Since my teenage years, the story of Australian polar explorer Douglas Mawson and his epic 1912-13 sledging journey has inhabited my imagination. If a list of terms were called for to describe his journey, it would include harrowing, wretched, heartbreaking and heroic. How could any reader - or writer - drawn to extremes and tales of adventure, fail to be captivated by Mawson’s remarkable feat of survival? The novel gave me the avenue to explore how the Antarctic experience, past and present, can both forge and cleave human relationships, and yet, a single, underlying question compelled me to write The Nature of Ice: how did Douglas Mawson survive his trek across the ice? Research gave me critical insight, but the process of writing The Nature of Ice would provide the answer.
During months spent at archival libraries - scouring documents and letters, reading the available journals of the men from winter quarters - I faced an unexpected dilemma: the more I grew to know Douglas Mawson, my lifelong hero, the less sure I was that I liked him.
While he was admired for his determination and stamina (qualities that helped him survive his sledging journey), he wasn’t loved by his men at winter quarters. Their journals show that Mawson could be aloof, austere, at times pessimistic, pig-headed and highly critical while oblivious to his own shortcomings. It took months at winter quarters before he let down his guard. I also wrestled with Mawson’s patriarchal attitudes to his fiancée Paquita.
In my admiration of Mawson, I was forced to face the disillusion of an impossible ideal. But in exchange I was offered a very ‘human’ hero and a richly layered character to explore in writing.
Another surprise was how the contemporary story of Freya and Chad 'took over' to become the driving force of the novel. In developing the characters, it felt important that Freya was an artist, not always sure of her direction, and somewhat marginalised among the Antarctic scientists and tradies in her role as artist-in-residence. I drew parallels between Freya and Paquita: their displacement from their European homelands as children, their sense of marital duty and loyalty. For both women, the Antarctic experience, directly and indirectly, would hurtle them down a track toward a new, empowered identity. As for Chad McGonigal, I initially felt tentative about writing from a male perspective, but I immediately warmed to his sensibility. Chad presented himself vividly, both in how he looks and who he is. Much about his identity - that blend of craftsman and tradesman - and his upbringing in Tasmania, felt familial and true.
At the outset I anticipated that the historical and contemporary strands would share equal weight, but once I drafted the contemporary story, it became clear that unless I approached Mawson’s story differently, I would wind up with two novel-length strands. It was often an excruciating writing experience, paring down volumes of research notes into minimalist vignettes. The process of threading the two stories at times felt like a logistical nightmare, and more than once I had reason to thank Frank Hurley and his extraordinary images for providing the link to bridge the two stories.
Without the knowledge from research I would not have had the confidence, or authority, to tackle Mawson’s story: it informed every paragraph. But ultimately it was the process of writing - that mysterious confluence of ideas, intuition and creative instinct - that led me to understand his struggle across the ice. Unsurprisingly, Douglas Mawson’s survival did not rest on any single attribute, but became a play of love and loyalty, duty and obligation; his mental will, physical doggedness, and an abject disdain for failure propelled him to overcome impossible odds.
A compelling and intriguing novel of hope, love and loss set in the extraordinary landscape of Antarctica.