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 Sophie E. Tallis, author of The Darkling Chronicles. When she's not being banished to a desert island, Sophie can be found at sophieetallis.wordpress.com.
Sophie, 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.
Thank you so much for inviting me A.F.E. Okay, in as few words as possible - I’m a book freak, fantasy geek, nerd for general knowledge, natural history and basically everything. I’m eccentric, artistic, a writer, teacher, poet and painter. I’m a family-loving homebody who loves adventure too and I HAVE to be spontaneous and ‘fly by the seat of my pants’. I have an almost OCD aversion to anything too organised and I’m a dreadful time keeper too! That’s me!
It’s strange I know, but I’ve always fancied being exiled on a desert island, at least for a little while. I actually had the privilege of experiencing it for real once. Back in 1997 when I was backpacking around New Zealand for four months, I was staying in Paihia, up in the beautiful Bay of Islands, with some 144 islands dotted around this azure-coloured sea. I charted a small boat and with a bit of persuasion I was dropped off on a small deserted island just off the coast of Urupukapuka, one of the bigger islands. It was not much more than a strip of rock with some trees, vegetation and two beaches. SUCH a blissful day though, just watching boats sail past and the dancing light on the waves! Yes, I must say one of my many peculiarities is a penchant for the poetic and a deep love of wild unspoilt landscapes … Perhaps that is an irrational fear – crowded places and lots of people! Apart from my terrible fear of spiders, my idea of hell would be Christmas shopping in the peak of the festive chaos when you can’t move for bodies jostling, I get quite claustrophobic then. In fact, the only time I’ve ever had anything approaching a panic attack was in Ikea – a place with no windows and no air. I suddenly needed to see the sky and the more I tried to get out, the more I kept going round in circles. I’ve never been back since and never will, no matter how cheap their bookcases are! :D
As for bears and sharks … I think you’d stand a better chance punching a shark!
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’d had the inklings of White Mountain rumbling around my head for a while - dragons, wargols, sorcerers and an epic battle for survival, all taking place now within our modern world. I’ve always loved epic fantasy, but as a kid I was frustrated that most of it was set on different planets or thousands of years ago, i.e. difficult to relate to as a modern human. I wanted a real clash of cultures, an added incendiary to the mix so to speak. Learning about ancient civilisations and anthropology sort of wired my brain into wanting to rewrite our understanding of linear history and have hidden cultures that pre-date humanity still struggling to survive in the modern era, against the relentless onslaught of human advance. But the true inspiration came during those four months in New Zealand. It was there, inspired by the sort of scenery that brings tears to your eyes, that all the elements finally came together and the story was born … in the fires of Mount Ruapehu! It was just such a magical life-changing experience. A few years after I left they started filming the LOTR and Peter Jackson used many of the same locations in his films that I had already written about and been inspired by! Watching those films for me is still a bizarre and strangely personal experience. The Tongariro National Park that I hiked in with its smoking volcanoes became his Mordor and my Fendellin, his Fangorn is my Kallorm and of course, the South Island’s Southern Alps and Aoraki/Mount Cook which featured so much in ROTK was my inspiration behind Mr. Agyk’s home, White Mountain itself!
As for reasons why someone else should want to be exiled with my book? Well, apart from it being a damn good adventure story dripping in dark magic and with more layers than an onion, hopefully there are other fellow nerds and dreamers out there like me who love epic fantasy but want it to be more relevant and relatable to our modern-day lives. White Mountain is a heady mix of mythology, a tale of intrigue, love, loss, identity theft, sacrifice, murder, destruction of the environment/ecological issues, loneliness, corrupting power, friendship and betrayal with a blistering finale that will take your breath away - with aerial dragon fights aka WWII fighter planes, mighty battle sequences on the salt plains of Kavok and a heart-wrenching conclusion. What’s not to love? :D In Books 2 and 3, those two worlds will collide head on – humanity versus millennia-old magic … I’m not sure how we’ll survive!
Wow – I'm sold! 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?
Boy, that’s a tough question. I was a very early and voracious reader so there are many favourite books that fall under the category of 'read again and again'. I loved Winnie The Pooh, The Secret Garden and A Little Princess, Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia and of course Tolkien’s wonderful The Hobbit. But seeing as my next choice is the ubiquitous Mr. Tolkien, I’m going to choose that other great fantasist, Lewis Carroll. I must have read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland fifty times as a child. I SO wanted to find a miniature door somewhere or a hole I could fall down and find a white rabbit and chain-smoking caterpillar. I even remember searching my house and tapping the walls in case there was a hidden secret doorway. The sheer inventiveness, craziness, anarchic humour, surreal quality, poetry and visual scope still make it quite unique as a book.
