M.L. Stedman talks about 'The Light Between Oceans'

'The Light Between Oceans' author M.L. Stedman discusses her debut novel, her world view, and how her background as an attorney grounds her as a writer.

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    'I grew up with the West Australian landscape, and I so enjoyed putting it on the page,' M.L. Stedman says of the remote setting of her novel 'The Light Between Oceans.'
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"Haunting." "Atmospheric." "Harrowing." These are the kinds of adjectives readers are applying to "The Light Between Oceans," the debut novel by London attorney M. L. Stedman. Set on an island off the coast of Western Australia (home territory for Stedman), the book tells the story of a World War I veteran and his wife, a childless couple with a loving marriage but no child to share the remote outpost that they call home. This couple – with a single breathtaking decision – set into motion an unimaginable course of events. I recently spoke with Stedman about her book. 

Q: The story of "The Light Between Oceans" is so atmospheric, intense, and – in several senses – remote. How did this story come to you?

A: I write very organically – a picture or phrase or voice turns up in my mind, and I just follow it. For this story, I closed my eyes and could see a lighthouse and a woman. I could tell it was a long time ago, on an island off Western Australia. A man appeared, and I sensed he was the lightkeeper, and it was his story. Then a boat washed up, carrying the body of a dead man. I kept looking and saw there was a baby in it too, so I had to keep writing to see who all these people were and what happened next.

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Q: Several of your characters face difficult ethical dilemmas. Some make poor decisions, but in the end, as we come to understand them, most turn out to be quite sympathetic people. Would you say that this reflects your world view?

There’s a great deal to be said for that old expression ‘walk a mile in the other person’s shoes’, don’t you think? I believe that people are born with a strong instinct for good. Of course, views of what ‘good’ looks like differ wildly. But I think it’s usually possible to find compassion for even the most misguided of individuals: that’s different from condoning harmful behavior. It’s just recognizing that the business of being human is complex, and it’s easy to get things wrong. Compassion and mercy allows society to heal itself when we do. 

Q: Much of the story involves either loss – or fear of loss – of love. Would you say that you see this fear as the great driver of much of human experience?

You probably only fear losing love if you already have it, so I’d say that the driver starts a step earlier – satisfying a basic human need for love in its very broadest sense: that includes giving as well as receiving it. In its infinite variety of forms, it plays a role in bestowing life with meaning.

Q: The plotting in this novel is tight and neatly crafted (almost like a ship, I kept thinking as I was reading). Do you think that your work as a lawyer has impacted your writing style in terms of attention to details, an ability to cross all the "t" and dot all the "i"s?

I love the idea of the plot being as sound as a ship! I think the greatest impact of my legal background is that it allows me to write freely and spontaneously, without meticulously plotting in advance. Lawyers are probably hard-wired for structure, so it’s a reflex rather than something to spend a lot of conscious thought on. And yes, the legal training helps on the detail, too, making sure that things are consistent. 

Q: When it comes to the setting, the book seems to be written with much love. Is that coastal setting close to your heart?

Definitely! I’m always happiest beside an ocean. I grew up with the West Australian landscape, and I so enjoyed putting it on the page – describing the place I’ve loved all my life.

Q: Who are your own favorite writers? Do you think any of them have had an impact on this novel?

A few favorites who spring to mind (in no particular order) are Graham Greene, George Eliot, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Cormac McCarthy, Jane Gardam, Andre Gide, Ian McEwan, Edith Wharton, Katherine Mansfield... I suppose what they have in common is an unflinching eye, a profound understanding of the human heart, and a mastery of language. Those are the qualities I find most rewarding in books, so they’re the ones I’d like to bring, in however pale a reflection, to what I write.

Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's books editor.

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