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.

March 12, 2012

The Places a Book Can Take You

Filed under: writing — Tags: , , , , , , — jennifer @ 8:56 am

Right now I am so busy juggling two books, that my readers and friends worry about me. Their primary concern is that my work is too isolating and that it keeps me too burdened down at my desk. I am at my desk a lot, especially at this moment as I’m editing what’s called the galleys or first pass of my upcoming book (to be released September 25), Becoming Clementine; producing, writing, directing, designing, acting in, and scoring a trailer for the book; and researching/outlining/writing the book that comes after, due to my publisher September 15. It’s true I’m at my computer or working somewhere for hours every day. But, while I may at times feel overwhelmed (to put it mildly), I never feel limited.

As a little girl, the thing I loved most about writing was that it could take you anywhere. Through my stories, I could see the world– the universe!– or imagine a new one. I could be anyone or anything.

Now that I’m all grown up and writing for a living, this is still the thing I love most about writing. I get to travel, through words and computer, to distant, exotic, foreign lands, often going back in time to long ago worlds or forward in time to ones that haven’t even been created.

One of the other best things about writing books is that they can literally take you to the most interesting places.

I’ve written each of my books because they were stories I wanted to read. I didn’t write them because I wanted to travel to this setting or that one to do research or because I hoped I might be invited on nice trips someday. But that’s exactly what has happened.

For research, I’ve been all over Scotland and Canada. I’ve been to Paris, London, Maine, New York, Washington, D.C., Chicago, San Francisco, Atlanta, Vermont, Louisiana, Tennessee, Texas, the Smoky Mountains, Missisippi, Newfoundland, and the tiny town of Wilson, North Carolina, to eat barbecue with the son of Arctic heroine Ada Blackjack, the subject of my second book. I’ve toured Edwards Air Force Base in the Mojave Desert and climbed around the imposing Devil’s Courthouse on the Blue Ridge Parkway and stood on the dock in Victoria, BC, where the men of the Ice Master expedition set sail in 1913. For my memoir, The Aqua Net Diaries, I even reunited with my high school classmates in our small Indiana hometown, retracing the steps of my big-haired, boy crazy teenage self.

With my publishing team from Pan Macmillan, I was one of the first to ride the London Eye, soon after it opened.

I traveled to Edinburgh, Scotland, with the jawbone of one of the sailors I wrote about in The Ice Master to reunite his last remains with his great-nephew while teams of news crews filmed us.

I was invited to Venice, Italy, to speak to the Italian Explorers Club and receive the Giuseppe Mazotti Prize for Literature, Italy’s highest literary honor.

I’ve attended a ball on the Queen Mary, had tea at the home of Lord George Emslie, Lord President of the Court of Session and Lord Justice General, Scotland’s senior judge from 1972 until 1989, and drunk moonshine with gold miners in the mountains of Georgia. I’ve posed for pictures in front of icebergs and on top of mountains, in graveyards and ruins, and with puffins and moose and llamas. I’ve become good friends with the families of the men and women I’ve written about.

In 2005, a few years after the publication of my Arctic nonfiction adventures The Ice Master and Ada Blackjack, I was invited to the high Russian Arctic for two weeks aboard an ice breaker. With Quark Expeditions, I traveled up the Bering Strait, stopping at remote Inuit villages, before reaching Wrangel Island– the setting for those first two books– where I was dropped by helicopter with Bob Headland, then head of the Scott Polar Research Institute, and a Russian translator, and allowed a private tour.

I appeared at the Southern Spring Home & Garden Show in Charlotte, North Carolina, where award-winning designer Joycelyn Armstrong had created a kitchen inspired by Velva Jean Learns to Drive.

Just last year, I returned to my Indiana hometown for the official book release party for Velva Jean Learns to Fly, and listened to Mayor Sally Hutton proclaim it “Jennifer Niven Day.”

In 2014, I’ve been invited to go back to the Arctic– for a month this time– for the 100th anniversary of the Ice Master expedition rescue, and will once again travel by ice breaker up the coast of Siberia to Wrangel Island.

Most recently, I was invited to the San Diego Air & Space Museum for a Velva Jean Learns to Fly Aviation Adventure, hosted by Adventures by the Book. As we were on our behind-the-scenes tour, exploring the basement of the museum where all the planes are constructed and refurbished, my boyfriend said, “You get to go to the coolest places.”

And I do. But perhaps none cooler than the places I get to go to every day when I’m just sitting at my desk.