By Joanna Rossiter, Mar 21 2017 11:20PM

I am asked a lot by readers about the next novel and so I thought I would share a sneak preview of the story so far.

In 1961 a dormant volcano on the tiny Atlantic island of Tristan Da Cunha erupts, forcing the islanders to flee thousands of miles away to England. Against the odds, they return to rebuild their lives three years later. Brother and sister Flora and Caleb have to leave behind the swinging sixties and return to a world where they must dig and fish for their dinner and where letters from England take six months to arrive. Can they survive within the island's tight bounds? Or will the arrival of a new English doctor prove too much of a reminder of the life they left behind?

As Flora sets about staging a play on the island's cliff top, and the islanders gather to watch, her family's ability to survive such a harsh way of life is called into question. While Flora wrestles with the marriage that is expected of her, Caleb looks on the doctor's learning with increasing envy. Both children are haunted by the absence of their mother and the power of the island, with its sea storms and deep tremors, to compel them to stay.

So why write about the remotest island on earth?

In an age of instant communication where the whole world is seemingly available at the press of a button, I wanted to step into a society where there is almost no contact with the outside world beyond paper and pen and the shipping radio.

I wanted to focus the plot of the novel around a play because the islanders' return to the island threatens to turn their way of life into a kind of performance - something artificial and self conscious, rather simply an accident of birth, as it used to be.

More broadly speaking, novels can feel a bit like storm-battered islands these days: readers retreat into them from a world full of competing forms of entertainment. And in the same way as the islanders realize there is beauty in simplicity, and freedom to be found within such tight physical bounds, novels too offer us something precious and worth preserving.

By Joanna Rossiter, May 19 2016 02:09PM

It's official. British people spend more time in front of a screen than we do asleep - the average is eight hours and fourty three minutes per day. Having seen my own use of technology shoot through the roof over the last few years, I have started to wonder what it would be like to return to a screen-free existence and, if it were possible, whether there would be any value in completely switching off.

The novel I am working on is set on the remotest island on earth, where, until the 1990s, the 265 islanders survived perfectly happily without cars or television or any of the mod cons that you and I consider essential to daily life. Even today, there is no mobile phone signal and Internet is accessed via satellite only. The idea of an office job is still completely alien to Tristan Da Cunha whose inhabitants live off 5km of farmland, the sea and the contents of supply ships that only call every six months or so.

Writing the book led me to reflect a great deal on my own sense of connectedness to the world. Like many of you, I struggle with the paradox of having so many means of communication at my fingertips and yet only a handful of people on my street that I can name. I can tell you where a friend living three hundred miles away went on holiday but, until recently, I would have struggled to tell you how many grandchildren the elderly lady living three doors down has.

In order to write my book, I took myself off the Internet for five months. And I discovered something precious in the process - how a seeming lack of freedom can actually be the most freeing thing of all. My mind was far more rooted in the present; I became more productive, a better friend and far more alert to the immediate world around me.

Tristan Da Cunha is as cut off a place as you could imagine but with that remoteness comes an incredibly close-knit community who rely on each other for everything. There is no private land on the island - only family owned vegetable patches. Even the boats, which, until the 1960s, used to be built by hand, are shared between the men who sail them. I don't want to paint it out as a utopia because life there is tough - think the outer Hebrides rather than the Maldives! But people are bound together in ways that are completely alien to our modern world - if I need a decent meal, I drive to the supermarket or put in an order online; I don't knock on my neighbour's door and hop in a boat with them to catch some bluefish, which is what I'd be doing on Tristan.

Nowadays, we're overwhelmed with choice - what to eat, what to wear, who to message...the list goes on. My book taught me that there is value in taking a step back and thinking twice before dividing ourselves so relentlessly across all these virtual spaces. What about the here and now? What about the man who comes to look after his allotment behind my garden every day? Perhaps he has something interesting to say - a story to tell.

In 1961 the entire island of Tristan Da Cunha was evacuated after a volcanic eruption and taken to live in Southampton, England. The British public thought they would love life in the UK - steady jobs, telephones, televisions, trains, washing machines. You can probably guess what happened - in 1963 all two hundred and sixty eight islanders unanimously voted to return home, preferring their isolated existence to the rush of modern life. Having experienced on a much smaller scale what it is like to switch off, I can completely see the appeal.

