I’m delighted to welcome to the blog, author Isobel Blackthorn with a guest post. Isobel’s novel ‘The Drago Tree’ is described as a tragi-comic love story set on the idyllic island of Lanzarote.
Writing is no Escape
To some extent all writing has an autobiographical element and is inextricably tied to the author’s life. Dostoevsky wrote about affairs because he had them. Doris Lessing imbued her Canopus in Argos Archives with her awareness of Sufism. There are many ways that the personal finds its way into fiction. Sometimes it’s the setting, or a particular character, theme or emotion. The trick is to render the personal palatable and engaging; it’s the work of the sculptor.
My writing journey began in 2008; I was 46 and by then I’d accumulated a fair bit of baggage. Eight years on and through my various writing projects I’ve found ways to give voice to all kinds of pithy experiences. It’s often suggested that writing is therapeutic for this reason. I believe that writing about painful emotional experiences can be cathartic but creative writing isn’t ‘Dear Diary.’ Whereas hitting the delete key, chipping away at those outpourings to leave behind some little gem of a phrase or an insight, provides the author with an astonishing release, and the knowledge that maybe, just maybe, what she’s achieved will resonate with readers.
I began work on my first novel, The Drago Tree, in November 2012. At first all I had were the bones of a short story, a solitary sentence, and a sketch of a protagonist. It wasn’t until I chose the setting that the story started to unfold in me. I’d just finished reading Fay Weldon’s Leader of the Band and I was in the tortuous throes of the aftermath of a relationship gone awry. I needed to escape. So did my protagonist, Ann. I was in Melbourne, Australia, but Ann was in the Cotswolds. I knew I had to push away the entire story from myself, gain enough artistic distance and thence control, so I made sure her husband was nothing like any I’d experienced. She is younger than me, and a geologist. But Ann does take a trip to Lanzarote, where I used to live. And through her to some extent I got to re-live that part of my life when I was wild and reckless.
Ann is anything but. She’s haunted by her past and enchanted by the island landscapes; her thoughts and feelings magnified by her all too recent, all too present, hurt.
“She stood at the waterline, watching the gentle swell, the black terrain closing in all around her, and the misgivings she felt in accepting Richard’s dinner invitation gave way to a familiar moiling. She yearned to expunge the hurt that had taken up residence in her heart like an unwelcome lodger. Running away from her marriage hadn’t achieved much. She had distance, but she was still who she was, who’d she’d allowed herself to become. Two decades of study and research, in recent years wading through the murky waters of the Isis, all the while paddling about in the murk of her personal life and suffering the occasional flood. He’d frightened her this time, with that frustrated fist of his in their final row. What was that about? Burnt toast? It might as well have been. They’d been arguing the same old ground. It always came down to her career and his ego.
She wanted to forget. Let this atmosphere of tremendous isolation consume her. She thought she must be the only living creature on this beach; she saw no birds, no lizards, no crabs, not even a fly. She took a deep breath of the cooling ocean air then slipped off her sandals and paddled her feet in the wash, enjoying the chill and the gentle push and pull.
She walked along the shore with her feet in the shallows, picking her way around the smattering of black boulders, scanning about for a small rock to take with her. She went out on the flat rocks that flanked the bay, then slipped on her sandals and picked her way into the malpais. She didn’t get far. The terrain was impossible.
Returning to the waterline, she ambled about some more. She wanted to take with her something distinct but, like the tourists, the rocks were uniform. Eventually she settled on a pebble of grey-black basalt partially embedded in the sand. The pebble was smooth and cold and oddly comforting. She put it in her pocket and went back to the car.
After another sandy cove, the road curved east and she drove towards the barren massif that ran along the western coast. The sun backlit the massif, the ridge silhouetted against streaks of apricot merging into the azure of the sky. Several calderas pimpled the land to the southwest. The lava plain, to the south of her now, rose to meet its mother, La Corona, a monolith of black in the fading light.”
Tucked away in the solitude of my empty home, with the spirit of Fay Weldon by my side, I spent hours, days and months glued to Google maps and YouTube and hundreds of websites. I became immersed in the island’s unusual geology and rich colonial history, and it’s exceptional beauty. It was the perfect escape. By the time I completed the manuscript I felt thoroughly purged. The result is a novel that is a reflection of my own life and yet entirely separate from it. It is a carefully crafted work, written from two perspectives and layered with the story of Ann’s recent and distant past along with extracts from the short story she is attempting to write. It’s a risk composing a narrative of that complexity, not all readers take to choppy narratives, but it was a risk I felt prepared to take. For inspiration I turned to my favourite Scottish author, Iain Banks, well known for his sudden shifts in time and point of view. Besides, I find that a story tends to write itself, at least that’s my experience, and to impose structural rules would have hampered the flow. The sculptor works as much with the material at hand, allowing the form to emerge, bending, yielding to its dictates, as much as she does imposing her preconceived idea of form.
The Drago Tree was released in September last year and its early if modest success caused my return to my favourite island in March. I was so moved by the experience that I’ve set to work on another story set there. A sequel of sorts. And once again I inhabit not this place where I live, but an island halfway round the world.
About The Drago Tree
Haunted by demons past and present, geologist Ann Salter seeks sanctuary on the exotic island of Lanzarote. There she meets charismatic author Richard Parry and indigenous potter Domingo and together they explore the island.
Ann’s encounters with the island’s hidden treasures becomes a journey deep inside herself as she struggles to understand who she was, who she is, and who she wants to be.
Set against a panoramic backdrop of dramatic island landscapes and Spanish colonial history, The Drago Tree is an intriguing tale of betrayal, conquest and love in all its forms.
About the Author
A Londoner originally, Isobel Blackthorn grew up in Australia. She’s also lived in Spain and Lanzarote. She received her BA in Social and Cultural Studies from the Open University in 1989. She has a PhD in Western Esotericism. She also worked as a high school teacher, market trader and PA to a literary agent before taking up writing fiction full time. Other works include Asylum, a women’s fiction tale, the short story collection, All Because of You and A Perfect Square, which will be released in August.