Author Q&A

You're from Bermuda. What aspects of your childhood seeped into the writing of this book?

The sounds, smells, heat, the ocean—all these made their way into Tamarind. The natural world is very powerful and beautiful in Bermuda, and magical things are part of ordinary days. We really do have glowing sea creatures, and all you have to do is spend an afternoon on the ocean to discover something miraculous. Also, I don’t think that I could have written about siblings as easily if I didn’t have three of my own. That dynamic of bickering but being on a team together, separate from the adults, sharing those early years, is very familiar. Finally, Tamarind is a variation of my greatest childhood fantasy—to be shipwrecked on a deserted island … not very imaginative for a kid who grew up on an isolated island! 

What did you want to be when you grew up?

When I was very young, I wanted to drive a bright pink taxi in Bermuda, the kind with the old-fashioned surrey fringe on the roof, so that I could drive down little roads to see where people lived. Later I wanted to be Diane Sawyer and work for 60 Minutes.

When did you realize you wanted to be a writer?

In the first grade. We were copying sentences from the chalkboard when I suddenly realized that I could keep the story going and take it in whatever direction I wanted. It was an electrifying moment.

What’s the earliest thing you can remember?

The Daddy Longlegs spiders under the bookshelf of our house on Tamarind Vale Road. Because I was small I could look up and see them, but no adults knew they were there.

What’s your most embarrassing childhood memory?

My dad used to drop us off at school in his work van and shout “RAT-A-TAT-A-TAT, GO COMMANDOS!” and my younger brothers used to leap out of the side of the van while it was still moving and dash toward the school with their backpacks on. I was thirteen and it was mortifying.

What was your first job?

Sweeping under the cash registers at our grocery store—I was allowed to keep whatever coins I found. Soon after that I spent weekends and holidays as a grocery packer. I had to stand on an overturned milk crate in order to reach the counter.

What’s one of your favorite memories of growing up working at your family's store?

Our grocery store would deliver groceries to nearby homes and I remember being about eleven years old and going with my dad, uncles, or grandfather to the Lightbournes’ house. A whole room was devoted to their magnificent shell collection and Mrs. Lightbourne would always let me in to look at it. There were hundreds of shells from all over the world in glass cases—deepwater murex, polished cowries, lustrous oysters—it was fascinating and beautiful. The mermaids in The Lost Island of Tamarind are all named after shells. The collection is now housed at the Bermuda Underwater Exploration Institute.

What was your worst subject in school?

Math . . . probably because my seventh-grade teacher used to let me skip math class to write stories in the library.

What was your best subject in school?

I enjoyed English and history the most—stories about people and places and times.

Where do you write your books?

I usually work at home, at a square table built for me, where I can look out over the ocean when I need to let my thoughts drift. In summer when the water is calm and clear I can count the parrotfish grazing on the boiler reefs, and in winter I can watch storms roll in.

Where do you find inspiration for your writing?

Art and science museums. Science books and articles. Traveling. Whenever I get stuck when I’m working, I close the laptop and go for a walk along the coast. When I return, my unconscious has usually unraveled some knots and I’m able to continue.

Did you plan to write a novel for younger readers or did you just fall into it? What's different about writing for adults versus children?

I wanted to write the kind of book that I loved reading when I was a kid, when I read because I had to know what happened next, when I wanted to be friends with the characters and be there in the story with them, when I was first discovering the pleasures of language and it was exciting and new. So, more than writing for children I wanted to write for anyone who wanted to feel that way. Because it was about children and it was a fantasy adventure, I knew it was a children’s book, but beyond that I didn’t give much thought to whether I was writing for kids or grownups. 

Why did you write a trilogy? 

I’m the eldest of four children, and growing up, we were VERY concerned with everything being fair. Everyone had to have a turn, and if someone tried to mess with whose turn it was all hell would break loose.. While The Lost Island of Tamarind is about all the Nelson children, it’s really Maya’s coming-of-age story. So it seemed only fair to me that if Maya had her own story, Simon and Penny should have their own, too, Simon’s is the second book and Penny’s is the third. 

What's your Sunday brunch order?

Codfish and potatoes with tomato or egg sauce, local bananas, and avocado pears. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, very light, fast Bermuda sloops used to bring salt from the Turks and Caicos up the Eastern Seaboard to Newfoundland and Nova Scotia and return with salted cod. It’s been the traditional Sunday morning breakfast in Bermuda ever since.

Which do you like better: cats or dogs?

My mother rescued abused and abandoned animals, and when I was growing up our house was filled with cats, dogs, ducks, terrapins, and gerbils she once tried to give away in children’s party bags. She would even take the scraps from dinner to feed a wild rat named Templeton who lived in the hedge. In the midst of this zoo, I always respected how independent and self-sufficient cats are, but lately dogs have grown on me, thanks to a terrier named Rocket who belongs to my dad. Rocket looks like a Looney Tunes character after the firecracker has gone off—even right after a bath you can barely see his face under all the scraggly fur. He’s faster than a speeding bullet, takes on dogs ten times his size, snarls fearsomely but never bites, is quick and clever company, and is best buddies with my five-year-old daughter.

What’s the best advice you have ever received about writing?

When I was fifteen I took a writing class with a British playwright, Stuart Browne, who came to Bermuda. He said that in a story “something happens, someone changes, or something is revealed.” It’s still the simplest and clearest definition of a story I know. The best advice I’ve received about writing is simply to read as much as possible.

What would you do if you ever stopped writing?

I’d like to work on a ship sailing around the world. 

Who are the writers you read while growing up?

I read voraciously but indiscriminately—everything from Madeleine L’Engle to Archie comics. I read a lot of Enid Blyton, a popular and prolific English writer of children’s books who was read widely in Britain and in many parts of the Commonwealth. Looking back on those books now, there are many unsavory features (jingoism, sexism, etc.), but what still stands out as being great and memorable about them was that there was always an exciting adventure and a group of friends who were all thrillingly autonomous for children. These are things that I think young readers really respond to. Some of the most wonderful books that I remember reading again and again, and that I still enjoy returning to now, are From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (E.L. Konigsburg); The Egypt Game (Zilpha Keatley Snyder); Charlotte’s Web (E.B. White); The Indian in the Cupboard (Lynne Reid Banks); A Wrinkle in Time (Madeleine L’Engle); and everything by Roald Dahl. I still have a beloved, battered old copy of The Witches, and will never forget the detail of the blue spit. I loved Narnia, and I reread the opening pages of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe over and over again just to get to the moment when Lucy’s hand reaches out and touches not the fur coats but snow. I loved how creepy and disorienting The Phantom Tollbooth was. I was addicted to series—everything from Nancy Drew to The Babysitter’s Club to Sweet Valley High. (I knew that different authors wrote Sweet Valley High and I used to write descriptions of the twins—I came up with a hundred different ways to describe their aquamarine eyes—and prepare writing samples to send to the publishers.) In the eighth grade I decided to read only long books, like It and Gone With the Wind, along with a lot of things that make me cringe now—truly tawdry, scintillating books like the V.C. Andrews series about four children locked in their grandmother’s attic. They were wonderful. No one paid much attention to what I was reading, so I was free to develop a love of reading and gradually made my way to better and better books as time went on.

 Trunk Island, Bermuda

Trunk Island, Bermuda

 Me releasing a tagged green turtle for the Bermuda Turtle Project.

Me releasing a tagged green turtle for the Bermuda Turtle Project.

 A storm rolling in, seen from my last home.

A storm rolling in, seen from my last home.