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Lucy Strange: The Island at the Edge of Night

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Lucy Strange joined Nikki Gamble In The Reading Corner to discuss her latest novel, The Island at the Edge of Night. It is a gripping gothic mystery set on a remote Scottish Island in the 1930s. It’s infused with folklore and has been informed by recent discoveries about the communication between trees.


Please note that this transcript has been edited for readability. Filler words and repetitions have been removed, but the text remains faithful to the words actually spoken.

Nikki Gamble

Welcome to another edition of In the Reading Corner. Today, I have Lucy Strange returning for another conversation. We will be talking about The Island at the Edge of Night. It’s no secret I’m a great fan of Lucy’s writing, and I have to say that I read this book t in one sitting. It’s a page-turner with lots to think about along the way. I would describe it as an ecological mystery with a historical setting and an overall feeling of gothic.

How would you describe it , Lucy?

Lucy Strange

Well, there are lots of ingredients in there, aren’t there?

There is the gothic feel that I love so much, Nikki, that it seems to creep into all my writing, whether I’m thinking about it or not. That sense of dark mysteries, of things lurking in shadowy corners, and that sense of uncertainty can be such a hook in a story because we want to know the truth; we want to know what’s really going on.

And then yes, there are ideas in there about nature and our relationship with nature and with each other. I suppose the idea of only connecting —’no man is an island’—is John Donne’s way of looking at it. There’s a human need to connect to each other and, I believe, to connect with nature as well.

What were the other ingredients you mentioned?

Nikki Gamble

The historical aspect in terms of its setting. It wasn’t until partway through the book that I actually realised when this set, I was getting] Victorian vibes, but it’s a bit later than that.

Lucy Strange

Yes, it’s a little bit later. Unlike some of my other stories, Our Castle by the Sea, for example, in which history is a very important part of the plot, it’s not so much in this one. It’s just to do with the setting and the atmosphere more than anything else.

One of the reasons I like to set my stories in the past is the feel of it. I like to create that classic feeling in a story, as if we’re discovering a story that was written a while ago. However, from a plot perspective, it also helps with tension and creating vulnerability for your characters because we don’t have the technology that’s there to potentially get us out of all sorts of pickles.

Nikki Gamble

You talked about hooks, and you’ve created a great hook for us because there’s a prologue that launches us straight into the mystery. If you have a book to hand, would you read it for us?

Lucy Strange,

I’d love to read the prologue because it’s quite short, isn’t it?

Our main character in The Island at the Edge of Night is Faye Fitzgerald. She has been sent away to a sinister boarding school on a remote Scottish island. She is told. by the rather unpleasant people who run the school that she, along with the other children who are there, have been sent there because they have done something wicked.

Faye cannot remember what she’s supposed to have done. Her memory has blanked out everything that happened on that terrible night, and she can only remember a few fragments of what happened. So, I’m going to read the prologue now.

The house was all in darkness, and the storm was still raging outside, just as it had been when I’d gone to bed a few hours before. But I wasn’t in my bed now. I was standing at the top of the stairs, with no memory of how I had got there. Had I been [00:04:00] sleepwalking? I was in my nightdress, and the floorboards were cold as glass beneath my bare feet.

Aunt Christina? Father? I called, but there was no reply. Lightning flashed, sudden and blinding white. I gripped the banister to steady myself, to steady my heart. Thunder crashed above the city and rain hammered on the roof and windows, pounding a pulse in my brain, frightened and furious. Was it the storm that had woken me, or was it something else?

I made my way down the stairs and out of the kitchen door into the walled garden. I remember the wind and rain striking hard, making me gasp. Fallen leaves slimed wet between my toes, and my nightdress clung heavy and cold. I remember going past father’s collection of plants, all battered and cowering. I remember crawling through the hole in the broken fence.

Into the graveyard, I remember seeing the old yew tree, a ragged silhouette against the stormlit] sky, and then, and then, the memory shatters like a mirror. All I have are a handful of splinters, flashes of that night that come and go like lightning. A metal blade, gleaming wet. A hacking, splitting sound that makes me go cold inside.

A scream so piercing it still buzzes deep in my bones. After that night, there was nothing. Just weeks of stifling dark. The city rained relentless on my bedroom window. Day long dreams left me shaking with terror. Those dark shards of memory, and the faintest echo of a voice, murmuring in horror, ‘What have you done, Faye? Oh, what have you done, you wicked child?

