His insistence on upholding the Hippocratic oath and treating the wounded on both sides gets him into such serious trouble that he is eventually forced to flee Chechnya.
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.
That is really, really difficult. But this particular book spoke to me; and on the strength of how much I thought about it afterwards …
It’s Erich Maria Remarque’s book, A Spark of Life. It’s the story of a German political prisoner in a concentration camp at the end of the war. He’s been there for 10 years and it’s a case of will he survive and whether he and the other prisoners will be able to stay alive until the Allies arrive. It’s the most poignant, moving and downright incredible book and I thoroughly recommend it.
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 …
Despite the fact that the Beatles are my favourite band, the song is going to be by my second most favourite band: Pink Floyd. Comfortably Numb is just without equal. I absolutely love this song and it carries the added bonus of having kept me sane through some pretty dark times, already, so I know I can rely on it. Forget the words and listen to the melody, it’s one of the most soaring, uplifting pieces of music you’ll hear. And beautifully put together. Brilliant.
Film? Hmm … it’s going to be Cars or Flushed Away. If it’s Cars I’ll miss Cars 2 and if I go for Cars 2 I’ll miss Cars 1, so I’ll go for something else: Flushed Away, a fantastic film with Ian La Frenais on the scripting team – the guy who wrote Porridge. It’s just great. It’s witty, quick, fun and sometimes silly to the brink of overkill but never beyond.
Item of my choice. Mwah ha haargh! Well, I think I’ll borrow a pirate portal from The Pan of Hamgee, so I can nip backwards and forwards to experience things like friends, family, showers, flushing lavatories and soft loo paper whenever I like.
That rather defeats the purpose of the barren island, but we have no choice but to agree – curse you and your cunning plan for evading exile! 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.
Hmm … this is tricky. Basically, I’d like to be somewhere warm – but if that means I’m going to be pounded by hurricanes and tropical storms for half of the year, I’ll pass. So I reckon somewhere with a climate like, say, Malta would be nice. So Mediterranean but not fished out, which would probably be somewhere on another world, so I’ll go for the parallel version I know and put my island in K’Barth just off the coast of Hamgee. Hamgee is, basically, the South Coast. So if you imagine the landscape from Beachy Head to Goring by Sea, only with more bits like Burling Gap or Cuckmere Haven and less bits like Lancing or Southwick – sorry Lancing and Southwick, you know I love you but neither of you are pretty – it would be like that; only with sun.
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.