The Black Isle cover
The Black Isle
by Sandi Tan

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An Exclusive Authorlink Interview with Sandi Tan,
Author of The Black Isle

By Diane Slocum

October, 2012

Ling (later named “Cassandra”) sees ghosts. As a child, she moves from Shanghai to The Black Isle, where she grows up through colonialism, war and independence, all the while aware of the haunted souls that share the island with the living. Her struggles take her from poverty to comfort to the horrors of wartime occupation in this debut novel by Sandi Tan.

“TIt suddenly occurred to me that ghosts might be the ideal binding agent, if you would, for fusing the intimate to the epic.”

AUTHORLINK: What gave you the idea to write about a girl who sees ghosts? How did the photos you show on your website inspire you to write the book?

TAN: A fugitive line checked into my head one night and refused to leave: “I was seven years old when I saw my first ghost.” I had been struggling to find a compelling way to tell the story of a woman’s rise to power that would in ways mirror the 20th century trajectory of an imagined island-state (colonialism, World War II, independence, prosperity and its discontents). It suddenly occurred to me that ghosts might be the ideal binding agent, if you would, for fusing the intimate to the epic. The ghosts in The Black Isle are both literal and metaphorical. Our heroine, Cassandra, is haunted by the specters she sees on the Isle but perhaps even more so by her own spectrum of regrets—things left undone, people left behind, loves lost.

While writing the book, I tried to construct the best movie set a director could dream of. After all, it wasn’t going to cost a cent, so why not go all out? I foraged for images on the Internet for “locations” and “props” that would help me recreate 1920’s Shanghai, a 1930’s rubber plantation, what a tropical British colonial city might look like in the 1950’s. Whenever I got tired of working with sentences, I went to my picture collection and set my mind free. I had old postcards of rural Indonesian children clustered around a gramophone, of plantations with coconuts piled together like mounds of human heads… A WWII-era photo of a G.I. posing with a big-breasted snow-woman led to my writing a scene with lonesome Japanese soldiers sculpting sand maidens on a beach. (Incidentally, the new P.T. Anderson film The Master opens with a similar scene—lonesome army man curling up with a sand woman. We must have lapped at the same inspirational pond!)

AUTHORLINK: What did you do to research ghosts or was it all from your imagination? Did you ever see something that might have been a ghost or talk to anyone who did?

TAN: As a child growing up in Singapore in the 1980’s, I was surrounded by ghost stories. Singapore’s a tiny island that had until recent decades been covered in jungle and swampland—now you’ll be hard pressed to find something that isn’t a shopping mall. With a pre-colonial past steeped in animist Malay beliefs, and a relatively recent history of violence—the Japanese slaughters of World War II—the place was considered, in local parlance, “very dirty.” Everyone knew somebody who’d seen something or felt something. When I was eight, my father was briefly married to a young woman who told the best ghost stories—it was only much later that I learned this was because she saw ghosts around her all the time; she had simply been narrating.

“I am happy to admit that I’m a scaredy-cat who’s never seen a ghost. . .”

I am happy to admit that I’m a scaredy-cat who’s never seen a ghost nor would I ever hope to. I count myself lucky because my primary school, founded in 1899 and the basis for the girls’ school in the novel, had been used as a military hospital during WWII and always kind of felt like a mausoleum. In contrast, my high school was new, but it was built on reclaimed land atop what had been notorious Changi Beach, where the Japanese had massacred thousands of ethnic-Chinese civilians during the war. Stories proliferated. A classmate who was “gifted”—just as Cassandra is—led a group of us on ghost tours around the compound after the gates had been locked for the night. There were several “incidents,” shall we say… Few could be blamed on the ghosts of the beach; the most terrifying involved the pregnant student who’d hanged herself in the squash court.

AUTHORLINK: Why did you choose to write it as an old woman telling the story of her life instead of just beginning when Ling was seven?

“I conceived of the book as an old-fashioned yarn narrated by a woman plagued by unfinished business. This voice was key. ”

TAN: I conceived of the book as an old-fashioned yarn narrated by a woman plagued by unfinished business. This voice was key. Old Cassandra contributes gravity, dark wit and perspective, but also a dash of self-serving unreliability at times, which I think gives her telling some extra frisson. Also, I wanted the propulsive momentum of the past racing to catch up with the present—which it does at the end of the novel, when the past and present enigmas of The Black Islecollide, resulting in a proper finale for our haunted heroine.

AUTHORLINK: Your MFA is in screenwriting and your previous work has been in films. What was different about producing a novel?

“You are limited only by your own time, patience, vocabulary and imagination.”

TAN: It is entirely more liberating. You are limited only by your own time, patience, vocabulary and imagination. For better or for worse, your frustrations can only be blamed on yourself. The upside is once you’ve completed your manuscript—the work is born, it exists. Whereas, with a film script, that’s just the first step on an altogether longer and less predictable road—if you wish the work to be any good at all. As a novelist, you’re a director-producer with a train-set the size and splendor of your own choosing. I wrote mine as if it was a Technicolor film made by a fantasy amalgam of the directors I most admire, with the best art direction, orchestral score and actors that make-believe money can buy. Maybe if more novelists thought of novel-writing this way—as salve rather than sore—they could do away with their writer’s block!

AUTHORLINK: What did you have to do to find an agent and a publisher?

“I had a terrible attitude and went the 'trying my luck' route . . .”

TAN: I had a terrible attitude and went the “trying my luck” route because I didn’t believe I’d succeed anyway. I didn’t know about things like Authorlink. Instead, I went to Google, found an online database of agents, and, since I didn’t know anybody from anybody, sent out query letters to a handful of them—alphabetically. I stopped trying at B because my agent Barbara Braun responded very quickly. I was lucky, but I DO NOT RECOMMEND this method at all: It’s betting against yourself. As for finding a publisher, Barbara did this. The book was sold to Grand Central as a half-finished manuscript, which is something that almost never happens for a first-time novelist.

About Sandi Tan:

Tan lives in Pasadena, California, with her husband, critic John Powers. She is researching a centuries-spanning, country-hopping epic and a three-month, mid-20th century mystery. She says to decide which comes first, she may need to let her cat, Nico, choose between two cans of liver, each representing one unwritten novel.

Diane Slocum
Regular Contributor:
Diane Slocum

Diane Slocum has been a newspaper reporter and editor and authored an historical book. As a freelance writer, she contributes regularly to magazines and newspapers. She writes features on authors and a column for writers and readers in Lifestyle magazine. She is assigned to write interviews of first-time novelists and bestselling authors for Authorlink.