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INTERVIEW: Jesse Blackadder, author of 'Chasing the Light'

Friday, February 08, 2013

What was the first flash of inspiration for 'Chasing the Light'?

My Antarctic obsession began with an old black and white photograph of two women sitting on the deck of a ship on the way to Antarctica. One of them, Ingrid Christensen, gazed into the camera enigmatically. When I learned she was the first woman known to have seen Antarctica, I wanted to know more.
One problem – there was little more to be found. I discovered that Ingrid, a 38-year-old Norwegian, left her six children behind and travelled to Antarctica by ship four times with her husband Lars in the 1930s as part of his whaling fleet, taking a female friend or two on each trip. But the question of her ever making a landing seemed to be unanswered, and history books cite another Norwegian woman as the first to land on Antarctica. None of Ingrid’s own words have survived, if they were ever written down in the first place. This intrigued me.

You travelled to Antarctica to research the book. That must have been amazing! Can you tell me all about it?

I went the first time as a tourist, on a 10 day cruise from Argentina to the Antarctic Peninsula. It’s a very dramatic and beautiful place, with lots of wildlife, and that’s where most tourists go because the sea crossing is short – just two days. The second time I went as the Antarctic Arts Fellow, with the Australian Antarctic Division’s ship Aurora Australis. That’s a two-week crossing each way to a very remote part of Antarctica – and it happens to be the part of the continent where Ingrid Christensen visited. In fact I went to “Ingrid Christensen Land”, as it’s now known. Going as part of a working ship was completely different and the landscape at the other end was different too – less picturesque in some ways, but very dramatic and with its own incredible beauty. I had five days on the continent, including three days staying out in huts and travelling across the sea ice in a Hagglunds all terrain vehicle. I can truly say I will never forget it. Antarctica is beyond all the superlatives. I’d go back in a moment.

I particularly loved the characters of the three women at the heart of this novel. They were each so different, and yet so strong and full of life. Can you please tell me how you came to create them?

Lillemor and Mathilde almost created themselves – somehow from the little scraps of history that survived they emerged in my imagination almost fully formed. The main character, Ingrid, was harder. What was it that drove her to go to Antarctica four times? There wasn’t a simple answer to that question, and I puzzled over it, revisited it and imagined it over and over again as I was writing. I had to balance my own desires for her as a character – that she was brave, intrepid and adventurous – with historical realities – that she was extremely wealthy and possibly quite spoilt. In the end I had to let the imagined character take over – this is a novel after all, not a history, though it is deeply informed by history.

Lillemor, who tricked her way on board the ship, and uses her charm and vivacity to always get her own way, was actually my favourite character. Was she yours?

Good spotting! Yes she was my favourite. The glimpses of the real woman that echoed down from history were fascinating. Living in London in the 1920s and 30s, doing charity work in the slums during the great depression, marrying a diplomat who divorced his wife and left his children to be with her, travelling twice to Antarctica, keeping a diary (which is now lost) and taking photographs that ended up being published – she was fascinating. I could let her be competitive, canny and self interested, which was fun.

Grief and loss are the haunting themes of 'Chasing the Light'. I felt sure you must have felt some great sorrow of your own in order to be able to capture Mathilde's paralysing sense of loss over the death of her husband, and  Ingrid's abiding awareness of her mother's absence. Can you tell us how you manage to connect with these women and their grief?

That’s true, Kate. I had a major family tragedy when I was just 12, and my two year old sister drowned in our backyard swimming pool. It was a defining moment, when childhood suddenly ended and adulthood began through the experience of profound grief. My mother also died young, at age 46, at a time when we were quite estranged and though that was more than 25 years ago, I still feel a sense of loss, and think about how I could have acted differently. 

I particularly loved the passages with the whales - both the cruel and the beautiful. I've been thinking about them ever since I read the book. Can you share with us your own feelings towards these parts of the book?

I found the research into whaling to be the most disturbing part of the process. Some years ago I spent a week on a humpback whale research vessel in Hervey Bay and that’s where I first learned about deep sea whaling in the Southern Ocean, and the toll it had extracted. We’re talking about 40,000 whales killed in a single season in the late 1920s and early 1930s. The whaling museum in Sandefjord, Norway, where Ingrid lived, has a blue whale fetus in a jar as part of its display and it’s a very sad sight. I live near Byron Bay, so the annual humpback whale migration is part of my life and I find those creatures deeply moving. I mourned them while I was writing.

Finally, I believe you wrote the novel as part of a doctorate of creative arts. Tell me about the process.