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, as clichéd as it may be, it would have to be the complete one volume of The Lord of the Rings. Not only for practical reasons is it a great book to have on a desert island due to sheer size … I mean come on people, if you’re stranded on a desert island you need something that will take time to read. As much as I love Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, it’s such a small tome you could read it in an hour … no, you want a hefty book with some meat on it! For me, LOTR was like someone unlocking a magical key in my mind. Being an illustrator and painter too, I’m a very visual person and when I first read that book I WAS in the story, sight, smell, touch, taste, every sense was on fire. It was a movie in my head long before lovely Peter Jackson ever committed it to film. Although I had already been writing stories from an early age, it was LOTR that made me want to be a writer and create my own fantasy worlds as elaborate and rich as those which had ignited my imagination.
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 was going to go with John Irving’s The Cider House Rules, as I love the strand of melancholia that runs through the book. Irving so encapsulates that feeling of longing, the ache of it and Homer’s journey to manhood is such a beautifully eloquent ‘rite of passage’ … a lovely book. But actually, I would choose the other book and author who really inspired me to become an author myself, Lynda La Plante’s Bella Mafia. As a teenager I did an English paper on Bella Mafia and Mario Puzo’s The Godfather. For research, and being more than a bit cheeky, I wrote to Lynda La Plante and gave her a questionnaire asking about her techniques and working methods as a writer. To my utter astonishment she replied! She sent a lovely handwritten note and filled out my childish questionnaire with breath-taking honesty and humour. I’ll never forget that. It made me realise that authors were real people with their own struggles and journeys and that the seemingly unachievable goal of becoming a writer could in fact become a reality. So for me, I would have to take Bella Mafia with me, not only as a damn entertaining read but as a reminder of my own journey and dreams.
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 first came across Maya Angelou through her poetry and one poem in particular, Phenomenal Woman. Then I branched out but Maya Angelou’s Wouldn’t Take Nothing For My Journey Now remains, for me, the most poignant and beautiful of her books. I’m really not into autobiographies or anything that smells like it … unless you’re my all-time hero, David Attenborough. But this slender book, a collection of essays on life, really is something special – a well of truth. The anecdotes and short tales in it resonate with you on a surprisingly profound level. After all, on the surface, what the hell do I have in common with a black octogenarian poet, civil rights activist and professor? The answer? … Everything. As a fellow woman. As a fellow writer and poet. As a fellow human being. Strange that parallels can be found in seemingly unlikely places, but more profound than that is the sheer wisdom of Maya Angelou. Every utterance rings true, every word has a meaning. Just a wonderful and inspiring woman and a book to cherish for life!
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.
Got to be a sci-fi book as I’m also a sci-fi geek. I do love Douglas Adams for his humour, but I think I’d have to go with Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. Watching Blade Runner as a kid made me want to read the book to find out where it all came from. Utterly mesmeric from start to finish. Visually stunning, thought-provoking and just a damn good thriller. At least if we are all replicants then we’ve sorted out the four-year lifespan thing … or have we? Are all our cherished memories false ones? I just love the questions it raises about our own understanding of what makes us human. Great book.
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 …
Many thanks A.F.E., you’re being generous I see. Music … although I adore Vaughan Williams, especially Lark Ascending and Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis (no relation unfortunately), and I love Radiohead, Muse and Bob Dylan, I HAVE to go with my guilty pleasure and the very first record I ever bought. I was four years old, the song was Mull of Kintyre by Wings. I don’t even like Paul McCartney, but I LOVE this song. It never fails to make me misty-eyed and long to lose myself somewhere in the mists and valleys of green …!
One film only, eh? Ye gods, I have hundreds … bit of a filmaholic too, I’m afraid. Right, well then, I’d be tempted to go for a box set of all the LOTR films or the entire X-Men collection or Godfather films, or a Hitchcock/Scorsese/de Palma or Nolan collection – something with lots of hours and great films. But as much as I love all those … I’ve got to go with Ferris Bueller’s Day Off! Just THE best film to watch on a desert island, it never fails to bring tears of laughter. :D
Rooney sucks … Save Ferris! :D
One last item has to be a photo album of my family, loved ones, friends and my doggies … something to cherish on those lonely sun-kissed days.
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.
That’s easy, I’d want to be marooned somewhere from my book, probably Fendellin ‘Lost Kingdom of Dragons’, based on the Tibetan/Himalayan legend of Shambhala. Not only is Fendellin beautiful, but there’s plenty of fresh melt water, food and plains of blue mountain poppies, willowgrass and wild horses (tarpans), not to mention dragons … can’t think of a better place to be!
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.