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 Pat Black, author of Snarl and the short story collection Suckerpunch. When he's not being banished to a desert island, Pat can be found at writelikeabastard.wordpress.com. Snarl is coming to Kindle early in 2013.
Pat, 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! Nice to be here, it was getting a bit parky back in dear old Blighty.
I’m a journalist/writer/reviewer/essayist/daydreamer, originally from Glasgow in Scotland. Apologies if any readers can’t understand my accent.
I do have a birthmark on my side, which has been compared to the Republic of Ireland, Cyprus, a peanut, one of the Flumps and a skidmark. Sadly with the passing years and increasing poundage, the dear old island has been somewhat swallowed up by encroaching waves of fat. But I’ve gotten back into running, so the land is making a comeback, as if my abdominal muscles are some kind of crazy fibrous King Canute.
I’m probably unusual for not having irrational fears. I’ve been in the jungle and been perfectly happy to share my cabin with a column of ants, although the buggers did steal my complimentary chocolate without so much as a thank-you note. Six-legged gits! But no, I love sharks, spiders and strange critters in general. I’d still freak out if any of these things landed on my face in the middle of the night, but then I guess that would be rational fear, as opposed to irrational.
I’m not sure if you should class it as a phobia, but I do have a lifelong dislike of my socks sliding down on the inside of my wellies. Even now, I cringe to think of that. I can’t tell you how many days of standing around in the pouring rain or sinking into quicksand at music festivals this has ruined for me. To tackle this, I might go for implosion or “flooding” therapy – for example, if you hate spiders, you have to touch spiders from the level of Face-Eaters from South America all the way up to Shelob. But I have a suspicion that if this was to happen for my socks/wellies fear, it might lead to me having to wear lederhosen as the ultimate expression of my anxiety, so that’s out.
I think having a boxing match with an octopus would be quite brutal. How many combinations could he hit you with? Even as you try to do the maths he’s already ahead by about 250 points. Even if you did get the better of him, he could bamboozle you with a cloud of ink – and it’d be fair, too, since the Marquis of Queensbury never mentioned anything about cephalopod excreta.
I’ve always wondered if “ink” was a euphemism, incidentally, as I didn’t get away with that excuse when I produced my own cloud of “ink” after encountering a dogfish on a snorkelling trip.
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 originally got the idea for Snarl when I heard the former Prime Minister Tony Blair referring to the media as a “feral beast”. I remember thinking it was a bit rich him saying that, because Britain at the time was busy occupying Iraq and Afghanistan, with the result of thousands of lives being lost. I wondered if Tony had lost the plot, somewhat.
From there, I wondered what it might be like if a genuine feral beast, of Godzilla proportions, genuinely did arrive on the shores of Britain, with its evil eyes fixed on Westminster. On top of that, I wondered what Britain would be like with a lunatic in charge at Number 10. With George W Bush in the hot seat at the White House at the time, the latter idea didn’t seem so far-fetched.
I’ve always loved monster movies, but this idea gave me a chance to write something satirical, too – sending up politics and the media, as well as indulging my tastes for monster mashing. I’m getting to have my city-sized cake and eat it.
The funny thing was that even as I wrote it, it was superseded by events. I wrote a tiny section criticising the City – and then the banking crisis happened. There are lots of parts where tabloid editors and journalists in general get a rough ride … and what happened? The Leveson Inquiry. So many things to work with! I finished the first draft in October 2009, but it still feels like it’s a work in progress.
Why should you read it? Well, I would hope because it’s funny, first and foremost. It’s also a good size – you might need something long to read on an island. Failing that, well, tear-offable sheets of paper could come in handy if you’re marooned on an island …
True – and now I'm wondering exactly what criteria you're going to use to pick which books you take to the island with you! So with that in mind, let's hear about them. 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?
Oh, tough one. There were a few – The Hound of the Baskervilles, Treasure Island … there’s even some Doctor Who novelisations by Terrance Dicks which had a big influence on me as a boy. But I’d probably give it to one of the Choose Your Own Adventure books – the second-person multiple-choice books where you pick an option at the end of each page and make the story decisions for your “character”.
There was one called You Are A Shark by Edward Packard, which I read over and over again … You could go as every animal imaginable, though, not just a shark. I absolutely adored it, and I’m pleased to say I still have it on my shelves. It’s a real nostalgia kick to have a quick flick through it on idle afternoons – it always takes me back to summertime when I was a boy.
I had the pleasure of corresponding with Edward Packard after I reviewed the series for the website www.booksquawk.com – the review was somewhat irreverent, but I hope affectionate too. He was very kind and complimentary about it, so that was a thrill.
Of course, the beauty of those books is that you could dip back into them and have different adventures. And you even got killed, too – part of the fun was seeing what sort of nasty endings you could have. Re-readability has got to be a factor! I’ve often thought about trying out that format for a new novel for grown-ups … Not an original idea, by any means, but one that I’d have a lot of fun trying out. Watch this space!
Does he do it? Turn to page 2.
Does he not do it? Stick the kettle on.
