Interview: Sir Andrew Motion, Writer and former Poet Laureate
Even if you’ve never read Treasure Island, the story will be in your bones, as sure and salty as sea spray on a boat trip. Robert Louis Stevenson’s children’s classic is the reason the Edinburgh writer ranks amongst the most translated authors in the world.
Long John Silver, X marks the spot, buried treasure, pieces of eight, the Black Spot, parrots on pirates’ shoulders, swashbuckling buccaneers with tarry pigtails, bottles of rum – none of these conventions would exist without the book Stevenson began in a Braemar cottage during the rainy summer of 1881.
Writers, artists, musicians and filmmakers have been going back to Stevenson’s iconic island ever since. From Peter Pan to The Pirates of the Caribbean, Spike Milligan to Swallows and Amazons, William Golding to the Muppets, the influence of Treasure Island is as vast as the high seas on which the Hispaniola sailed. There are many sequels and prequels already in existence (Der Piratenkapitan by Heinrich Rosemann, anyone?) and it is thought Stevenson himself intended to write a follow-up. The latest to return to Treasure Island, with great success, is former Poet Laureate, novelist and biographer Andrew Motion.
Silver is a wise, beautifully written and appropriately dark sequel that skips decades forward from the original (set in 17--) to July, 1802. “I didn’t read Treasure Island as a child,” Motion says. “Though like a lot of boys of my generation, I absorbed the plot by osmosis. This says something very interesting about Stevenson and archetypes. He gets all his main plot devices from here, there and everywhere. He was a self-acknowledged plagiarist. The apple barrel, the parrot, Silver’s name, the map, the buried treasure – all these come from somewhere else – Daniel Defoe, Washington Irving – and then Stevenson stirs it all together and makes something new. His genius is to make it seem like a beginning, when actually it’s a climax. And then, of course, everything subsequently takes its direction from him.”
We meet in Motion’s teaching rooms in the heart of Bloomsbury, London, where he is professor of creative writing at Royal Holloway. He has a lived-in, kind face, shy with a touch of the rogue. He is impeccably dressed in braces, shirt, trousers and black boots and has a wonderfully low, vibrating voice that hums softly like a bee at a window. He is very open and our discussion immediately segues into his father’s death and the extraordinary year of change that brought about Silver.
“It was a peculiar time in my life,” he says quietly. “A lot of very big things happened to me very quickly. My pa died. I stood down as Laureate. I’d just got married. We’d just moved house. And although I was sad about my father’s death, I don’t want to sound harsh but I did feel released in certain ways. No question. Suddenly we’re absolutely ourselves for the first time, but with a clearer view of our own grave because there is no one standing before us and it. Certain obligations came with being a son, with being Laureate, and suddenly I didn’t have them any more. So I got up early every morning for 18 months and wrote this book. I wanted that rush, as Stevenson did. He wrote the first half of Treasure Island in a fortnight, in a kind of whoosh.”
Motion’s mother died years earlier, when he was 26. She fell off a horse, suffered a terrible head injury that left her in a coma for three years, and died nine years later. “The profound influence of my father dying was that when I put him into the ground beside my mother, I thought of them meeting underground again after all those years. And then I felt as though my childhood was finally over. I could stop grieving for my mother as a child. I could grieve for her as an adult. And paradoxically, I also felt like a child for the first time, full of a sense of wide-eyed possibility.” It was out of this nebulous brew of emotions that Silver came about.
Motion, 59, had been considering penning a sequel since he was at Oxford, living with Alan Hollinghurst and studying under WH Auden. “I remember noticing when I first read Treasure Island that there were a lot of unresolved things in it. All the silver is left behind, Long John Silver escapes at the end, and, most interestingly, the three maroons are left on the island. What happened to them? As soon as you start to think about that seriously, you’re in William Golding country.”
Motion’s sequel answers this question, and many more. In Silver, the protagonist is the teenage son of Stevenson’s narrator, Jim Hawkins, now a dour innkeeper living on the eastern marshes of the Thames. Jim Hawkins Jnr teams up with Natty, Long John Silver’s mixed-race daughter (his “black missus” is mentioned in the original), who must dress as a boy to conceal her true identity. And so the next sea adventure begins, this time aboard the Nightingale. The boat has been chartered by Long John Silver, still hungry for his pieces of eight but now a disintegrating old sea dog, blind, railing, and very creepy. How did Motion feel about bringing the most famous and dastardly pirate in literature back to life? “Terrified,” Motion laughs. “I thought he was going to come and kill me.
“My Silver has a collapsed face and milky blind eyes that boil under his eyelids. There is a sense that bad things have happened with his daughter Natty, which is why her mother has gone mad. He’s vile. In Treasure Island he’s like one of those hologram faces who looks OK one way and dodgy the other. I wanted to keep that sense of menace. I wanted him to be very creepy.”
Motion’s gripping novel can be every bit as nasty as Stevenson’s. This may ostensibly be a book for children but the themes of colonialism, slavery, environmental issues, greed, guilt and barbarism are entirely grown-up. “I wanted to write a book that was fun to read and had lots of incidental pleasures but I wanted it to be about completely serious stuff,” he says. “And I wanted it to be a book about sons and fathers, partly because I wanted to write about my feelings towards my pa but also because this was Stevenson’s concern in all his books. They all come come from complicated feelings towards his father.”
So Motion’s Treasure Island, just like Stevenson’s creation more than a century ago, is a dystopia; a nightmarish vision of violence, cruelty, and slavery. The first person the noble seamen of the Nightingale meet on the island is a black man called Scotland who speaks with a Scottish accent, so named because he was enslaved on a Jamaican estate by a man from Edinburgh.
“Stevenson was indelibly Scottish in spite of all his travelling across the world,” Motion explains. “Edinburgh never left him. There is a sense of the city of dark wynds, of Jekyll and Hyde, being like the inside of his head. So I wanted Scotland to be powerfully present in the book, in all senses. Calling this man Scotland reminds us of our role in the slave trade. I wanted to show how culpable we all were and are.” As a result, there are echoes of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in Silver in its mythic questioning of imperialism, but this time from the vantage point of the 21st century.
“Stevenson was basically writing about the same things as Conrad,” Motion says. “The imperial footprint. The colonial moment. But their audiences were different. Stevenson got the popular audience and Conrad was stuck in the academy.”
In a satisfying intertextual twist, Stevenson himself appears in Silver as a quiet, stoical and observant member of the Nightingale’s crew. “He’s up there in the ship’s crow’s nest keeping an eye on things. He’s reliable, he knows the score. But in a teasing way I decided to bring him down when the island is first spotted in the book. I wanted it to be my island, not his.”
He says this has been the most rich and thrilling writing experience of his life, and is already at work on another sequel, which is excellent news, considering this book ends on an agonising cliffhanger. Part of the joy for him has been in rediscovering a great Scottish writer whom he believes continues to be woefully neglected.
“I read everything Stevenson wrote before beginning work on my sequel,” Motion says. “All of the poems, the novels, the essays, everything. I wanted to be able to picture his mind.” And what did he make of that mind in the end? “A raving genius,” Motion says softly, but firmly. “I can’t understand why he isn’t more highly rated. I think it’s because the academy is frightened of good stories. Well, they need to grow up and get over it. Stevenson is extraordinary and so is Treasure Island. It will always blow people away.”
• Silver: Return to Treasure Island is published today by Jonathan Cape, priced £12.99.
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Weather for Edinburgh
Saturday 18 May 2013
Temperature: 9 C to 13 C
Wind Speed: 18 mph
Wind direction: North east
Temperature: 9 C to 18 C
Wind Speed: 8 mph
Wind direction: North east