Back to the Islands: A Conversation With Abby Geni
Abby Geni’s debut novel, The Lightkeepers, is a terrifically suspenseful novel detailing the year in the life of Miranda, a photographer on a secluded biological research station on the Farallon Islands. Here she discovers a world where danger is omnipresent, whether in the form of the animals the scientists are researching or the scientists themselves. A few months into her stay, one of the biologists is found dead, the result of an apparent accident, and soon other mysterious events occur. The Lightkeepers delivers a tightly plotted mystery while also offering keen insight into the relationship humans have with the natural world; it also contains perhaps the most terrifying scene involving mice ever written. Entertainment Weekly hailed the book as “not to be missed,” and Geni was cited by Barnes and Noble as one of its Discover 2016 Great New Writers. Geni spoke with Brendan Dowling via e-mail on January 14, 2015.
Public Libraries Online: This is your first novel, after your acclaimed collection of short stories, The Last Animal. What was it like being able to tell a story on a larger scale?
Abby Geni: I think at heart I’ve always been a novelist. Most writers have a default mode – poetry, flash fiction, short stories. For me, it’s books. Even in The Last Animal, my stories tended to be quite long. I was actually on a panel of short stories at Printers Row Lit Fest a few years ago, and I was the “long story” author in the group. When someone asked me why I had written such long stories, I found myself saying, “They were the shortest ones I could write!”
So in answer to your question, it’s wonderful to be able to tell a story on a larger scale. It felt like coming home to me.
PLO: The book is an immersive look at the lives of biologists and photographers, examining how their jobs shape their perspective on their world. What was your research process like to provide such a detailed perspective on these professions?
AG: Research has always been a huge part of my writing. It’s how I get to know my characters. Miranda, the narrator of The Lightkeepers, is a nature photographer, so I interviewed photographers and read up on the discipline. In doing so, I learned about Miranda’s mind and heart and history. The same was true for the biologists in the book. There are six on the islands (at least at the start, before bad things start happening), and each specializes in a different animal—birds, seals, sharks. I read about the study of biology in general, the training and work, and I also read about each animal in particular so I would know the mind of each biologist. What kind of person makes it their life’s mission to study elephant seals? What kind of person devotes years to learning about birds?
As far as the research itself, I looked absolutely everywhere for interesting material. I read The Devil’s Teeth by Susan Casey, a memoir about her time on the Farallon Islands, and I read books by Jacques Cousteau and Craig Childs and David Quammen, and I read websites and blogs. I compiled my favorite data into files that I would look over each day before beginning my writing. I had a month-by-month breakdown of the year in animal life on the Farallon Islands, complete with pictures of the animals you might find there in each season and information about their behavior—who’s breeding, who’s migrating, who’s feeding—and I looked at that every day too. I would sit down at my computer each morning and think, Here I go, back to the islands…
PLO: The Lightkeepers has been embraced by mystery fans, having recently been named the February selection for The Mysterious Bookshop’s New Mystery Club. Have there been any influential mysteries in your reading and writing life?
AG: I am a mystery junkie. An irritating quirk of my writer personality is that I find it difficult to read in the same genre I’m writing. Since I write literary fiction, I don’t read a lot of literary fiction. Even though I love novels and short stories, I don’t like the feeling of another writer’s voice and characters and plot bumping around in my head and colliding with my own. So I read nonfiction and science fiction and graphic novels. And my favorite genre in the world is mysteries. I’ve read everything by Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Georgette Heyer, and Dorothy Sayers. I just started on Margery Allingham, and I have some Ngaio Marsh on my list. When I’ve worked my way through the entire canon of the Golden Age of Mysteries, I will be lost.
PLO: While it’s become a cliche to say that the location is a character in the book, the Farallon Islands are truly a separate character, providing the book with a malevolent sense of place. How did you find out about the islands? Were you able to visit the Wildlife Refuge during your writing process at all?
AG: I’m so glad to hear you say that! I felt that way myself as I was writing—there’s Miranda, the biologists, and the islands, all with their own will and agency and motivations. I wasn’t able to visit the Farallon Islands, since they’re a) incredibly dangerous and b) not open to the public. The only people who can travel there are scientists who are given permission to take up residence and study the marine life.
But I honestly didn’t mind writing about somewhere I’ve never been. In fact, I prefer to write about places that exist somewhere between reality and my imagination. I do a ton of research and get as much information as I can, and then I dream up the rest. In doing the work of creating the place in my mind, I find that the setting goes through a transmutation and becomes more alive, more intense. I don’t think I could have written about the islands as vividly as I did if I actually had been there.
In a few weeks I’m going to travel to San Francisco for a reading, and I’ll be able to lay eyes on the Farallon Islands for the first time, albeit at a great distance. I’m excited to see them in real life, but it’s going to be strange, too. Now that the book has been published, it’s not mine anymore. It belongs to the readers, who will experience and interpret and engage with it in their own way. I have to accept that the islands aren’t mine anymore either.
PLO: An octopus plays a memorable role in the book, and an octopus handler is the subject of your short story, “Captivity.” What about the octopus makes it such a compelling subject for you?
AG: I love writing about nature in general, and animals in particular. But there’s something special about an octopus. They’re so alien, so unexpected, so bizarre. In “Captivity,” but I wasn’t able to dive into the subject the way I wanted to, since I only had thirty pages or so. I did a lot of research for that story that never made it into the piece, but finally appeared in The Lightkeepers. I might be done with octopuses as a subject now. I might have to find a new spirit animal.
PLO: What are you working on next?
AG: A new novel! When I was at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Elizabeth McCracken advised us all to “protect the dream of the book”—to refrain from sharing our writing or even talking about it until we were ready. So I’ll just say there’s a new book, and I’m protecting the dream of it, but I love it very much already, and I’m very excited to be starting on a whole new adventure.
Tags: Abby Geni, author interviews