Tom Koppel: Mystery Islands


Photos courtesy Tom Koppel  and Annie Palovcik

Tom sailing a trimaran on the Bay of Islands, New Zealand, with a heavily tattooed Maori chief, Hone Mihaka, standing nearby.

There was a soft rain falling as we went to the Black Sheep bookstore in Ganges, Salt Spring Island for the release of Tom Koppel’s book, Mystery Islands, Discovering the Ancient Pacific. This is Tom’s fifth book. He’s spent a life time earning a living writing for magazines and newspapers. I first met him decades ago because we were both members of PWAC (the Periodical Writers of Canada). He was the real thing, a freelance writer successful in one of the hardest professions.

Over the years, I lost track of him, heard mutual acquaintances mention his name from time to time and was delighted when I discovered him with his wife, Annie Palovcik, on Salt Spring. They work as a team on travel articles and, today, Tom said in his talk about the research behind this new book that his books have all risen out of his articles. He writes numerous articles and, gradually, the concept for the book appears. He can’t just put the articles into a book, there is a lot of rewriting to do, always more research but eventually, they form a coherent whole.

 A girl dancing at small island of Rabi in the Fiji Islands, where the residents are of Micronesian descent, transplanted by the British from the ruined phosphate island of Banaba

The Black Sheep bookstore is one of those great old fashioned bookstores, selling both new and used books, providing support for local writers with promotion and readings. It’s crammed with books. I’ve spent many a happy hour browsing the shelves, investigating nooks and crannies, finding the occasional treasure. It is here that I discovered a copy of the history of Salt Spring Island and because of reading it, when Tom talked about the Hawaiian families who settled here and how they now had completed the circle by going back to Hawaii to visit regularly, I understood what he was talking about.

A visitor viewing the largest tiki in the Marquesas islands

Standing on the stairs at the Black Sheep bookstore, Tom regaled the audience with anecdotes from this latest adventure. Kayaking, on high tide, through a ruined imperial city built on artificial islands. Walking through it during low tide. Another day, he and Annie headed out through massive sand dunes as much as 200 feet high to explore an archeological site. There were no land marks and no signs. After a number of hours, their water began to run short and they turned to make their way back by following the shore line. Eventually, they found a sign with an arrow, followed it and, to their relief, discovered their driver waiting with the car.

Tom’s adventures were in an area of the world completely foreign to me, Fiji, Micronesia, far from my usual area of Scandinavia but, having listened to his talk, I’m looking forward to reading Mystery Islands.

The book begins with a visit to a village. Visiting men and women are expected to wear cotton sarongs, called sulus. On shore, the guests are offered a small bowl of kava, a mildly intoxicating beverage. If they want to accept the drink, they call out “Bula”, and clap their hands once. After they drink, they clap their hands three times. It’s concrete detail like this that make travel adventures come alive.

Recently, we’ve had Douglas&McIntyre, one of Canada’s most important publishers, declare bankruptcy. Canadian bookstores have been closing down at an alarming pace. It is more and more difficult to get published. When I first saw Tom’s book, Mystery Islands, I was surprised and pleased because the production quality was so high. Top notch paper, lots of colour photographs.

Tom explained to the assembled multitude how the publication came about. In spite of his reputation and previous publications, a New York agent couldn’t find a publisher for the book. A Canadian agent couldn’t find a publisher for the book. Then a friend suggested that he contact professionals in the subject area of the book. Word went around and, eventually, one person told him that a new publishing company,   USP Press, University of the South Pacific, Suva, Fiji Islands, was conducting a competition for original manuscripts. In the nick of time, Tom entered his manuscript. He won first prize. He received three thousand dollars and had his book published.

The book is beautiful. The pictures excellent and interesting. However, distribution from so far away, sending books across borders (taxation problems), is difficult, if not impossible. Tom’s books have to find their way in a system that is much like the sand dunes where he and Annie were lost. Books can be ordered directly from him, $40.00 plus postage, at 193 Richard Flack Rd.  Salt Spring Island, BC  V8K 1N4. However, it is easiest to email him at . As reviews will appear for this book full of history, adventure, travel, engagingly written (I’ve only had a chance to read the first few pages but since it is by Tom, I can guarantee that it will be engagingly written), bookstores will start to stock it but there isn’t any need to wait on the vagaries of the Canadian distribution system.

However, this is where we are, today, in Canadian publishing and distribution. A well-known, successful author has to find a publisher in Micronesia. His manuscript is a prize winner. Yet, he has to personally see to the distribution of his book. Writing is a major part of our Canadian culture. If more and more Canadian publishers go out of business, if more and more Canadian bookstores go out of business, there will be no Canadian literature. We’ll soon return to what publishing was at one time in Canada, a branch plant economy.