Q: When did you develop an interest in writing? Did your teachers recognize your talent and encourage you?
A: My grade three teacher told my parents that I would grow up to be a writer. In later years, in junior high school and high school, creative writing class was my favorite part of school. I remember being praised but not encouraged. I was a very shy child, so it was intensely embarrassing if my stories were chosen to be read aloud, and excruciating if I had to read them myself.
In grade eleven or twelve, I volunteered to be a school correspondent for the neighborhood newspaper. But my first published story was so changed from the version I submitted that I never wrote another one. When I graduated from high school, though, I hoped to be a writer.
Q: In your acknowledgments you talk about Lucy Island as the inspiration for the setting of The Lightkeeper’s Daughter. What was your inspiration for the characters and story?
A: The first time I sailed to Lucy Island, there was a lightkeeper and his family living there. The last tie, their house was just a stub of foundations poking up from burned and bulldozed ruins. It was like a different island, sad and somber, and it’s the one the McCraes inhabit – with a different name so that the real and very happy lightkeepers won’t be mistaken for my fictional ones. The McCraes were inspired in part by the sense of loneliness and loss that lay thickly over Lucy then, and in part by the needs of the story. I gave each of them one strong desire, and their relationships arose naturally from the clashing of their different wants.
Q: You write “Alastair was good at everything because he only did the things that he was good at” (p. 101). How should we decide what to do, if it’s not simply the things we’re good at? Is there something you’re not good at that you enjoy?
A: It’s a bit of a Catch-22, isn’t it? You can never enjoy doing something you don’t do well, but if you do it badly long enough, you get good enough to enjoy it. There are many things I like to do now that were only painful at first. By never trying twice, Alastair limited himself to a very narrow range of interests.
Q: Tell us about your process. Some writers say that their best writing comes out of revising and editing, while others prefer the spontaneity of their first version. How do you work?
A: I love writing but don’t care much for rewriting. Once I’ve told a story, I tend to lose interest in it and want only to go on to the next one. I used to just start a novel knowing nothing of what would happen. I just began at the first page, wrote through to the last, and called the whole thing finished as soon as I reached the end. After many rejections, I realized I was doing something wrong. It’s my theory now (and I wonder sometimes if I didn’t just pick it up from someone else) that you can outline and write, or write and rewrite. But, really, it amounts to the same thing. A story that is started without an outline will become the outline, going through changes and revisions until it seems right.
Now I like to plan the story carefully and fully, going through it chapter by chapter until I know – for each of them – the beginning and the end, and most of what will happen in between. I like to know the characters, what they are like and how they talk. The writing always strays from the outline in places. But, like a new highway built beside an old one, they eventually rejoin.
Q: Do you have any personal experiences with whales? What is your connection to them, and why was it so important to you to include the whale in the book?
A: This story really began with the whales. The very first thought that inspired it was to tell the songs that whales might sing to each other. Its title then, and nearly till the end, was The Singing of Whales. Several years passed from the day I started the first version to the day I finished the last, all during a time when I spent entire summers wandering the coast in a little sailboat. I often saw whales, and sometimes sought them out. I bought a hydrophone to listen to their voices in the water, and it was always incredibly move to be near them. One time, we were overtaken by a pod of killer whales. We were going so slowly that they could have shot by, but instead they slowed as they passed. They surfaced right beside the boat and all around it, a big group of adults and children, and it seemed for a while that we were traveling with them. It was magical, really. The killer whales of the coast represent the ultimate freedom to me, and it breaks my heart that they’re dying.
Q: Usually we think about parents sacrificing for their children. Yet, in a way, Alastair sacrifices his future for Murray’s when he agrees to stay on the island. Do you think that happens often in families? How do you decide what to sacrifice for someone or something you love?
A: I think children seldom make even small sacrifices for their parents. But when they’re older, and adults themselves, they often make huge ones, I think. It’s ironic that Alastair, by giving his father what he wants, almost guarantees that Murray can’t hang on to it. I can imagine that Alastair might have gone to school, studied whales, and returned to Lucy Island one day. I can imagine, too, that Squid would have stayed, and that Murray would have died a happy man on his own little island. But Alastair found that he had given up too much, and by doing it had doomed them all. If sacrifice has a limit, I have no idea what it is. But I can’t imagine giving up life for a country, or even a tiny little island.
Q: At one point Hannah reminds Murray that “No man is an island” (p. 112). Do you agree? Do you identify with Murray’s desire?
A: Hannah, of course, is quoting the poet John Donne: “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. . . .” I agree very much with that. The more firmly a person is connected to the mass of humanity, the better that person seems. At the same time, I understand Murray’s wish for a simple life in an idyllic place, free from the worries of the world. That he can’t have it, no matter how he tries, is a sad reality. Like most people, I think, I’m often less of an island than I’d wish, and sometimes more than I’d like.
Q: Why did you want to tell this story (particularly for a young adult audience)?
A: For a long time, I considered telling this story in a more straightforward way, beginning with Alastair’s birth and ending with his death. It would have been the same story, but very different. Trying to tell it as a series of memories was a puzzle that interested me through the planning and the writing. I wanted a sad story about people struggling for something close. That, to me, pretty well sums up what life is about.