The disappearance of three lighthouse keepers from an island in the Outer Hebrides in 1900, which became known as the Flannan Isles Vanishing, inspired Emma Stonex’ debut novel The Lamplighters. How and why did three men just disappear? The mystery has never been solved, and it’s been great fodder for films and books ever since. Moving the setting from Scotland to Cornwall, and to the 1970s and 1990s, Emma focuses on the families and lives that were left behind as well as the dynamics between three men cast adrift and inexplicably lost. This is a moving and atmospheric read. If it gives you an appetite to know more about what life was like on a lighthouse, try Stargazing by Peter Hill (which Emma also recommends). It’s a memoir about a student who spends a period of time on a lighthouse during the Nixon trial in the 1970s.

Emma tells Bookanista how her bookshelves are stuffed in a jubilant muddle with everything from Jackie Collins to a book by her grandmother.

Tell us about the bookshelves in your home (how many; which rooms; read or unread; how you arrange your bookshelves).

I wouldn’t know how many books I have at home – there must be hundreds, some on shelves, others in piles, some in little molehills by my side of the bed. The house I grew up in was stuffed with books and I’ve always thought they’re the very nicest of furnishings. I have difficulty trusting people who haven’t a single book in their home. Once books cross the threshold, they’re hard to get rid of. Every so often I’ll have a clear-out for charity, and those I lend out to friends I like to get back. Inside that particular book is its story, but also mine while I was reading it: where I was, who with, a moment in time.

I’d probably benefit from a system, but I don’t have one. Books are all mixed up, read with unread, finished copies with proofs, old with new, hardbacks with soft covers. The only sort-of coordination is for publishers’ proofs, which start out life in a stack in my office, then a book moves along to the kitchen, where it lives with a heap of laundry for a couple of days until someone takes it up to the bedroom, where it joins one of the molehills. Once read, it’ll slip in wherever there’s space. I like it when neighbours don’t necessarily match, like seating people with different opinions together at a dinner party. I’ve got Jilly Cooper next to John le Carré somewhere downstairs, and my husband’s book on acid house nestled up to Sarah Waters (poor her).

Which books are your most recent bookshelf additions?

A friend gave me The Wolf Border by Sarah Hall for my birthday, which I’m dying to read. The Leviathan by Rosie Andrews has been on my radar for ages, as has Theatre of Marvels by Lianne Dillsworth. Behind my desk are some of my recent favourites, including Luster by Raven Leilani, Catriona Ward’s The Last House on Needless Street, and Real Life by Brandon Taylor.

Do you judge people by their bookshelves?

Not by which books they have, just that they have some.

My edition is dotted with annotations, Post-it notes, and the bookmark is a smoothed-out chocolate wrapper. I could replace it if I lost it, but it’s this book specifically that’s been part of my journey – these pages, this very one.”

Which is your most treasured book?

There are too many. Can I have three? One is an old 1980s paperback of Jackie Collins’ Lovers and Gamblers. I was obsessed with Collins’ books in my teens – I found them so exciting, their sheer scope brilliant and so entertaining. The pages are well thumbed and the cover is gorgeously of its time, glossy red lips and stunning vintage type. Second would be my grandma’s book, The Golden Retriever by Elma Stonex. I don’t remember my grandma as I was too little when she died, but her vigour and sense of humour shine from every page. She was a pioneer in her field, and I wish I could have known her. And last, Lighthouse by the historian Tony Parker, which inspired my novel. My edition is dotted with annotations, Post-it notes, and the bookmark is a smoothed-out chocolate wrapper. I could replace it if I lost it, but it’s this book specifically that’s been part of my journey – these pages, this very one.

What do your bookshelves say about you?

Probably that I find it difficult to let go of things (which I do). I like that my books are arranged haphazardly though. There isn’t any hierarchy, colour-coding, alphabetisation or anything that places one in front of another; they all have to rub along, wherever they’re put.

What’s the oldest book on your shelf?

The Wonderful Story of the Sea by Harold Wheeler, owned by my granddad. He was a captain in the Merchant Navy and my grandparents’ garage on the Isle of Wight was crammed with books, floor to ceiling, most of them covered in dust and falling apart at the spines. There was a ladder to access the ones higher up, which my sister and I loved. You’d find all sorts there besides the books – old lifebuoys, screwdrivers, gardening gloves that might or might not be full of spiders. To this day, the smell of that garage is my best smell in the world, like week-old tealeaves stewed in the bottom of a pot, woody and cold, sort of lonely. I miss it.

Do you rearrange your bookshelves often – and where do your replaced books go?

My rearranging extends to sliding books in on their sides wherever there’s space.

Do you have any books from your childhood on your shelf?

My elder daughter is six and getting heavily into reading. It’s gratifying to share books from my own childhood, like Alice’s Diary (the musings of a tabby cat) and The Jungle of Peril (turn to page 12 if you enter the forest or page 14 if you cross the bridge, that kind of thing). Most of my childhood books are still at my parents’ house. I fell down a Sweet Valley High hole last time I was there and the nostalgia was dizzying. Likewise with the Anastasia Krupnik books and anything by Judy Blume and Paula Danziger.

Book lender, book giver or book borrower?


Whose bookshelves are you most curious about?

I’d love to have a nosy at Kazuo Ishiguro’s. I think there’d be all sorts there: history, sci-fi, contemporary, fiction and non-fiction. I finished Klara and the Sun not long ago and it blew me away. I’m interested in what inspires such a versatile and dexterous writer.

Introduced and compiled by Sonia Weir


Emma Stonex was born in 1983 and grew up in Northamptonshire. After working in publishing for several years, she quit to pursue her dream of writing fiction. She lives in the Southwest with her family. The Lamplighters, her first novel, is out now in paperback from Picador, and also available in eBook and audio download.
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 Author portrait © Melissa Lesage

Read our interview with Emma

Sonia Weir is a contributing editor to Bookanista. She started the Ultimate Reads and Recommendations Facebook group in December 2018, which now has over 700 members from all over the world. The group is inclusive and aimed at every reader, no matter the books, authors or genre.
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