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 Susan Spann, author of The Shinobi Mysteries – the second of which, Blade of the Samurai, has just been released. When she’s not being banished to a desert island, Susan can be found at www.susanspann.com.
Susan, 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.
I’d much rather box with sharks than wrestle bears. A shark can’t follow you back to shore, but I have it on good authority that water won’t stop a bear!
In addition to writing mystery novels, I have a marine aquarium where I raise seahorses and rare corals. I also love cooking, martial arts, and archery. In my “other day job,” I’m a publishing lawyer… but please don’t hold that against me!
Lately, I spend most of my time in medieval Japan, surrounded by ninjas, samurai, and all the lovely, exotic details that make the samurai era so much fun to explore and write about.
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 write about ninjas, and I murder my imaginary friends.
The Shinobi Mysteries feature ninja (aka “shinobi”) detective Hiro Hattori and his Portuguese Jesuit sidekick, Father Mateo. The unlikely pair teams up to solve murders and capture killers in 16th century (samurai era) Kyoto.
My original inspiration came one morning while I was standing in front of the bathroom mirror getting ready for work—at the lawyer gig. A voice in my head said, “Most ninjas commit murders, but Hiro Hattori solves them.” I knew instantly that this was a book, and a series, I had to write.
As far as what would make a person take my books to exile… wouldn’t you want a ninja along if you were stuck on a desert island?
Definitely! 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?
Ooh, you’ve led with a hard one. Black Beauty by Anna Sewell was the book that had the biggest impact on me as a child. I love horses, and learning that books could take me inside a horse’s head was a mind-blowing experience for a child who loved to write as well as read.
Since I can only take one book, however, I’m going with Noel Streatfield’s Ballet Shoes. It’s a classic story about three orphans in Britain during World War II, and their experiences attending dancing school and acting on the stage. I’ve probably read it two dozen times, and even thinking about it here makes me want to read it again. It never gets old.
I grew up loving Ballet Shoes, too, though I always saw myself as a Petrova rather than a Pauline or a Posy :-) 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.
Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, a chronicle of the 1996 climbing disaster on Mount Everest. In addition to being compelling and brilliantly written, Krakauer’s book reminds me that every human sees his or her life through an individual lens, even when sharing experiences with others.
After reading Krakauer’s book, I read six others about the events on Mount Everest in 1996, each written by a different survivor of that disaster. No two accounts are the same, and the “truth” – if any single truth exists – most likely lies somewhere between them. Krakauer’s book was the first I read (and re-read), so it serves as an anchor for me.
I’d take it with me both because it first exposed me to “adventure” narrative nonfiction, a genre I love, and because it reminds me that every character in a story (fiction or nonfiction) sees the narrative slightly differently—and each of them believes that what he or she sees is the “truth.” That was a world-changing realization, which impacted both my fiction and my reality.
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.
Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park. (I’m guessing you didn’t see that one coming.)
I’ve read this book so many times I’ve had to buy a second copy. Soon, I’ll need a third. Crichton’s writing is sharp, fast paced, and never dull, and this (in my opinion) is his masterpiece. I read the book before I saw the film, and though the movie is one of my favorites, it doesn’t come close to the novel.
This is my “comfort read” because no matter what I’m going through, the minute I open the cover I’m transported to a world where dinosaurs are real, and escaping, and every twist and turn is as enjoyable as it was the last time through.
I like Jurassic Park, too, but you'd find a more fervent supporter in Mr Smith – it's probably his favourite book of all time! 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 …
Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card. Many people picked this up (or heard about it) after the recent release of the feature film, but I first read it decades ago, when I knew nothing about the author, the subject matter, or the plot.
A friend of my husband’s recommended the book back in 1996 or 1997. He thought I would love it. I thought a book about child soldiers in a space-based battle school sounded horrible—and I didn’t pick it up for several years. When I did decide to read it – in 1999 or thereabouts – I was shocked to discover that our friend was right. I loved the book.
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.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. I doubt many people would argue that it’s a classic—by sales, if nothing more. It’s a magical book (no pun intended) that grabs me and pulls me in each time I read it.
I read and enjoyed the other books in the series too, but there’s something about the innocent introduction of Harry into the brilliantly colorful wizarding world that makes me eager to go back and relive the original story again and again.
I know it as the Philosopher's Stone, of course, but I love it just as much :-) 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 …
My musical choice is Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, known to many as “Ode to Joy.” (For the pop culture nuts among you, it’s the song that plays in Die Hard when the robbers finally crack open the bank vault and reveal the bearer bonds.) On a desert island, joy is always welcome.
If I get only one film, it has to be something I’d actually enjoy seeing (and hearing) over and over again. I’m going sideways on this one, and asking for Two Steps From Hell: INVINCIBLE, Live in Concert at the Royal Albert Hall.
If that’s cheating (and it might be…), then I’m picking Raiders of the Lost Ark. I could probably watch that almost as often!
My one item would be a Bible. (See what I did there? Got a sixth book!)
And with that display of ninja-like cunning, you're done! 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.
As long as the summer temperature doesn’t exceed 75 degrees, and the winter gets some snow… I’m good to go!
That’s it, then – you’re ready to go. Thank you for joining us, and enjoy your trip!
Thank you so much for having me! This was fun… and I’m looking forward to all that extra reading time!