GPB's Peter Biello speaks with author Stephen Hundley about his novel 'Bomb Island'

Author Stephen Hundley at GPB's studios in Atlanta.

Author Stephen Hundley at GPB's studios in Atlanta.

Credit: Peter Biello

The teenage years can be an incredibly emotional time. The urge to push boundaries and explore the larger world can be overwhelming. Now imagine you're a teenager with all those feelings, living in the wilderness of a Georgia barrier island. That's the premise of the new novel by Stephen Hundley. It's called Bomb Island, and in it, a teenager named Fish lives as the adopted son of island-dwellers who make their living running boat tours of the site where a nuclear bomb was accidentally dropped into the ocean decades ago. It's a story of growing up, finding your own way, and surviving unusual and sometimes dangerous conditions. Stephen Hundley spoke with GPB's Peter Biello.

Stephen Hundley: Thank you. Peter, thank you for having me.

Peter Biello: So, tell me a little bit about the main character, Fish, this 15-year-old boy. Lots of rage inside him. What's the inspiration for Fish?

Stephen Hundley: The inspiration for Fish—I think it was maybe David Joy who said that most characters start as a reflection of the author. But I think the magic of the novel is over the long course of the time that you spend with those characters, they develop into something more. And it really does feel miraculous.

Peter Biello: So, what was the starting point and how did you see them develop?

Stephen Hundley: I wanted someone that was going to be at a crux point. I think that is what you're trying to leverage with a coming-of-age [story], someone that has a lot of life ahead of them, a lot of choices to make and a lot of forces pulling them one way or another. With Fish in particular, his chosen family, some of them respond to violence with violence and some respond to violence and aggression with measured passivity. And Fish has to decide how he's going to handle it.

Peter Biello: So, Fish, when we start this book, he's living on Bomb Island. And his mother figure, if you will, is Whistle and Whistle long before the start of the action of the novel brought him to Bomb Island, and he kind of learns from her. She's a peacenik in a lot of ways, and spreads love wherever she can and lets him sort of spread his wings to the extent that he can on a very small island. And it seems to me that at the beginning of the novel, he's really pushing up against the boundaries of this small place and the rules that he doesn't quite buy into that that Whistle sort of imposes on him.

Stephen Hundley: Yeah. He was raised by rebellious types. And even when you're raised by rebellious types, there's still the force to push against. So it's definitely the case for Fish. And I think a barrier island was such a great location for a coming of age, because you have to go out, you have to push the boundaries. The island is very small. It's only three miles by a mile and a half. So by his very morning walks, he's pushing the boundaries.

Peter Biello: I mean it's a great metaphor for being that age in general. You don't have to be on a literal island to feel like your parents have created something of an island around you.

Stephen Hundley: Yeah. For sure.

Peter Biello: The action of the novel has to do with the forces off the island. Again, another metaphor. And Fish's desire somewhat to get close to Celia. Can you tell us about this budding adolescent relationship?

Stephen Hundley: The book is not billed as a romance. And Fish is young enough that I wanted his exchange with Celia to really be an artist's relationship.

Peter Biello: Tattoos in this case.

Stephen Hundley: Tattoos and illustration for Fish. He's sort of like a neophyte to the tattoo world. The first tattoos he sees are on Celia, and they've all been done with ballpoint pens. So that's his starting point. But I wanted the exchange of art and the appreciation of art to be what grounded and connected him and Celia. And later in the book, you'll see they get to meet each other again in early adulthood. But most of the book deals with that adolescent meeting and just the exchange and the appreciation of a really cool piece of tiger art that he sloppily pens into the back of Celia.

Peter Biello: Also should mention that all the names are kind of unusual in this book, kind of representative of the unusual family structure. There's a guy named Reef, and then there's Whistle, of course, and then the main character we know is Fish, and we don't know him any other way. Just Fish. Just worth mentioning. There is a tiger on this island. Tiger shouldn't be there. The tiger's name is Sugar. And the tiger introduces an element of danger because Fish and his chosen family, they don't live like in standard houses. They live in treehouses. They live very close to nature, and they are kind of at the mercy of this tiger. If the tiger wanted to be meaner, it could be. Tell us about the inspiration for putting a tiger on this island.

Stephen Hundley: Well, first off, I should say that Sugar's an Atlanta native.

Peter Biello: Really?

Stephen Hundley: Yeah, he comes from a garage in Atlanta. It's a little outside of the frame of the novel, but all the characters come from Atlanta and move to the island in a sort of escape. With the tiger I wanted...You know, I started as a short story writer. I have a lot of love for that form. And in short story, we work a lot with chronic tension and acute tension. So whereas the atomic bomb is sort of the chronic tension and is baked into the psyche and the dreams and the mythos of the place and the characters, Sugar is the acute tension. He's the bomb that's exploding now. So he functioned in that way to put an edge and really pressure the narrative. I think my strategy with Sugar, with the bomb, with the violence coming from the mainland, was to immerse my characters in a place that I personally wanted to spend a lot of time into, and just begin to turn up the pressure until the narrative and the action became inevitable.

Peter Biello: The bomb is not, I would say, as big a presence as we're led to believe by the title of the book. As you mentioned, it's there, it's unexploded. I didn't have the sense as a reader that it was even really a threat, just kind of the thing that gets people interested in this place.

Stephen Hundley: One thing I like to do in this book is talk about the ways that the South commodifies, commercializes and advertises their disasters, their oddities. You know, in Kansas, you'll drive out to see the largest ball of twine. Here in fictitious South Georgia, you'll see on the highway billboards that say, "Touch death and brush eternity" and that kind of thing. So the bomb comes from a real bomb off Tybee, which is Savannah's beach, and I do not believe they market it in the same way. But here in the world of fiction, the town can fully embrace it. And you're right. Yeah. It's not a pressing danger. More of, like, providing an atmosphere of mystery and hazard and sort of this Bermuda Triangle effect I wanted to produce, growing up around these barrier islands like I did, you got the feeling that things collected there and anything was possible there. And there was a myth of purity around them. Of course, they've all been clear cut 2 or 3 times over the hundreds of years, but still, that mythos of possibility where anything could appear.

Peter Biello: The real-life bomb off Tybee. Is that an atomic bomb?

Stephen Hundley: I believe so, yes.

Peter Biello: And did it arrive there in the same way, with planes sort of colliding and then dropping it?

Stephen Hundley: A simulated bombing run and a simulated fighter escort, I believe, collided, and they jettisoned it.

Peter Biello: I don't want to give away the ending of the book. Readers should make their way to the end. It's great, but I will say that Fish spends some time on the island without his chosen family and makes some decisions about the rest of his life. I'm wondering how you felt about leaving Fish where you left him at the end.

Stephen Hundley: I wanted to leave Fish in a place of possibility. And I think whenever you deal with a character in literary fiction, there's an expectation for growth. And I think that this story had to push Fish in one direction or another. And like you say, I'll leave it to the reader to see which way he goes. But I was hopeful. Like I say, you start the character knowing them, and through the course of the novel they surprise you. And I'm very hopeful for Fish and what comes next for him.