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 Ted Cross, author of The Immortality Game and The Shard. When he's not being banished to a desert island, Ted can be found at tedacross.blogspot.co.uk.
Ted, 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.
Thanks for exiling me to this lovely island! Shark vs bear? I don’t like the choices, unless you mean a lemon shark versus a teddy bear. Sharks scare me, so I’d have to pick the bear and hope there’s a nice tree handy.
No unusual birthmarks, and the only big fear I have (outside of the very normal one for the safety of my family) is of my mortality. I’ve been irrationally gripped by how fast time is flying by ever since I entered middle age, and that explains my preoccupation with ideas behind immortality, which led to my work in progress.
As for me, my day job is in the diplomatic service, which I have done for nearly twenty years now. I had always dreamed of seeing the world, so this has been a perfect career for me, allowing me to visit around forty countries so far, and live in seven – US, Russia, Croatia, China, Iceland, Azerbaijan, and Hungary. I met my wife during that first tour in Russia, and we’ve been married close to eighteen years now, and we have two wonderful sons, 15 and 13.
I always had various story ideas in my head, but I never thought I would actually write any of them. It was only after reading George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series that I was inspired to type out my very first chapter (which is chapter 3 in The Shard).
Ah, so 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?
My first book was simply an homage to my childhood love of gaming – Dungeons & Dragons and Middle Earth Role Playing primarily. I was never satisfied with the official gaming books that I tried, as the authors never wrote seriously enough for my tastes. And despite loving Tolkien so much, I always felt something was missing in his works; they were lovely and wonderful, but a little too clean. I longed for someone to write a Tolkienesque fantasy that gave it the gritty stylings of Martin’s stories.
The problem, as you well know, is that our first novels are ones where we learn how to write a novel. So as much as I do love that story and think it has a lot of promise, it has its amateurish elements that I won’t be able to overcome without a lot of revision, which is tough to manage when I have other story ideas that insist on being heard.
I had never meant to write a sci-fi, but the back tale for The Shard became really complex and involved colonists from near-future Earth arriving on the first habitable planet. Since living in Moscow in the 90s I had long had a Russian mafia thriller idea stuck in my head but couldn’t figure out what to do with it. Once I considered the idea of moving the mob thriller ahead into the near future and blending it with my colonist idea, something clicked and I began writing The Immortality Game.
What you say about first novels is all too true, though having the restraint to leave yours alone and move on to something better makes you much more sensible than I am; I still tinker with mine from time to time! So now let’s talk about 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 have to be a history book, then. I don’t know why, but I was consumed by a love of history from the youngest age. I remember begging my mother for The Illustrated History of the World, and she gave it to me for my fifth birthday. Later I considered majoring in history, but I couldn’t figure out what I could do with that major other than teach, and I never wanted to do that. I became a library aide in school just so I could be around books, and I read and reread every history book on the shelves.
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’ve had multiple books like that, but if pressed I’d have to go with Martin’s series, as mentioned previously. The way he revolved viewpoint chapters around major characters hit home with me and demonstrated to me how I could structure my own storytelling style. I knew I couldn’t get away with having as many POV characters as he uses, but I figured I could do at least three in my early novels.
Yeah, George R. R. Martin is a perfect example of 'know the rules and then break them'. But I guess most of us can't get away with quite so much! 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.
That would be The Lord of the Rings, of course. I love The Silmarillion as well, and The Hobbit, naturally, but the depth and beauty of The Lord of the Rings is unparalleled. I could be happy rereading that book for the rest of my life even if I could have no others!
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 …
I’ll go with Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield. I had never much liked the battle of Thermopylae, but this book is brilliant, perhaps the best historical fiction novel ever, in my opinion. Colleen McCullough’s Rome books are just as great, but I’ve always loved Rome, so those are no surprise. I might have listed War and Peace here, but as much as I enjoyed it, it exhausted me and I wouldn’t bring it to the island.
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.
I’ve talked too much about it already, but Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series deserves to sit right up there with Tolkien for all future generations to read. If I can name something new, I’ll choose A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula le Guin, which is so lovely and does the wizard school thing long before Harry Potter.
Ah, good choice – not enough of our guests pick Ursula le Guin, who is one of my favourites! 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 …
The film is easy, since my absolute favourite is Blade Runner, and along with the fantastic movie I would get the incredible music by Vangelis in the soundtrack (my sneaky way of getting more than just the one piece of music).
You are so cruel to limit me to one piece of music, as I love so much – Floyd, U2, Beatles, Zeppelin, Who, Tool, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Simon & Garfunkel, etc. If I could take only one album I would have to go with Led Zeppelin IV as every song on there is a masterpiece. If I could have only one song, well I think I’d just wade out into the ocean and face a few sharks.
Another item? I think I’d bring a US airbase, since they have all the comfort food and other items I could possibly want! But that would be cheating, right? I thought about a guitar, but the strings would probably go bad quickly in the salt air and I’d end up with nothing. How about a yacht? No? You’re mean. An iridium satellite phone so I can call for help? Okay, I’ll go with … my wife. She’d be a little upset to be stranded there, but there’s nothing I’d rather have on the island with me than my lovely wife.
You know, you're the first ever guest to choose a person as your extra item. I'm sure it's totally against the rules, but because no-one's ever thought of it before, we'll let you get away with it :-) 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 it could be somewhat close to the big island of Hawaii then I could pop over to my house every so often to fetch supplies! Somehow I doubt you would allow that, so I’ll choose to make it near Thailand, since my greatest beach experiences have all been there.
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.