My new novel The Island Girls is set on the remote island of Vinalhaven, off the coast of Maine, crossing decades from the fifties to present day. My challenge was to write a book set at both a time, and within a place which was new to me and to a very tight deadline. I’ve never believed the saying ~ write about what you know~ because it limits us as writers. Of course, it’s crucial to be authentic in what you write about, but the job of a writer is to inhabit other places, get into the heads of other peoples’ experiences. The more we’re able to do this, the more we understand there are some universal experiences we all relate to ~ loss, love, desire, isolation, particularly relevant for all of us in lockdown right now. Indeed, one of the positive outcomes of the lockdowns has been a global sense of community, as many of us go through the similar experiences of social distancing.
Many writers describe themselves in terms of ‘pantsers’ and ‘plotters’ and while I fit more into the first category as a writer who doesn’t tightly plot the whole story, I do, when working within a very limited timeframe as with The Island Girls, need an overall purpose for the book otherwise the panic can set in and I lose time and focus! Purpose for the story we want to tell, doesn’t have to be grand at all, but it can give the reader so much more satisfaction through subtext and subtle thematic architecture. Layers of meaning which the reader unravels as they read through the book.
For example, the title The Island Girls has different levels of meaning tethered to the purpose of the book. Layer one is simple. It refers to two sisters, Susannah and Kate, growing up on the island of Vinalhaven, and how their mother, Judith, refers to them all as island women ~‘We’re island women,’ her Mom said. ‘You, me, Katie, Lynsey and Rebecca. But she don’t belong here.’ ~ because this is where their family is from, and it’s where they belong. Anyone growing up on a small island, will tell you how unique the experience is. The connection to the sea, close to nature and its vagaries and the tight knit island community: at times a sanctuary, at others claustrophobic. Kate loves the island, this is her home and she feels at one with its nature, but Susannah hates it and can’t wait to get away.
The second layer to the meaning of the title The Island Girls connects to the feminist purpose of writing about history from a woman’s point of view and refers to Susannah’s experience at Harvard in the late fifties and early sixties. She describes how few women there are in academia but there’s a sense of connection between all these female students and academics despite being spread thin: ‘Each one of us an island in a sea of male voices.’
Another layer to the meaning of the title The Island Girls is the complexity of abusive relationships which transcend decades. From domestic violence to coercive control. The abused woman is an ‘island girl’ though her sense of isolation, but she is not alone.
In 1624, John Donne wrote ‘No man is an island entire of itself, every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.’ Replace man with woman, and this is a message for all those ‘island girls’ who feel abandoned. There is hope through connection with others. This is what women are so good at. Holding space for each other.
The Island Girls aims to connect with universal experiences. It is about understanding our own identities, what we need rather than want, and where we truly belong.
The one quote on the process of writing which has always resonated with me is Stephen King’s definition. ‘Stories are found things, like fossils in the ground…stories are relics, part of an undiscovered, pre-existing world.’ He talks about our job as writers is to dig the story out.
This process of excavating a story is one I identify with. Once my characters have been created, and the inciting incident triggered, writing is digging out my story. In other words, I put my characters in a situation and see where they decide to go from there. So, from this idea of digging out a story the most important work we can do as writers is to really get to know our characters well, so we know intuitively what they will say and how they will react. They become real people to us.
Right from the beginning of working on The Island Girls I knew I had to go on a ‘story dig’ to Maine. By travelling to the island, I was able to not only see, but touch, taste, smell and listen to the sights and sounds of Vinalhaven. There are so many small authentic details in the novel which would have been impossible without being on the island myself, from talking to locals, walking around and immersing myself in its stunning autumnal nature to reading up on it history. This is writing! It might not be words on the page, but it’s what I call filling the well, so I can draw on it later. Another aspect of going to Vinalhaven which made it so crucial were all the details I gleaned when I found the local historical society museum and was able to spend time looking at all the exhibits and talking to the curator. Writing about a place which has been someone else’s home and history for decades of their family must be treated sensitively and with respect.
The cherry on the cake of my research trip was to be accompanied by a good friend who was also a writer, and to be able to rent a small house, which was owned by a local writer! The perfect writing cabin, filled with books, and cosy corners, as well as featuring quilts which became an important part of the plot in The Island Girls.
The biggest joy for me in writing The Island Girls was discovering the women which inhabit its pages – Susannah and her dreams of Harvard, Kate and her love for the island, Emer and her loss, Ava and her passion, and Lynsey and her vulnerability. Yes, the women do dominate the pages, and this feeds into the book’s ultimate purpose. A real love story set in the past but for today’s women.
(c) Noelle Harrison
About The Island Girls:
Vinalhaven Island. A disappearing place, in the wild Atlantic, of towering pines, lobster traps and two sisters torn apart by tragedy…
Harvard 1960. Nineteen-year-old Susannah says farewell to college life for the summer and returns to Vinalhaven Island, her remote rocky home off the coast of Maine. Her beloved sister Kate is marrying Matthew, a local fisherman, a man with a heart as cold as the Atlantic Ocean.
Years later, nurse Emer is sent to Vinalhaven to look after Susannah, who has lived in isolation since her sister’s tragic death. When Emer discovers a bundle of letters in a rainbow quilt in the bedroom, she and Susannah grow closer. Eventually, Susannah opens up enough to tell Emer the story of Kate’s brutal and secret past.
But when Emer starts asking locals about Kate, the island air sizzles with hostility. There are people who would rather that Susannah kept quiet, who have no qualms about threatening Emer. But despite the warnings to stay away, Emer is determined to find out what really happened the night Kate died – and the final secret that is keeping Susannah a prisoner to the past.
An unputdownable and unforgettable story of impossible choices and two sisters who would do anything for one another. Set on a bewitching sea-scented island, The Island Girls will burrow into your heart. Perfect for fans of Lisa Wingate, Anita Shreve and The Light Between Oceans.
Order your copy online here.