In the wake of World War I, on a remote island off the coast of Australia, lighthouse keeper Tom Sherbourne and his wife Isabel make a life-altering choice: to keep and raise a foundling child who is not theirs. The repercussions of this decision shape M.L. Stedman’s stunning debut novel, The Light Between Oceans.
We caught up with Stedman (herself born and raised in Western Australia) for a discussion of right and wrong, moral ambiguity and an author’s responsibility to her characters.
What a mesmerizing story. Did anything specific inspire you to write The Light Between Oceans?
I write fairly instinctively, just seeing what comes up when I sit down at the page. For this story, it was a lighthouse, then a woman and a man. Before long, a boat washed up on the beach, and in it I could see a dead man, and then a crying baby. Everything that happens in the book stems from this initiating image—a bit like the idea of ‘Big Bang’—an initial point that seems tiny turns out to be incredibly dense, and just expanded outward further and further. I got to know Tom and Isabel as I wrote them, and was drawn into their seemingly insoluble dilemma, and their struggle to stay true to their love for each other as well as to their own deepest drives.
The major moral question of keeping a child that isn’t yours is posed early in the book. Do you think there was a “right” decision for Tom and Isabel?
Aha! It’s up to each reader to come up with their own answer to this one.
Fair enough. Well, you do a wonderful job of refusing to pass judgment on your characters. Was this a conscious choice and if so, was it difficult to do?
It was a conscious choice, yes. I think today more than ever we can fall into “sound-bite judgment,” reaching conclusions on the basis of quite a cursory consideration of an issue. It’s a kind of moral multitasking, that stems perhaps from being required to have an opinion on everything. If we really stop to consider things, they’re rarely black and white.
As to the second part of your question, the more my own views differed from that of a character, the more satisfying I found it to explore them and to put their point of view as convincingly as possible.
To this end, do you think there is a “bad guy” here? Do all books need heroes and antagonists?
I don’t think there are any “bad guys” in the book, just some poor choices made on the basis of imperfect information or perspective (i.e. the lot of the standard-issue human). Stories need tension, which can be supplied by antagonists, but here it’s supplied by fate or circumstance—the overwhelming force that pretty much all the characters are up against. One good character’s gain will be another good character’s loss, which makes the questions a lot harder. I didn’t want there to be any “safe place” in the book where the reader could relax and say, “I’m completely sure of what the right thing to do is here.”
If we really stop to consider things, they’re rarely black and white.
Speaking of antagonists, the landscape of Janus Rock and the great sea beyond is awfully unforgiving. Is it based on a real location?
No and yes. The island of Janus Rock is entirely fictitious (although I have a placeholder for it on Google maps). But the region where the Great Southern Ocean and the Indian Ocean meet is real, and the climate, weather and the landscape are more or less as I’ve described them. I wrote some of the book there: It’s a very beautiful, if sometimes fierce, part of the world.
Lighthouses are always weighty images in literature. What do they represent to you?
A lighthouse automatically implies potential drama: You only find them where there’s a risk of going astray or running aground. They’re a reminder, too, of human frailty, and the heroic endeavor of mankind to take on the forces of nature in a ludicrously unfair fight to make safe our journey through this world. And 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 them.
What kind of research did you do to prepare to write?
To prepare, none at all! My research very much followed the story rather than leading it. I climbed up lighthouses, and went through the lightkeepers’ logbooks in the Australian National Archives—wonderful. And I spent time in the British Library, reading battalion journals and other materials from Australian soldiers in WWI: heartbreaking accounts that often left me in tears.
Do you have any useful tips for aspiring novelists?
Write because you love it. Write because that’s how you want to spend those irreplaceable heartbeats. Don’t write to please anyone else, or to achieve something that will retrospectively validate your choice.