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A Few Bookish Questions With Andrea Pitzer
This is, without a doubt, one of my favorite author interviews. Andrea Pitzer, author of Icebound, was incredibly generous with stories of her life/work and numerous book recommendations. Prepare for your TBR to grow.
1. You're a writer who "loves to unearth lost history." How did you stumble upon this story of William Barents? What was the original inspiration?
I often say that I like to unearth lost or forgotten history. I would put Icebound in the category of somewhat forgotten history. In the years right after William Barents sailed into the Arctic and got stuck for the winter, his story made its way into several languages and sometimes multiple printings. Shakespeare referred to them in passing in Twelfth Night. These sailors were stranded for the winter of 1596 on Arctic islands known as Nova Zembla—islands high above the Russian mainland. For centuries after their voyages, the words "Zembla" and "Nova Zembla" in English-language literature symbolized the very idea of the intimidating, unknown far North.
The Dutch certainly still remember Barents. But most people in America today don't know the story at all. Or if they know that the Barents Sea east of Scandinavia and North of Russia is named after William Barents, they're unlikely to know why. And no book in English ever laid out the whole story. There's a small-press version of one of the journals from the voyages you can find, which definitely is a key source for Icebound. But it's a 400-year-old translation, and is missing important events—including a mutiny.
I came across Barents' story while researching my first book, which was about Vladimir Nabokov. Nabokov invented a curious mystery kingdom called Zembla for his novel Pale Fire, and he made more specific references to Nova Zembla in earlier works. So in 2008, I began researching the history of the islands. Barents' story stuck with me for more than a decade, and I knew for a long time that I wanted to write a book about it.
2. There are a lot of great polar adventure books, both from explorers themselves and later chronicles. What are a few that stand out and stand the test of time?
I'm putting together an essay about polar books elsewhere, so I don't want to go into too much of that here, but I'll tell you about how I came to read one maritime series that has been an influence on me. Probably twenty years ago, my husband started reading Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin series. And the covers on the paperbacks seemed like ones you would find on boys' adventure books. I am embarrassed to say I teased my husband for reading them. I called them the Mr. Captain Seaship books.
Then we were visiting my in-laws one summer, and I started reading them myself and got completely sucked in. The last ones are pretty sentimental and formulaic. But a lot of the previous ones are so sharp with plot and character development and dialogue. They are also funny. More than once, I found myself fascinated by the naval battles and deeply moved by various events. The series mostly takes place at middle latitudes, but O'Brian's treatment of ships and sailing definitely influenced me for sections of Icebound.
[Editor’s Note: Oddly enough, Andrea is the third or fourth person I've interacted with in the last few weeks to say some great things about the Aubrey-Maturin series. I have a strong hankering now, and these books just got pushed wayyy higher on my 2021 list.]
3. You made a few arctic expeditions in the course of researching and writing Icebound. Did the weather/waves allow for reading? If so, did you lean in and read polar books on those trips, or something different?
The first Arctic expedition I went on was a dogsled expedition in polar night. And most of the time, I had to run one of the sleds. And when we weren't on the sleds, we were often feeding ourselves, or feeding the dogs, or cleaning up their poop, or harnessing them or unharnessing them, or sleeping. So there wasn't a lot of time for reading on that trip.
On my second expedition, I was on a tall ship sailing around Svalbard, halfway between Norway and the North Pole. Barents is the first person in recorded history to see this landscape. (Svalbard is too far north to easily support human habitation, so it didn't have an indigenous population.) I took Barry Lopez's Arctic Dreams on that expedition with me—and I wasn't the only person. I think five or six of the people aboard ended up bringing along copies of that book, which was pretty amusing when we realized it. You can't bring much at all with you on a ship, but here we were with a truly excessive number of copies of Arctic Dreams. And we were hauling sails and learning to reckon a course, as well as recording everything and sometimes doing two landings ashore a day. So I didn't read a ton. Mostly, I was writing and sketching as much as I could.
On the third expedition, when I crossed the Barents Sea and went to the ruins of my Dutch sailors' cabin, I took a lot of my Barents' materials and notes along, but no other books (again, you have to pack light for voyages, and there's a lot of gear to bring). I filled a 300-page book cover to cover with notes and took thousands of photos. But the Barents Sea is so choppy—I was seasick for the first time in my life, and stayed that way for several days. While we were out on the open sea, reading was a harrowing idea. The first mate, Andrey, would casually sit and scroll through his kindle-style reader, and it would make me queasy even to watch someone else read a book.
I love to read, but really, when I'm on an expedition, especially on a ship or a boat, I want to be on deck as much as possible. I was steering, working sails, learning as much about the sea as I could. The books will be there for me to read when I get home.
4. You've had an especially turbulent year. Are there writers or genres you turn to when you need comfort, or just an escape? What do you read in your "off" time?
When I'm working on a book proposal or a book myself, I have to plow through tons and tons of nonfiction. The material is often pretty dry archival stuff. So in my time off, I love to read fiction. In my twenties and early thirties, I was completely up to date on new novels. But with raising kids and trying to make a living writing in the last dozen years or so, I find I have much less time to read just for pleasure. I've always got a pile of books stacked up waiting, though. There's sometimes a gap between working on my own books where I binge on two dozen novels in a few weeks. I'm hoping to binge like that this spring.
5. Are there any all-time favorite books that have particularly shaped your life and/or writing?
There are so many books that have influenced me across a long period of time, books I've returned to read over and over. Definitely some classics. Moby-Dick is so weird and amazing. Joyce's Dubliners. Flann O'Brien's At Swim-Two-Birds. Carson McCullers. Breece D'J Pancake's stories. Edward Jones' short stories.
I know her later work has gotten so much more attention, but I love Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping. I had a rough childhood, and I recognize the way that Housekeeping evokes the blank shock after disaster that kids swim through without understanding what's happening. I'm a black belt and taught karate for a living for several years. I ran a record store. The women in Housekeeping are also strange, wild creatures, so they speak to me.
Nabokov's Pnin. Walker Percy's The Moviegoer and Lost in the Cosmos, Halldor Laxness' Independent People, Colson Whitehead's The Intuitionist, Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony. Tobias Wolff's This Boy's Life. The short story "Sans Farine" by Jim Shepard, about a royal executioner during the French Revolution. These are some of the stories that have deeply influenced me or that I find myself returning to a lot.
6. What are you reading and enjoying right now? What's next on your list?
I'm currently finishing Wolf Hall—years and years after everyone else. Next up, I have Edwidge Danticat's Everything Inside and Colson Whitehead's The Nickel Boys. The latter was inspired in part by a newspaper series that Ben Montgomery, a friend of mine, wrote more than a decade ago about a school for "troubled boys." That series tore me up. Here are some of the rest of the things in the pile that's waiting: Shelly Jackson's Riddance: Or: The Sybil Joines Vocational School for Ghost Speakers & Hearing-Mouth Children and Andrew Sean Greer's Less. But I can't tell you if those are good, because I haven't read them yet.