Rosie Thomas talks about her most recent novel, Sun at Midnight, set in Antarctica.
1. Tell us more about your latest book, Sun At Midnight.
It’s an adventure story first of all, with quite a lot of physical action, but it’s also a love story mostly set in a classic isolated confined environment — where a small number of characters can’t escape, and where outside influences have minimal impact on what unfolds. So there’s an inside-outside tension between danger from the elements on one hand and internal emotions on the other, which I haven’t really written before. I hope it works.
2. How did you come up with the idea for this novel?
I went down to the Antarctic Peninsula on one of the cruise ships that these days ply between Ushuaia at the tip of Argentina and the ice of the southern continent. They are great for birding and whale watching and generally enjoying the spectacular scenery, but I hadn’t expected to fall in love with the whole environment in quite the way I did. My immediate reaction was, I have to get back down here. Now, how can I do that?
3. Was there a particular part of the novel that was really difficult to write for you?
The hardest part was keeping the narrative moving forwards, and not letting the action get stuck in a morass of thinking and feeling stuff with an unvarying backdrop of blizzards. The basic cast is eight people in a hut, so it was quite a challenge to convey claustrophobia and at the same time keep things lively. The weather conditions down there can be quite repetitive, for example, so I had to be careful not to launch into yet another description of people battling a devastating gale.
4. Do you have a favourite character you can tell us a bit more about?
Well, I like my heroine Alice of course, and I was interested in the way she combines bravery with being quite nerdy and unsure of herself. But my favourite has to be James Rooker — probably the favourite of all my heroes. He’s a man who has had few advantages in life and a lot of setbacks, mostly of his own making, and who has acquired a manner to match. He’s got a lot of attitude. I liked writing the scene where Alice tries to teach him to ski, and I enjoyed unleashing the full blast of his heroism in the helicopter scene at the book’s climax. If you have to be a geologist in extremis, you’d want it to be Rook coming to the rescue!
5. Why did you choose Antarctica as a setting for your novel?
I just adored it at first sight. It’s like nowhere else I have ever been. Just imagine the colours: the palette is so limited, white and silver and blue and grey, but with every variation within those shades, and constantly shifting; the weather is the harshest imaginable but that makes a single hour of calm or sun seem enchanted; the vastness of the landscapes makes our personal concerns seem so tiny. I wanted to spend more time down there, and I wanted to try to capture the elements of it on the page. I wasn’t able to do it justice, but I am so grateful for having had the chance to try.
6. Did you do any specific research for the book?
Oh yes! I spent a summer season living with the Bulgarian Antarctic Expedition down at their scientific research station on Livingston Island. They were kind enough to invite me when the grander British and US bases turned down my requests, and it was an amazing experience. I worked as cook and bottlewasher, I went out on the ice as field assistant to two of their geologists, I helped build a chapel-cum-skidoo hut, I roamed the glaciers on my own, and I sat for hours and gazed at the landscapes. The descriptions of life for Alice and her colleagues at Kandahar are exactly how it is for scientists working down there: I know, because I’ve done it.
7. What does your average writing day look like?
I get up and go for a run or to the gym for an hour. I come back energized and full of endorphins and then I sit down to write three pages of the current book. When I’ve done that, I stop. That’s all.
8. Who was your favourite author growing up? Has it changed?
I was thinking about this recently. Of course I’d want to say Charlotte Bronte or someone, but actually I grew up in a house with few books and not much culture. However I did have What Katy Did and What Katy Did at School. I read them over and over and over again, so I must have enjoyed them, even though there were lots of things I didn’t understand. What was arnica? What or why was Commencement?
9. When did you decide to write and what prompted you to start?
I‘m not sure when. I think I was always describing things to myself in my head, forming sentences for company and entertainment. I was prompted actually to get going by having a baby and finding that I didn’t want to leave him with a carer in order to go back to my job in an office. I sat down to write in order to earn money, and it went on like that for many years.
10. What’s next for you?
My daughter has had two little girls in very quick succession, and for the last few months I have been enjoying them as well as going through the upheaval of house-moving. However, I am about to take possession of a new apartment with a glorious writing space. I’m looking forward to starting something new, and appropriately different.
An epic love story and adventure set against the stunning backdrop of Antarctica.
Alice Peel is a geologist. She believes in observation and proof. But now she stands alone on the deck of a rickety Chilean ship as a stark landscape reveals itself. Instead of the familiar measurable world, everything that lies ahead of her is unknown and unpredictable.
Six weeks earlier her life was comfortably unfolding in an Oxford summer. Then, with her relationship suddenly in pieces, she accepted an invitation to join a group working at the end of the earth: Antarctica.
James Rooker is a man on the run. He’s been running since his childhood in New Zealand. Now, there is nowhere further to go. He has taken a job working on the same small Antarctic research station.
Alice discovers an ice-blue and silver world, lit by sunlight. Nothing has prepared her for the beauty of it, or the claustrophobia of a tiny base shared with eight men and one other woman. The isolation wipes out everyone’s past, and tension crackles in the air. But there is a jolt of recognition between Alice and Rooker that is like nothing she has ever known. And it is in Antartica that she discovers something else that will change her life forever if she survives.
Rosie Thomas is the author of numerous critically acclaimed, bestselling novels, including Constance and The Kashmir Shawl, and has twice won the Romantic Novel of the Year Award. Those novels, as well as her most recent works of fiction – Sun at Midnight, The Illusionists, Lovers & Newcomers, Daughter of the House, and Iris and Ruby -are available from The Overlook Press.