Interview with M.L. Stedman

Posted by Goodreads on December 5, 2012
The success of M.L. Stedman's first novel has outstripped most freshman attempts, especially considering its secluded and contemplative story. This best-selling historical novel, The Light Between Oceans, is set in the years following World War I and tells of a lighthouse keeper, Tom, and his wife, Isabel, who discover a dead man and a crying baby washed ashore on their island off the coast of Australia. In mourning for her own miscarried children and against her husband's wishes, Isabel nurses the child as her own. A native Australian, Stedman speaks to Goodreads from her current hometown, London, about her wish to stay "behind the curtain" and writing by the seat of her pants.

Note from the author: Massive Spoiler Alert! I strongly recommend that people read no further until they've read the book, so as not to spoil their experience. (Otherwise it's probably a bit like doing a crossword puzzle where someone's already filled in most of the spaces.)

Goodreads: Your novel started off with a lot of momentum; nine international houses bid on the manuscript. That's amazing and extremely unusual for a first-time author. How did this happen?

M.L. Stedman: How did this happen, indeed! I can only put it down to a combination of factors. My wonderful agent, Sue Armstrong from Conville and Walsh, sent the manuscript out to publishers, and it seemed to strike a chord with people, which led to an auction process in various countries around the world. The comment I heard a lot was that the story was universal—readers from pretty much any culture or country could engage with the issues it raised. Another vital factor was, in my view, just old-fashioned good luck, for which I'm very grateful.

GR: You're a lawyer and a writer based in London, far from your Australian homeland. Why write about Australia versus your current residence?

MS: I've written stories based in contemporary London, too, but I suppose what I enjoy about writing is the chance to explore other worlds and other lives—so it's more than just geography. These days I'm a full-time writer.

GR: Instead of the usual blurb, your bio is a single line: "M.L. Stedman was born and raised in Western Australia and now lives in London." Please tell us more about your reticence toward sharing details from your personal background and the usage of your initials rather than your first name. Do you think sharing more from what's behind the curtain affects how people read your story?

MS: I like the reader to be free to inhabit fully the world of the book. I think that's more difficult if the author is effectively standing between the reader and the story—a bit like making a movie and then standing in front of the screen. Promoting the author rather than the work is a fairly recent trend. As to using initials—there's a very long and respectable history of writers of both genders doing so: T.S. Eliot, P.G. Wodehouse, C.S. Lewis, P.D. James, A.S. Byatt, J.D. Salinger... Things from "behind the curtain" must surely affect readers' experience, and more importantly, take them out of the story. Details of my life won't shed any light on the book. Ultimately I think any novel should stand or fall on the words on the page. Every novel effectively begins with the appeal from the writer to the reader: "Imagine the following..." For me, the key is "imagine."

GR: What was it about lighthouses that inspired you to focus an entire novel around the people who inhabit such an unusual place?

MS: To answer this, I have to say a word or two about my writing process. I write very instinctively, letting a picture or phrase or voice come into my mind and just following it. For this story the setting turned up first—I closed my eyes and saw a lighthouse, then gradually a woman, and I knew it was a long time ago, on an island off Western Australia. Then a man appeared—the lightkeeper. As I wrote, a boat washed up, with a dead body and a crying baby, so I had to keep writing to see what happened. I didn't consciously decide to write a book about lighthouses, but I found they provided an incredibly rich metaphor: They betoken binary opposites such as safety and danger, light and dark, movement and stasis, communication and isolation—they are intrinsically dynamic because they make our imaginations pivot between those opposites.

I researched as the story progressed, reading old logbooks in the Australian National Archives and visiting lighthouses in Western Australia. They're such iconic things and inspire affection and fascination in equal measure. It's sad that they're more or less functionally extinct. I can't say I come from a long line of lightkeepers, though since writing the book I've met many people who do!

GR: Speaking of lightkeepers, Goodreads member Thom Jones says, "My wife and I are volunteer lighthouse keepers. We don't know if the author is responsible for the cover, but we were curious why there is no fresnel lens depicted and why the light is not lit, since it seems to be a night scene.

MS: I love the U.S. cover (designed by the amazingly talented Rex Bonomelli at Scribner). I think most people assume that the silhouette in the light tower is a man—presumably Tom [the lighthouse keeper]. But if you look at it very, very closely, it seems more likely that it's about a third or fourth order lens of some sort (possibly a bivalve?). What seems to be the head is just one of the astragals. There's something metaphorical about the light being in darkness, given what Tom goes through.