I enrolled in a Doctor of Creative Arts at the Writing and Society Research Centre at the University of Western Sydney. It was a great experience, and I was lucky enough to have novelist Gail Jones as my supervisor while writing 'Chasing the Light' – her feedback helped me stop and reconsider during the first draft, and then start all over again with a different approach – something I’m not sure I would have done by myself. It also meant the book was informed by the academic side of my research into gender and Antarctica – I think that’s an invisible, but important influence. I loved being part of the research group – the staff and other students were inspiring and incredibly supportive and it challenged me to think harder and in a different way. I’ll miss it!

If you enjoyed this interview, you may also enjoy an earlier interview I did with Jesse, talking about her novel 'The Raven's Heart'

Jesse's website is here.

Please leave a comment and tell me what you think

BOOK REVIEW: 'Chasing the Light' by Jesse Blackadder

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Title: Chasing the Light’
Author: Jesse Blackadder
Publisher: Harper Collins 
Age Group & Genre: Historical Fiction for Adults

The Blurb:
It′s the early 1930s. Antarctic open-sea whaling is booming and a territorial race for the mysterious continent between Norwegian and British-Australian interests is in full swing.
Aboard a ship setting sail from Cape Town carrying the Norwegian whaling magnate Lars Christensen are three women: Lillemor Rachlew, who tricked her way on to the ship and will stop at nothing to be the first woman to land on Antarctica; Mathilde Wegger, a grieving widow who′s been forced to join the trip by her calculating parents-in-law; and Lars′s wife, Ingrid Christensen, who has longed to travel to Antarctica since she was a girl and has made a daunting bargain with Lars to convince him to take her.
Loyalties shift and melt and conflicts increase as they pass through the Southern Ocean and reach the whaling grounds. None of the women is prepared for the reality of meeting the whaling fleet and experiencing firsthand the brutality of the icy world.
As they head for the continent itself, the race is on for the first woman to land on Antarctica. None of them expect the outcome and none of them know how they will be changed by their arrival.
Based on the little-known true story of the first woman to ever set foot on Antarctica, Jesse Blackadder has captured the drama, danger and magnetic pull of exploring uncharted places in our world and our minds.

What I Thought: 
‘Chasing the ‘Light is a beautifully written novel about Ingrid Christensen, the first woman to ever see Antarctica (and, quite possibly, the first woman to ever set foot there). It’s also about the two women who accompany her there, the grief-wracked Mathilde and the determined and vivacious Lillemor, who is determined she shall be the first – and will stop at virtually nothing to get her way.
Antarctica herself is a character (is it wrong to call a continent a ‘she’? Because somehow that vast, mysterious, and dangerous land just seems like a woman to me).
Sorrow and courage and the singing of whales weave their way through the story, adding poetry and depth – yet the story swings along at a compelling pace, never losing its narrative drive. The novel is not only about the race to be the first woman in Antarctica, but also about friendships, betrayals, and the hidden mysteries of the human heart.

BOOK LIST: Best Books Set In Antarctica by Jesse Blackadder

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Jesse Blackadder, author of 'Chasing the Light: a Novel of Antarctica' shares her favourite Antarctic books:

Kim Stanley Robinson’s 1971 novel 'Antarctica' is considered one of the most prominent far southern genre novels of recent decades, and it certainly was an early influence on me, provoking my fascination with Antarctica. Apparently an eco-thriller set in an unspecified but near future, Antarctica engaged with and challenged many of the conventions of Antarctic literature, reflecting on the glory and foolishness of the heroic era explorers, introducing other cultural perspectives through the character Ta Shu, a Chinese poet who is part of the Artists and Writers’ Programme (his poems and reflections on the feng shui of Antarctica are scattered through the text) and exploring questions of becoming indigenous to Antarctica. Among the many things happening in this novel, women play a central role throughout, working in all aspects of Antarctic life.

Elizabeth Arthur’s 1995 novel 'Antarctic Navigation' follows the journey of a woman who sets out to reenact Scott’s sledging journey to the South Pole. Like Robinson’s novel, it’s epic in nature, and powerfully elicits Antarctica, while raising fascinating and absorbing questions about the nature of life, science and reality. I still can’t believe that I won’t meet its main character Morgan one day.

Leslie Carol Roberts has written a lyrical history of aspects of Antarctic life in her non fiction work The Entire Earth and Sky, which would have been a husky’s breakfast of facts and thoughts, were it not for her skill as a poetic writer. Thanks to that, it’s a stunning meditation on the ice.

We have some fabulous Australian books of Antarctica including Robyn Mundy’s The Nature of Ice, which matches a contemporary story of a photographer in Antarctica with Mawson’s journey; Karen Vigger’s The Lightkeeper’s Wife, which weaves stories from present to past; L A Larkin’s recent thriller Thirst, Craig Cormick’s In Bed with Douglas Mawson which recounts his journey on Aurora Australis and his conversations with Mawson’s ghost, and Tom Griffith’s work of history Slicing the Silence, to name just a few.

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