‘This is the story of right and wrong, and how sometimes they look the same’
It’s 1926. Tom Sherbourne is a young lighthouse keeper on a remote island off Western Australia. The only inhabitants of Janus Rock, he and his wife Isabel live a quiet life, cocooned from the rest of the world. Then one April morning a boat washes ashore carrying a dead man and a crying infant – and the path of the couple’s lives hits an unthinkable crossroads.
Only years later do they discover the devastating consequences of the decision they make that day – as the baby’s real story unfolds…
The Light Between Oceans is the stunning debut novel from M.L Stedman which was acquired by Transworld in a nine-way publisher bid. I was lucky enough to meet the author, Margot, at her launch at the London Book Fair and asked her how the fascinating concept for the story developed.
‘When I write, I just let a picture or a voice or a sentence come to me, and follow where it leads. For The Light Between Oceans, I closed my eyes, and I could see a lighthouse, and then a woman at the lighthouse. At first I thought maybe the story was about her. I could tell that it was set a long time ago, on an island off Australia. Then quite quickly a man came along, and I knew he was the light keeper and it was really his story. Then a boat washed up, with a dead man, and I discovered there was a baby in it too, so I had to keep writing to see what happened!’
Written over the course of two years from the Spring of 2008 to 2010, Margot explains – quite refreshingly – how there isn’t really a ‘writing process’ as such for her. ‘There really isn’t such a thing as a ‘typical’ writing day for me, except insofar as I only write in the daytime – never at night. I’m rather allergic to rules about writing, and chafe against edicts such as ‘you must write at least an hour a day’ or ‘you must plot everything in advance’. My philosophy is ‘find out what works for you, and do that: everyone is different’. So I wrote this book on my sofa, in the British Library, in a cottage by the beach in Western Australia, on Hampstead Heath, and anywhere else that felt right.’
But of course, during the course of writing any novel, there has to be good days and bad days. ‘The high points during this period were any day on which I got to sit down and just write for as long as I wanted. That’s my idea of heaven. The low point was having three irrecoverable hard drive failures on my Mac, and having to piece together my files. Fortunately, after the first one I became obsessive about backing things up. (I’d advise all budding writers to do the same: you’d be amazed how many don’t.)’ Very wise words indeed.
Although the story is set in the years after the First World War, it never feels as though it is dwelling in the history unnecessarily – and actually reads like a very contemporary novel with real human issues and emotions at the forefront of the narrative throughout. I asked Margot what it was about this particular period of history which appealed to her as the setting for the story. ‘It just emerged as the time in which the story was set, rather than being a conscious choice. And it’s such a rich period of Australian history that it offered a great deal of scope in exploring themes like right and wrong, loyalty and forgiveness.’
In her narrative, Margot has created wonderful, evocative descriptions of the remote island, Janus Rock, and of life as a lighthouse keeper. I asked her about the research she carried out to create such authenticity. ‘As to location, I grew up in Western Australia, so the ocean and light and wild weather and vastness are in my blood. When I was writing, I did spend some time down in the area near where the story is set, just getting the feel of the particular place, and sitting gazing out over the ocean or exploring the dense forests in the area.’
‘As to the more technical aspects, I adored researching them. The British Library has some excellent histories of Western Australia’s involvement in the Great War, as does the Australian War Memorial, where there’s a wealth of original records accessible on line. The stories they tell are plainly told and intensely moving. For lighthouses, I read some fabulous books on the history of their development, and visited West Australian lighthouses. I also went to the Australian National Archives, and trawled the lightkeepers’ old logbooks and correspondence files. It was a very peculiar feeling to open the pages of these fragile leather registers, knowing that the person who wrote in them could never have imagined that in the next century, a writer would be looking through them. I felt enormously privileged to read about their daily lives in their own words.’
The characters in The Light Between Oceans are complex and varied; each adding their own perspective to the central dilemma of the novel. Interestingly, Margot views her job as a writer as allowing her characters to emerge, rather than creating them. ‘I suppose that because the story evolved organically, without a prior outline, it didn’t really feel like I was ‘incorporating’ the characters – they just came out of the story as it unfolded, so I was ‘letting them out’ rather than ‘putting them in’. I enjoyed just sitting with each of the characters, and really exploring what the world must have looked like to them, whether I agreed with their point of view or not, and seeing how events in which they weren’t the central actors still had a profound impact on their lives.’
When asked to describe her writing style, Margot defers to the reader. ‘The product of the writing process is up to the reader to decide! In terms of the writing process itself, I would describe it as: instinctive, surprising, and fun.’
Finally, I asked Margot what she is working on next. ‘I’m still very much occupied with sending The Light Between Oceans out into the world (I think at last count it’s due for publication in more than 25 territories), so I’m not getting much time for writing, but watch this space.’
I certainly will.
By creating an unimaginable dilemma for her main characters, M.L. Stedman has crafted a compelling story and as the fate of the central characters moves towards its surprising conclusion, I couldn’t put it down. In our hectic, modern lives, it often feels like a luxury to curl up with a good book, never mind treating ourselves to buy it in the first place. Our time, and money, is precious and we want the investment we make in reading a book, to be worthwhile. Reading The Light Between Oceans was not just time well spent; it was time thoroughly enjoyed. And I, for one, feel all the richer for having read it.