GR: Goodreads member German Rogers asks, "If you could, nowadays or in the past, would you have lived in a lighthouse? And why?"

MS: I adore the ocean, and I find solitude very restorative, so I'd happily volunteer for a stint on Janus Rock. I suspect, however, that the reality would be daunting: Lightkeepers led incredibly tough lives. The job was poorly paid, physically demanding, and required keepers to sign up for years at a time without a break. The Commonwealth Lighthouse Service was incredibly mean with its money and was constantly taking keepers to task for breaking or losing equipment. In spite of all that, I'd still be willing to have a go, but maybe just as a relief keeper.

GR: Goodreads member Alamosa Books said, "Is your familiarity with child loss personal or from others? Because reading the account of her failed pregnancies was so forcefully real—and accurate—that I had to put the book aside several times and just deal with memories. And in a similar vein, my grandfather was in World War I. I did not know him well, but when I went through that 'fascinated with history phase,' having a grandfather who was part of the British Army in the Great War seemed really cool. But I couldn't get anything out of my mother or uncles other than 'He never would talk about that.' Did you create the psychology of the war experience from reading accounts of others, or did you know someone who would actually talk about it?"

MS: I think a writer can ask for no greater reward than that something resonates with a reader in the way Alamosa Books describes. And as a reader myself, I love those moments when I read something and feel that someone I don't know has truthfully captured an experience that is deeply personal to me. I think the answer belongs "behind the curtain" mentioned above, but I'm curious as to how knowing one way or the other would enhance, diminish, or otherwise alter your view of the book. As for the psychology of war experience, your grandfather's response is typical of returned soldiers of that generation. One of the few places where Australian WWI veterans "spoke" was in the field diaries and battalion journals written during and shortly after the war. Essentially private records rather than anything to be published commercially, they are truly heartbreaking to read—stories told without self-pity, facts recounted without commentary, and all the more devastating for that. I frequently found myself not just in tears but actually sobbing as I read them, in the otherwise orderly silence of the British Library reading rooms.

GR: Goodreads member Linda asks, "Seems the conclusion that being moral is more critical than being happy. Do you feel this way?"

MS: The key point about this is that it's how the ending seems to Linda. I find readers take very different things out of how the book ends—most find it uplifting, but some find it unbearably sad. These differences are natural given that we see everything in this world through the filter of our own experience—there's no "correct" response. I'm interested that Linda's question seems to see "being moral" and "being happy" as mutually exclusive. I wonder if anyone feels completely happy if they're going against their own personal sense of right and wrong? Perhaps, like The Princess and the Pea, it's not possible to sleep easy? Can that then rightly be called "happiness"?

GR: What is your writing process? Please describe a typical day.

MS: There really isn't such a thing as a "typical" writing day for me, except insofar as I only write in the daytime—never at night. I'm rather allergic to rules about writing, and pronouncements such as "you must write at least an hour a day" or "you must plot everything in advance" or "do all your research before you write a single word." My philosophy is "find out what works for you, and do that: Everyone is different." So, for example, I wrote this book on my sofa, in the British Library, in a cottage by the beach in Western Australia, on Hampstead Heath, and anywhere else that felt right. I consider it a true privilege to have the opportunity to do what I love.

GR: What authors, books, or ideas have influenced you?

MS: This is a Rather Big Question for this space, so the answer isn't exhaustive! I'm not entirely sure what it means to say that I've been influenced by a writer—I hesitate lest it seem I'm claiming to be in their league. Writers I admire include Graham Greene, because of his beautifully honed prose and fascination with moral struggles; anyone who turns a beautiful sentence—like Cormac McCarthy, Marilynne Robinson, and Anne Michaels; and writers who know what makes people tick: Dickens, Eliot, Salinger. For The Light Between Oceans I was also influenced by people who wouldn't call themselves writers at all but who communicated the facts of their lives through documents: the soldiers of the Great War I came across in battalion histories; those left behind fretting for them in letters; the Australian lightkeepers whose correspondence is in the National Archives. And as for ideas, one of the basic principles of natural justice is audi alteram partem—i.e. let the other side be heard. So in this book I was very aware of putting across each character's point of view as convincingly as I could, even though it may have been very different from my own way of seeing things.

GR: What are you reading now?

MS: As usual, I have several books on the go at once. I've just started The Map and the Territory by Michel Houellebecq, and Elijah's Mermaid by Essie Fox. On my iPod I'm listening to Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy, and Brighton Rock by Graham Greene.

