Things Bright and Beautiful is set on Advent Island, and follows the lives of Bea and her husband Max, the island’s new missionary. Can you tell us a little about your time living on a South Pacific island, and how it inspired you to write this novel?
Ten years ago I was offered a job on one of Vanuatu’s islands through the Ni-Vanuatu government. Moving there came with a huge wake-up-call about my own complete ineptitude and stupidity. I struggled with even the most basic aspects of staying alive - things like building a fire or growing vegetables. I began thinking about how similarly ill-prepared people might have coped in the aftermath of WWII, when a lot of myth-building around Melanesia had trickled from films like South Pacific, and many visitors to the islands of what was then the New Hebrides arrived with their own agendas about ‘transforming’ the nation.
I loved the characters and the language of the islanders of Advent Island, the richness of their history and lives. Have any of the real-life islanders made their way into the book?
The eccentric Chief Liki was inspired by a real-life champion of pre-Christian traditional Ni-Van culture (kastom) from Pentecost Island - Chief Viraleo. Otherwise the Advent Islanders were inspired by historical research, although sadly there is a feeble papertrail accounting for the labour flow through the South Pacific, including Chinese and Vietnamese plantation workers, and thousands of young Pacific islanders who were ‘blackbirded’ to Australia and New Zealand between the 1860s and early 1900s. The only character who is a complete borrow from real life is ‘New Dog’, called Fig in real life, a loveable, if unwashed dog who vanished under NSFW circumstances.
Can you tell us about your books title, Things Bright and Beautiful, which automatically brings to mind the hymn, All Things Bright and Beautiful. Can you tell us why you chose this as a title, and if any parts of the hymn are reflected within the novel?
The title! There were about a hundred different titles we considered - I probably asked everyone I know for a title suggestion. In the end, it was my agent, Hattie Grunewald, who suggested All Things Bright & Beautiful - so the credit goes to her! After Hattie’s suggestion, I looked into the song’s history and discovered the original hymn has a verse that no one really sings anymore:
The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
God made them, high or lowly,
And ordered their estate.
The verse was clearly a product of the hymn’s Edwardian origins, and the idea that the song included social divisions as part of a ‘natural’ divine order made me think of the problematic aspect of the pseudo-colonial project in which Max is engaged in his role as ‘conquering’ missionary. The more I thought about it, the more the hymn became a perfect representation of the book since it has this worrying, horrible secret little verse buried in the middle of a celebration of all these spectacular features of our world.
Religion is a major part of the story, both Christianity and the local vibrant existing religion of the island. How much of the local religion is based on research and how much is made up?
I invented very, very little. I have a doctorate in Theology and this is the first time it’s ever come in handy *cough*. The novel depicts elements of animism, local demonology, belief in the properties of herbs and so-called ‘leaf magic’, which are all well historically documented and still practiced in Melanesia where the story is set. Everything from the accounts of animal transfiguration, ‘devil chasers’, to knuckle-cracking divination is all directly informed by research.
One of the biggest characters in the book is Advent Island itself, with its lush, dangerous landscapes and even more dangerous animals. How much research did you have to do about the natural aspects of your novel? Or was it all built upon your memories of island life?
I am a huge nerd - I love research, so it was a genuine pleasure to refresh my knowledge by researching rainforest ecology, visiting botanical gardens and scrolling through endless pictures of shrubs online. I should point out that the island’s monkeys and marmosets are a complete invention and totally inaccurate, and I included them against the advice of my Ni-Van friends and advisors. When I was working in the South Pacific I also kept diaries, making long lists of our supplies and drawing loving portraits of vegetables (I became a bit fixated on food). This proved really helpful while writing the novel, since I had these pretty pathetic descriptions of one particular papaya ripening, or minutiae about the suspected edibility of a particular kind of leaf.
Do you miss living on an island? Did you find the sense of isolation comforting or was the life of an islander not as you thought it would be?
I grew up in London, between Ladbroke Grove and White City. It used to freak me out if I stayed over at a friend’s house and you couldn’t hear a night bus pass directly by the window every 10 minutes. But I’d always had a fantasy that living somewhere remote in the countryside would be sort of contemplative and that it would transform me into being outdoorsy and wholesome. Actually I don’t think it was good for me at all. Isolation plus restricted movement made me irritable and weird. Spending months and months in a tiny village with no radio or TV and few books, literally watching carrots grow for fun - I found it suffocating and also lonely at the same time. I did have colleagues and friends, who were a lifeline - but there’s only so many times you can play ‘what does this rock look like’ before you want to cry. I suffered from strange dreams, fixated on minor irritations… That ugly frustration and irrational bad-temper definitely made it into the novel!
I very much enjoyed the structure and the use of language of your book. Can you tell us a little about your literary influences?
My all-time favourite authors include Toni Morrison, Angela Carter, Sarah Waters. I also read non-fiction: lots of pop history and religious studies. I don’t think any of this made it into the novel, but I love a good true crime book - anything with forensic amounts of grisly detail.
Finally, could you tell us a little about any projects you are working on now?
Having just explained my aversion to isolation, there must be something about the psychological pressures of social seclusion that still appeals to me, because my current WIP is set in a silent convent in Northern Italy in the mid 1950s.