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 TRM, Dark Lord of the Alliance of Worldbuilders and author of Darkened Voices and The Ratter's Tale. When he's not being banished to a desert island, TRM can be found at trmsunfinishedworlds.weebly.com.
TRM, 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.
Hello AFE. I must confess I remain a little attached to my writerly alter-ego, as I am – in the real world – a very serious person who does very serious things for very serious people. Seek me out at your peril. Be warned that the desiccating intellectual astringency of my daily work will annihilate every last trace of creativity from the fool that clicks on my professional webpage.
Believe me, I have bored many a charging bear or frenzied shark to quivering wrecks with a mere moment's technical exposition of my work. But I am not unkind. I have always offered them a restorative portion of cake, afterwards. It has truly remarkable properties. Would you like a slice?
You don't get me that easily, Dark Lord. I know your cake of old. Anyway, never mind your day job – what about your writing? What are the inspirations behind it? What would make someone else choose it to accompany them into exile?
My writing is my therapy, essentially.
Hence I am always aiming to produce luscious, fulfilling, endless imaginary worlds – quite the opposite of the creative barrenness of daily life – where a reader could wander in awe for days, or snuggle down in the immersive experience of an organic alternative reality, full of new flavours, surprising textures and exotic perfumes.
And once the reader is lured deep within this dulcet trap, I'll let rip with a vicious, twisting plot that will subject my characters, and hence the reader, to every emotion possible on the ultimate roller-coaster ride. The tale will twist and turn and spin back on itself in the wildest of rides, but smoothly and without anything to jolt the reader out of suspended disbelief.
I hope to make the experience so exhilarating, but so multi-layered, that the reader would instantly want to ride again and again, and discover new thrills and pleasures each time.
It's a tall order, and indeed the principal reason I never seem to finish anything. I have a habit of setting the bar far higher than I can jump – but that's the sort of stuff I would want to read. Hopefully others would too.
I can well believe it. So 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?
Something slightly different here. What got me into telling stories was not prose but cartoons. I grew up in France and cartoons there are very different from those in the English-speaking world. You will be familiar with Tintin or Asterix, but there is so, so much more. I would take with me any of the books from the Gaston Lagaffe series by Franquin. Ultimate anarchic comedic genius. I can read any page again and again, and laugh just as loud each time. Few others ever achieve such a result.
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.
Well, nothing much happened that could be described in such exciting terms, but once I read J.R.R. Tolkien's Silmarillion, I began writing rather than drawing cartoons. It was the Silmarillion that opened my eyes to the notion of world building. Everything I had read before had a real-world setting, often with creative liberties taken but nevertheless recognisably real-world. Tolkien inspired me to start from scratch, to invent my own rules, to think epically big. I have never looked back.
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.
Having previously picked the Silmarillion, I'll have to leave the Lord of the Rings behind, sadly. My next-best comfort read has to be Frank Herbert's Dune. Again, magisterially epic. Although a science-fiction classic, it is in my eyes a world-creating fantasy and simply magnificent in its scope and detail. I often return to its pages to garner glimmers of genius.
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 …
Here, I would pick the Last Kabbalist of Lisbon by Richard Zimler. This is a true-context historical whodunnit – things that would normally put me off completely - that was earnestly recommended to me by a good friend who knew the author well. He also told me not to be put off by the fact that this book happens to be a Jewish gay romance, again not my usual pick by any means. So I confess I opened the tome with some apprehension, but I was hooked from the first page. I was plunged into a world so alien to my experience that this might as well have been totally new world-creation, but the world-creating skill was such that the experience was completely immersive and utterly enthralling. So much so that I haven't read anything else by the author out of fear of not having the same truly spiritual experience again. A strange reaction, admittedly.
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'm going to go for a book I think Pixar should make into a film. It's short but exuberantly wild, with a raucous slapstick take on fake-Chinese fantasy tropes that builds into a truly perfect multi-layered plot built on beautiful life-affirming emotion. Bridge of Birds by Barry Hughart excels in every way. It cracks on at an unequalled pace from hilarious adventure to cleverly inventive adventure. It's a very well crafted mystery with humour, horror, philosophy, violence, sex and sheer poetry all thrown together in less pages than it takes most fantasy novels to get started. A master class in storytelling.
It sounds amazing; I'll have to look it up. We’ll get those five 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 …
Oh my. The piece of music ... Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd. The whole album, please. If not, just The Great Gig In The Sky.
The film ... The Dark Crystal directed by Jim Henson and Frank Oz.
The item ... I'm assuming I'm allowed clothes ... if there's electricity and wi-fi on your island, that'll be my laptop (how else am I going to play the music or watch the film anyway?). I have only recently converted to laptops, and now I carry mine everywhere in the manner of a teddy bear.
Indeed, no self-respecting Dark Lord bent on world domination should be without a laptop. 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.
Ah, that's easy. It'll just have to be in one of my own worlds, for me to shape as I wish. Can't go anywhere if I don't retain my demiurge's powers, can I now? That would be unbearably like reality. And the barrenness of the island would be wholly appropriate for an Unfinished World. It might just spur me along.
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.