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 Zoe Spencer, co-author of The Vegas Thing: a FemNoir serial story currently running on the Pankhearst website. If you've missed it so far, you can read up on the background here (including a free copy of the two brilliant short stories that introduced the lead characters) and catch the story so far here.
Zoe, 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 English, in my 20s, and I mostly dance for a living. Also I love photography. I don’t have illogical fears or any birthmarks at all, and I’m not getting into the ring with anyone or anything. I’m not a fighter, I’m a lover.
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 pity the fool who wants to take my writing into exile. If I was trying to sell myself (and I suppose I am) I’d say my stories are fast and loud and brash and kind of sexy. Probably not what you want if you’re alone with your thoughts for a lifetime. Although it’s maybe like music. Yes, everyone thinks they want their Mahler, Brahms, or Puccini but when it comes down to it, they’re also going to have moments when they need the Ramones. And I’m sure sexy would have its moments.
Not that The Vegas Thing is all punk all the time, because it’s also half Madeline Harvey and she has a very touchy-feely side.
As much as anyone, Maddy’s my inspiration. Her and Evangeline, I suppose. If they hadn’t dragged me kicking and screaming into the Cars & Girls project then I never would have written anything at all.
Not that you or anyone else would ever have seen, anyway.
They gave me an opportunity out of nowhere and then held my feet to the fire to make sure I followed through. Writing is fun, but it’s hard. And it’s a solitary pursuit, which I don’t typically enjoy, so I’m lucky to have a friend like Maddy to write with. Although, of course, I tell her she’s the lucky one.
In terms of subject matter, we’ve both been inspired by the principle behind the original Cars & Girls. That there are far too many stories that celebrate and ritualize violence against women. And we’re not going to take it anymore.
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?
Harry Potter. The first one. And then the series. I’m part of a generation who learned to love reading because of JK Rowling. Before them I didn’t really care too much for books and even though I know they’re not the best books in the world, I still love them now. I can’t imagine I’ll ever stop believing in that world and wanting the very best for Ginny, Luna, and Hermione.
Several past interviewees have wangled a complete Harry Potter box set out of me, so I guess we can let you have one too :-) 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.
The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf. I’m aware that it’s a controversial book in many circles, polarizing, maybe even old-fashioned, but the underpinning idea about the expectation of beauty and how that impacts everything in our lives, that was a profound revelation to the typically insecure teenage me. You have to understand your enemy.
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.
I associate comfort with childhood. So this could easily be Harry Potter again or maybe Anne of Green Gables (I inherited all those LM Montgomery books from my mother) but I think I should try for something a little more grown up. I like to travel and one of my favourite travel writers is a cyclist called Josie Dew who has pretty much pedalled her way around the world by now. Travels In A Strange State is the story of her adventures in the USA and I could read it over and over again.
Interesting. I've never got into travel writing, but as the purveyor of an interview series that's predicated on sending its guests to far-flung islands, I guess I really should! 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 could say Terry Pratchett who, much to my chagrin, I really enjoy. But it has to be Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen. Austen is the sort of thing I more or less hate on principle – all that Pride and Prejudice Colin Firth bollocks - but then we read S&S at school and I was confounded. Confounded and delighted. Like most women I can see myself in her words, and I adore her humour and sheer style.
The funny thing about Jane Austen is that people think of her books as romances, when they're really not romantic at all. In fact, I'd say Pratchett and Austen (both of whom I love) actually have a fair amount in common as writers of humorous social commentary … 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 hesitate to set myself up as any kind of arbiter of Taste or Quality. Mostly I read to be entertained or distracted, and so the idea of Classic Literature tends to scare me or turn me off completely. And given that I probably shouldn’t pimp out my friends, I’m struggling to think of a weighty and impressive answer here. So. I recently read When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead and it’s one of the best YA books I have ever read. Everyone should read it.
Then it sounds like a classic to me – weighty and impressive be damned :-) 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 …
“I Wanna Be Well” by the Ramones. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (both parts, please!). And some really good towels.
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.
I don’t actually do very well on my own. I’m a social animal. But since the key word in your question is ‘remote’, I guess I can’t ask for one of the private islands off the coast of Sardinia, which is one of my favourite places to visit. But that’s probably OK, since there’s not enough shelter for when the weather turns foul. In that case, I don’t really care where it is. Just give me pure white sand, perfect blue seas, and a cave where I can hide from storms and pirates, and I’ll get by. I’ll swim with the dolphins and tiny birds will braid my hair.
That’s it, then – you’re ready to go. Thank you for joining us, and enjoy your trip!