Barren Island Books – A.F.E. Smith
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.
Since I would never make my guests do anything I wouldn't do myself (and because I couldn't quite resist talking about my own favourite books), I'm going to start by interviewing myself. You know, before the real authors get here. So without further ado, I'd like to introduce the first person to be banished: me!
Hi A.F.E., and welcome.
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 a professional editor, a whenever-I-can writer and a first-time parent. I'm also an occasional robin.
Illogical fears I have aplenty, including moths, spiders and other assorted invertebrates. Then there's drowning … I hate the idea of drowning … and blood and heights and being buried alive. Oh, and mould. I hate mould. But other than all that, I would make a perfectly good fantasy hero.
Rather than a lightning-shaped scar on my forehead, I have a large orbicular birthmark on my knee. In other words, I have a great big freckle. Still, that's got to mean I have a Destiny, right?
I would never wrestle a bear, or punch a shark. I am a vegetarian and therefore coexist peacefully with all living creatures, except those that have a tendency to crawl around on my walls.
And what about your own work? What are the inspirations behind it? What would make someone else choose it to accompany them into exile?
Dawn Rising and its sequels are about identity, fate and the nature of reality. Alyssia, the main character, feels as though she is in the world but not of it; and that is very much how I felt at one stage in my life. So I think there is more of me in these books than in anything else I've written. I hope people would take Dawn Rising into exile because it combines the quality of literary fiction with the excitement of the fantasy genre. Perhaps that's too ambitious. I don't know.
In contrast, Darkhaven is one of those books that came from a single scene. I had a very clear vision of a girl escaping from a tower at night. I knew she was a shapeshifter, and I knew she was fleeing from an accusation of murder, but that was all. Exploring her story led me to the rest of the characters and to the overall plot of the book. And I think people would choose to take Darkhaven simply because it's a gripping fast-paced read. I hope.
Great, 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?
It's got to be something by Diana Wynne Jones. She was one of the first fantasy writers I read, but also one who I continue to enjoy just as much now I'm an adult. Being able to write on a multitude of levels, appealing to children and adults equally, is a rare talent and one I greatly admire.
As a child I probably would have chosen Howl's Moving Castle as my favourite, but to accompany my adult self on the island I'm going to pick Fire and Hemlock – for its complexity, its inventiveness, its clever use of existing stories, and its sheer brilliance.
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.
Though I'm sure many of my fellow fantasy authors will echo my thoughts here, I can't choose anything other than The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien. (Yes, I know it's technically three books. But you can get it in a single volume, so presumably that counts.)
I still have an old schoolbook from when I was seven, in which I wrote very earnestly about why LotR was my favourite book. I'm not convinced that I'd actually read the whole thing at the time, but still. My path was formed, and I've been a fantasy reader and writer ever since. Which means Tolkien has a lot to answer for.
As an added bonus, if I get bored on the island, the appendices will keep me occupied for days.
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.
This is where I get to admit that as well as fantasy, I read a little romance now and then. And without a doubt, my favourite romance author has to be Georgette Heyer – for her wit, her sparkling dialogue and her worldbuilding. (Yes, it's true: Heyer's Regency romances contain just as much worldbuilding as any fantasy novel. It's what sets them apart from a lot of the modern imitators.)
I could choose from half a dozen of Heyer's books, but I'm going to pick The Unexpected Ajax, which has one of the most entertaining final scenes I've read in a romance novel, as well as a lead who's a far cry from the usual (and frankly dull) romantic hero.
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 …
This is perhaps a slight cheat on my part, since for ages he's been one of my favourite authors, but my chosen book here is Terry Pratchett's Witches Abroad. I first came across it as a young teenager – it was a gift from my father – and for a long time it sat on my shelf unread. More than anything, I think the cover put me off. (Does anyone who isn't an adolescent male actually like Pratchett's early covers?) Then one day I had nothing else to read, and picked it up, and promptly got lost. Since then, I've read everything he's written. No-one else can combine humour and depth quite so well.
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.
This might be the trickiest category – there are so many books that deserve to be passed down through the generations – but it's got to be The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness. I am a huge fan of this book and the other two in the Chaos Walking trilogy (if I can bend the rules a bit, I'd like to take all three). The first time I read it, I was absolutely glued to the page, and it doesn't lose anything on subsequent readings. It's the perfect example of something that has all literary fiction's cleverness of language and construction, coupled with the breathless readability of genre fiction.
Plus, by the end of the trilogy, the narrative is written from multiple first-person points of view. Which was a choice I had begun to doubt in Dawn Rising, but no longer. If it's good enough for Ness, it's good enough for me.
Right. 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 …
Oh man. Why did I make these questions so hard?
OK. As far as music goes, if I'm only going to be allowed to listen to one thing for the rest of my life (eek) it had better be something long and complex that won't bore me after the thousandth listen. So I'll go for Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto in E Minor. (Bet you thought I'd choose some prog rock …)
My chosen film has got to be The Princess Bride, for sheer quotability if nothing else. And if I start to hallucinate all by myself on the island, I can't think of better characters to have conversations with.
As for the final item, I'd take my computer, but I suspect there won't be any electricity where I'm going. So I'm going to assume I can make pencil and paper out of, you know, burnt trees or something. Instead, I'll take a photo album of all my favourite pictures so I can remember the people I'm leaving behind. That way, I can hallucinate I'm talking to them as well. Unless I'm allowed to take a boat. Would it be cheating if I said a boat?
OK, then a photo album it is.
Excellent. 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.
When I was younger, I used to think I'd like a little island somewhere off the coast of Scotland. I'd live by myself in a stone-walled cottage with a roaring log fire and lots of interesting knickknacks and just write. But I suspect the point of this question is that there won't be a ready-made dwelling waiting for me. In which case, I want somewhere with building materials, fresh water and plenty of native fruit and vegetables. And if all the fungi could be colour-coded according to whether they're safe to eat or not, that would be nice. I'm not very woodscrafty.
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, I have slots available from January onwards. Please get in touch with me via the Contact page.
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