Finding A Book-Worthy Idea
By Peter Lourie
You’d think that after writing twenty six books, I might have a system in place for coming up with ideas. Truth is, they come in every form imaginable. Sometimes it’s a friend who tells me something I didn’t know; sometimes it’s a snippet in the newspaper; sometimes it’s the view outside my window.
Tierra del Fuego was a dream place I’d always wanted to go. My publisher turned down the idea until one day I said the book would be about exploration, about Magellan and Darwin, about the land of fire at the bottom of the world. For some reason, he gave me a contract and the money to fly to Punta Arenas in Chile and Ushuaia in Argentina. I took my bike and the rest is in print.
The Missouri River I traveled by boat the first time, and car the next. Once for a book on Lewis and Clark and then with my family in a van and kayaks on top to write about Sacagawea, the Shoshone Indian woman who helped Lewis and Clark across the West.
The Rio Grande travels through parts of the southwest that I’ve fallen in love with over the course of my life. Writing about that long, little stream was my way of going even more head over heels. I had to see how such a skimpy river could actually travel 1885 miles from Creede, Colorado, all the way to the Gulf of Mexico.
For Locked in Ice, I saw an article in Outside Magazine by the writer Hampton Sides about the Norwegian polar explorer Fridtjof Nansen. The story was incredible yet I’d never heard of the man, I who love all things Arctic.
For the past fifteen years, I’ve been traveling to Arctic regions to write books on polar bears and climate change (I also collected video from spending a month on a Canadian Icebreaker in the Beaufort Sea). But I admit, I’ve always been a little confused about which explorer discovered which pole during what time period. In my brain, Shackleton’s name got mixed up with Scott’s and Amundsen’s, and Perry’s tangled with Hensen’s and Cook’s. It wasn’t until I did a little googling on Nansen that I realized I’d stumbled on a potential literary treasure.
Very little was written about Fridtjof or his North Pole journey, and the handful of books that did exist were mostly by him and his crew. Nothing like the hundreds of books on Shackleton. It blew my mind that there was so little coverage on one of the most exciting survival stories of all time. In what’s become typical fashion, I had to explore more and tell the tale.
Here was a guy who was Shackleton-like before Shackleton, one of the preeminent polar explorers of all time. In 1893, Nansen built a boat that could be frozen into the Arctic pack ice. He convinced a dozen men to join him on what might be a five-year expedition, locked the Fram into the pack ice above Siberia, and drifted with the current at one mile an hour for years.
And finally, when he knew he’d miss the pole by three hundred miles, Nansen set off on a harrowing sprint across the ice with only one other man, three sleds, two kayaks and 28 sled dogs. All to reach the top of the world.
Here was a guy everyone thought was crazy but couldn’t be dissuaded from his dream, an explorer who innovated entirely new ways of travel to do what others thought impossible. A guy who, when he returned to Norway, was the most famous man in all of Europe. To this day, some call him the father of polar exploration.
The fact that my grandmother was Norwegian also meant it was a subject I felt in my bones. In addition to all the newly found information that began to tug at me like so many sled dogs, my spirit craved the cold and the Arctic landscape. I even had all the right gear to make a trip north to see Finnmark, the very top of Norway where Nansen began his journey in 1893. It was there, in that last little fishing village of Vardø, that Nansen left his beloved country behind until the ice gripped the Fram and scraped against its hull in ungodly roars and screams, shaking the timbers and the hearts of the brave crew.
To undertake writing any book, and especially a book like Locked In Ice, requires a leap of faith. One of the most important things for me is to love my subject, the person or people I’m writing about. Trouble is that when you take your plunge and commit to a biography of a man like Nansen, you really don’t know everything about the person. As you get to know him or her better, you might feel ambivalent about the complexity of your subject (“ambivalent about the complexity” is a euphemism for “you might really hate the guy”).
There have been two projects I had to quit because my people turned out to be “bad” people. Nothing like toxic people to kill your own (and your reader’s) enthusiasm. This almost happened with Nansen.
One cold spring rainy bleak May day in Oslo, I saw a darkness in the country and a darkness in the man. Had I picked the wrong guy? Like the Norwegian weather, Nansen could be dour and draconian. I thought to myself, I can’t write about such an austere and not-always-likeable guy. Even his crew had terribly mixed feelings about him, and for good reason. He was not an easy man to get along with.
But as I delved deeper into his story and the things he accomplished, I was awed by his brilliance as a scientist and later as a statesman. I so admired his tenacity and grit as an explorer, his drive to go where no one had ever gone. Part of me wanted to be him, draconian facets and all! Handsome, tough, confident, competent, intelligent, accomplished. What a character.
I also identified with the restlessness and insecurities that appear in his journal during those long, dark polar nights, trapped for years in a ship clutched by ice. His prose soars with borderline sentimentality. He tries so hard to capture the northern lights, the endless ice, the little ship, and everything else in sight. How he longs for family and home and Norway when he is so far away from them. Tough as nails, he is also a romantic, an artist, a person as paradoxical as the rest of us.
Of course, there are rare times when a book idea doesn’t work out. Where somewhere in the process after a plunge, you realize it’s time to cut your losses. That’s when it’s crucial to listen to your heart and run for the hills. But there are other times, most times, when pushing onward reveals a level of depth and complexity that would otherwise never be seen. Nansen is one of these. I’m so glad I did not run away from him when I got scared, but instead turned to face the polar years of one of the greatest Norwegians who ever lived.
To people and paradox and riding out the ice! Happy writing.
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Read An Excerpt
The spellbinding biography of Fridtjof Nansen, the pioneer of Polar exploration, with a spotlight on his harrowing three-year journey to the top of the world. Before Shackleton, there was Nansen.