In 2020, queer romance novelist Georgia Clark was quarantining with her wife in New York City when life’s biggest questions came knocking on her doorstep — Am I happy? How can I live a value-driven life? — and consequently, the idea for her sixth novel, Island Time.
COVID-19 forced many of us to ponder our relationships, career choices, and other things our pre-pandemic lives didn’t necessarily allow or give us the time to fully examine. For Clark, it also manifested into wanting to write something that honestly spoke about her own experience from a place rooted in “uncomfortable authenticity.”
Set off the coast of Queensland, Island Time kicks off with the Lees and Kellys embarking on a tension-filled family vacation on a tropical island; all hell breaks loose when a volcano erupts in the dead of night, destroying nearly everything in sight and leaving them stranded for six weeks.
The cheeky rom-rom features an ensemble of characters, many of whose dreams, fears, and personalities are inspired by Clark’s own family as well as bits of herself. Glen is largely modeled after her dad, who’s shy yet intelligent and quirky in his own way. Jules is an agglomeration of the matriarchal figures in Clark’s life, including her mother-in-law and mother, who also happens to wear a bunnings hat and makes her own jam. While writing, Clark found her and her partner falling into similar conversations as Matty and Parker’s, as they related to career ambitions, having a place to call home, and becoming first-time moms.
Scary Mommy chatted with Clark about all things Island Time, from the beauty of writing an ensemble-led novel to celebrating love stories throughout the ages. She also gave us the scoop on her forthcoming novel and her new romantic, short fiction project, Heartbeat.
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Scary Mommy: Love is a huge theme in the book. You explore relationships between mothers and daughters, sisters, in-laws, strangers, and spouses. At the heart of Island Time are two queer love stories, too. What inspired you to explore love throughout the ages?
Georgia Clark: I really did with this book want to write something that was reflective of the queer experience. I really enjoy writing fiction stories that expose marriage and talk more openly about what marriage is like. We don’t see that as often in queer stories, which are focused a lot around the beginnings.
It’s a fun project to explore more of the breadth and depth of the love stories that exist in the world. A lot of romances are looking at the beginning of a love story; but as we know, there are all kinds of love stories that exist between not just romantic love, but familial love, self-love and platonic love. Within an ensemble piece, there are endless iterations of that kind of love existing. I wanted to bubble those up to the surface so we could explore them and see how they’re similar or different.
I love that every chapter is written from a different POV. I felt more appreciative of each character’s development because I watched them grow from multiple perspectives.
When you have a narrator who’s able to pop into everyone’s heads, you can also see the limitations of the characters and the ways in which we have our own blinders on. That’s something an ensemble allows you to do as opposed to first-person narration, where you’re firmly in one character’s head. You’re never able to truly get a perspective outside of their take of the world.
I imagine it’s a little challenging to plot and write an ensemble; but in a way, it probably also helps the story write itself?
I feel writing is really working when you feel like you’re listening to the characters talking to each other rather than you jamming words into their mouth or shoe-horning perspectives or opinions in. For each of these storylines, I map out where the characters are probably going to end up. Some storylines are bigger than others: Amelia and Liss are the central romance, so they have the most real estate in the book. Then it’s a matter of weaving it altogether.
Sometimes I use colored index cards for scenes in the beginning. I can map out the whole book and see what color is dominant or what color I don’t have enough of. I always try to design books in a way that feels easy and distinctive. If you have a heavy chapter, then maybe you don’t really want to have another really heavy chapter after that. If we’ve been in lover land for awhile, let’s get back to a platonic storyline so it feels evenly paced.
Who was your favorite couple to write about and which couple gave you the most trouble, whether it be platonically or romantically?
I had the most fun with Amelia and Liss because I really do love writing rom-coms and writing about first love. It’s so exciting when you first have a crush on someone and you’re re-reading their text messages, overthinking everything, and every touch is so exciting. That’s really the grist of what a romance is. It’s fun to discover people and be with them through all the pleasures and anxieties of falling in love.
The relationship that took the longest to solidify was actually Glen and Randall because I didn’t really know who Randall was. I had a really good sense of who Glen was because I was basing him off my dad; but when I first started, I didn’t have a good sense of Randall’s personality. I was kind of just moving him around the board, he wasn’t doing much in scenes. It wasn’t until I was speaking with another writer friend about it, and she made the point that in a buddy comedy, opposites work well. So that kind of unlocked who Randall is: He’s everything Glen isn’t.
Basically, an opposites attract friendship?
Exactly, exactly. Once I unlocked that friendship, I feel like that almost became the easiest and most fun relationship to write about.
I saw on Instagram that you consulted a volcano expert while writing and actually ended up having to change a few things. What was that like?
It was fun! I do a lot of research for my books. I talked to a volcanologist to figure out where the volcano would be and how it would affect the island because I wanted it to be geographically accurate. The island was originally facing the other way with its back to the volcano. I realized I had to flip it around, so that the surge of water would come in the right way.
The fun thing is, research gives you new ideas that you wouldn’t normally have. When you’re writing, you’re very sponge-like because everything is coming in and you’re absorbing as much as you can. Research is like fertilizer, it enriches all of that and makes the story more authentic, and I think a better reading experience.
The characters go through their own version of a lockdown, was that a reflection of what was happening around us at the time?
I originally pitched Island Time as a COVID novel. My agent liked everything about the story, characters, and setting, but no COVID. At the time, it was the middle of the pandemic and we didn’t know how it was going to pan out. She thinks and still thinks COVID books won’t sell well because people just don’t want to read about it. So, the characters needed to be stranded there for some other reason.
With the volcano, I was able to keep the death toll down. While 11 people dying is still a tragedy, it’s not a mass tragedy on a global scale with millions of people dying. It’s very different.
But what’s most important, is the idea that it’s meant to be a three-day vacation and the characters are coming with already one eye off the island and then they’re stuck. They’re forced to reassess their lives. When your day-to-day routine is taken away, what’s left? What’s important?
All the characters come to the island with some kind of plan of how their lives are going to be, and they leave with different and new relationships, plans, friendships, and ways of seeing things. That is because of the mechanisms of being stranded together, which is sort of what we were all going through. So, I definitely did want to speak to the times in that way.
Can you give us a sneak peak into your next novel or are there any other exciting projects you’re working on?
I just launched Heartbeat with my friend Hannah Orenstein. Heartbeat is a substack where we publish free, weekly short romantic fiction. Hannah and I’s stories just went out, so we’re programming writers weekly.
I’m also working on my new book. It’s another ensemble romantic comedy, which will come out next year. I won’t say too much more about it; but, it’s back in America, back in New York. It’s really fun and sexy, and a very lovely space to be in. So, I’m excited about that.
I also do a monthly live storytelling show called Generation Women, which is here in New York City. We do multi generational storytelling events once a month. It’s super fun. We invite a woman or nonbinary performer in their 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, and 70s to tell an original story on a theme once a month. We’ve been doing it for five years. It’s a really empowering and inspiring night that showcases the voices of all people, particularly older women.
Finally, what are some books you’ve read lately and loved?
I really loved Casey McQuiston’s new book, I Kissed Shara Wheeler. I enjoy all of Casey’s writing, they’re really fun, queer, modern rom-coms. I loved Tia Williams’ Seven Days in June; it’s a big, epic love story.
I just read Linda Holmes’ new book Flying Solo, another slow-burn romance with a hot librarian and cozy mystery. I’m reading Isabel Kaplan’s Not Safe for Work, which is literary fiction. I read a lot of rom-coms, so it’s a bit of a palette cleanser.