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 Terry Newman, author of comic fantasy Detective Strongoak and the Case of the Dead Elf – out today! When he’s not being banished to a desert island, Terry can be found at www.drtel.co.uk.
Terry, 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’m just an everyday ultrastructural (cell biologist) morphologist turned comedy writer, turned playwright, turned scriptwriter, turned author. I got tired of looking at an electron microscope screen all day in the dark and now I look at a computer screen all day – but at least I have a view. It’s a very nice view. In summer it’s from a great little garden hut that is nearly as good as Martin Baum’s more famous beach hut. In winter I go indoors and look out at a 14th century black and white monk’s house. I don’t live in London any more – you probably guessed that.
And the thing is, well, I have a bit of a confession. It’s hard to admit this now, but you see, I never was a geek. Yes, I did sciences at school and read SF and comics, but it didn’t make you a geek then. I also played rugby and football and was Chairman of the School Council and I had lead roles in the school plays. Admittedly hair halfway down your back, and a gold hoop through your ear, made the rugby more interesting, but it wasn’t anything that out of the ordinary – well, a bit. The Venn diagrams just overlapped differently in those days. OK, glad to have got that off my chest, and I hope all self-confessed geeks will forgive me and welcome me to the fold. I do after all have every issue of Howard the Duck, just how geeky is that?
Pretty geeky. (Confession of my own: I had to Google Howard the Duck, so I'm probably the one who should have my geek card taken away.) And what about your own work? What are the inspirations behind it? What would make someone else choose it to accompany them into exile?
It all came through a sign at a petrol (gas) station. On a windy night, through the blowing leaves, I read ‘Elf Service Station’ and thought: ‘That’s typical bloody Elves, that is!’ The initial version of ‘Nicely Strongoak’ was intended for radio, though, and was written on packaging material and handouts from a conference I attended in Germany. Due to a slight misunderstanding with my bank I was in Hamburg and didn’t have any money for anything like food and drink, so I wrote solidly for a week after the conference symposia finished. When I found out I had not been sold a return ticket, just a one-way, I ate the conference proceedings. I got home eventually thanks to charity and had 80% of ‘Nicely’ with me. The customs people were a lot more lax in those days. A producer at the BBC quite liked it but said they were doing something featuring dwarfs and elves. I should turn it into a book. And then an Ice Age got in the way, but eventually here we are.
You see, it’s all very well all your fantasy books ending with the King Return-ed, the goblins vanquished and everything hunky-dory, but then what? You still are going to have an industrial revolution some day, eventual emancipation for all the races and the introduction of democracy – so what’s that world going to be like? It’ll be like Widergard: it’s got surfing elves, Dragonette steam wagons, goblins with shooters, a proper murder and a dwarf detective with a cool hat – what’s not to like?
Well, quite. It sounds brilliant and I'm looking forward to getting started on my copy of the book. 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?
The Horse with the Green Nose by Angus Frome. Rather forgotten, our Anges. The book had been handed down in the family for decades. Its soft cover was very well worn from the fumblings of numerous inquisitive little fingers; inside, a story about a young boy who has a picture hanging in his nursery of a horse with a green nose. The horse is looking longingly at some very red apples just out of his reach and so the boy goes into the picture to pick them for him. This made perfect sense to me aged 5. You could say I’ve been feeding the horse with the green nose ever since.
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.
Having been feeding the horse with the green nose for as long as I could remember, I devoured all of Tolkien and Asimov and Norton and Clarke and Bradbury and Heinlein and all the SF and fantasy greats as soon as I could. I can’t remember a time without them (alongside my comic book heroes, of course), but it was when I first came across Raymond Chandler that I fell in love with the joy of what language, and not just ideas, could accomplish. Which Chandler book? The Big Sleep, of course; best title ever.
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.
For a quick pick-me-up it would have to be V for Vendetta by Alan Moore and David Lloyd. I am continually blown away by just how good it is. Graphic novels, or comic books, I don’t care what you call them – they reach places other media cannot reach. Superb. Of course, if it’s proper man-flu that is going to involve me being laid up for 48 hours – at least – then at the moment a large helping of Phillip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther would be the ticket. A German police detective at the time of WWII, ‘Bernie’ is a masterful creation and the research is staggering. I’d take Berlin Noir, a collection of the first three ‘Bernie’ novels and thus a sneaky way of getting my money’s worth.
Cunning! But I'll let you off, because I've been thinking I should try out a graphic novel or two, and these are some handy recommendations :-) 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 …
The Tin Drum by Gunther Grass – loved it. Loved the film too, loved the imagery, loved the characters. Didn’t know what to expect at all. Loved it. (I quite enjoyed this book, by the way, in case you weren’t sure.)
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.
Modesty forbids me … oh all right, I’ll be serious. I’d like to make the case for Dune by Frank Herbert – the original novel, that is. You can’t say the “world’s best selling science-fiction” novel is exactly forgotten, but somehow it doesn’t seem to be held in as great a reverence as it should be. Was it down to some of the excesses of the often ill-advised David Lynch film version? Could it even be that there is something just a little bit too, well, Arabic about the desert-living Freman heroes these days? (controversial, Dr Tel) I don’t know, but Dune is a masterful example of world, nay, cosmos building that can still fair take the breath away. And there is a very good TV mini-series out there to catch for those who still want to see sandworms in action – and who wouldn’t?
Oooh, I'll have to track that series down. Anyway, 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 …
One piece of music, just one? Blimey. I’m tempted to go for something really long again and get my money’s worth (a theme here?) but I’ll go for ‘Heroes’ instead. Marvellous to wake up to ‘Heroes’ at maximum volume and I get three heroes, Bowie, Eno and Fripp, for the price of one.
Film: the Lord of the Rings extended edition box set, please. Fantastic adaptation, nothing else to add that hasn’t been said already.
My additional item is a bit tricky. I feel there are so many other things I’d want to take with me, my burgeoning animation cel collection for a start, but I’d like to tick the boxes here for a couple of things I haven’t paid due homage to: radio and comedy. Radio is a joy, and in the BBC in the UK we have an organisation that still produces great radio programmes. Writing comedy at Broadcasting House was a fantastic experience for me. So I’ll take what has to be one of, if not the greatest radio comedies of all time. I’ll have the box set of the original radio recordings of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by the much-missed Douglas Adams.
Excellent choice (and a sneaky way of getting more fiction onto the island, too; don't think I didn't notice). 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.
Any smallish Greek island would do, thanks – not too fussy. Oh actually, I’ll have Meganissi if it’s available. I know that Lloyd Biggle Jnr’s ‘Langri’ from Monument is supposed to be one of the most beautiful places in the universe, but really having to go to all that trouble to catch and prepare the sea monster koluf to eat – I can’t be bothered with all that now. It is very tasty, though.
That’s it, then – you’re ready to go. Thank you for joining us, and enjoy your trip!
Thank you for having me, it’s been a pleasure. There are all my books and things: excellent! Now, where is my solar-powered word processor? You are giving me a solar-powered word processor, aren’t you? What! Shut down the transporter, for heaven’s sak