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 will say that no single book had an influence on me wanting to become a writer. Since as long as I could remember, I was always making up wee stories and drawing pictures with narratives and staging wee plays with my Star Wars men (the latter usually involving pitched battles and fistfights, to be fair). I wouldn’t say “born to be a writer” or anything like that, but I always took pleasure in making up stories and imitating the things I liked and then finally creating my own characters and stories – that was quite separate from books. When I was a kid I wanted to draw comic strips, and I did actually draw epic ones as a child – but it frustrated me that I couldn’t draw well, or quickly. Prose seemed like the easier option, so I’ve stuck to that ever since!
There have been lots of books that were “game-changers” for me – Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which showed you that even the most drunken, abject experience can still yield crackling prose; The Power of One by Bryce Courtenay, properly epic stuff; The Hitchhiker’s Guide, of course, that wonderful silliness mingled with inventiveness. Then there’s One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and The Dice Man by Luke Rhinehart – weird, challenging books that make the world and your certainties in it shimmer. David Mitchell’s Number9Dream and Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore were both absolute belters, so good I can’t wait to read them again.
But I’d probably give it to Iain Banks’ The Crow Road. A magical book, without even a hint of the supernatural – a bildungsroman, as a young man tries to track down his missing uncle and get to the bottom of some family history. He also wonders about life, death and the universe, and falls in love on the way. The best book Banks ever wrote. It’s set in Scotland, and manages to be romantic about the place without any added salt or sugar. It’s not as cynical as some of Banks’ other “real-world” efforts, and it’s funny, although the humour is very black indeed. Not to be missed. There was also a fantastic TV drama adaptation of it, from 1996 or so, starring Peter Capaldi as Uncle Rory. Equally essential.
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.
I’ve got a lovely hardback edition of the complete Sherlock Holmes short stories which I’ve had since I was 10. That’s been cracked open to help me get through the gloom over the years.
But it’s been replaced as my “comfort book” in recent times by the brontosaurian Everyman edition of George Orwell’s Essays. Orwell writes so unflinchingly about truth, no matter how painful or unpalatable to himself or the reader. His prose has lovely clean lines; nothing’s obscured, made difficult or rendered ambiguous in his essays. The truth might hurt, but it’s always necessary. That’s a great lesson for any prose writer, no matter if your style is as grim as Solzenitsyn or as feathery as Liberace.
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 …
Oh I dunno, I’m a bit of a tart, I’ll give anything a go … I was handed one recently by a friend, A Visit From The Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan. About time, music and regret, a fascinating piece of work. It won the Pullitzer Prize, though, so it’s hardly obscure. With that in mind, I’ll go for something my niece bought me for Christmas last year - John Dies At The End by David Wong – absolutely bonkers stuff. Demons from other dimensions, soy sauce that opens the gates of hell, monsters defeated by 1980s hair metal … You owe it to yourself to give it a shot!
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.
The Raw Shark Texts by Steven Hall is shaping up to be a classic. Mind-bending stuff, as a man with no memory is stalked by a “Conceptual Shark” that can lunge from the static on a TV set, or drift across the tiling of a drained swimming pool, or follow him through a trail of letters and telephone calls as easily as a real shark might nose its way after a spreading bloodstain in the water. Scary stuff, and also approaching visual art, too, in the way the text uses keyboard characters to create “concrete poetry” - a brilliant piece of work.
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 …
Music shapes me as much as writing does, so I’ll take Earth Vs The Wildhearts by the Wildhearts. My favourite band when I was a teenager, and probably still my favourite album. When I bought it, when I was 17, my life seemed to change almost overnight. It showed me that you could have heavy tunes that really pack a punch, but also write about real-life stuff, too - things that happen to normal people and not just cocaine-hoovering millionaires from Los Angeles or straight-faced dullards from Seattle. That said, if Axl Rose or Mick Jagger have ever written songs about staying in with “20 Regal and a four-pack” before, I’m happy to stand corrected! I’ll get a moshpit going with the birds of paradise and iguanas in the meantime.
Film: maybe not the best one to have in a place surrounded by water, but I’ve always loved Jaws so it has to go in there. I’ll wish I hadn’t the minute I go for a dip in the sea, though …
Other item: something to write with, of course. Pen and paper? Limitless-charge laptop? Hmm, what’s the broadband like on Barren Island …?
I guess that depends which of our many islands you're on. Which leads us to your final decision: 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 am a Scot, and the west coast of Scotland is blessed with absolutely gorgeous islands. They make whisky there, too. You have to go, people! (Files expenses claim with VisitScotland.)
But all the same, I’d like to go all tropical like Robert Louis Stevenson, please and thank you. I’m talking sugar sand, blue water, palm trees and sunshine. I’ve been to the Turks and Caicos Islands and that seemed like paradise to me – that’ll do nicely.
I was born to be a beach bum, but my genes don’t realise this. Can I go back and change my luxury item to sunblock?
Go on, then – and with that, you’re ready to go. Thank you for joining us, and enjoy your trip!
Many thanks – see you at the pool bar. Pip pip!
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.