Saturday, December 31, 2011

Islands I Have Known

Carolyn Ives Gilman is the author of Isles of the Forsaken and its sequel Ison of the Isles. Below, she describes what inspired her in writing about island cultures, including islands "so haunted by the spirits of cannibalized children that they had to be abandoned."

The Forsaken Isles could be any islands, really—the Marshall Islands, or the Azores, or the Andaman Islands. Having said this, though, I have to admit some particular island landscapes did inspire the story. I first got the idea for Isles of the Forsaken in the Scottish Hebrides. I did my university year abroad in Scotland, soaking in a lot of Scottish folk songs, with their sweet, mournful tunes and their evocations of gallant lost causes of the past. Sir Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson would recognize things about the Forsakens.

Once I realized that an island nation would require a lot of boats, I did my research on sailing in the islands off the coast of British Columbia, which I toured in a two-masted ketch that became the model for the Ripplewill. But the islands I grew up on, and which kept creeping into the story, are the Apostle Islands in Lake Superior. You find them by going as far north as you can in Wisconsin, then stepping off the edge. They have been a borderland for quite some time. The Ojibway Indians told about a time when the islands were so haunted by the spirits of cannibalized children that they had to be abandoned. Though the child-haunted lagoon is now a marina for million-dollar yachts, I can testify from personal experience that not all the ghosts are gone.

Modern fantasies often forget the fact that, in traditional societies, magic emanated from the landscape. This is particularly true of islands. There is something different about a place that can’t be reached without crossing the water. The half-hour ferry ride to Madeline Island, which I have made every summer since turning five years old, is a transition. Crossing that cold, windy strait, you can feel all the tensions of modernity washing away, as if the lake were a barrier. Once you’re there, there is no high-speed internet, and cell phone coverage is spotty. The community is full of quirky, self-reliant people who can make an artwork or an electric generator from salvaged junk, for which reason they keep collections of derelict boats and washing machines in their yards. The every-other-month newspaper has ads for riprap and reports on the annual ice golf championship. Playing golf on the frozen lake isn’t the wackiest thing they do in winter, either.

There is a lot more to know about the Forsaken Islands than I was able to fit in two books. The story never even gets to the Outer Chain—but if you want to know about it, there is a novelette called “The Wild Ships of Fairny,” which appeared in Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1994. And, of course, there is the sequel, Ison of the Isles, coming out in April. In it, you will find lots more enchantment, lots more boats, and even some ballad-worthy causes.

Isles of the Forsaken is available in tradepaperback. Ison of the Isles is available for a limited time in author-signed, numbered hardcover.

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