- Special Pages
By Elaine Lies
Writer Andrew Motion, England’s former poet laureate, is taking a new generation of readers back to Treasure Island in his latest book, which follows the characters from Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic adventure.
In Silver: Return to Treasure Island, Jim Hawkins is four decades older and runs an inn with his son Jim, who meets an unusual girl on the river that runs by his home.
Natty is the daughter of Long John Silver and has what turns out to be an irresistible proposal for young Jim: to return to Treasure Island and seek the treasure abandoned by their fathers.
Motion said the book, which was recently published in the United States, was prompted partly by his desire to revisit the original and to show that Stevenson deserved to be valued more.
He spoke about the challenges of writing the sequel to a beloved classic.
What got this book going?
“It wasn’t until I got to university that I read Treasure Island for the first time ... I can remember thinking how amazingly good it was, which is perhaps a rather naive thing to say. But actually there’s a sense in which that’s interesting because by and large, Stevenson is not somebody who’s valued much by the academy.
“I began to think that was an idea that needed knocking on the head. Then, of course, I began to notice that even though we read Treasure Island feeling that we’ve had a complete meal, we don’t push away the book feeling unsatisfied, but we do notice various things in it which are unfinished business.
“I kept thinking ‘one day I’ll go do that,’ and take that invitation to take the story on a bit farther. But every time I thought about it I thought there was a great risk of offending a lot of people because there I’d be sticking a lump of chewing gum on the face of a much-loved national monument, as it were.
“And also, if you look around you at other sequels and prequels, while there are a few very good ones, by and large they don’t work. And they don’t work for a very good reason -- which is that even though they’re very well intentioned, they take on the original at its own game and thereby take up a competition they’re bound to lose.”
Why Natty as a girl? There aren’t women in the original.
“Well, for that reason, actually. I thought that it was sort of high time. There’s Jim’s mum in the original, and the woman of color whom we never meet, and they both go off the radar very early, so essentially they’re never there. I thought that because I wanted to make it feel more modern, I thought that I could legitimately introduce certain elements that we perhaps associate with more recent times -- women who are able to lead more active lives ... I thought it would be interesting to have a female consciousness near the center of action so there would be a greater variety for us as readers.”
What was hardest and easiest with this book?
“Hardest was this thing we touched on earlier, of wanting a modern reader to think ‘I can identify with this’ without at the same time disturbing the plausibilities of the time scale I was working within. I did keep having to check myself and say, much as I’d like to liberate these people more dramatically and give them more empowerment, I just can’t do that -- it’s not reasonable.
“Also, I found it difficult but also rather bewitching keeping the relationship between Jim and Natty suppressed. It’s pretty clear that Jim is in love with her, and fancies her and all that, and I was very tempted to let them fall into each other’s arms with a happy sigh. But I just said to myself I can’t do that. They’ve got to remain more complex than that, partly because Jim is so innocent in those respects and partly because Natty is so screwed up.”
Any special preparations?
“Mainly reading Stevenson. In a sort of spookily apt way, just as I was setting off into it I walked past a secondhand bookstore around the corner from where I live in London, and there was a complete set of Stevenson. I bought it, and munched my way through from beginning to end, making notes about some of it and apt quotes, some of which I’ve sprinkled through the book, in fact to give it something of an authentic feel.
“And I read Treasure Island and read it again, and read it again, until it was absolutely in me, as if it had been something that had happened to my father. Not so I could slavishly imitate it but so I could push off it and feel steadied by it.
“It was fantastically good fun to write. I’m about to be 60 now and I’ve written a lot of books, but I honestly can’t remember something that was such good fun. I kept thinking that if I can feel this pleasure writing it, and let that go down my hand into my pen, then that’s good news for my readers.”