Interview with the Author, Ed O'Loughlin

ABR: Let’s start with a question that’s one I’m frequently asked — and now, finally get to ask someone else: What was it that first drew your interest to the lost Franklin expedition?
About 15 years ago I first read Pierre Berton’s history of the search for the North West Passage, The Arctic Grail, which became one of my favourite non-fiction books (his Klondike Fever is another). I don’t think I had been aware of the Franklin expedition before that, even though “Lady Franklin’s Lament” is a well-known folk song in Ireland. But I was immediately gripped by Berton’s account of the doomed ships and the men and women whose lives were entwined with them. And of course, Erebus and Terror - that stuff writes itself.
ABR: Your research for this novel is most impressive. How did you approach your subjects? Did you travel to polar archives, or was your method more like Bert’s in the novel: computer, folders, and ball-point? 
I did most of my research in books that I either purchased myself or accessed from the library of Dublin’s Trinity College - some very esoteric stuff, like accounts of Sir John Franklin’s time as governor of Van Diemen’s Land or an English translation of Umberto Nobile’s version of his airship adventures over the north pole. 
I also took a tip from the great Thomas Pynchon and looked up old travel guides to work out the period details of places such as Oslo and Victoria, BC. The internet was a tremendous help, of course: you can now use it to visit all sort of places you can’t afford to go to in person. The street view function even allows you to wander around the interior of the Terra Nova hut at Cape Evans; the ramshackle bunks of ‘the Tenements’ are still exactly as they appeared in the famous photograph of Oates, Cherry-Garrard, Birdy Evans and Meares relaxing in their quarters. Wikipedia was the starting point for many a more detailed search. Even if the book flops, I learned so many strange and fascinating things which researching it that I would not count the years wasted.
ABR: And did you visit Inuvik (I’m guessing you did) — and how important was that to getting things right?
I did. Originally, I only went there to save money; I wanted to visit the Arctic in mid winter, to get some idea of what it looked and felt like, and I knew that the Mackenzie delta was the furthest north you could drive by car in North America: to fly anywhere north of Whitehorse would have cost ridiculous money. It was only when I was actually in the Inuvik region that I realised I should use it as the location for the present-day framing narrative. Neighbouring Tuktoyaktuk and Aklavik also introduced me to the DEW Line and the Mad Trapper, which I added to the historical narratives I was already planning on using. I also interviewed several local people while I was there, both for “colour” and to write newspaper features which I hoped would help defray the cost of the trip. Some of these interviews later paid off in unexpected ways: a few of the characters in the novel are based on them.
ABR: In the case of some of the historical figures you’ve brought to the story, there are some subtle (and some not-so-subtle) deviations from the known history. Did Bellot really believe that his Strait was not a strait? Is there any evidence that Cecil Meares was some sort of spy? Forgive me for asking, but I found myself doubting what was fact, and what fiction,  the two being so closely and finely interwoven in your novel.
There are very few places in the book where I have deliberately moved away from known historical accuracy, although I have obviously used my imagination to fill in some blanks. The Bellot section, which is probably the most fantastical chapter of the book, is also among the most historically accurate. Bellot’s doubts about the existence of  Bellot Strait (the northernmost point on the American continent, which he is credited with discovering along with his commander, William Kennedy) seem to have been missed by the historians, but they are abundantly clear if you read his journals, which are available for purchase online. 
Bellot’s version of the early part of his sledging journey with William Kennedy, written in his contemporaneous journal, makes no reference to having observed the very distinctive strait which he was supposedly passing along with his comrades. Kennedy’s account - written much later, from memory, as Kennedy did not even keep a journal - does describe the strait very clearly. The French editor of Bellot’s journals, working posthumously, is left to throw up his hands and admit, in a pained parenthesis, that it is impossible to reconcile their detailed versions of this part of the journey. 
Bellot later recounts, how, after they had returned to the Prince Albert, Kennedy informed him of the official account of their journey that he would be giving back in London - including their discovery of the strait. Bellot recounts how dismayed he was by Kennedy’s statement: the young Frenchman did not want to have to disagree with a man whom he greatly respected and admired. But Bellot died before the issue could come to a head. 
Another thing that struck me, reading Bellot’s journals, was that Kennedy had indeed, whether by accident or design, managed to frustrate Bellot’s attempts to perform the central task of his mission, which was to accurately map their progress by sledge and to chart any lands and seas that they observed. Kennedy relieved him of his private compass at the start of the sledging expedition, then allowed their chronometer to run down. Next he accidentally broke their spirit level, needed for taking sun-sights. Other important equipment had already been left on the ship, “to save weight." As a result, the sledging-party blundered around the high arctic for several weeks with little idea of where they were, and they completely failed to fulfill Lady Franklin’s instructions, which were to visit King William Island (where, indeed, her husband and his ships had met their fate). All this is in my book. 
It might even have looked to Bellot, at the time, as if Kennedy was deliberately obstructing him in the course of his scientific duties, and that the strait that Kennedy claimed to have observed but which Bellot had not was therefore an invention. But of course Bellot Strait wasn’t an invention. It is there today, exactly where Kennedy said it was.
As for Cecil Meares, Scott’s sometime dog expert,  I based his character largely on what I learned from the only existing biography of him, Men of Ice, by Leif Mills. From the circumstantial evidence, it seems overwhelmingly likely that Meares had, while travelling in Asia and Siberia in his younger days, been a player in “The Great Game”, in which agents of England and Russia vied for influence and information in the largely unexplored regions to the west and north of China and beyond the frontier of British India.

