Lisa Walker talks snow survival and shares an excerpt from her new book, Melt.
I’ve been lucky enough to travel a lot, but I’ve never made it to Antarctica. It’s exerted a mysterious attraction but has remained elusive. Sometimes I think that the places we don’t see are more powerful than the ones we do. They maintain an almost mythical status, like Narnia or Hobbiton.
In writing Melt, it helped that I’ve spent a lot of time in snowy places. I could visualise the hardships and the beauty of that environment. I’ve done many different jobs in my life – bar tender, reef guide, ranger, but the one that always gets people’s attention is the igloo building instructor.
Yes, it’s true. And what’s more, I did this in Australia. I led snow survival courses in which we built – and slept in – igloos and snow caves. Igloo building is quite a job. A snow cave can be whipped up in a couple of hours, but an igloo takes more commitment and preferably a team of willing builders. Sleeping in one is warmer than you would expect, and rather lovely. At night, a candle will light up the whole igloo and during the day a beautiful blue glow comes through the snow. In Melt, I set my protagonist, Summer, the job of building an igloo all by herself, which she finds extremely challenging.
Over the two years or so it took me to write Melt, I immersed myself in Antarctic experiences. I stood in a blizzard at the Antarctic Centre in Christchurch and visited the Antarctic Explorers exhibition at Christchurch Museum, as well as the one in Hobart. I studied up on penguins, seals and, of course, Antarctic explorers.
Antarctica has inspired some truly great lines. Who can forget ‘I am just going outside and may be some time.’ (Oates), ‘Food lies ahead, death stalks us from behind.’ (Shackleton), or ‘Great God! This is an awful place.’ (Scott). And then there is my protagonist Summer, who channels these great explorers on her first broadcast from Antarctica. ‘Notwithstanding the potential for peril, we are launching into an adventure that seems likely to surpass all my former experiences…’ Antarctica brings out the orator in us all.
Writing ‘Melt’ was such an immersive experience, it almost feels like I’ve been to Antarctica. That pleasure, however, is still to come.
EXTRACT FROM MELT
‘Glaciology is the study of ice,’ I say to my reflection. ‘I am a glaciologist, which is to say I study ice.’
I am practising for Antarctic conversations. If I’m going to be Cougar Gale I have some work to do. I remember that episode of Days of Our Lives where a character had a chip inserted into her brain which made her become someone else. That would be good.
My phone dings and I check it. It’s time for my scheduled call with Lucas Nilsson to finalise logistics. Even though I’m now Cougar, I’m also still the production assistant.
I dial his number and he picks up.
He sounds distracted. I try to imagine what he looks like. He’s a scientist so I expect he’s old and hairy and perhaps wearing a moth-holed woollen sweater over shorts which expose his knobbly knees.
‘It’s Summer Wright. From Channel Five. I need to check through the spreadsheet with you.’
‘Mm.’ The phone bumps and there’s the sound of rustling paper. ‘Where is it? Oh here.’ There’s a bang. ‘Damn.’ There’s more rustling and more banging. ‘I spilt coffee on it.’
‘You have the electronic version.’
‘Yes.’ There’s the sound of keyboard tapping. ‘Yes. Here it is. Five hundred and thirty-five actions.’
‘And two thousand sub-actions. Have you familiarised yourself with it all?’ I feel a knot in my chest. I’m going to Antarctica and my liaison officer is not on the ball. In fact, he seems downright nonchalant. I pick up a pen and gnaw it. ‘It’s very imp—’
‘Mm. Just looking through it now. Oh dear, just deleted it. Never mind. I’m sure it will be fine.’
‘No, that’s not good enou—’
‘Summer, I’m sorry, but the probability of us sticking to that schedule is very low. There are many factors to consider. Antarctica is not Sydney. I have to go now. I have a paper to write. Goodbye.’ He hangs up.
I can’t believe he hung up on me. I try dialling again, but he’s switched his phone off. I gnaw at my fingernails then snatch up Adrian’s book for some inspiration on how to deal with such situations.
Adrian’s book tells me extreme project management requires improvisation, the ability to relax controls and keep the process loose. I must remember my life is no longer a waterfall, it is more like a scrum. I must stay on my toes – be prepared, but not over-prepared, alert but not alarmed. Okay. That is the way to tackle Lucas Nilsson. I breathe deeply. Alert, not alarmed.
The Extreme Project Manager doesn’t get bogged down in extraneous facts. Okay. Don’t worry about facts. I concentrate on breathing deeply.
There is no point in trying to remember details about boring ice holes, measuring ice flows and whatever else it is that glaciologists do. Not only are ice holes boring, they are tedious and dull. I can do this, I tell myself. I can.
Antarctica is getting hotter …
Summer Wright, hippie turned TV production assistant, organises her life down to the minute. And when her project-management-guru boyfriend, Adrian, proposes marriage — right on schedule — she will reach the peak of The Cone of Certainty.
At least, that’s the plan – until adventure-show queen Cougar Gale intervenes. Suddenly Summer is impersonating Cougar in Antarctica: learning glaciology and climate science on the fly, building a secret igloo, improvising scripts based on Dynasty, and above all trying not to be revealed as an impostor.
Lisa Walker is the author of five novels including Melt and her debut young adult novel, Paris Syndrome, which both came out this year. She has also had a radio play produced for ABC Radio National. She lives on the north coast of New South Wales, Australia, where she divides her time between surfing and writing.