Why Islands? A Guest Post by Joe Wilson


Hugest welcome to debut novelist Joe Wilson. His novel, The Island That Doesn’t Exist, is leaping on to shelves. So, we invited him to My Book Corner to discuss the significance of that island setting…

The Black Island coverThe island setting is firmly established as classic fictional territory. Just add a word and you’re there, ‘Treasure, Adventure, Dinosaur…’ and so many others. Personally, I grew up with Tintin, who once travelled to ‘The Black Island’. I can see him now, his little boat bravely cutting through the sea towards the imposing outcrop of looming mystery. You can find a website which lists books with ‘Island’ in the title. But you can’t find a website which definitively tells you how many islands there are on Earth. That, I think, is the point. It is why islands are still so inspiring. Fundamentally it’s wonderful to stumble across something we still don’t know.

The adventure story writer is cursed by the modern availability of knowledge. Facts are everywhere. The world is known. The temptation, therefore, to travel to magical kingdoms and fantasy realms must be strong. It is not, however, my thing.

What motivates me is the possibility of hidden worlds which are still there, right there, within our reach. So near, yet so far. That island which is almost visible from the coastline you stand on, the little piece of land which is listed as ‘uninhabited’ but is actually marked on a map. What if there’s something happening there? Something secret, something thrilling?

In terms of plot, trying to explain ‘how’ an island has remained hidden is actually far more of a challenge than suggesting ‘why’. The way my island had remained concealed was a fundamental hurdle to jump. I chose a mixture of myth, engineering and animal training.
Although the book’s title is ‘The Island That Didn’t Exist’ I will reveal that, in fact, it does. An adventure story relating to a non-existent island has limited potential. It would, I suspect, be a very short book. But the possibilities on a hidden island are fascinating, within reason.

I still needed to construct a narrative that explained it all. I wanted that narrative to seem relevant. It had to relate to current issues. The island was isolated geographically but the plot was part of the life we are actually experiencing now. I think that’s a key element to any ‘Thriller’ and in my mind I was writing a Children’s Thriller… if you will allow me; a ‘Chiller’.

There is a small space between ‘impossible’ and ‘very unlikely’ and that’s where, I think, the best adventure stories are written. Its where Tintin, for example, spent his entire fictional life.

So, there had to be peril. The island had to be small, it would stretch credibility too far to imagine a huge land mass remaining undiscovered anywhere. But there still had to be enough physical space for drama to unfold. That was a challenge. But small is good. I think another part of the island’s enduring appeal as a fictional venue is that we can map it out in our mind. We can picture the borders and features. Again, in our modern world of limitless knowledge it is a delight to scale everything right down.

I have mused previously, and I’m sure I will again, about the differences between writing children’s fiction and journalism. They are very different disciplines. Writing pieces for television news bulletins demands, above all else, brevity. There’s not much time for many words. Additionally, you are, of course, tied to the world you can see. There is no television without stuff that’s actually happened (and, even more importantly, stuff you were able to film).

Unihabited St Kilda island

But throughout the long process of writing and improving this book – during the gaps in my life where I’ve made time- I have been reminded of real events. I was once covering a global cricket tournament in Sri Lanka. We were filming a bus leaving a hotel. A friendly hotel employee asked me which team was onboard.

‘Ireland,’ I replied.
‘Island?’ he responded, still trying to smile.
‘No, Ireland,’ I said, already sensing the conversation was doomed.
‘So, island, like Sri Lanka is an island?’ he persisted with a frown.
‘Well, yes…’
‘But what island?’
‘Ireland….’ I offered, helplessly.

I think, at this point, he gave up on me. But if nothing else this story proves that there is always mystery to be found even when we know an island does exist. For 12 year old Rixon Webster just finding his island feels like the end – it is, of course, only the beginning….




1 Response

  1. Ireland and its islands: the wonderful children’s novels by Eilis Dillon

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