Nikki Gamble

I defy anybody not to be hooked by that prologue. And, of course, the rest of the story is a gradual unravelling of that mystery as Faye’s memory has to return to her, and this situation has to be resolved. But of course, there’s a lot before we get there.

Maybe we ought to start with Faye herself and the kind of character she is.

Lucy Strange

She is an isolated character. She had a rather idyllic childhood in the forest with her father, which was abruptly cut off. For a reason she does not understand at this point, they went to live with her aunt Christina in the city and having grown up surrounded by trees, she is suddenly in this rather bleak urban environment, and the yew tree in the graveyard becomes her only sanctuary.

She is sent off to boarding school after boarding school and stops talking to people. She finds it harder and harder to communicate. And she becomes more and more of an island, more and more cut off. And once they’re living in the city, she hardly sees her father anymore either, for reasons she doesn’t understand. He shuts himself away from her. She describes him as being like a closed door. And what happens when she’s told she’s done this terrible thing, she loses faith in herself, that she doesn’t trust or even understand herself anymore.

I was really interested in exploring that. It can be very hard, particularly when there are so many external influences around us, the pushing and pulling of family, society, and social media, pilling us in all sorts of directions. And I think finding that courage to trust ourselves, to know ourselves, and to have faith in ourselves is possibly harder than ever. That sense of powerlessness creeps up in a lot of my stories,

Nikki Gamble

It probably won’t have escaped listeners that you’ve used the word island. You’ve referenced John Donne, and you’ve talked about Faye feeling that she’s an island, that she’s cut off. And your story has an island in the title as well. So, it’s working at lots of different levels in the story. This idea of being cut off and being an island.

Faye is sent away by her aunt and father to a boarding school on a Scottish island. And it’s just about as awful as it could be. It used to be a monastery, and the bedrooms were the monks’ cells. But there, she meets another girl with a wonderful name, Boudicca Braithwaite.

Where Faye is quietly subversive, Boudicca is loud and full of daring and courage. So these two characters work really well together. Tell us a bit about their friendship.

Lucy Strange

Boudicca was one of these characters who just appeared—fully formed —in my head, and it happens from time to time. Often we have to work at characters and develop them, tweak them and change things about them. But Boudicca just arrived. You’re absolutely right, she is the opposite of Faye in so many ways. She’s physically big; Faye’s much, much smaller physically. Boudicca is large physically and in terms of her character. Through the beginning of their friendship, Faye starts to have a little more courage and a little more belief in herself.

Trees are important in the story, or, in fact, the lack of trees. I’ve done a lot of reading about trees and the connections between trees below the ground, The Hidden Life of Trees, and Finding the Mother Tree. All these wonderful books that have come out in recent years are about discovering how trees live in families and how they communicate with each other. It’s just so magical, so extraordinary.

I was fascinated with the idea of roots reaching out to each other in the darkness, and that’s essentially what happens with the friendships in this story, too,

Nikki Gamble

There’s an image of Boudica being sent to solitary confinement. She digs a hole so that she can communicate and so that food and reading material can be passed between them. And that is almost underground.

Lucy Strange

Yes, that’s exactly the moment when these connections start to become really meaningful for Faye.

Nikki Gamble

Part one starts with text from a book or pamphlet, and it’s very much like The Hidden Life of Trees. If only we’d known that it had been written in the 1930s!

 Lucy Strange

I have taken some liberties chronologically here because these discoveries are much more recent. But I was interested in the idea of ‘what if.’So many stories start with a what if, don’t they, Nikki? What if a scientist had stumbled upon this in a different era, scientifically speaking, nearly a hundred years ago? And, if they had put forward these theories that trees talk to each other, trees can communicate, what would have happened from that? Such theories might well have been seen as unscientific, fantastical and almost childish.

Nikki Gamble

Faye has an affinity with nature, and her name itself suggests fae, fairy. Is there anything we can say about that?

Lucy Strange

There’s the idea of these magical spirits of nature. Which are present in the folklore of so many cultures. Going back hundreds, thousands of years. This idea of the personification of the spirit of nature.  And Scottish folklore has so many wonderful, weird and wicked fairy creatures, the Sidhe.

Folklore is such a rich source of ideas. So, some of these ideas are woven into the story. And you’re right; Faye’s name, although it’s spelt F A Y E rather than F A E, suggests the idea of Fae.

Nikki Gamble

Did you decide to set it in Scotland because of the folklore, or is it just that the geography is perfect for this story?

