A recent Heather's Pick, M.L. Stedman’s The Light Between Oceans, is an unforgettable debut of history, hope and loss. We're pleased to present this interview with the author, which outlines some of her novel's themes, and how she came to write it.
A perfect read for anyone who loves the work of Kate Morton, and a provocative and tender tale of unforgettable characters striving to do the right thing in a terrible situation. M.L. Stedman’s The Light Between Oceans is available now.
Q: Extraordinary circumstances cause people to do extraordinary things. How do you think the circumstances in the story impacted on your characters?
M.L. Stedman (MLS): A variety of extraordinary circumstances influence people’s behavior in the book – in fact, many of the characters’ lives have turned on the toss of fate – not just the baby arriving in a boat, but Tom surviving the Somme, Septimus coming to Australia as an orphan and amassing a fortune, Hannah finding – and also losing – the love of her life through a course of extreme events.
Another extraordinary factor is isolation. Tom and Isabel live utterly alone. We learn that Isabel has suffered terrible loss on Janus Rock. They have no-one to reflect back to them the enormity of their choice. I doubt they would have acted in the same way had they had people around who were sounding boards. Of course, the isolation is extraordinary in another way too, in that it provides a practical opportunity for concealment they would not otherwise have had.
Q: Tom lives, at least partially, in the shadow of the war. How did you develop his character in consideration of this history?MLS: I don’t start out with a character or a plot – I just close my eyes and see what turns up: here, I first saw the lighthouse, then Isabel, and then Tom. I worked out quite quickly that Tom had become a lightkeeper to escape some sort of trauma, and gradually I knew it was the Great War. I had a sense of who Tom was, and my initial idea of him was confirmed and fleshed out by the research I did, especially reading the records of Australian soldiers, including diaries and battalion histories. I expect many Canadians will, like Australians, have family stories of men who fought in the conflict that today seems so foreign and geographically distant. However, it became clear from my reading that Australians saw it as ‘their’ war: the ties to England were extremely strong. It was also clear that the war’s shadow hung over the whole country for decades in a thousand subtle ways, and I suspect that that, too, was the case in Canada.
Q: To what extent do you think Tom’s choices in the book are shaped by, and compromised by, his love for Isabel?
MLS: One of the crucial questions in the novel is the role of love and loyalty in how we build our moral framework. In particular, does a duty to a loved one rank above a duty to do the right thing by a stranger? I think there’s no doubt at all that Tom makes his initial departure from the rules – agreeing at the very start to wait until the next day to report the boat – for Isabel’s sake. Therein begins the test of just how far his natural sense of right and wrong can be stretched to accommodate his sense of love and loyalty to his wife.
Q: As an author, I’m sure it’s hard to be impartial to your characters. Did you side with one character in particular while writing the novel?
MLS: I loved looking at the situation from everyone’s position – not ‘siding with’ but ‘coming alongside’ each character, and understanding what the world looked like to each of them. The more the character’s outlook on life differed from mine, the more challenging and satisfying it was to write. I think conflict arises not so much when people think they’re doing the wrong thing, but when they believe they’re doing the right thing.
I love hearing how readers take such different views about what the ‘right’ thing to do was – I’ve had strong reactions in support and in condemnation of each character’s choice. I think that’s the greatest compliment a writer can have – that readers have inhabited the story and brought their own life experience to bear in reaching their own moral conclusions.
Q: Where did you do the majority of your writing?MLS: I’ll write just about anywhere as long as it’s quiet and I know I won’t be interrupted. I wrote some of the novel on my sofa in London, and a lot of it in the reading rooms of the British Library. I also wrote some of it in Western Australia, in little places looking out over the ocean down near where the story takes place. It was a huge help to experience the sounds, the smells and sights of the place as I was putting them on the page.
Q: What are you working on next?
MLS: Ah, the classic final question! To be honest, I’m still very occupied with the launch of this book around the world (I think it’s up to nearly thirty languages in translation). But I’m looking forward to closing the door and getting back to my imagination, to work on the various things that are percolating away there. So watch this space…
Special thanks to our friends at Simon and Schuster Canada for sharing this interview.