Everything Books
Writing and reading and books, books, books (and anything that might relate)

June 2, 2013

The Ghosts of Wrangel Island

On May 17, I wrote an article for National Geographic’s website about my 2005 journey to Wrangel Island, the setting of my first two books.  Here are a few more pictures from and of the island (and the trip by Russian icebreaker), which I’ll be traveling back to in August of 2014.

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(Polar bears and musk oxen pics courtesy of James Wilson)

 

 

February 25, 2013

The strangest (coolest) thing I ever found on eBay

In honor of the 100th anniversary of the Canadian Arctic Expedition, the doomed ship Karluk, and the men, woman, and children who found themselves stranded in the Arctic in 1913, here is one of my favorite stories about writing The Ice Master.

It is January 21, 1914. After the ship goes down, the inhabitants of the Karluk are forced to live on the ice while they struggle to reach even some small scrap of land. On this day, Captain Bartlett sends an advance party toward Wrangel Island. There are four men in the party, led by twenty-one-year-old First Mate, Alexander “Sandy” Anderson, from Scotland.

They set out for Wrangel Island, but they only make it within five miles of its smaller, more desolate neighbor, Herald Island, before disappearing without a trace. Try as they might in the months to come, their shipmates never found a clue as to where
the men were, or what happened to them.

In 1924, another Arctic expedition made its way to Herald Island where they discovered the remains of a camp. A silver watch, a pocket compass, snow goggles, hunting knives, a nickel belt buckle. And then someone held up the jawbone of a man. It was smooth and shrunken, bleached by the snow and wind. From what they could tell by the pile of ashes on the ground, the men had probably lived on the island for quite a long time.

Afterward, their remains and the artifacts were sent to Canada for identification, and then they disappeared.

It’s now August of 1999 — 75 years later. Returning from a research trip, I came back to an email that read simply: “I found something that might be of interest to you.” It was from a friend in Wales, who had enclosed a link for an auction on eBay: “Arctic Expedition Remains from Stefansson’s ill-fated expedition.”

Somehow, they had surfaced, these artifacts from the Karluk. They had made their way from Herald Island in 1914 to my hands in 1999, just as I was reliving the history that Sandy Anderson and his comrades had endured. Now I could actually lay my hands on the past.

Even more amazing, they were purchased from a Chicago museum by a couple who run a cowboy memorabilia business in Colorado. They said they just happened to hear of the sale, that they had never purchased polar artifacts before, that the collection just sounded too incredible to pass up. Once the artifacts arrived in Colorado, however, they weren’t sure what to do with them. So they put them on eBay, the first time they’d ever used the auction site.

What are the odds of these treasures turning up again, just when I was working on The Ice Master? By now, through their diaries, letters and reports, and through my interviews, I knew these people intimately in mind and spirit.

But the day this old box arrived in Los Angeles, I connected physically with the men of the Karluk. I could hold in my hands the snow goggles, the silver watch, the nickel belt buckle, the old hunting knife, and the haunting human remains.

Through some dental detective work, I was able to conclude that the jawbone belonged to First Mate Sandy Anderson. In fall of 2000, I traveled to Scotland with the jawbone, and in Edinburgh met Peter Anderson, Sandy’s great-nephew.

Before he was able to return to his family and Scotland, Sandy died on a remote island that few people in the world had ever even heard of, much less ever seen. His descendants grew up hearing stories about his great adventure, but never knew exactly what happened to him, only that he was lost in the Arctic.

It was indescribably moving to take him home.

February 20, 2013

100th anniversary of the Karluk expedition

In The Ice Master, I recounted the true story of what was supposed to be the greatest and most elaborate Arctic expedition in history, and what instead turned out to be one of the most harrowing polar survival stories of all time.

In June 1913, the H.M.C.S. Karluk set sail from the Esquimalt Naval Yard in Victoria, British Columbia. Six weeks later, the Arctic winter had begun, the ship was imprisoned in ice, and those on board had been abandoned by their leader.

For five months, the Karluk remained frozen in a massive block of ice, drifting farther and farther off course, until the ice tore a hole in the vessel’s hull, and Captain Robert Bartlett, the ice master of the title and the man hired to command the Karluk, gave orders to abandon ship (to the strains of Chopin’s “Funeral March,” playing on the Victrola).

Which was how Captain Bartlett, twenty-one men, an Inuit woman and her two small daughters, twenty-nine dogs, and one pet cat found themselves shipwrecked in the middle of the Arctic Ocean, hundreds of miles from land…

Over the years, many tributes have been paid to Captain Bartlett (one of my biggest heroes) and his comrades, but this year is particularly special– it is the 100th anniversary of the Karluk expedition.

