VERBAL MAGAZINE: Michael Faulkner
Book blogging for fame and fortune. This one-time lawyer overcame the technological disadvantages of life on an otherwise uninhabited island to be shortlisted for the inaugural Author Blog Awards. He talks here about his forays into the virtual world…
Recently I developed a mild addiction, which began as a straightforward marketing idea but developed into an annoyance to the only other inhabitants on the island − my wife Lynn and our West Highland Terrier, Eddie.
I often send copies of my books to potential reviewers, or anyone else who might give them some exposure, and had come across an Edinburgh-based blog called Cornflower Books − an exclusively online book group with a dedicated international following and therefore, considerable reach.
The timing seemed good because I was shortly to launch my latest book, Still On The Sound, in the George Street, Edinburgh branch of Waterstone’s, and I felt that a plug from Cornflower might help to boost the turnout.
I duly sent both my books to the blog administrator Karen Howlett who, like me, had once been a lawyer in Edinburgh; and she was interested enough to put them near the front of an inordinately long queue of largely unsolicited books which come in every post from publishers, agents and other authors. Within a week she posted enthusiastic reviews of both titles, along with a note to her readers that I would be giving a talk and showing slides in Waterstone’s the following week.
From my point of view, a great success. I thanked her, and she mentioned that as I was writing in the general area of travel, I might be interested in the next monthly Cornflower book group title, open for online discussion and comment from Saturday 20th February: Steinbeck's Travels With Charley.
I love Steinbeck but hadn't read Travels, so I put that to rights over the following few days and stationed myself at the computer on the morning of the 20th, when I was on the mainland anyway, and with a broadband connection.
Over the course of the day I logged onto the blog several times, putting in my tuppence worth, engaging with Steinbeck fans from all over the world; generating, most unexpectedly, a number of online sales of my book from bloggers who read my posts and were curious enough to visit my website; and having, I must admit, a good deal of fun.
I was going to say 'innocent' fun; but some things, like turning on a light bulb or running the central heating, which are taken for granted on the mainland, have more far-reaching implications on Islandmore, where we rely on a generator for power.
Over the next few days, when I tried to indulge my new book-blogging hobby on the island, I found that I was so constrained by the battery life of my laptop that I was forced to leave some online discussions prematurely, and with comments and replies hanging in the air − not good practice in the blogosphere.
One such occasion − the moment, in fact, when my addiction began to affect other people's lives − might give some idea how these online discussions can take on a life of their own and go in unexpected directions. The post for the day was about “Books guaranteed to lift the spirits”, and participants had suggested titles like Paul Gallico's Flowers for Mrs. Harris and The Shipping News by Annie Proulx.
One of my own suggestions was Garrison Keillour's (sic) Pontoon, a Lake Wobegone parody with the most engaging opening line I have read in ages: 'Evelyn was an insomniac, so when they say she died in her sleep you have to question that.'
The blog administrator said she had loved Pontoon. Then a very pleasant woman from North Dakota, with a book blog of her own (I began to see how one thing leads to another...) replied that she would let me away with miss-spelling 'color' colour, but not with miss-spelling 'Keillor' Keillour. (Garrison Keillor is from Minnesota, the setting of the fictional Lake Wobegone, but it seems that to North Dakotans he is one of their own).
At this point my computer told me that I had just 15% of battery power remaining and that I had better save my work and shut down, or plug into a power source. But there was no power source to plug into and I was on a roll. In my defence on the spelling issue, and digressing shamelessly, I said that some of the most exciting days of my teenage years were spent in Keillour Forest, near Perth - Keillour, for example, was where I saw my first capercaillie. Very colorful, I added.
The computer said: You have only 10% battery power remaining.
Another blogger chipped in to observe that these days, you would be lucky to see a capercaillie anywhere in Perthshire. How so, I said? Is it because they planted all those spruce trees in the 1970s, and not enough Scots Pines?
'Your suggestion is plausible', he − or she − replied (bloggers tend to have gender-neutral, whimsical names like Lonely Reader or Word Junkie), 'but according to Moss, Oswald and Bains in Journal of Animal Ecology (2001) it is primarily due…'
Your computer will shut down. Save all open documents.
Birds being a longstanding interest of mine, I was keen to take in the rest of the reply: '...to climactic factors. To quote from their summary…'
Click. Blank screen.
Page Runner, no doubt, had already moved on, but I hated that I had left their obviously well-researched comment without answer or even acknowledgement.
My only recourse was to the generator. But it was mid-afternoon and Lynn was painting in her studio, which is between the generator shed and the water's edge. Unless it's absolutely necessary, I try not to disturb Lynn during studio hours, which at this time of year means more or less all day, as she is working towards a number of Spring exhibitions.
Certainly, I wouldn't normally dream of starting the generator. When
I'm writing, the problem doesn't arise - I can write longhand and transcribe on to the laptop later. But blogging has meaning only in the virtual world, and as I was virtually desperate to return there, I abandoned our unspoken agreement and started the generator anyway.
It clattered into life and I had just put my foot on the first of the wooden steps leading to the veranda, when I heard the studio door open behind me. In a matter of fact voice, Lynn said simply, 'Mike?'; and although she insisted that I carry on, her concentration was broken and she didn't return to productive work in the studio that afternoon.
We have since worked out a compromise which involves a car battery, a charger, a 240-volt inverter and some careful timing. Also, as with all crazes, the novelty has to some extent worn off and I have begun to tread more selectively, and most often with my marketing hat on, in the literary blogosphere.
I understand completely where Lynn is coming from, and it has to do with the peculiar qualities of island life - the silence and (if it's tautological to say, I can't think of a better word) the insularity. Islandmore is otherwise uninhabited and there is boat-only access, and therefore no roads, no traffic, no human voices but the snatched and disconnected conversations which come, in certain conditions, from the decks of passing fishing boats - words of a westerly wind which remind us we're not alone.
By and large, there are no droppers-by. If we walk to the top of Eagle Hill, behind the cabin, we can see the farthest limits of the island, and we know, in a curious and quite comforting way, exactly where we are. 'The thing about an island,' says Marion Molteno in her novel Somewhere More Simple, 'is it has edges…'
A little-known poet and novelist called Rachel Field, who lived on Sutton Island off the coast of Maine in the 1930s, understood the syndrome very well:
'If Once You Have Slept On An Island'
If once you have slept on an island
You'll never be quite the same;
You may look as you looked the day before
And go by the same old name
You may bustle about in street and shop;
You may sit at home and sew,
But you'll see blue water and wheeling gulls
Wherever your feet may go.
You may chat with the neighbour of this and that
And close to your fire keep
But you'll hear ship's whistle and lighthouse bell
And tides beat through your sleep
Oh, you won't know why and you can't say how
Such change upon you came,
But - once you have slept on an island
You'll never be quite the same!
Rachel Field (c.1935)
Michael Faulkner lives with his artist wife Lynn McGregor on the otherwise uninhabited island of Islandmore, Strangford Lough. He is the author of two books about island life, The Blue Cabin (2006, Blackstaff Press) and Still On The Sound: A Seasonal Look at Island Life (2009, Blackstaff Press). For information go to www.thebluecabin.com.