A Conversation with Elizabeth McGregor, author of The Ice Child
What first got you interested in writing fiction?
I always loved books. They held such glamour and excitement--and a kind of special secrecy--for me, I wanted to be part of that. Opening a book is like opening someone's front door. I wanted to invite people into my life. I once heard an author described as "being loved by people she had never met". I thought that was incredible.
Did you base any of this novel on your own life experiences?
A whole series of personal changes set The Ice Child in motion. I had already decided that I wanted to write a different kind of book to the psychological thrillers that had gone before. Then, in the two months before I began to write, events took a more serious turn. My marriage ended, I had to move house, and my mother became ill very suddenly, and died.
So this theme of getting through the dark, on an unmapped route--like the ones travelled by both Augustus and Sam in The Ice Child--was also a very personal journey for me.
What got you interested in Sir John Franklin's expedition?
The setting was what first intrigued me. I was fascinated by the last few remaining wildernesses in the world; and I began to wonder what it was about the North and South Poles that cast such a powerful spell, even today.
What kind of research did you do?
I started by going to the Scott Polar Institute in Cambridge. I spent a long time reading through Jane Franklin's journals, but it was there that I came across Francis Crozier's original letter (see author's note). He seemed to have a premonition of the disaster, yet his loyalty and courage were faultless. And I knew that the book had to be about facing down the worst that life has to offer--not just enduring it, but taking it on.
It wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that the moment I read that sentence in Crozier's letter, I knew that I had the centre of the book right there in my hand. I had to tell Crozier's story. It was as if he were reaching out of the page, across 150 years. When I begin a book, I know roughly where I'm headed with it, but this was far stronger than that. It was an absolute conviction that this book was waiting for me. I was surprised by the sense of compulsion. During the writing of The Ice Child, I would also get the eeriest feeling if I were late starting work any morning--as if a lot of unseen people were willing me to get going. It really was the strangest thing. And I dreamed the same dream over and over--the crews walking towards me across the ice.
I was helped in the modern-day research by the Aplastic Anaemia Society, Great Ormond Street Hospital, the Anthony Nolan Trust, and those families named in the author's note. Beth Heaton was a very special case: she was born with AA, and her parents, who also had a little girl of eight or so, had already lost another daughter to a different illness. When Beth was found to be ill, her sister wrote a "letter to God" which was broadcast on the BBC in the UK. It asked God please to find a donor for Beth and not to take her to heaven.
When I spoke to the Heaton and Burrowes families, and to the Anthony Nolan Trust, I realised that I was talking to people who had lived through another nightmarish world, a world unknown to the rest of us .just like Franklin.
Probably the single most crucial person in the research was the transplant surgeon Paul Veys. I gave him the scenario in the book and asked if John could possibly be a match for Sam. Paul sat for some time working out the ratios, before deciding that a match was possible. I found it incredible that such a very busy person could spare the time to get interested in this story.
It's for the sake of these people, who daily face the trauma of transplant, that I really want the donor issue to get some publicity out of this book.
Are there writers who have inspired or influenced you?
I read anything really. A mixture. On my bedside table at the moment are Anita Shreve, Robert Goddard, Bill Bryson, Laura Zigman.
How has being a writer affected your life?
Oh, God! Well, The Ice Child has turned my life upside down and inside out.
I once had my palm read and the person said, "I see you in America, signing books. Surrounded by hundreds of books. But be careful the books don't wall you in."
That was five years ago. I suppose she was right in that although writing is my joy, it can also be very isolating. You are on your own so much, and almost forget how to be social.
Nevertheless, it had always been a major ambition of mine to see my work published in the USA, so now that it's happened I couldn't be happier.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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