As we get close to wrapping up our Kobo New Voices in Fiction week, we’re talking to Sandi Tan, author of The Black Isle! Through our chat with Sandi, learn about her journey to launching her debut novel and what influences her writing.
You can get The Black Isle today for $4.99 as part of the Kobo New Voices in Fiction sale, as well as other great new fiction titles at Kobo.com. And be sure to follow us on Twitter with the #KoboNewFiction hashtag.
Kobo: Where did you get the inspiration for The Black Isle?
Sandi Tan: A line. “I was seven years old when I saw my first ghost.” This line entered my head one night, and haunted me for weeks. Usually ideas for stories appear and disappear in a matter of days, but this one crawled into a crevice and refused to budge. I knew there could be a book in it, as scenes began to take shape. Once I found my heroine and knew what the scope of the novel would be—part ghost story, part capsule of the 20th century in Asia—I went scouting for “locations.” I bought old Life magazines, haunted internet photo archives, trawled the vintage postcard section of eBay.
Kobo: Have you always been interested in ghost and supernaturals?
ST: Growing up in Singapore, I was constantly surrounded by talk of ghosts. This was perhaps to be expected, as the island nation was and still is a bright modern city fighting to keep the dark equatorial jungle at bay. There was a paradoxical fear of and desire to hang on to the past. Not only was my own father a great teller of ghost stories, I attended two schools that abounded with whispered reports of “sightings.” Of course, the ghosts of THE BLACK ISLE are not only those of the departed but more sinister, more tenacious phantoms: regrets, terrible memories, people and places left behind—the dark forest that is one’s past.
Kobo: Do you feel your characters speak about different facets of your life?
ST: I hope readers will identify with my heroine Ling/Cassandra as they join her on her journey from childhood to old age because she embodies the best—and worst!—impulses in every one of us. As an extraordinarily sensitive woman—she is gifted with the ability to see the dead—she is perhaps even more susceptible to the emotions that bedevil the rest of us: fear, envy, love, lust; yet at times, she acts with such courage that she surprises even herself. She is Everywoman, writ large—with flaws and passions. In addition, I conceived of the Black Isle as a central character itself—a kind of shadow-twin of Ling/Cassandra. Its passage from the innocence and chaos of its early days toward a more anchored maturity, is hopefully something that all of us will recognize.
Kobo: What was the feeling you had when you finished writing the book? Was it hard to let go of your characters?
ST: Relief. But having spent years with these people—yes, I think of them as people!—they’ve become part of me. There’s probably a syndrome that fiction writers suffer from that should be called Persistence of Character Memory. I can’t look at a jungle at twilight, an isolated beach or a large aquarium tank without replaying certain dramatic scenarios that I dreamed up while sitting at my desk in sunny southern California.
Kobo: What books do you feel influenced you the most when writing The Black Isle?
ST: “Housekeeping” by Marilynne Robinson is one of my favorite novels of all time. Its voice, its sounds and smells, even its worldview—I found the quiet world of Robinson’s fictional Far West town more vividly and poignantly rendered than any 3D Hollywood extravaganza. I strived to achieve a hundredth of its mesmeric, enveloping quality. As a movie geek, I also looked to movies. The ones that inspired me during the writing of THE BLACK ISLE were Charles Laughton’s 1955 gothic fable “The Night of the Hunter,” in which Robert Mitchum plays a mad preacher pursuing two small children through rural and small-town America, and “There Will Be Blood,” P. T. Anderson’s epic of the early days of the oil boom. I aspired toward their menace and their grandeur. These are works that will haunt me for the rest of my life.