As John Ruskin aptly put it, before the internet was even added into the equation: 'no changing of place at a hundred miles an hour will make us one whit stronger, or happier, or wiser. There was always more in the world than man could see, walked they ever so slowly; they will see it no better for going fast. The really precious things are thought and sight, not pace. It does a bullet no good to go fast; and a man, if he be truly a man, no harm to go slow; for his glory is not at all in going, but in being.'

By Joanna Rossiter, Jul 30 2013 12:00PM

On March 11, 2011 a 9.0 earthquake and tsunami struck Japan. An estimated five million metric tons of debris washed into the ocean. 70% of this sank near to the shore, but the rest floated elsewhere. Years after, much of this debris is being washed across the pacific and landing on U.S and Canadian shores.

1) A pink slipper covered in a variety of sea life was found by a resident on Kamilo Beach, an island just off the coast of Hawaii. It had been chewed at the heel and its appearance visibly altered by the salt water, yet the Japanese writing on its sole confirmed it could be linked with the tsunami. In 2012, it was speculated that human feet may begin to wash up with the debris as shoes would serve as a means of preserving the limbs and allowing them to float. This occurrence has yet to happen but many said they were to “expect the unexpected”.

2) David Baxter stumbled across a football on an Alaskan Island in April 2012. With the help of his wife who is Japanese, the name and message inscribed on the ball was translated and the ball has been re-united with his owner, a teenager who had lost all of his possessions during the tsunami. A few weeks after the discovery of the football David Baxter came across a volleyball with a similar inscription.

3) The Striped Beakfish, native to Asian waters, was found alive in a small boat after drifting to the US west coast after a 5,000 mile journey which took just over 2 years. The Skiff was just 5.5 meters long and the fish was found inside a bait box on board. It is thought that the fish survived by eating other organisms on the boat and it is now the main attraction at the Seaside Aquarium in Oregon where it is kept.

4) A bright red lightbulb etched with Japanese writing was found by Father and Son near Kawaihae Harbour, Hawaii. Similar lightbulbs have been said to have washed up on other shores and they have been suggested to be fishing boat lights. It's rather ironic that a lightbulb could arrive intact after all the devastation.

5) A Harley Davidson was washed up more than a year later after the tsunami on an island beach off British Columbia, Canada. When the bike was washed to the shore it was found inside a storage container with its license plate intact. The plate was traced to its owner who was delighted, but refused the offer from Harley Davidson for the motorbike to be shipped back to him. Instead, the motorbike now stands in the Harley-Davidson museum in Milwaukee after the owners wishes were for the bike to serve as a memorial to those “whose lives were lost, or forever changed” by the disaster.

6) A large dock nearly 70-feet-long and weighing 165 tonnes was washed up on a beach south-west of Portland, Oregon. The dock was torn from its fishing port in Northern Japan and drifted thousands of miles to reach this piece of coastline. During its 15-month voyage it had picked up an estimated 100 tonnes of marine organisms, including exotic mussels, barnacles, small shore crabs, invasive seaweed and algae. Many of these species were not native to Oregon's shore, and so they posed a potential threat to the state's ecosystem; officials had the dock scraped clean as a precaution.

7) A Japanese shrine was found on an Oregon beach 2 years after the tsunami. The find is part of a larger sacred structure called a torii. 4,585 of Japan’s Shinto shrines were damaged or destroyed in the disaster and so many natives believe the return of this shrine to be vital to the community, and to serve as a symbol of hope. Yet restoring the torii to its original home may prove difficult, practically, if not politically.

8) A worker's construction helmet was discovered by a beachcomber from Washington. It is thought that the hat belonged to one of the crew members of a large fishing vessel which was lost in the tsunami. The ship that the worker was linked to has never been found, only this hat, and inside snatches of hair remain, sticking to the circumference of the rim.

By Joanna Rossiter, Jul 26 2013 02:34PM

‘How to write a novel in a month’, ‘Top ten tips for a healthy writing routine’, ‘The true inspiration for my novel: how I came within inches of being stamped on by an elephant’ – the chances are, if you are vaguely interested in books, a blog post or article of this sort has popped up on your twitter feed in the last week or so – maybe I’m even the author responsible for it! The media’s appetite for the reasons why writers write, how books come to be and why we all have a book hidden somewhere inside us is apparently insatiable.

An article extoling the virtues of a beautifully written book is a rare thing these days. Far more ubiquitous are pieces on how to write a book yourself. In fact, review space in national publications for fiction and poetry is shrinking by the year whilst tips on how to get published occupy endless column inches. As an author myself, it has left me asking the question: why it is that our culture is so obsessed with writing but seems to have lost interest in reading? Are we in danger of fostering a culture that is so caught up with expressing itself that it runs out of fuel for that expression? And, perhaps most worryingly, am I being self-indulgent in wanting to write?