Lucy Strange

Retrospectively, it’s really hard to remember what came first and how the different layers of the story materialized. I knew I wanted to write an island story.

When I was a child, I went with my family to the Isle of Skye. My husband and I and our little boy returned more recently. I was so inspired by the wild and rugged beauty, and there’s a bleakness to it in places as well.

The mountains of Cuillin are beautiful and awe-inspiring. There are these beautiful fairy pools, and then there is the weirdness of the Quiraing in the north of the island.

 So the story’ is not set on Skye, but it is very much inspired by the Isle of Skye. And there are little bits of St Kilda’s as well. It’s uninhabited now and a very important place for wildlife, for seabirds.

I’m also fascinated by these places that are no longer inhabited but were once inhabited- the abandoned dwellings.  Again, there are some elements of history related to the clearances, forests being cut down, and people being turfed out of their homes to make more space for grazing.

I’ve got a theory about stories, perhaps particularly children’s stories, that a few weeks, a few months, a few years down the line, we won’t remember the plot. But I think we always remember how we felt reading it.

So, I think the tone, the atmosphere of a story, and the setting itself are important in creating that magical immersive experience for a reader.

Nikki Gamble

One of the symbols of what’s happening between humans and nature is the Great Auk, which appears throughout the story. What’s special about the Great Auk?

Lucy Strange

There’s a connection with the Scottish islands and the last places Great Auks were seen before they were hunted to extinction. The idea of hunting is in the book as well

Nikki Gamble

That brings us to the villains.

Lucy Strange

Well, I’ll introduce the villains by talking about the Great Auk because, for the villains in the story, the Great Auk symbolises ‘hunt or be hunted’, that to succeed, we must be predatory. That’s how they see it.

Nikki Gamble

The two villains on the island are Dr. Lighter and his wife, Nurse Violet. Or Violent, if you like. I just loved your description of her: ‘A blade so sharp you can hardly feel it.’

Lucy Strange

 She’s glamorous. She’s always wearing pink lipstick and expensive leather gloves. She’s also a hunter. She wears hunting tweeds and takes her shotgun out with her when they go for their compulsory daily exercise. But she has this sugary sweetness and an apparent attractiveness in terms of her superficial appearance. She has a charming manner that she can turn on and off like a tap but beneath it, this very real, sense of threat. ,

Then there’s Dr. Lighter, who’s the headmaster—the chief jailer, in a way—because these children are here to be contained.

At first, he’s interested in reforming them, toying with hypnosis, and dabbling in amateur psychology, when, of course, he has no real understanding of any of these things and doesn’t genuinely care.

Nikki Gamble

As you were describing Nurse Violet, one of the things that came up is that appearances can be deceptive. That’s equally true of some of the children on the island, Lord Gordon, for instance.

Lucy Strange

I suppose it has to do with the idea that the children have been pitted against each other. One of the first things Nurse Violet does is lock Boudicca in her room when Faye and Boudicca arrive at the school. And Faye is shocked at witnessing this. This is the first time she realises that they are essentially prisoners on the island. And Nurse Violet says that it’s to keep them safe from each other, and that notion stays with Faye. It’s divide and conquer. That’s the approach that the Lighters have taken. They encourage the children to see each other as monstrous.

Lord Gordon is the one who is seen by all of them as being genuinely terrifying. He’s this huge, tall, white, blonde, completely silent character who just sits there and observes everything. They are told is that he has shot his own brother, and that’s why he’s been sent to this island,

Nikki Gamble

Let’s move on and talk a little bit about your writing process. You mentioned that the setting is really important to you. I know it’s hard sometimes after the fact to think about how all those layers fit together, but what things are you conscious of in terms of your writing process?

Lucy Strange

Settings and a character with a strong emotional hook are usually some of the earliest ingredients in the story. And then, the other things come in layers of research, layers of daydreaming. I think my stories often take a long time to simmer away while I discover what is going to be most useful, most interesting, and most powerful for the story.

One of the things that I always do in the early stages of developing stories is create mood boards. We rush into writing a story too soon. I think that’s the temptation. We’ve got an idea, and we want to get it down on paper.

So, I create collages of images, but I’m also thinking about it artistically. I think about tone and the colours that will be important in the story.  My mood board for The Island at the Edge of Night has glorious, rich colours, from the northern lights in the sky and all the colours of the Scottish moor. The artist, Katie Hickey, has depicted them so beautifully, so richly in her gorgeous, gorgeous cover design. Then compare that to my mood board for The Ghost of Gosswater, which is wintry all snow and ice and mist and a ram’s skull and a white opal.