GR: What's next? Are you working on another book? If so, what's it about? Please give us a morsel about it! Goodreads member Brenda asks, "Will she have a follow-up to this brilliant book, one which will include the life of Tom, his now grown-up daughter, and her life?

MS: At the moment I'm still very busy with the launch of this book. I'm looking forward to things quieting down so that I can close the door and let my imagination go roaming again. As to Brenda's question, I don't have any plans to revisit Tom's life after the end of the book, but as the saying goes, I never say never...

Comments Showing 1-50 of 58 (58 new)

message 1: by Eileen (new)

Eileen Enjoyed this book very much with all its' moral ambiguities...reminded me a little of Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton

message 2: by Kathy (new)

Kathy I also enjoyed this book very much. I felt at times I was on the island with them. Thank you for what you do !!

message 3: by Marilyn (new)

Marilyn I liked the book very much. The ending turned out good, not like I thought it might. A good story for anyone. I grew to like each character.

message 4: by Elaine (new)

Elaine I absolutely loved this story. Am recommending to everyone I know who likes a good Aussie story.

message 5: by Andrea (new)

Andrea Corley I absolutely LOVED this book! This is the first historical fiction book that I ever read and I have since recommended this book to everyone I know and love!

message 6: by Maria (new)

Maria Williams Initially I was not that interested in reading a book about a lighthouse could a writer develop a story about about a solitary job? I was so wrong & just wanted to go to a solitary place so I could read this incredible story....I still am processing the complexities of the relationships. I was surprised at the ending but very happy how the writer chose to complete the story.

message 7: by Connie (new)

Connie Schanck I read this book when it first came out and I could not put it down. I expected a very unhappy ending but it wasn't

message 8: by Fawadahmad (new)

Fawadahmad i really liked this book and i couldnt say it is important but i really leraned aot from it thanks.

message 9: by Diane (new)

Diane This was a wonderful read, enjoyed it from start to finish! Recommend it to all!

message 10: by Abigail (new)

Abigail I loved this book. The ending left me feeling completely satisfied and deeply saddened. A lovely read!

message 11: by Teri (new)

Teri Lenz All year long, I read books for my job (middle schoolers) and when I bought your book, it was for the love of the ocean and the want of a real mystery. Thank you, MS, for letting me dive completely into another world. To see from every side. To wander cliffs and moments.

message 12: by Barb (new)

Barb Started reading and love that it is from his perspective.

message 13: by Bree (new)

Bree Vander weerd-pettijohn I loved the book until the end, I wanted it to end differently.

message 14: by Randy (new)

Randy Read it, loved it. Held many crucial truths. Ending was right, few options. Lovely prose.

message 15: by Maria (new)

Maria I loved this book.

message 16: by Richard W. (new)

Richard W. Ellison Step after suspenseful, emotional step, I climbed the lighthouse stairs with the author, felt the emotions of the keeper, until at last we reached the prize. In stunning Aussie style with an entriguing, emotional ending. After all, lighthouses are life's powerpoints.
Richard W. Ellison
Monmouth in the Morning
...a 1913 Midwestern U.S. Trilogy

message 17: by Harper (new)

Harper O'Connor I initially picked this up because I have a love of lighthouses. I was immediately drawn in and fascinated by the life, the characters, the setting... It was exquisitely done and I'd recommend it to anyone. Sad or not, it's an amazing commentary on how and why we make choices in our lives and how we have to live with those choices. Congrats on winning!

message 18: by Julianne (new)

Julianne Loved loved loved this book. Quite a tear jerker for me. And I didn't want the book to end. Thank you!

message 19: by Derta (new)

Derta Arjaya how can I red this book for free? or how I could buy this book? I'm in Indonesia, especially in Jogjakarta. thanks a lot!

message 20: by Misguided (new)

Misguided Miscreant I love this book! It brought out a range of emotions in me, and it also made me question my morals and my stubbornly concrete beliefs in right and wrong. This book as made such an impact on me that I will never forget it and it will always remain in my top favorites!

message 21: by Natarsha (new)

Natarsha I just picked this book up at the airport and took it to a little island in tonga for my honeymoon. loved it!

message 22: by Rob (new)

Rob Mango The authors creation/understanding of 'Tom' was exceptional given her gender.The imperatives of the two women were driven by somthing arguably more powerful than mind,the dwelling place of moral truth;maternal instinct.The resulting conflict was enthralling.

message 23: by Abdullah (new)

Abdullah Elbosairy where can I find this book? or read it free?Specially I am in Khartoum,Sudan.

message 24: by Margaret (new)

Margaret Most extraordinary: I cannot remember becoming more attached to a child than I have in your novel, Ms. Stedman.