In honor of these 100 years, articles are being written and documentaries are being filmed. The Canadian Mint has released two commemorative collector’s items– a fine silver dollar and a 14 K gold coin. I’ve also been invited to return to the Arctic and Wrangel Island in August 2014 as part of the 100th anniversary of the rescue.

Each week, I’ll post something here relating to that expedition– a rare photograph, a letter or diary excerpt written by one of the scientists or crewmen who sailed aboard the Karluk, a clip of the rescue footage, a behind-the-scenes story about writing the book.

Though called a hero in his lifetime, Captain Bartlett would most likely be surprised by such tributes all these years later. As he once observed, “The truth was I could not stop myself in pursuit of adventure. I was committed to the Arctic. I’d got the poison in my veins.”

March 19, 2012

When Nonfiction is Fiction

As I’m researching Velva Jean’s Hollywood story, I am reading through book after book written by or about movie stars and movie moguls from the 1940s. I’m reading about the studio system, the star machine, the inner workings of the movie musical, every bit of Hollywood and Los Angeles history, and the studios themselves. In all these many, varied books one thing stands out– very few are well researched, well resourced, and well documented, and the majority of them take great liberties in reporting fact.

The one I’m reading now, for instance, is a book about Clark Gable and all his women (written by a woman who never knew Gable or the women in question). The author quotes pages of dialogue supposedly spoken between Clark Gable and his various wives and mistresses, yet she doesn’t list any notes or sources. Perhaps she was there for every single one of these private, often intimate, conversations, hiding behind a curtain or underneath a bed or lurking in the shadows while Gable and Carole Lombard or Gable and Joan Crawford or Gable and his first wife, Josephine Dillon, were deep in discussion, but somehow I don’t think so. This woman has written other books on Hollywood stars of yesteryear, just as sloppily reported and shoddily researched, but she isn’t the only one. She is just one of– unfortunately– many nonfiction “writers” who bend and fluff and spice up the truth to suit the story. She is just one of many authors who rely on hearsay, rumor, legend, and unreliable secondhand resources– magazines, newspapers, other books– and then fails to document where she got most of her information. I have approximately 133 books on my Hollywood shelf, and I would estimate that only 15 of these have the right to be called nonfiction.

Hollywood-related books are not the only ones guilty of this. There are plenty of other books on plenty of other subjects– from literary biography to World War II to Appalachia to Anne Boleyn– that are filled with conjecture and theory, without actually calling it conjecture and theory, but instead putting it out there as hard fact. Which is especially unfortunate when the subject or subjects being written about are no longer here and able to speak up for themselves.

I look at writing nonfiction as a privilege, one that needs to be respected. As a writer of nonfiction, you are, after all, dealing with real people and real lives and real events. Even in my historical fiction, I try to keep the nonfiction mindset of researching my subject thoroughly and staying as historically accurate as possible, shaping my character to fit history as much as I can, rather than shaping history to fit my character. I write both fiction and nonfiction, and one reason I do so is because fiction is where I can make things up. Nonfiction is where I do my best to retell a story. It is also where I provide pages and pages of endnotes to back up my telling of that story, one of my least favorite aspects of writing. But also a very necessary one.

Because I’m such a meticulous, unrelenting, passionate stickler for fact (my mother, who almost strictly writes nonfiction, is the same), I hate it when writers repeat or pass off as truth unsubstantiated “facts” or “blur” the edges for dramatic effect. I also hate it when people ask me, “So your first two books are nonfiction– how much of what you wrote in there is true?” The answer: all of it.

If I didn’t know something, I left it out. If it didn’t happen, I didn’t pretend it did. After all, truth is stranger and more dramatic than fiction. Why embellish?

Although I certainly formed opinions about the people I was writing about in The Ice Master and Ada Blackjack— especially controversial expedition leader Vilhjalmur Stefansson– I worked hard not to color the prose with my opinions. Who cares what I think? That’s what author interviews are for. Besides, I wasn’t on those expeditions. Even if I feel justified in expressing an opinion about Stefansson or his methods or this person or that one, the simple fact is: I wasn’t there. Instead, I let the men and women of the expeditions speak for themselves, through the material found in letters and diaries and other firsthand materials from the time.

(Speaking of speaking for themselves, in The Ice Master and Ada Blackjack, as well as in my memoir, The Aqua Net Diaries, the only dialogue that appears is quoted from actual resources. While I would have loved to add additional exciting pages of dialogue to the book, I would have had to call it a novel.)

To me, the saddest thing about that question I’m often asked is this: if a book purports to be nonfiction, why do we, as readers, naturally assume part of it must be untrue? Perhaps because so many– too many– writers take liberty with fact. And the danger there is that by doing so, the real story, the true story of the men and women and children involved, becomes lost.

As a writer, isn’t it my responsibility to make sure that doesn’t happen?