Earlier this week, Anakana Schofield wrote an article in the Guardian that got me thinking. She talked about the challenge of publicising a novel in an environment that expects authors to write and talk about their personal lives and writing routines rather than their books and to do all this free of charge. Towards the end of her piece, she touched on the roots of this problem: a culture that values writing over the act of reading.

This idea fascinated me. As a first-time novelist, I have just had my first taste of what it’s like to promote a book: I have spoken at literary festival s and book groups, done interviews for national newspapers and magazines, written about a close encounter I had with a tape worm in India – anything that will help spread the name of the novel far and wide (It’s called The Sea Change in case you’re interested by the way…wink, wink, nudge, nudge). Having completed my fair share of PR hoop-jumping, I can concur with everything Schofield says about being expected to produce interviews, blogs and articles for free, often without having the chance to address what I really want to talk about – my novel. I can also back up what she says about the reason why a lot of people attend authors events, Q&A sessions or read blog posts or articles written by published authors – they are interested in writing a book and being published themselves. It would be very hypocritical of me to point the finger: until a year ago when Penguin offered me the book deal, I took an interest in these things for exactly the same reason. Like a lot of the people I have met over the last couple of months, I was an unpublished author with a novel I wanted people to read. When I was lucky enough to meet a published writer, the questions I asked them were often motivated less by a genuine interest in their work and more by a desire to publish my own book and experience what they have been fortunate enough to experience: readers responding to my stories.

Why is it that the media and publishers can get away with asking writers to undertake book promotion for free? It’s because supply far outstrips demand. If I don’t fill their column inches because I insist on being paid for my work, there are ten other authors with books to promote who will happily produce free content in the name of good publicity. In almost all areas of life, the clamour to be heard drowns out those who are prepared to hear: literature is no exception. And, ironically, because of this popular urge to speak out and the lack of a desire to listen, the value that society places on writing diminishes both on a monetary level and a cultural level. At times, it’s difficult to get people to pay any attention to my writing unless I am helping them work out how to make their own story heard.

Reflecting on my first foray into the world of publicity, I cannot help but stumble on some home truths about myself and the culture in which I operate as a writer. Could it be that we are so obsessed with self expression that we have forgotten how to listen and absorb what others are saying? We are all encouraged to blog and tweet and chart each moment of our existence through status updates. This feeds a hunger for writing and talking about ourselves and our views that far outstrips demand for the content we are producing (And, yes, I am aware of the irony of arguing this on a blog!).

And so it is that, in the midst of shamelessly promoting my novel, I have found myself asking lots of questions about my own reading habits. Why is it important to read? What does reading offer society? Culture’s obsession with writers and writing shows that literature still has a place in modern-day debate. But this appetite for writing is not sustainable without readers. And nor is it healthy.

When I read, I step outside of myself. I fuse my own perception of the world with that of the author’s and I enter into somebody else’s creation. In some ways, reading is a beautifully selfless activity: it is giving someone else’s vision of life a hearing. And yet it is so much more than that: it is also an alternative form of writing. One of the most precious things that I have witnessed during my book promotion is the incredibly diverse range of responses that readers can have to my novel: it is their own experiences that shape the story they are reading. And, often, I as the author have little or no control over what that response might be. My novel conjures up in one reader’s head a world that is entirely different to that of the next reader – that is the beauty of fiction. It is less about self-expression and more about conversation: a coming together of writer and reader to form a shared narrative.

The more I read, the more I learn that the most powerful novels are the ones that entrust their readers with responsibility: they show rather than tell; through allusion and suggestion, they invite the reader to play a role in forming the narrative for themselves. If I cease to read, I quickly lose grasp of the satisfaction that this process brings and my own writing becomes self indulgent and lazy.

Reading exposes me to new ways of seeing. In submitting myself to someone else’s story, I paradoxically gain the power to shape that story myself in my own mind. The thoughts and ideas and imaginative excursions that come out of this process prompt me to ask questions I may not have asked before. And that’s really the nub of it: novels are about asking questions, not about delivering answers. As I writer, I must have the humility to accept I don’t have all the answers – that my book is not just a vehicle for my own experiences but a vessel for somebody else’s. I must value my reader, especially because they may well be a dying breed. Writers like me are two a penny; attentive readers, however, are increasingly hard to come by!

