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Arts & Life

In 'New World,' Former British Poet Laureate Returns To 'Treasure Island'


Sir Andrew Motion, the former British poet laureate, has a new novel. It's the sequel to his book "Silver." This one is called "The New World." Both stories are inspired by the Robert Louis Stevenson classic "Treasure Island."

SIR ANDREW MOTION: For many, many years, I've had the idea that I wanted to write something that took off from Stevenson's great example. And, just to say something very quickly about that, we all know when we're reading a novel that the novelist has taken a chunk of time out of the flux. And we instinctively understand that there is a before and after to the bit that we're reading. And Stevenson in "Treasure Island," goes to some lengths to say that he himself can imagine a consequence to the things that happen in it. He leaves the silver behind on the island. He allows Long John Silver to escape, so I think that the invitation is there to be taken. Others have taken it before me, and I couldn't resist it.

GOODWYN: Sir Andrew Motion's story follows the lives of Jim Hawkins and Natty, the now grown children of Robert Louis Stevenson's main characters in "Treasure Island." They returned to the island for the treasure - the silver - and then set off for England. But a hurricane blows them back into the Gulf of Mexico, and their ship is wrecked. The book opens with Jim Hawkins waking up on a Texas beach.

MOTION: (Reading) Miles below me dozens of miles, but perfectly clear as if caught in the eye of a microscope, I saw myself. My own young body stretched on the black shore with my hair in my eyes, my arms flung about and my legs half in and half out of the water and my skin puckered with cold because - because why? Memory failed me, then sparked again - because of the hurricane, the wreck.

So the first two or three pages see my young Jim coming back to consciousness, getting his bearings, and then the second stage of their adventure begins.

GOODWYN: Natty and Jim barely recover when they are captured by a group of Native Americans led by a vindictive chief named Black Cloud. With the help of one of the tribe's children, they manage to escape. Black Cloud gives pursuit for the rest of the book, and the chase proceeds across a mythical landscape. Well, mythical if you actually happen to be from Texas.

MOTION: I wanted to say to you - a Texan - that of course, I have taken enormous liberties with the geography. This cliff - I mean, there are no cliffs in Texas. This is a kind of big bump of sand in fact. And then when they get out into the wild, I had a pretty clear idea of various, sort of substantial differences in the landscape if you'd like. But I also took enormous liberties with them in much the same way. I immediately want to say that Stevenson himself, took liberties with the geography of what we now call an island in the West Indies that is the island of Treasure Island on which - for instance, in the original - we find rattle snakes and all kinds of things which are not really there. So I thought like him, I would just say imagine a place, and let the characters run about in it.

GOODWYN: You're a man of considerable literary talent. You write poetry, criticism, biography, memoir fiction, and yet I understand you grew up in a family that was not particularly interested in books at all.

MOTION: Yes, that is true. And it's a story that I have quite liked to tell on my visits to schools and so on back in England because I want the children that I am talking to to understand that you don't have to be born with a book in your mouth in order to become a person who has literature in the central place in their lives.

My mother, who died young, did read a bit. I have some early memories of her reading. But my father, towards the end of his much longer life, looked at me with a funny expression on his face one day and said that he reckons he'd read half a book in his life. So none of this would've happened to me - that my life would not have taken the course that it has taken, had it not been for a brilliant - absolutely brilliant English teacher who got hold of me when I was sort of 16, 17 and made me feel that this was the way I should go.

GOODWYN: Do you still think that's true for young people today? I mean, you and I grew up in the "Choice is Right," "I Dream of Jeannie" or perhaps you know, "Treasure Island." But the distractions are much more acute.

MOTION: Well, that is true. And yet, the Internet, the relationship between e-books and printed books seems to have settled down. And the Internet has just as wide an opportunity for encouraging people to read. So I feel pretty optimistic about it. In fact, I can - just to mention one thing and to make that argument perhaps - when I was poet laureate back in the U.K., I with a friend set up something called the Poetry Archive, which is a website on which people can listen to poets - English-American, English-language poets - reading their own work.

And the poetry archive now has a quarter of a million people listening to it every month, and every month, they listen to poets read nearly 2 million pages of poetry. There are more people listening to this stuff now than have ever done before in the history of the human race. So I don't think we should panic about the competing interests provided by the Internet. On the contrary, I think that the Internet has the opportunity to be very friendly towards literature.

GOODWYN: Sir Andrew Motion. His book "The New World," comes out next week. Sir Andrew, it's been a pleasure.

MOTION: It's been a pleasure for me. Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.