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 Sam Dogra, author of the Chronicles of Azaria (part one of which, The Binding, has just been published). When she's not being banished to a desert island, Sam can be found at indigolightning.blogspot.co.uk.
Sam, 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.
Gladly! I am an (overworked) junior doctor working for the NHS. I’m about to come to the end of my Foundation training and I’ll start my training in General Practice this August. In between clerking patients, taking bloods and being grilled by consultants, I dabble in writing and drawing, the latter of which you can sample at sam241.deviantart.com. My main sources of inspiration are video games and anime.
Obviously as a medic I see some pretty nasty things at work (especially as I’m working in Trauma and Orthopaedics right now), so there’s not much that fazes me, including bears or sharks, but I do have one quite serious Achilles’ heel, and that is … butterflies. Yes, I’m terrified of the things, and my coping mechanism is to smash them with heavy blunt objects. Or shoot them, whichever weapon is handy at the time.
I think you must be the first guest we've had who'd rather face down a rampaging bear than a tiny insect! Unless you're just saying that so we'll replace the sharks circling your island with butterflies … hmm … Anyway, tell us more about your own work. What are the inspirations behind it? What would make someone else choose it to accompany them into exile?
Unlike most other writers, I’m not particularly inspired by books. The Binding came about as I was doing my job shadowing and was taking some blood samples to the lab. I saw an image of a girl sitting alone in a dark forest because she had a vulnerable heart, and everything just sprang from there. As a wild guess I’d say the Kingdom Hearts series (video games) was probably the main influence, as well as the anime Romeo x Juliet. Not to mention my vehement dislike of the romance genre and its mistreatment of plot …
I’d like to think someone who wants a refreshing change from the status quo while still being attracted by familiar elements would want to keep this book close.
Great, 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?
Here my age will show … the books I remember reading over and over again weren’t any classic tales like Charles Dickens or the like, they were novelisations of Sonic the Hedgehog! A series of four books were written by several authors under the pseudonym ‘Martin Adams’. My favourite of these was number three, Sonic the Hedgehog and the Silicon Warriors, where Sonic’s friends become trapped inside computers. I liked this story because Tails, Sonic’s sidekick, had a large role to play, and the story itself is pretty funny with its self-referential video game jokes. I used to read it aloud to my Dad at bedtime (sending him to sleep more often than me!), and I have many fond memories of it.
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.
An easy one! This would have to be Sabriel by Garth Nix. I was recommended to read it by a friend, and it was the first YA fantasy book I ever read. It remains my all-time favourite book, as it was this story that got me into writing fantasy. I never got into the ‘greats’ like Lord of the Rings, the Earthsea books or the Belgariad because they were filled with predictable stereotypes and stagnant settings, and they all seemed to be retelling the same story with different character and place names, so I steered clear.
Sabriel, however, showed me there was another way. The themes of magic vs. technology, the gates of death, and the use of bells as weapons really drew me deep into the story. I’d never seen such creativity. Not to mention having a female lead who was fairly capable and not a whimpering wreck as they have been in the past (and seem to have become lately, much to my dismay). It was well written, had good characters, a very interesting setting and strong conflict. A top-notch book. I will not comment on the horrible sequels, however …
I agree, Sabriel is a good book, though I've never read the sequels. (Doesn't sound like I'm missing much.) We may have to have words sometime over your opinion of Earthsea, though … Now, 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.
Hmm, this is tricky as I’ve never really read a book to cheer myself up (video games tend to give more instant gratification)! But if I had to choose something, it would probably be The Companions Quartet by Julia Golding, and in particular the third book, Mines of the Minotaur. Though it’s a middle-grade story, the concepts within were amazing, as it brought my love of magic and mythology into a modern setting. I also love Julia Golding’s writing, as it’s very easy to slip into, and she brings together many current-world issues in a fantasy setting without being too patronising about it.
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 …
This would have to be The Books of Pellinor by Alison Croggon. (I’m kinda cheating, aren’t I, mentioning series rather than books.) I spotted this in a library and assumed it would be another Lord of the Rings knock-off with more effort put into mimicking the original than coming up with anything new. Nevertheless, I had a long summer holiday ahead, and decided to give it a chance, not expecting to get through the first chapter.
How wrong I was! The Gift (The Naming in the US) was fantastic. I was totally immersed in the world of Edil-Amaranoh and the characters were brilliant. Having a female lead probably also helped, and it was great how the book itself lamp-shaded the gender inequalities in high fantasy. I also liked the concept of magic being related to language, instead of the traditional ‘natural’ elements (although these are present too). The third book has a particularly chilling sequence towards the end (I won’t spoil), and the author’s not afraid to step out of her high fantasy comfort zone to mix in plenty of grey areas. I suppose that’s why I liked it – the morality of the characters was much less clear cut and it made for some very interesting situations.
I must confess, I haven't read any of the Pellinor books; I'll have to give them a try. 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.
Virgil’s Aeneid. I studied this text for A-Level Latin, having to translate it direct from the original, and it’s just stuck with me. I’m a big fan of the whole Trojan War and Greek myths in general, and even though Virgil’s epic is essentially a fan fiction of Homer’s Odyssey (don’t say that to classicists, they’ll burn you), I was impressed with how it was written. It taught me some stylistic writing features which I still occasionally use, too. It also resonates with me that Virgil wanted the whole thing burned because he thought it was rubbish – the ‘tormented artist’ moment that we all have at one time or another, when nothing is ever as good as the ‘vision’ we see. I think he’s an under-appreciated Roman author and should get some more publicity!
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? I couldn’t pick one, it would have to be my whole MP3 collection! Film would be Holes, perhaps the only movie I felt was better than the book by Louis Sachar, if only because the story suited visual media better. My other item would have to be my video game consoles – I couldn’t live without them!
I'm sensing that you may like video games just a little bit, Sam … 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, if anything goes, I’d like to be placed on the legendary Floating Island from the Sonic the Hedgehog games. It’s got varied climate and plenty of resources, as well as being the home of my favourite character, Knuckles the Echidna ;).
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.