Elizabeth George Reflects on the “Sounds and Sweet Airs” of the Isle of Whidbey

Posted in Feature, Literary, Spotlight

BY DIANNA MACLEOD
Whidbey Life Magazine contributor
March 11, 2014

By the time she moved to Whidbey Island in 2006, author Elizabeth George had 13 published novels to her credit, all set in Britain and all featuring the aristocratic Inspector Lynley and his working-class sidekick, Barbara Havers. Both characters have been immortalized on film by the BBC and have been broadcast on PBS’s “Mystery” series.

From her home overlooking Saratoga Passage, George penned three more novels about Lynley and Havers, expanding her fan base and expanding her reputation as an international best-selling author. After completing her sixteenth novel in the series, “This Body of Death,” George decided to try her hand at creating a completely different world—Whidbey Island—for completely different readers: young adults. The first book of the three, “The Edge of Nowhere,” appeared in 2012; the second, “The Edge of the Water,” makes its debut this month.

I interviewed Elizabeth George to find out more about how her island home influences her fiction and vice (not the criminal kind) versa.

Early in “The Edge of Nowhere,” protagonist Becca King boards a ferry from Mukilteo to make her first trip across Puget Sound. Readers see Whidbey Island through her eyes. How did the island contribute to the fictional world you created?

In front of the historic Dog House Tavern, George mingles with replicas of town founders who populate the window.  Constructed by the Langley Main Street Association, these one-dimensional characters whisper their stories through the glass. (Photo by David Welton)

In front of the historic Dog House Tavern, George mingles with replicas of town founders who populate the window. Constructed by the Langley Main Street Association, these one-dimensional characters whisper their stories through the glass. (Photo by David Welton)

I found several locations—even the names of those locations—atmospheric and evocative. Double Bluff Beach. Smuggler’s Cove. Fisherman’s Alibi, which is an old fishing resort near Greenbank. These and many more offered themselves up in the service of the story.

Did you find it difficult to live in the real world of Whidbey Island while simultaneously creating the fictional Whidbey Island of the book? Were there moments when the two worlds rubbed shoulders? Or even collided?

Writing about place means seeing and describing the things that make that place different from any other. It’s easier to see those things in a foreign place; I know this from my many trips to Britain to research location for the Lynley novels. Here at home I faced two challenges. The first was seeing my surroundings with fresh eyes in order to choose the telling details that would evoke Whidbey Island.

Yes, I was struck by the way you described Becca’s first ferry trip from Mukilteo. She notices the roar of motorcycles amplified in the interior of the ferry so that four motorcycles sound like an army. Waiting to board, I’ve heard those motorcycles many times.

Exactly. That is a telling detail that distinguishes Whidbey from any other island, that ferry from any other.

And the way Becca first sees Whidbey through “a billowing gray veil.” Once the ferry penetrates the fog, the island appears to her to be nothing but trees.

We take our mist and fog for granted, don’t we? But Becca is from a desert environment, so these things strike her. They also add to the sense of mystery of this unknown place that is, for her, on the edge of nowhere. The challenge for me was to make my familiar surroundings fresh and vivid to myself so I could make them fresh and vivid to my readers.

And your second challenge?
Separating my daily life from my writing life. When I’m on my way to the grocery store, I’m thinking about my shopping list, not the lovely old barn I’m passing that may, in fact, make a wonderful setting in my story. Living in my story location also changed my method.

What is your method, and how did it change?
I never write about a place I haven’t visited. Normally, I do my location research in advance and then immerse myself in the writing process, using notes and photographs to recreate location. Writing about the island meant I could stop what I was writing and visit a location or interview a person. The locale was at my fingertips…fingertips that are usually on the keyboard. Convenient, yes, but also distracting.

And I would imagine you are less anonymous here than you might be in Britain.
I do recall going to the fairgrounds to see the “Timebenders” perform and being asked if I was making notes for a novel. I was, of course.

Your main character arrives on Whidbey Island alone and in danger because of her unique ability to hear the thoughts of other people. While many of us may have occasionally toyed with the idea of this kind of mental eavesdropping, you’ve based all three of the “Edge” novels on this concept. Of all of the paranormal powers you could have chosen for your protagonist, why this one?

