Lloyd Shepherd, author of The English Monster and The Poisoned Island, has stopped by the blog to answer some of my questions on the themes, places and history of his latest book (out now in hardback and ebook formats).
Author photograph by Paul Clarke
From the Ratcliffe Highway murders to botanists might seem like a change in direction. What made you choose this aspect of history for The Poisoned Island?
With The English Monster, I wanted to write about the exploitation of human beings. With The Poisoned Island, I wanted to discuss exploitation of peoples and places. I became really interested in the idea that, from the 17th century, countries were seeking to gain an advantage over each other by using nature. The great Swedish botanist, Linnaeus, thought Sweden could become effectively self-sufficient by growing all the world’s plants in Sweden. He perhaps didn’t take sufficient account of the weather! But no country did this more aggressively than Britain. The Bounty, Bligh’s ship, was sent to Tahiti with one specific purpose – to take breadfruit plants from that island to Jamaica. That was because breadfruit is easy to grow, and its fruit is very starchy and plentiful – ideal for feeding slaves. But sadly for the Tahitians, England didn’t just take fruit away – it brought diseases, guns, alcohol, a new kind of violence. I thought that story was pretty fascinating.
How do you decide which historical figures to portray and when to use fictional characters?
They’re sort of embedded within the stories. With The English Monster, the magistrates John Harriott and Aaron Graham, and the constable Charles Horton, were all involved in the real-life stories. So I inherited them from the past. Likewise, in the new book, Sir Joseph Banks and his librarian Robert Brown. If there were botanical shenanigans taking place, they’d have been at the heart of them.
Is it important that the places you describe are recognisable in modern day London? I always feel your books do a fantastic job of highlighting the differences between then and now.
Well, London’s pretty fascinating; I’m not the first person to use that resonance between the old patterns behind the modern streets. In The English Monster, I was fascinated by the Docks, mainly because to a large extent they’ve disappeared, although their shadows still haunt Wapping and Rotherhithe and Bermondsey. In The Poisoned Island, Kew plays a large part, because it’s such a powerful symbol for the seething political issues of the day: a mad King, a global war, yet all dressed within this polite veneer.
What draws you to the maritime history of Britain?
Patrick O’Brian describes the Napoleonic Wars somewhere as ‘Britain’s Trojan War’, and I think that’s true. But it’s more the period than the maritime history. I just love the period up to, say, the coronation of Victoria. It’s sufficiently far in the past to seem foreign to us, but sufficiently close to seem familiar. It’s caught between a very modern world and a very traditional one. It’s a time of immense transition, from superstition to science, from farming to industry, from monarchy to government. It’s just a really rich seam.
Do you have any sea-faring tales of your own?
No, I don’t think so! I’ve capsized a few dinghies. I did lose my wedding ring in the sea in France once and, spookily enough, I found it thirty minutes later. The sea giveth, the sea taketh away….
What did your research involve? Did you get to sneak in a trip to Tahiti?
I wish! No, it involved lots of walks around Kew, lots of visits to the library, and lots and lots of reading. Tahiti had to remain imagined, I’m afraid. One day, I hope to get out there!
Can we look forward to more Horton and Harriott in future?
Yes. I’m working on another story just now – witches, madhouses, convicts, and the exploitation of women, this time. I’ve also got a contemporary thing I’m tinkering with, which may or may not ever see the light of day!
What are you reading at the moment?
I tend to have a lot of books on the go at once. Just now it’s Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel, Gillespie and I by Jane Harris, a reread of the Sandman graphic novels, American Gods, a book on Australian convict ships, and Kipling’s poetry. A book in every room….
What do you get up to when you’re not writing?
I read a lot! (see above). I like music – I play guitar a bit, and listen to a pretty wide range of stuff. I like watching good telly – Utopia and Black Mirror on Channel 4 were the best things, recently. I walk my dog, sometimes I run with him. I ferry my daughter around. I cook dinner for my wife. It’s a very nice life!
Is there anything you’ve found online recently that you’d like to share?
I’m quite interested in Koozoo – it’s a system that allows you turn an old iPhone into a webcam. Some years ago I read David Brin’s amazing book The Transparent Society, which asks the question: what if we lived in a world with no privacy at all? Where everything was visible? What would that be like? It’s not a dystopian vision, either – it’s remarkably interesting and positive. So I’d like to see where things like that go.
Where can you be found online?
A big thanks to Lloyd for taking the time to answer mys questions. You can find The Poisoned Island in all the usual places (and probably some unusual ones too): Goodreads | Amazon | Waterstones | Goldsboro Books (signed)