What a concept for a story! How did you form the fundamental idea behind it?
To answer this, I have to explain a little about how I write. I don’t plan or outline. For me it’s a very organic process – a picture or phrase or voice turns up in my mind, and I just follow where it leads. Later, I research and edit and rejig things as the story unfolds. For this book, I closed my eyes and could see a lighthouse, and that there was a woman there. I sensed it was a long time ago, and, gradually, that it was on an island off Western Australia. Then a man walked into the picture, and I could tell he was the lightkeeper, and it was really his story. As I kept writing what I saw in my mind’s eye, a boat washed up, carrying the body of a dead man. I kept looking and saw there was a crying baby in it too, so I had to keep writing to see who all these people were and find out what happened next!
We sense that lighthouses have an almost mystic appeal for you, that you see them as almost metaphysical things. Is that true?
Lighthouses seem to have an iconic quality for the human psyche, and I found researching them completely addictive. Because so few of us have ever lived the life of a lightkeeper, there’s something intrinsically exotic about them. And they’re such rich metaphors. Wherever there’s a lighthouse, there’s danger, and therefore potential drama: their very existence suggests journey and risk. I think they also appeal because they represent man’s struggle against the forces of nature, with its unseen hazards and infinite power – such an unfair fight, met with courage, ingenuity and determination. As symbols they are dynamic, offering binary concepts between which the mind can – in fact must – alternate: light and dark, safety and danger, journey and stability, isolation and communication, clarity and mystery. Lighthouses are one technology that allows us to take risks, explore and discover. Books are another.
Do you have experience of living in great isolation, or a powerful longing to do so?
I’ve certainly never lived in the sort of isolation in which Tom and Isabel live! I think any West Australian understands something about isolation, though – it’s geographically closer to Singapore than to Sydney – and perhaps all Australians born before the twenty-first century have experienced the ‘tyranny of distance’, as towns can be many hundreds of miles apart. I do love travelling in the vast spaces of WA – I find it peaceful and meditative.
Where do you write? This is such an intense story. We imagine you would need your own solitude in which to work.
I write all over the place. The bulk of the novel was written in the reading rooms of the British Library, but I began it sitting on my sofa in London. I also wrote some of it Australia, in places near where I imagine Point Partageuse to be, looking out over the endless ocean. On sunny days I wrote sitting on Hampstead Heath, or by the river in Perth, WA: basically, I’ll write anywhere quiet where I’m unlikely to be interrupted. The British Library is particularly inspiring – you feel a connection with all these other people writing and researching and creating in an intense silence. I’d describe it as a very respectful ‘communal solitude’, if such a thing is possible.