The Poisoned Island: a Q&A with myself (and you)
I’ve got a new book out on February 28th. It’s my second novel, and it’s called The Poisoned Island. Here’s a bunch of answers to questions you might have about it. If you’ve got questions to ask, and want to see them answered here, you can ask them in all sorts of ways: as a comment on this piece; on Twitter (I’m @lloydshep); on my Facebook page; or contact me directly via this site. Otherwise, go to Brockwell Park in South London, write your question down on yellow paper (it has to be yellow paper), then tear it into exactly seventeen pieces and throw them into the air. There are things in the park which will see them collected….
There might not be any questions from anyone else. I might just be imagining a dialogue with myself. It wouldn’t be the first time.
What’s your new book called, Lloyd?
Thanks for asking, Lloyd. It’s called The Poisoned Island.
What does your new book look like?
It looks very nice. It looks like this.
When’s the new book out, Lloyd?
It’s published in the UK and Ireland on February 28th, 2013. It’ll follow in other English-language countries at some point after that; I’m sorry, I don’t know exactly when. It will be published in the U.S. and Canada, but again, I don’t quite know when. I’ll let you know as soon as I do!
What formats can I buy it in?
From February 28th, it’ll be available as a hardback book and as an e-book. The paperback release in the UK is set for the autumn of 2013.
What’s it about?
Ah, the hardest question of them all! Well, first things first: it’s a sequel to my first book, The English Monster. It’s set a year later, in 1812. But like my first book, it opens with a chapter from a deeper past: in this case, with a young Englishman chasing a Tahitian princess through the trees in 1769. He catches her, but then she disappears….
Forty-three years later, a ship called the Solander arrives in the Thames estuary. She has sailed from Tahiti, and is carrying hundreds of exotic plants, seedlings and seeds from that mysterious island. They are intended for the gardens at Kew, under the supervision of Sir Joseph Banks of the Royal Society. A day later, Charles Horton of the Wapping River Police Office discovers one of the sailors from the Solander dead in his rooms, his face carved with a terrible smile. Horton and his magistrate John Harriott open an investigation, while upriver at Kew the strange plants from Tahiti reveal themselves to be a good deal weirder than even Sir Joseph had realised.
So it’s historical fiction, then?
Well, if you read The English Monster, you’ll know I’m not in the business of writing straight historical fiction here. What I did in that first book, and what I do again here, is set real historical events and characters against an imagined canvas in which unusual – perhaps even magical – things can happen.
I’ve had to dance around this a fair bit, because to have talked about it too much would have been a heck of a plot-spoiler for The English Monster. But those expecting a straightforward historical tale will be in for a bit of a surprise; whether a pleasant or an unpleasant one will depend on the reader. But if you’ve got an appetite for the fantastical, this might be a meal you’ll enjoy sitting down to. There’s a murder mystery to be solved. There’s history to be described. But there’s oddness and unexpectedness too.
Put it this way. I’ve found The English Monster filed in bookshops under Crime, under History, under General Fiction, under Fantasy and under Horror. Seriously.
My favourite description of the genre has come from Shelley Harris, the lovely author of the lovely book Jubilee. She described The English Monster as ‘Regency X-Files.’ Taking that theme, I’d describe The Poisoned Island as ‘Regency Lost.’
But genre is a slippery thing, is it not? What it gives with one hand it takes away with the other.
Why write about this period in history?
Because it’s such a fascinating conjunction between two worlds. This period falls squarely between the questioning of the Enlightenment and the technology of the Victorians. The world has only recently begun to be reasonably measured; in the previous hundred years, two thousand years of wrongheaded knowledge has been set right.
Nowhere was this more apparent than in the field of botany, on which much of The Poisoned Island is based. In the thirty years before my book is set, botanists had figured out plant reproduction and respiration. They’d begun to establish a robust platform for plant taxonomy. They’d begun to substitute superstition for science (even though that word hadn’t been invented). But there was still so much to do, so much that was mysterious and unknown. There were still white spaces on maps, but they were almost all metaphorical ones, gaps in human knowledge in which wonders could still manifest themselves.
To put it another way: the early 19th century is the most recent time that still feels like deep history. The Victorians feel adjacent to us: photography means we can see them. We can even hear them. The Georgians are still unavailable to us in those forms. They remain intriguing.
What are the themes you’re trying to cover?
The English Monster dealt with exploitation of a particularly chilling kind: the exploitation of humans through slavery. The Poisoned Island deals with a different kind of exploitation: that of natural resources. In 1812, the natural world was something to be harnessed to the needs of nations. The most obvious example of this relates to Tahiti. When Lt. Bligh commanded the Bounty his mission was to take breadfruit from that island and transplant it to Jamaica and the other West Indies. It was thought to be an ideal, starchy foodstuff for the slaves working on the plantations in those islands (and they were still slaves; the slave trade might have been abolished in 1808, but slavery as an institution was not abolished in the Empire until 1833, and in effect not for a few years after that). Thus a plant could be used as an instrument of Empire, just as sheep could be smuggled out of Portugal and farmed in Kew for the sake of their merino wool. These were Imperial projects. The breadfruit and the sheep were as strategic as the rifle.
At the centre of both these examples was Sir Joseph Banks, who plays a big role in The Poisoned Island, as does his librarian, the botanist Robert Brown. Both of them are key characters in the book.
“You obviously did a lot of research for your first book….was this one the same?”
From Sara on Facebook. Yes, this one required as much again as The English Monster, primarily because I had to learn about botanical science – about which I knew nothing. And, on top of that, I had to learn about botanical science as it was understood in 1812. I hope I didn’t get anything dramatically wrong.
“Your favourite novel is A Portrait Of A Lady….
Henry James considered historical novels “fatally cheap” . (I happen not to agree, but then I’m not a historical novelist.) So how do you square that idea away with your own practice, and, more to the point, how soon can we expect a novel from you set in modern times?”
This was from Niall on Facebook, and it’s a brilliant question. Portrait is indeed my favourite book - but that isn’t to say I agree with James on much at all about anything else. He made that comment at the beginning of the 20th century, and perhaps notions of what a “historical novel” could be were different back then. In the last twenty years we’ve had Neal Stephenson and David Mitchell, among others, doing really interesting things with the genre. In some ways, I think, it can be like writing fantasy – I do believe it’s impossible for us to know precisely what it was like to be someone living another life, so any fiction is at best a facsimile, and the question is how resonant and relevant that facsimile is. I certainly don’t apologise for writing historical fiction because the stuff I want to write about happened in the past. But I also don’t want to stay in that genre – I’ve got a couple of contemporary projects on the boil, and would also like to flirt with more fantasy/SF stuff if I get the chance and the attention.
If you could live in any other time, when would it be and why?
@Helen_Fields thanks! and answer: i'd live NOW. medicine, technology, books, music, film. And Twitter. Of course
— Lloyd Shepherd (@lloydshep) February 19, 2013
Any other questions? To repeat: if you’ve got questions to ask, and want to see them answered here, you can ask them in all sorts of ways: as a comment on this piece; on Twitter (I’m @lloydshep); on my Facebook page; or contact me directly via this site.