When I was at university, a hundred million years ago, there was a lot of talk about ‘intertextuality’ on my English courses – the idea that, essentially, every text which exists carries within it the influences of a great many other texts, whether deliberately or not, and that the reader also brings their own experiences of other texts to their reading of everything they encounter. It’s a fascinating idea and I whiled away many hours
daydreaming – I mean, doing intense research – on the topic.
The Eye of the North, while most definitely being a book which sprang from my head, is no exception to this idea of intertextuality. The seeds which eventually brought it to fruition were sown over many years, and the basic outline of the tale began over fifteen years ago. It’s silly to think that the books I’ve read – of which there have been many – played no part in the shaping of the book I would eventually write; I have long been fascinated, too, by the polar regions and their history. There are a few books, however, which I could point to as having had a direct impact on my writing of The Eye of the North, and here they are.
1. The White Darkness by Geraldine McCaughrean (OUP Children’s, 2005)
I love a great many books, and there are few I love more than this one. The spine of my copy is creased like an old boot, such are the rigours I have put it to over the years. I read it in my twenties, long after I had first come up with the basics of The Eye of the North, but the reading of this book has definitely helped to flesh out my own mental idea of what the polar regions might be like – despite the fact, of course, that The White Darkness is about Antarctica, and not the Arctic. It tells the story of Sym, a girl who is taken on a trip to the South Pole by her strange uncle, a man who has definite nefarious intentions, and her struggle to survive there when things go pear-shaped – but what I love about this book more than anything is Sym’s unwavering devotion to Captain Lawrence ‘Titus’ Oates, who was one of the brave men on Scott’s expedition to the South Pole in 1912. It is he who uttered the fateful words ‘I am just going outside; I may be some time’, as he sacrificed his own life in an ultimately fruitless attempt to save those of his comrades, and it is he who accompanies Sym, inside her mind, as she navigates her daily life. The book begins with her declaring her love for Captain Oates, despite the fact that he has been dead for over ninety years, and I am never left unmoved by the very real relationship between them, even though Sym knows, on some level, that the Captain Oates in her head is merely her own imagination and not the real man himself.
But then, how does he tell her things she wouldn’t have known any other way?
This book is a wonder. I heartily recommend it, as I do most things that Geraldine McCaughrean has written.
Cover of ‘The White Darkness’, OUP Children’s Books, 2005
2. The Ice Museum: In Search of the Lost Land of Thule by Joanna Kavenna (Viking Books, 2005)
This is a travelogue, of sorts, as well as an exploration of myth and legend surrounding the North of the world, most particularly the idea of ‘Thule’, long thought to be the most northerly outpost in existence. Mentioned in texts going back centuries, it nevertheless proved impossible to pin down exactly where Thule was; some thought it was the Orkneys or the Shetland Islands; others Iceland; others Greenland, or Estonia, or a variety of places dotted around the northern regions of our planet. Some thought it was entirely made up. Kavenna, in her book, takes us through the whole Arctic region, exploring not only the landscape around her but also her own mind and heart as she searches for the mystical lost land. It’s a love letter to the Arctic, which deepened my own passion for it, and it ticked all my boxes: maps, medievalish stuff, myths, legends, ice, and exploration. It’s been years since I revisited The Ice Museum, and it’s high time I went back.
3. The Cruellest Miles, Gay and Laney Salisbury (Bloomsbury, 2004)
Years ago, I worked in a bookshop, and when things were quiet I used to while away my time by cleaning and sorting the stock. In our World History section, a slim volume with a navy spine kept catching my eye. One payday, I walked straight over to it and bought it, and I read it in one sitting, gripped by the story it told. It’s the story of Nome, an isolated town in Alaska, which was ravaged by a diphtheria outbreak in 1925, when supplies of antitoxin serum had run dangerously low. Children were dying, and unless more antitoxin serum could be brought in, an epidemic would begin to rage. Nome, at that time, was more or less unreachable for months on end, and the only way to get the serum to the town was to use a chain of dogsled teams, who battled heroically through the worst conditions imaginable to rescue the children and people of Nome. I named a character in The Eye of the North after Balto, one of the dogs who was part of the lifesaving effort, and I have been passionately interested in dogsledding ever since reading this book. It made me cry on a packed train, though. I warn you, in case you want to read it yourself – prepare to have your emotions put through the wringer.
Cover of The Cruellest Miles (Gay Salisbury and Laney Salisbury, Bloomsbury, 2004)
4. The Arctic, ed. Elizabeth Kolbert, Volume I of The Ends of the Earth: An Anthology of the Finest Writing on the Arctic and the Antarctic, eds. Elizabeth Kolbert and Francis Spufford, (Granta Books, 2007)
I will admit I haven’t read all of this, as it’s an anthology of writing designed to be dipped into, but its introduction is a great statement on climate change and the danger of global warming, particularly the damage it’s doing to the polar regions. The pieces in this anthology are varied both in style and emphasis, and it’s a great wide-ranging look at the idea of the Arctic as a place, as a challenge, and as an idea.
So, there you have it. Every book I’ve read has, no doubt, left its traces on my mind and imagination and I’m sure there are many more books than these which I could point to as being part of the culture that went into the creation of The Eye of the North. It’s interesting to trace the journeys that the books you love take you on, though, both internal and external; certainly, without my love of books – and the fact that I was encouraged to read from an early age – I wouldn’t have cultivated the mindset to write one of my own. It’s great to feel that my own small contribution might sit among these books one day, and might even spur someone else on in their love of the yawning ice-fields of the far north – so long as you beware what you might find living deep in the ancient glacier…