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M. L. Stedman p1

READERSVOICE.COM aims to collect a few interesting reading tips. For this issue, M. L. Stedman talks about her writing process for The Light Between Oceans. It's the story of a lighthouse keeper and his wife on Janus Island, off the Western Australia coast in 1926. A boat washes up with a dead man and a baby. They decide to keep the baby and disaster ensues. The book has been optioned by Miramax for a movie.

“I sat down and closed my eyes and could see there was a lighthouse,” said M. L. Stedman, author of The Light Between Oceans . “Then I saw an island and I knew it was long ago.” Then she saw a man who, she knew, was the lighthouse keeper. And she knew it was going to be his story. Then she saw a boat wash up, and in the boat was a dead man and a baby. “I had to keep writing to see who they were… Gradually the story emerged and gradually the novel emerged.”

The first time novelist said she didn’t plan her novel. She said different ways of working suited different writers and you had to work out what was best for you. “I sit down, close my eyes and see what comes up.”
She used the same approach to keep the story going. She just saw what was in her mind: a scorpion, for example, or a storm. Then she wondered, Who’s that walking in the storm?
She said writing was akin to sticking her head in a cinema: the story was there, she just had to look and see it.
Writing was something where you could go off and frolic on your own, unlike her career as a lawyer, in the UK, where she had to plan.
The Light Between Oceans is the story of lighthousekeeper and WW1 veteran Tom Sherbourne and his wife Isabel, who are childless and living on Janus Island off the Western Australian coast in 1926. When a boat with a dead man and a baby washes up on the island, the dutiful Tom wants to report the incident. But Isabel wants to keep the baby. Tom makes a concession to her: he will wait till the morning to report the boat. Eventually he goes along with her idea.
“That’s where the trouble starts.”
Then themes came into play, she said. “How do we prioritise our values?” She said Tom and Isabel have conflicting obligations: marriage (obligations to each other); Tom’s obligations to the Commonwealth Lighthouse Service to report the boat; and their duties to other people, such as any family of the baby.
She said the book was about “how you find your North Star”: how you find the right thing to do, “how we negotiate a morally complex world”. Isabel has a belief in Christianity (there is a scene where she prays over the grave of her miscarried child).
And M. L. Stedman said all the characters were “basically good”. But “All the characters are operating out of a woundedness of some kind,” she said. “They were doing what they thought was best for the baby, with disastrous consequences.”

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– copyright Simon Sandall
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