I sometimes work from photographs of places, but I find working from paintings of places much more interesting because then you have a layer of artistic interpretation. Quite often, I end up translating artworks into particular landscapes in my stories.

Nikki Gamble

The idea of sharpness and cutting runs through this story. I read the quote from Nurse Violet’s character introduction, and there are things to do with diamonds and the harsh-edgedness of things, and quite a lot about sharp tools in this story.

Lucy Strange

I love playing with these literary motifs. You can enjoy the story as a thrilling gothic adventure on an island with a mystery to be discovered. What I aim for is that it can also be enjoyed on a more literary level, and you can unpick it and look at these themes and the motifs that are embroidered throughout the story.

Nikki Gamble

Do you go back and rework a lot of that?

Lucy Strange

This book was a long time in the making. My usual process would be a full first draft, then one big rewrite, then a slightly tighter rewrite, and then line edits. But this one had a couple of big overhauls. It took a lot longer for this story to find itself.

When I started writing this story, my dad died very suddenly. I found that for a while. This wasn’t how I expected grief to manifest itself, but for a while, all I wanted to write was comedy.

So, I wrote something completely different for a while and then returned to The Island at the Edge of Night when I was ready to do so.

Nikki Gamble

You’ve talked about the slow process of writing. You were also a teacher, and I wondered how you matched the need for time with the demands of the classroom.

Lucy Strange

I think children’s writing is such an interesting and important thing. Children should feel motivated and excited to write. This is something that I was passionate about as a teacher and that I’m passionate about now. And so much of it has nothing to do with the writing process itself. That’s just getting there. We need to feel that they are motivated enough to do it. That’s what’s important for writers at any level, whether you’re a 10-year-old writing in a classroom or an adult writing a book to be published,

When I speak in schools, I discuss the process, the rewriting, and the editing, which many young people find very frustrating and very, very difficult.

I think it can be encouraging when they hear the extent to which children’s authors have to rewrite, edit and come back to a story repeatedly. And how hard it is to do that because it’s really hard to take feedback, I talk about the fact that, when I get emails from my editor, I feel just the same as they do when they get, lots and lots of red pen at the end of something they’ve written.

I talk about how important it is to bounce back from that initial feeling. If I can find that resilience, if I can find that courage to go back in one more time and change this bit and make that bit even better, then I’m going to end up with something really, really special, something shining and glittering—something I can truly be proud of.

Nikki Gamble

When you work with an editor, there’s a mutual respect. They help you shape your story, but they don’t change it. With children, it’s equally important we don’t edit their voices out.

 Lucy Strange

Yes, you’re quite right that they should be allowed to discover the voice they need to use. And it can be so hard; they’re being pushed and pulled in so many directions, and teachers are meeting various demands.

We want children to choose to write as well. I call it recreational writing. We have reading for pleasure, don’t we? I call it recreational writing, to choose to write.

Very few children will choose to write for the sake of the physical act of writing. Allowing them to find the stories they want to tell and feel excited to tell.

Nikki Gamble

It is obvious to anybody listening how passionate you feel about this. And I can only imagine you must have been an amazing reading and writing teacher.

The great news is, of course, you get the chance to visit schools and for that bit of magic to rub off on lots of different classes.

Could you tell us a bit about what teachers can expect when you work with the children and how they can get hold of you?

Lucy Strange

All my events are done through Speaking of Books.

I do author talks. I talk about specific books and how the stories evolve. I’ll also talk about ideas for stories and where we can get inspiration. I talk a bit about reading in general, and we do a bit of virtual book shopping, where we talk about finding a genre or finding an author who’s your cup of tea.

We create our own ideas for stories. I often say you don’t need one good idea to start writing a story; you need two good ideas. When you’ve got two good ideas, they can spark against each other, and that’s when you get something really exciting and interesting happening.

So, we combine different ingredients, play with different genres, and see what emerges. As I mentioned before, I do my mood boards and now do some inset for teachers.  I talk about how we can build that reading for pleasure culture in a school, how we can build that buzz around reading, and inspire that intrinsic motivation,

I get to have all these lovely things of being a teacher that I miss so much from the 15 years I was an English teacher. And then, I come back to my writing shed.

Nikki Gamble

That’s fabulous. Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with us in the reading corner today/

Lucy Strange

Thank you for having me.