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 Paul Levinson, author of both non-fiction and science fiction, whose most recent novel is Chronica. When he’s not being banished to a desert island, Paul can be found at paullev.tumblr.com.
Paul, 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.
In addition to being an author, I’m a professor – I love teaching, but think attending department meetings is the most boring waste of time in the universe. I watch hours of television a day - news and drama shows, not comedies – but rarely read a novel, because when I’m writing, which I’m doing all the time, I don’t want any other authorial voices in my head. I’m a progressive libertarian – meaning, I want less government regulation of broadcasting, and think the FCC should be abolished – but I support Obamacare and think health care should be free and universal. I swim at least half an hour every day and love it, in an indoor pool if possible during the winter. My iPhone has helped me write, by allowing me to jot down lines and later bring them right into my novel.
Oh, I agree – as a writer with a small baby, I’d be lost without my iPhone to jot things down! And what about your own work? What are the inspirations behind it? What would make someone else choose it to accompany them into exile?
The great science fiction writers – especially Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein – continue to be the main inspirations for my writing, nonfiction as well as fiction. But also Marshall McLuhan, Karl Popper, anyone who wrote compellingly about a topic I’ve found of interest. I find the evocative use of words inspiring – when I read anything that moves me, I want to start writing. As for my own fiction: take my novels and short fiction into exile with you if you want not only an exciting story, PG sometimes R rated, but an entry into contemplating the meaning of the universe.
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?
That would be Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy, which was not the first book I ever read, but the book – or series of books – that ignited my enjoyment of reading into a lifelong glowing passion. The way that Asimov created a scenario and then followed through on its logical consequences, in ways that were nonetheless thrilling and surprising, was catnip to my imagination and intellect, and still is. Truthfully, after reading that trilogy, no other kind of fiction ever held comparable appeal for me.
The very first question, and you’re already trying to sneak three books past me instead of one. But I can’t really say no to Asimov, so I’ll let it pass :-) 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.
In addition to the Foundation trilogy, I’d say the novel that has had the greatest impact on me – certainly as an author of a time-travel trilogy, myself – would be Asimov’s own time-travel masterpiece, The End of Eternity. Add to that Robert Heinlein’s The Door into Summer. For non-fiction, it would be Understanding Media by Marshall McLuhan, which I first found infuriating then incandescently enlightening, and which set me up to write all of my non-fiction about media and the human condition.
Hmm. This time you don’t even have the excuse of a trilogy for picking three books instead of one! Since you already have some Asimov, I’ll give you the Heinlein for your science fiction side and the McLuhan for your non-fiction side ;-) 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.
Believe it or not, that would be non-fiction – which I find more comforting to read than fiction. Lots of choices, but I’d probably take William McNeill’s The Pursuit of Power, an engrossing history of military conflict throughout the ages. Yeah, I find that comforting – or comforting to read. Not because I like violence. But because I find McNeill’s analysis of technological and social evolution just fascinating.
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 started reading the Harry Potter novels because my daughter and everyone else in our family was reading them. I resisted reading those novels for a while, but when the final novel was released, I decided to once and for all read the complete series. And I was more than pleasantly surprised – I loved them!
Glad to hear it! It must have been wonderful to come to the series when all the books were already available. (And yes, I did notice you trying to sneak another SEVEN books past me there!) Now, 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 would be Red Moon, by David S. Michaels and Daniel Brenton. It’s a novel that explores why the Soviets lost the race to the Moon after being so far ahead of the United States at the outset of getting humans into space. I consider it flat and away the best book that likely you and most people in the world never heard of. If you like science fiction and riveting writing, you’ll find this novel amazing.
I do, and you’re right that I haven’t heard of it, so I’ll have to check it out. We’ll get those five, er, fifteen books packaged up ready for your journey. And 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 …
Since I’ve been answering some of your questions about books with trilogies, I hope you’ll indulge me about music and let me take a complete album, The Beatles’ Rubber Soul. The movie would be Godfather 2, though 12 Monkeys and The Usual Suspects would be close contenders. And one other item? I assume that leaves out people, because I’m supposed to be alone on the island, and people aren’t items. I could get clever, and say a Kindle, because that would give me thousands of books and movies and music, too. But to answer the question more straightforwardly: maybe my goldfish, whom I’m quite fond of.
Goldfish, bowl and fish food coming right up :-) 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.
It’s cold and snowing now in New York. I’d take a warm island in the South Pacific.
That’s it, then – you’re ready to go. Thank you for joining us, and enjoy your trip!