My novel promotion has thrown me into the path of lots of off-beat events, one of which was a Laura Marling Secret Cinema concert where I was a writer in residence for the evening. Instead of payment for my creative services (!), I was given a free ticket to the concert. The most striking thing about the evening was the fact that guests had to hand over their mobile phones on the door. Instead of the sea of cameras and recording devices that usually floods the crowd at gigs and festivals, I found myself in a room full of listeners: hundreds of ears honed in on each lyric and note. There was no obsession with capturing the moment for ourselves. There was nobody tweeting about it or filming it in an attempt to place themselves at the centre of the experience. Instead, there was just the music and its audience. And perhaps this is where art’s true value lies: in a loss of self - a decision to swim into somebody else’s vision of the world and to embrace the chance to remould our own vision in the process.

By Joanna Rossiter, Jul 11 2013 09:58AM

Having been inspired to tell the true story of an evacuated world war II ghost town in my novel The Sea Change, I decided to take a look at a collection of other abandoned villages with interesting stories hidden within them. From an Italian commune submerged under a mountain reservoir to an abandoned island in the Hebrides, these forgotten places and the people that once occupied them will continue to fascinate the curious amongst us for years to come…

By Joanna Rossiter, Jul 11 2013 09:57AM

A week before the Christmas of 1943, in the midst of World War II, the villagers of Imber in Wiltshire were asked to leave their homes to make way for the army. American soldiers were soon using the village as a practice invasion site in the run up to D Day. In just over a month the area was evacuated and the villagers were praised for the sacrifice they were making towards the war effort. The army promised that their village would be returned to them after the war and the people of Imber clung on to the hope of an eventual return to the hub of community life that had existed previously. They were so convinced that they would be coming back that some of the women even left cans of tinned fruit in their larders. Yet, hopes were dashed as the military kept hold of the village after the war as part of the Salisbury Plain military base. It is still used by the army as part of their training for Afghanistan today. The story of Imber, which remains largely unknown outside of Wiltshire, forms the basis of my novel The Sea Change – my character Violet is evacuated from her home, along with her family and the other villagers, only to find that the village haunts her long after she has left it behind.

By Joanna Rossiter, Jul 11 2013 09:55AM

St Kilda is 100 miles West of the Scottish mainland and, until 1930, it was inhabited by a tiny community of 36 islanders. Disease and crop failure ultimately led to the island's downfall but tourism also played a part. The influx of tourists in the early 20th century caused the inhabitants to be aware of life outside the island and what it had to offer. After years of living off the land, the prospects of financial reward sowed seeds of discontent and made many yearn for a life they never had. Life further became unsettled when disease ravished the island and many joined the rush of immigrants bound for Australia. Finally, in 1930, when access to St. Kilda became severely limited and disease was continuing to kill many of those who remained, a decision was made amongst those left to evacuate the island and every member of the community agreed. Ruined settlements can still be seen on the island today but it has never been permanently inhabited since.

By Joanna Rossiter, Jul 11 2013 09:54AM

In 1947, the village of Graun Curon in Northern Italy fell victim to the plans of the Italian government to build a dam that would flood the area of farmland surrounding the village. The local priest, Alfred Rieper, tried to mount a campaign against the plans with the help of the other villagers. The inhabitants even went to the Pope in Rome to try and put a stop to the scheme. Eventually, in the summer of 1950, flooding of the area began and the water of the natural lake next to the village rose day by day, submerging 677 hectares of land. About 150 families were forced to evacuate, many of them emigrating abroad. When the water level is low enough, the village’s bell tower can still be seen, half submerged, in the centre of the lake.

By Joanna Rossiter, Jul 11 2013 09:53AM

Mingulay is the second largest of the Bishop's Isles in the outer Hebrides of Scotland and despite being so remote, it was once home to a sustainable, close-knit community who lived off the natural resources of the land. Although Mingulay seemed to prosper while its population remained constant, it was when those from nearby islands migrated to Mingulay and the population swelled that it started to put a strain on their resources. Needing to find alternative ways to support themselves, many turned to fishing and crofting but the remoteness of the island made this hard, and the value of the trade decreased. Eventually, in 1912, after 2,000 years of continuous habitation, the island was abandoned by its remaining residents. It is still uninhabited today except for a handful of grazing sheep.

homepage FINAL JOANNA edited ROSSITER edited

Author of 'the Sea Change' (Penguin)

Penguin Tristan_da_Cunha_ASTER