I’m intrigued by the duality of this power, which may seem like a gift on the surface but is just as often an affliction, or at least an impediment. Becca finds it hard to live a normal life. She’s burdened with the kind of insights that immerse her in conflict, and conflict is, of course, the stuff of story. Becca has no way to filter out the thoughts of other people. Information bombards her.

Her journey in the three novels is to learn how to control her ability. I suspect this parallels the real life of teens surrounded by social media, advertising, constant chatter and loads of stimulus.

Did you have help in capturing the sensibilities of a teenager? Did you channel your inner teen?

I taught high school for 13 years, so I’ve had plenty of exposure to teens. In addition, all my novels written for adults have included young people and children as characters, so I’m used to writing about them and from their point of view.

Did writing for young adults pose any problems for you?

In the YA genre, all the information that moves the story forward must come from the teens. The revelations have to come from the kids. I wrote five drafts of the first book before I learned that lesson. While I knew that each genre has its own rules, I wasn’t sure how quickly I’d be able to master the rules of the YA genre. My editor, who has been editing YA novels for 25 years, was very helpful.

The plots of your Lynley books are complex and layered, as are the characters and relationships. Did you have to adjust this for a younger audience?

I learned to simplify plot because it’s difficult for kids to hold the plot in their mind if it becomes too complicated. I limited the number of characters for the same reason. For me as a writer, creating character is the most fascinating part of the process; the bigger the attitude, the easier the character is to write. Some of my teen characters have a lot of attitude!

Readers of any age who live on Whidbey Island would enjoy your descriptions of the places we inhabit. Which of the many settings featured in “The Edge of Nowhere” have evoked the most response?

 

Elizabeth George's newest YA novel, set on Whidbey Island.

Elizabeth George’s newest YA novel, set on Whidbey Island.

A class of seventh graders in a Mukilteo school read the book together. None of them had ever been to Whidbey Island. Their teacher brought them over and took them on a tour of the local settings. Afterward, I met the class. It was thrilling for me, and I hope it was thrilling for them.

You are admirably prolific, completing a lengthy novel every one or two years since your first book in 1988. In 2012, two were published, another in 2013, and now “The Edge of the Water.” Do you find the island environment conducive to writing?

I appreciate the unparalleled natural beauty here on Whidbey. Whales in the Passage in front of my home. Eagles in the tree outside my window. Taking a bike ride or a hike anywhere on this island is like walking into a National Geographic special.

Gardening also helps me connect to the physical world. I especially love trees and have created, on my property, a forest I can walk through. I spend an hour every day communing with the ferns. If I’m stumped by a problem in my writing, spending time in nature usually helps me to find a solution.

What is the name of the third book in the YA series, and when should we expect it?

The publication date for “The Edge of the Shadows” is sometime in 2015.

If readers would like signed copies of the first and second “Edge” novels, could that be arranged?

Certainly. Moonraker Books in Langley carries both. If a reader would like a signed copy, just let the Moonraker folks know and I will gladly come by and put pen to paper.

I love the Shakespeare quote you selected to begin “The Edge of Nowhere:”

“Be not afeared; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight, and hurt not.”

Yes, it expresses so much of what is to follow, both on the island and in the minds and hearts of the characters.

Dianna MacLeod holds a journalism degree from the University of Michigan and has worked as a writer and editor for individuals and nonprofit organizations. She moved to the Isle of Whidbey in 2011 to complete a novel—and never left.

The Elizabeth George Foundation makes grants to unpublished fiction writers, poets, emerging playwrights and organizations benefiting disadvantaged youth.  For further information, including guidelines and deadlines, write to the Elizabeth George Foundation, PO Box 1429, Langley WA 98260.

(Pictured at the top: The author in front of Village Pizzeria on First Street in Langley/Photo by David Welton)

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Comments

  1. I love this interview. Knowing both the location and the author’s work made it a delightful read! I actually laughed out loud when reading about the “Timebenders” story… that’s so Whidbey!
    Thanks Whidbey Life Magazine.

  2. This is a great interview tying two environments which have much in common. Though Cornwall where EG is well-known for employing the places around us here is not an island, it often seems like one. We definitely share an island mentality. Her novels always reveal a depth of personal knowledge – much appreciated!

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