Author interview with Madeleine Tobert: The Sea on our Skin

The Sea on our Skin is Madeleine Tobert’s first novel. Emma McCleary, web editor at Booksellers NZ read the book then talked to Madeleine about her work. Although the interview talks about details in the book it doesn’t give any spoilers.

EM: In The Sea on our Skin there’s an entire village of characters yet I never felt that I’d lost track of who was who. As the author, how did you keep track of the village and each person’s relationship to others while you were writing?
MT: All the characters come into the novel slowly; house by house, birth by birth. We get to know them really well and only then are they allowed to wander off, talk to other people, have their own lives.

I suppose I wrote it this way as it reflects how we meet people outside novels. On your first day at school, for example, you talk to the girl next to you and then the week after perhaps you make another friend and so it grows. By the end of the term you know exactly who is who, who likes who etc. It’s the same in Moana.

EM: What order did you write the book?
MT: I wrote random scenes first. One here, one there. Mostly from the second half of the novel (the majority of them are no longer in the book). I then needed to think about how they all tied together and found I had to go back in time to establish connections and ensure the story made sense. After that I started from the beginning and filled in the gaps.

EM: Tell me about why you created the novel in two parts – what was your thinking behind that?
MT: I experienced the Pacific in two parts. I went firstly when I was eighteen years old and found myself somewhere timeless, with almost no connection to the world I came from (or so it seemed to me). Six years later I returned. The villagers had mobile phones, there was internet in the town – in other words the world had caught up with the island. For me it was a jerky, shocking change and I wanted to reflect that in the novel.

EM: Was your use of symbolism in the novel intentional? I’m particularly thinking of Tamatoa swimming to the island to pick a mango/ the dead snakes having very biblical overtones about temptation. That scene also comes right before a turn towards temptation for a couple of key characters.
MT: Yes and no. In the novel Laita does quote the bible and Tom has a missionary’s background – so a snake can’t just be a snake and picking fruit has to signify an end to innocence. But the Matetes wouldn’t see it like that; and personally I prefer their animistic view of the world. So I suppose the symbolism is optional!

EM:  I quite like when pieces of a novel are unresolved but the role of Kara keeps playing over in my head – did her character have a purpose other than illustrating island beliefs about the sea people? She seemed to be very transient.
MT: Kara comes from the outside world. Angel knows her for a few days and becomes obsessed. Even though he is the brother that wants to stay on the island – who loves the sea, the plantation, the village – he is not immune from the exotic; just like his father and younger brother. Unlike them, Angel eventually realises that she is not going to be part of his life and is able to leave her in the sea and return to Moana.

EM: There are two white women in The Sea on our Skin – given your own history did you model either on yourself?
MT: Perhaps in one small respect, Kara contains a trace of me. Every now and again, when I was living in the Pacific, the fact that I was white was more important than any other detail of my personality/history/culture etc. This is true of Kara. She is the blonde stranger. We never really have a chance to find out more about her.

Mma Precious Ramotswe

EM: Initially, I felt Amalia had a quieter but similar spirit to Precious Ramotswe – the lead female character in Alexander McCall Smith’s The No.1 Ladies Detective Agency. What were your influences in developing her character?
I’m ashamed to say I’ve never read that one of McCall Smith’s novels (others yes). Now I’m intrigued, I’ll search it out! My Amalia actually didn’t come from literature but from life. She is inspired by a few people I met in Tonga and Fiji who changed my view on what it means to be female. I’d never before come across anyone who was in many ways passive – unquestioningly accepting what life threw at them – but who also had a great strength that allowed them to protect, feed and shelter their families in very difficult situation. Amazing women!

EM: What’s next? I felt there were a number of characters in The Sea on our Skin that could easily feature in subsequent works. What are your writing plans now?
MT: I’m currently writing my second novel, which is a total departure from the first, except that it shares an interest in small communities and cross cultural relationships. For now Angel and co will be left in peace – but who knows what the future brings!

The Sea on Our Skin
by Madeleine Tobert
Published by Two Roads
ISBN  9781444734119

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