Meares did indeed once sledge from Okhotsk to Cape Chelyuskin, the northernmost point in Siberia, which would be a very odd thing for an English mere “fur trader” to do.  He was arrested as a spy by both sides during the Japanese-Russian war of 1904, for which he had no known reason to be present. Later, during World War One, Meares transferred from the infantry (in which he was wounded), to naval intelligence, and then to air force intelligence. After the war he was sent to Japan as part of a military-industrial delegation tasked with teaching the Japanese navy to operate seaplanes (blame him for Pearl Harbour). So I don’t think I’m going out on a limb by turning Meares into a super spy. I don’t think he’d have minded one bit, although he always avoided the limelight.

ABR: I see that you corresponded with Jonathan Betts about the mysterious chronometer that ties it all together. How helpful was he? He and I were in touch around the time of the original news stories about Arnold 294, and I’d hoped to consult with him about my own book, but he’s been a hard man to find recently — apparently, he retired, and his forwarding e-mail led to another forwarding e-mail. Perhaps now he’s disappeared?
Jonathan was very helpful, and his successor at the Greenwich horological workshop, Rory McEvoy, has been even more so. He showed me around the workshop the last time I was in London, and gave me a look at their files on Arnold 294. In fact, some information I learned there that day forced me to put another twist in the tail of the novel, but I think it’s much the better for it. Mr Betts is still working and researching in his retirement. I’ve been in contact with him since I finished the book, and he says he’s looking forward to reading it.  
Long before the discovery of HMS “Erebus,” the Franklin story seems to have attracted novelists rather in the way a beehive attracts bears: even after being bitten, they keep coming back for more. Why do you think that is? Have you read any of the others, or did you deliberately avoid them?
I wasn’t aware, until I read your review of my book in the Arctic Book Review, that the Franklin novel was a genre to itself. I stumbled into the field by accident, alone.  During my research I heard about the Dan Simmons book Terror - several people I know recommended it to me - but I didn’t read it, because I didn’t want to get sucked in to someone else’s narrative. I plan to read it now, though. I don’t know how I missed the Mordecai Richler book you mentioned in your review. I should read that one too.
ABR: I see that you’ve been to the Shackleton School in Athy — I’ll be there this October — how has that gathering, or the overall renewal of interest in Irish explorers, shaped your work?
As it happens, I grew up in the depths of the countryside, about ten miles north of Athy where the Shackleton School is held. So I know the area well, and I’ve even met some of Shackleton’s descendants who still live there. I attended the Shackleton School three years ago and really enjoyed it. I hadn’t realised there were so many other polar nuts lurking around out there. I particularly benefited from talking to some re-enactors who had come to Athy to demonstrate contemporary exploration kit, such as Nansen sledges and Burberry wind-proofs. This may sound like a tautology, but you really need to touch things to know what they feel like.
The Shackleton revival, and the subsequent interest in Tom Crean, was a big early influence towards the writing of this novel. I read quite a bit about the far north and south as a boy - particularly Scott of the Antarctic, and the books of Farley Mowat - but it was the Shackleton revival back in the 1990s which got me interested again: I read South at that time, and attended a couple of exhibitions. 
ABR: As I read your novel, I wondered whether knowing a lot about some of the histories it evokes was helping or hurting me (in that, at times, it was a little harder to suspend my disbelief, while at other times I enjoyed a smile of recognition). How would you describe your ideal reader?
I can’t really answer this question yet: the book hasn’t been published anywhere at time of writing. The risk is that a specialist might only see the errors, while a general reader might not see the wood for the dwarf spruce trees. I’ve taken a gamble that general readers will find the overall momentum and poetry of the narrative compelling enough to stick with quite a complicated plot containing a certain amount of specialist detail. But if they are prepared to accept Orcs and White Walkers without question, they can probably swallow a certain amount of pemmican and ice-blink.
ABR: One last question: as you'll see in the comments section, my Arctic friend Kenn Harper has asked whether Fay Morgan's name is a riff on the "Fata Morgana," or illusory suspended clouds, so common in the Arctic regions. Was it?
I wondered if anyone would ever notice that. But that is the very first comment on the first full review. You people are good.