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 Bishop O’Connell, author of The Stolen (available now in ebook format and coming soon as a paperback). When he’s not being banished to a desert island, Bishop can be found at aquietpint.com.
Bishop, 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.
Is it proper to thank someone who’s sending you into exile? Well, thanks at least for letting me have a few last words before I’m banished. Let’s see, where to start? Well, I’m terrified of heights, though actually I’m terrified of falling, and surviving. Like any good writer, I’m also a contradiction and so love flying. As you’ve no doubt picked up on, I’m charming, intelligent, witty, and yet remarkably humble, which is no small feat, let me tell you. No unusual birthmarks, though I’ve paid several tattoo artists to fancy up my birthmark-free flesh. Interesting you should mention it, because wrestling a bear isn’t as hard as you might think. They have this spot under their front legs that if you rub it just right, they roll onto their back and turn into a giant living teddy bear. (DO NOT try this at home!) I’d be okay with punching a shark, but only if it deserved it. You know, insulted my mother or something.
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’m a geek. I played Dungeons and Dragons as a kid, read comic books, loved the Tolkien books, was in the drama club. Essentially anything that would drive most girls away. As such, I’ve always had the same fantasy every geek has about venturing into his or her favourite worlds. So I wrote a book with a hidden world just under the surface of this world. Yes, like many other urban fantasies, but then I took a normal person and threw her into the middle of it. To seal the deal, I made her have no choice but to face it. I like the idea of how we as humans rise to meet a challenge, to do what’s right, even when it’s terrifying. Heroes aren’t people wearing capes who swoop down to thwart a bank robbery. Heroes are normal people, who live their lives quietly, but when circumstances call for it, they step up and do what’s right, do what needs to be done. Then, in many cases, they go back to their normal, quiet lives. I like the saying that adversity doesn’t create character, it reveals character. I believe we all have a hero inside us, though if we’re lucky, we’ll never have to find it.
Wise words. 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?
This is tough. I’ll have to go corny and pick a random Choose Your Own Adventure book. I don’t know if they were popular in the UK, but in the States they were all the rage when I was in grade school. I ate them up. Like any good junk food, they didn’t have much in terms of nutrients, but they were addictive! And yes, I freely admit to holding my place in the book more than once to make sure I made the right choice.
Oh, yes, I’ve read a few of those in my time, and I’m pretty sure I always cheated. Otherwise you'd get three-quarters of the way through, only to end up dying horribly because you picked left instead of right (or something equally random). 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.
This one is easy, it’s still one of my favourite books. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert Pirsig. First, it holds the world record for rejections from publishers (for a bestseller) at 121, which I find inspiring and a lesson in determination. The book appealed to the philosopher in me (philosophy was my major in college). It made me start looking at the world in a new way, to ask questions and be content when those answers led to more questions. Even if the questions couldn’t be answered, it was the asking that was most important. I didn’t realize until just now, but in a nice twist of fate, the main character in the book, Phaedrus, taught creative writing and started his journey trying to understand what made quality writing, and then what defines quality itself. It’s very Socratic and I just love it.
Excellent, a fellow philosopher – I'm a joint maths and philosophy graduate myself, so I can sympathise with your thinking on that one. 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 a tough choice and I’d have to flip a coin. Heads, the collected poems of W.B. Yeats. He’s my favourite poet by far, able to distill beauty down to a few lines. There is such a sublime, simple magnificence to his writing. To my mind, he defines the word “poet”. Tails would be Dubliners by James Joyce. I’m not sure I even need to explain why, but I will say that to this day, I love reading “Araby”. I think that story, more than just about any other, developed my love and fondness for the bittersweet.
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 had to think about this one, but it’s going to be Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger. Wait, let me explain. I did not like The Catcher in the Rye. I know, I’ll probably lose my writer card for admitting that, but I didn’t. I read it in high school and while it was tantalizing that reading it aloud meant we got to swear in class, I mostly found it to be a book about a self-absorbed kid who couldn’t stop whining. I was that kid, I didn’t want to read a story about him. It was in college, at the urging of one of my best friends, that I read Franny and Zooey. He adored Salinger, and while The Catcher in the Rye was his least favourite of Salinger’s books, he still liked it. That made me skeptical, but I decided to read it. I loved it! It was an incredible book, with characters that didn’t just leap off the page, but into my head and took up residence! That led to me reading Salinger’s other stories about the Glass family. I still don’t know why Catcher became so popular compared to his other books, but I always felt like it was a hidden treasure my friend shared with me.
If you lose your writer card then I lose mine twice over, because not only do I think Catcher is overrated, but I’ve never read Franny and Zooey! I’ll have to remedy that. 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 is where I say, with utmost humility, that it’s my book, right? Seriously, it’s awesome! Okay, okay. I’m going with Phaedo by Plato. In it, Socrates is imprisoned and is discussing the nature of the soul and the afterlife with his students and friends the day before he is to be executed. It’s a story that I read in college, and you don’t often see outside of philosophy classes, but it’s truly excellent. In it you find someone facing the ultimate test of what he truly believes in. In fact, it inspired me so much that I wrote an essay in narrative form about the following night, when Socrates is alone and is left with only his thoughts as his death looms near. My professor liked it so much he asked me to read it at a conference my college held. To me, that’s what a great story does; it takes me a on a journey and inspires me to keep going when it’s done.
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 …
I appreciate your enduring charity. Do I get some method of playing said music? It seems rather cruel to send me away with a song and no means to listen to it.
Yes. There’s magic involved. *insert hand-wavy explanation here*
As for the song, I know it has to be something by Tom Waits. He’s my favourite musician, able to wring so much out of each word and note in his music. He has some truly eclectic stuff that isn’t for everyone, but when he’s good, he’s sublime. I think I’ll go with “Martha”, a song about a man who calls his childhood love years later, after they’ve both been married and had kids, to say he still loves her. How can you go wrong with that?
For the movie, and I also hope you’re letting me have the means to watch it, it would probably be Love Actually. Yeah, secret is out. I’m a sap who loves a good love story.
For my last item, I’d choose a hot air balloon, just because I’ve always wanted to ride in one.
It also means you can escape any time you like … we really ought to reconsider our terms and conditions here at Barren Island Books ;-) 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.
Somewhere that tides will bring regular cartons of bog roll (not bad for a Yank, right?) to the shores. Too practical? Then I’m going with Gilligan’s Island from the popular television show. Not only does it already have housing, but the means to make pies and build a satellite dish out of coconut shells, and a constant stream of visitors from neighbouring islands.
Not exactly barren, but I guess we’ll allow it. (Note to self: really MUST revise terms and conditions.) So that’s it – you’re ready to go. Thank you for joining us, and enjoy your trip!
Thanks, I promise to write. I do get to bring my teddy bear, right?
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