PENGUIN RANDOM HOUSE:Your research for In the Kingdom of Ice took you to France, Germany, and Russia, and lasted three years. At what point in the process did the story come to life for you?
HAMPTON SIDES: I would say that really started to happen when I took a Russian icebreaker to the High Arctic and the central coast of Siberia where the men of the Jeannette made landfall. This is some of the most severe and inaccessible terrain on earth, but also hauntingly beautiful. The end of the Cold War and the thinning of the ice brought about by climate change had made it possible to reach many of the places the Jeannette had voyaged, places that had effectively been off-limits for more than a century. My real goal was to find the mountain deep in Siberia’s Lena Delta where the Jeannette survivors buried their comrades. It took me forever, but I finally found the site: Even to this day, it’s called American Mountain. That’s when it all came to life for me.
PRH:What is it about the Arctic that inspires people to undertake such arduous and dangerous voyages?
HS: There is something clean and pure about the great void of the Arctic that breeds a clarity of purpose. That’s what many of the great polar explorers say, anyway. It’s probably the closest thing we have to outer space, and something about its vast desolation and its strange atmospheric phenomena produces a kind of madness in people. There really was such a thing as Polar Fever, and it drove people crazy.
PRH:Every reader will probably find an aspect of the crew’s ordeal particularly horrifying. (For me, it was the man who chewed off his own finger as he froze to death.) What is it for you?
HS: For some reason, the thing that really got me was the affliction suffered by Danenhower, the navigator. He had a condition called syphilitic iritis that required him to undergo dozens of eye operations, without anesthesia. Several men would hold him down and the doctor would go to work on him, probing and cutting his inner eye. For most of the voyage, Danenhower had to remain in total darkness, but he suffered through his situation with amazing stoicism. In some odd way, it seemed to sum up the voyage of the Jeannette that her navigator was blind.
Read more from Jennie Yabroff’s conversation with Hampton Sides on Biographile.com.