AMY J. BARRY, Special to the Day
M.L. Stedman's debut novel "The Light Between Oceans" is being launched, quite literally, in local waters.
The novel is set on a lighthouse off western Australia and attendees of a book-release event on Wednesday will be taken out on the Project O vessel to New London Ledge Light where the author will read from and discuss her book. Guests will continue on a nautical tour of other lighthouses in Fishers Island Sound while enjoying a wine and cheese reception aboard the boat. A portion of proceeds will benefit New London Ledge Lighthouse Foundation.
Stedman was born and raised in western Australia and now lives in London.
"The Light Between Oceans" is about lighthouse keeper Tom Sherbourne, who brings his new wife Isabel to live with him on the isolated island of Janus Rock in the early 1920s.
After Isabel suffers two miscarriages and a stillbirth, the couple discovers a dead man and a live baby on a boat that's been washed ashore. The grieving Isabel convinces Tom to keep the baby and not report it. Against Tom's better judgment they keep the child and raise her as their own (naming her Lucy). But in time, they realize that their choice has caused a devastating impact on other people-and ultimately themselves.
The following is an exclusive Daybreak interview with M.L. Stedman about her new novel.
Q. How did the concept for your novel originate? Is it based on a true story-on anything you read about?
A. No, it's not based on a true story. I write very organically; a picture or phrase or voice turns up in my mind, and I just follow it. I closed my eyes and could see a lighthouse and a woman. I could tell it was a long time ago, on an island off western Australia. A man appeared, and I sensed he was the lightkeeper, and it was his story. Then a boat washed up, carrying the body of a dead man. I kept looking and saw there was a baby in it too, so I had to keep writing to see who all these people were and what happened next.
Q. You weave together so many subjects-all the human, heartbreaking emotions of Lucy/Grace's story; the physical landscape of Janus Rock and being a lighthouse keeper; World War I and the tremendous casualties to Australia; and the lingering anger and bigotry toward Germans. How did this all come together?
A. Well, that's the curious thing-they just all came together without my consciously summoning them. When I think back to the opening scene, I now see it had in it the elements of the landscape, birth, death, marriage, war, peace, mystery, light and darkness, which is a pretty useful toolbox from which to make a story. I researched as I went along (about lighthouses, about the war, and so on), and things just seemed to fit in naturally, furthering the themes and action. I often made something up, and then found it had a basis in fact. For example, I decided that Tom had gone on the Lights to recover from the horrors of WWI, and later found out many soldiers really had done that.
Q. Can you talk about the lighthouse as a metaphor?
A. Lighthouses are incredibly rich metaphors, aren't they? Their very existence suggests journey and risk. They represent the ultimate unequal, heroic fight: man's struggle against the forces of nature, with its unseen hazards and infinite power. They're dynamic as symbols, as they offer binary concepts between which the mind can move: light and dark, safety and danger, journey and stability, isolation and communication, clarity and mystery.
Q. How about the idea of what makes you a "real" parent?
A. I suppose I'd expand this to the broader question of what 'family' means and what its function is. In the time I was writing about, it was not uncommon for people to lose a parent or a child/ children. Perhaps the essential quality of family is love for the long haul - at its best, that's what it delivers: the 'no matter what' element. An interesting question is whether there's anything that has to be exclusive about that. We take it for granted that there's room for more than one child in a parent's heart, but is there room for more than one mother and father in the heart of a
child? I imagine people might have diverse but fiercely held views on that one.
Q. Perception colors so much of what happens. For example, how different people interpret the letters-vital clues arriving anonymously in Hannah's mailbox. Can you comment on this idea that "the truth" is so different for each character?
A. That's real life, I think - there's almost always a moral parallax depending on our position. So often, we see things in the way we want to see them. That's natural, but it's important to remember that ours isn't the only viewpoint - the whole 'Janus' theme that runs through the book. Janus, the Roman god with two faces, is the embodiment of the idea that there's always more than one way of seeing things.
Q. Tom is so brave and yet so misunderstood. You've developed such a sympathetic character that the reader keeps hoping he will stop protecting Isabel with his lies. Can you talk about Tom - and how you feel about him?
A. I have a real soft spot for Tom. I think he's a good man: integrity runs through him like a vein through marble. He's intelligent and stoical, practical and fair, with very little ego. But he's not perfect, and it's that lack of perfection that draws forth my compassion for him.
Q. You can never get away with or live with a lie, can you? No matter how much you justify it?
A. This one's up to the reader, I think. Can it be right to conceal Lucy's story? If so why and for how long and from whom? If not, why not? I've heard people make persuasive arguments both ways.
Q. Have you been to New London before? Are you looking forward to this tie-in between your booksigning/talk and the lighthouse tour with Project O?
A. No, I've never been to New London before. I was so delighted when I heard about the Project O event! Apparently the organizers asked 'Would I mind' if my reading was in a lighthouse instead of the bookstore? My reply was along the lines of 'Are you kidding?!' Their only problem may be getting me to go back to shore.
"The Light Between Oceans" (Scribner) by M.L. Stedman is $25, hardcover.