About The Author
Originally from Western Australia, M L Stedman has for many years lived in London, where she worked as a lawyer. She first decided to try creative writing in 1997, and set about finding a writing tutor. In the years that followed she did a few writing courses, and some of her short stories were published in anthologies.
Her debut novel, The Light Between Oceans, draws inspiration from the landscape of her native Western Australia, though she wrote and researched much of it, at the British Library. Her UK publisher saw off bids from nine other companies in the run up to the book world's biggest trade event, the Frankfurt Book Fair, to secure Commonwealth publication rights.
A survivor of the First World War trenches, Tom enjoys the solitude of life as a lighthousekeeper, but one trip to the mainland brings him a wife, Isabel, with whom to share Janus Rock. One fateful day, the sea washes a dinghy up on the shore containing the body of a man and a baby - very much alive - which the couple, desperate to start a family, decide to take as their own.
In this exclusive interview for Foyles, ML Stedman talks about visiting lighthouses, setting much of her novel in such a limited space and the dangers of feeling protective towards her characters.
Questions & Answers
Were you able to visit any lighthouses in researching your novel?
Yes, I visited the Leeuwin Lighthouse and the Cape Naturaliste Lighthouse, as well as spending time in the Australian National Archives going through the old log books and correspondence of the lightkeepers of the period. I also visited Trinity House in London, which is in charge of UK Lighthouses, and did a lot of research in the British Library. I wrote some of the book there, some of it on my sofa, and some of it in little cottages looking out over the Indian Ocean, down near where I imagine Point Partageuse to be. I found the research completely captivating, and an essential part of bringing that world to life for the reader.
Much of the plot occurs in the very limited space of the island on which the lighthouse sits. Was it challenging to keep the descriptions of the same environment vivid?
Actually, I didn't find that difficult. Because Janus Rock only exists in my imagination, I had great freedom to explore it and describe it, and there was always something else to discover about it. Thankfully, readers seem to love being taken away to that world, and they too are able to conjure it vividly in their imagination, which is incredibly gratifying. It's a rather strange sensation hearing people in boardrooms in New York and pubs in London recount 'their' Janus Rock to me. Fabulous.
Tom and Isabel have both experienced great loss in their lives. As their creator, did you find it difficult to put them through further distress?
That's an interesting question. The story just emerged from nothingness, and I had no idea how it would end. Equally, until the very end of the book, I didn't really have a sense of making 'choices' about the characters - they were who they were, they did what they did, and those actions carried with them certain consequences: more like physical laws of action and reaction. I felt deeply for them all - not just Tom and Isabel, but even the minor characters, and even when I disagreed with what they did in one circumstance or other. I will confess though that towards the end I realised that I was pulling my punches where Tom was concerned, and had to stop protecting him from his fate. That was actually instructive and liberating.
Tom and Isabel's romance turns to marriage in very few meetings. Was this driven more by Tom's regular long-term absences, returning to the lighthouse, or by Isabel's awareness of the lack of marriageable men having lost both brothers in the war?
I think a combination of both. It's hard for us today to conceive of a world in which there were such practical barriers to communication, and also in which there was such a raw and pervasive sense of loss - which reminded the bereaved that their own life, too, was fleeting. And in my research I came across plenty of examples of Australian soldiers bringing British wives back after the war, even though they'd spent very little time together. I found it very moving - especially because many married and didn't live to spend more than a handful of days or weeks with their brides.
Tom's predecessor running the lighthouse was suffering from poor health brought about by exposure to the mercury used to balance the light mechanism. Was this a frequent fate for lighthousekeepers?
Perhaps not frequent but certainly not unheard of. I believe the Leeuwin lighthouse was the first in the world to use the new 'mercury bed' to support the light and let it turn far more quickly and smoothly than had previously been possible. I think it was only gradually that people realised the occasional price of that.
One of your characters, Hannah, marries an Austrian, much to the anger of her father and the local community (because of the recent Great War). Was hatred of Germans and their allies widespread at the time or simply symptomatic of a more isolated community?
That's an area which I found very interesting to research. I came across several incidents of unrest in Western Australia relating to Germans during and after the war. I wonder if it was harder for smaller communities to get over that than for bigger city communities, where they were much more used to the comings and goings of 'outsiders'.
Many of the characters are torn in their feelings about Tom and Isabel's decision to keep hold of the baby. Did you always know which way the plot was going to turn?
No! I write 'from the inside outward' rather than 'from the outside inward', by which I mean that I know lots of people who build the scaffolding first, plotting out their story and structuring it, working it all out, and then sit down to put the bricks together. I never plan what I write - I wait for the story to unfold for me, without demanding to know where it's going, and I make sense of it later. From the moment the boat washed up on the beach, I had to keep writing to see what happened next, as I had no idea who these people were. And I didn't know how the story would end until it ended, because there were so many ways it could have gone. I think that has filtered through into the text, because I hear a lot from readers who say they just had no idea what was going to happen next, and kept reading into the wee small hours (one until 5am!) to find out.
Can you tell us anything about what you're working on now?
Ah. The classic question! To tell you the truth, while I have various things percolating away, at the moment launching this book into the wider world is taking up all my time. I could never have dreamed that there would be this level of interest or enthusiasm for it (so far it's being translated into something like 25 languages), so it's rather taken my breath away. It's just such a privilege to hear that so many readers have read and loved it, so it's an extraordinary time.