A little critical: the ending felt right but also maybe too orchestrated.

Probably my own problem: I grew impatient with many of the details in between conclusive actions.

message 25: by Margaret (new)

Margaret One more thing: knowing more about an author simply enhances the experience for me. A bit of a disagreement with your own feeling.

message 26: by Vicki (new)

Vicki Great book!I enjoyed it very much.Wanted a bit of a different ending though, but, was happy with it all the same.

message 27: by Margaret (new)

Margaret Vicki wrote: "Great book!I enjoyed it very much.Wanted a bit of a different ending though, but, was happy with it all the same."
Hi Vicki: I felt that way too, that a I would have liked a different ending: what was the ending you wanted?

message 28: by Vicki (new)

Vicki Margaret wrote: "Vicki wrote: "Great book!I enjoyed it very much.Wanted a bit of a different ending though, but, was happy with it all the same."
Hi Vicki: I felt that way too, that a I would have liked a differen..."

Margaret, I was hoping that Izabel would be able to see Lucy before she died. The yearning as a small child that she felt for Tom and Izy was so heart felt that it didn't seem right that they never shared each other again and then it was too late.

message 29: by Sheila (new)

Sheila What a wonderful story. Not too many stories bring me to tears but this one did. Thanks Ms. Stedman.

message 30: by Margaret (new)

Margaret Vicki wrote: "Margaret wrote: "Vicki wrote: "Great book!I enjoyed it very much.Wanted a bit of a different ending though, but, was happy with it all the same."
Hi Vicki: I felt that way too. The entire story built to an intensity because of the child. Our love for this little girl was left in the cold. Ms. Stedman did ease us down with some stops along the way to complete separation. But the deep love the child had for her faux parents was the wave we were riding, so to speak. That ride ended. I wanted some continuity, some way for her beautiful love to continue. It is not the wise way, not the psychologist's way, but the heart has its will. And love. And so the complete lack of any satisfaction for the 'adoptive' mother in terms of contact leaves the reader unsatisfied.

message 31: by Ann (new)

Ann I found this book superbly written. The story of relationships, moral dilemmas and choices living calls us to make touched my heart, my mind, my spirit. I anticipate reading Ms. Stedman's next book.

message 32: by Renate (new)

Renate Loved the book, when is the next book ??

message 33: by Caroline (new)

Caroline Roper-deyo Dear Ms. Stedman, I rarely read fiction but was given this book by a friend from Australia who knows I am obsessed with lighthouses. It didn't take me very long to get into the story. I suspect I was Lucy. While others were disappointed with the resolutions I was content to travel on the waves and wherever they took me. While I might have written another story I felt I had no right to alter your account. In the end I think it was a powerful piece and can help people in their spiritual journey (my focus). Thank you for this work. I look forward to reading other works by you. Tad Tragwyddol cryf i gynilo. . . Eternal Father strong to save. Caroline

message 34: by Tina (new)

Tina Jost Such a touching book and so incredibly sad! I am still mourning as I lived with them and they lived with me. Sometimes I was about to quit reading as I saw bad twists coming which Izzy and Tom did not deserve. Not sure if I would recommend reading as I don't want my friends to suffer like i do (only finished last night, ask me next week ...).

message 35: by Carbuywhiz (new)

Carbuywhiz so much of our world is made up of shades of grey, and trying to do "the right thing" isn't always as clearcut as it might be!! Also loved reading about Western Australian in the 20's and the aftermath of WWI. Reminded me at times of Charles Todd's books.

message 36: by Mary (new)

Mary Lou Sheila wrote: "What a wonderful story. Not too many stories bring me to tears but this one did. Thanks Ms. Stedman."

Margaret wrote: "Vicki wrote: "Margaret wrote: "Vicki wrote: "Great book!I enjoyed it very much.Wanted a bit of a different ending though, but, was happy with it all the same."
Hi Vicki: I felt that way too. The ..."

The ending was a natural progression of the life both Isabel and Lucy-Grace were living. LG would have come earlier but had to wait for her mother's blessing. Isabel was old and sick. Her early decisions cast a pall over her entire life. However, it seems different for LG and her mother. And perhaps eventually for Tom. The reader doesn't know, but there is hope. I am not a moralist or a believer in any sort of divine retribution. Isabel suffered the consequences of her decision in her depression and the loss of Lucy. She also seems to have had a good life with Tom. If Lucy-Grace had made a death bed visit, it would have been false to me - a trick to make a teary reader smile. We learn so much in her brief visit with Tom. Her happy memories, her gratitude for being saved, her mother's blessing and gratitude. Tom holding Isabel together all the intervening years. For me, the book reflects the remarkable strength of human beings in the face of their own mistakes and consequences and in forgiving (or seeing the grace) in others. I loved this book. My book group is discussing it today.

message 37: by Margaret (new)

Margaret It is quite some time now, and many novels later, since I finished this book. My feelings about the somewhat orchestrated ending endure--also, about the emotional wave the writer rides us on and then breaks off. Personally, why Isabel did not have room in her loving nature to adopt, to care deeply for other children in need, also interferes with the woman portrayed. And the intense child has disappeared from our emotional landscape. In place we have a dead Isabel and a perfectly happy Lucy. Tsk.

message 38: by Glenys (new)

Glenys Baulderstone This is a wonderful book and I had sympathy for all the characters in it. They spoke and acted as real Australians of their generation did and not with the exaggerated slang found in many Aussie books. It ended the only way that it realistically could. A really great read.

message 39: by Margaret (new)

Margaret There are many possible endings for this drama, whether in Australia or some other place where the human heart beats.

message 40: by Mai (new)

Mai Romot I really enjoyed reading this story. I became so engrossed with the characters and the locations that I didn't really want it to finish. Is there going to be a sequel? Thank you very much for a marvellous book!

message 41: by Jan (new)

Jan Loved the story and everything about it. Wonderful characters...I felt like I knew them. The descriptions were so good that I can truly see, hear and feel where the story took place. It was all about choices. Keep your tissues handy. Amazing first novel.

message 42: by Ida (new)

Ida Rowlands I could never figure out why my sister (dead this many years) chose to live her life as the wife of a lighthouse keeper. It was a hard, brutal life especially in East Coast Canadian winter, but she loved it. After reading this book, I now understand. Thank you for your story. You are an awesome writer and I hope to read more of your work. :)

message 43: by Margaret (new)

Margaret The life of the lighthouse keeper was the best part of the story. Similar life with forest fire tower watchers; am reading Henning Mankell's "Depths", water, sea involved. The intensity of the interior life engages the reader's own. Some similarities there.

message 44: by Susan (new)

Susan I loved this book so much, and hope it will become a movie. If it does, may I suggest the actor Benedict Cumberbatch as Tom. He was wonderful in Ford Madox Ford's "Parade's End". While reading your book, I heard Tom speaking in BC's voice. Thank you for such a wonderful book and looking forward to more.

message 45: by Rosalind (new)

Rosalind This is a wonderful book! I cried my eyes out at the end. I am looking forward to more books by M.L. Stedman.

I think that LG's post-Sherbourne life is one of the contrasts that the author mentions in her interview with Goodreads. The novel is about both sets of parents' intense suffering. But LG, the center of it all, ends up with only sketchy memories of that time period and having a wonderfully happy life, with a child of her own.

message 46: by Margaret (new)

Margaret I still feel the end was anti-climatic and a ducking out by the writer of the suffering of the adoptive mother. Too many emotions left at loose ends.

message 47: by Rosalind (new)

Rosalind I imagine that many here have recommended this book to friends and family, as have I. Many members of my circle are unmarried, or married and childless. I hesitate to recommend it to them, but last night I did purchase a copy for my (childless) stepmother, who goes loves to go on lighthouse tours. I was wondering how the rest of you felt.

message 48: by Margaret (new)

Margaret I should think it would be a lesson to all to find love where possible, and, if loss occurs, there are many in the world to help, to love. A great mistake to pine over a lost love, when the world's creatures are there to be cared for.

message 49: by Sally (new)

Sally Hoover I agree with Mary about the ending of the book. I cannot imagine it being any other way. It would not have been realistic but rather contrived to have Lucy come back to visit before Izzie died. There is a saying that we reap what we sow and I think this is an excellent example. We make our choices no matter how flawed and live with them the best we can. A wonderful story that felt like life. This is the book I'll be leading for my book group's discussion this coming week.

message 50: by Spikey (new)

Spikey What a fantastic book! Besides the wonderful and moving story and all the questions it poses, the prose and beautiful use of language throughout made it an absolute delight to read.

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