Interview with Lisa Williams author of Death on a Long Winter’s Night

Revolution Earth has a sequence in it set in the Southern Ocean and Antarctica – the one location that we weren’t able to get to.  We consoled ourselves that if we were lucky enough to find a reader who had been to Antarctica, that they were most likely to have gone as a tourist and we hoped that our readers would suspend their disbelief and find our fictional setting credible.  And then we found Lisa, via Goodreads – who had not only worked in Antarctica but had worked there over the winter – and written a thriller set there too. The moral of this tale is that the world is a small place and despite choosing a remote location to set your book, do your homework first, as there will always be a reader who has been there.

Lisa, as you state in the introduction to Death on a Long Winter’s Night,” it is a glimpse into a world that few of us will ever see. Cold, dark, forbidding, the landscape is as deadly as the killer.”  To me, it seems similar to being on a space shuttle – cut off from the rest of the world – with only your colleagues for company – how did you cope with the isolation?

With the Internet bringing ever more connectivity to the wide world, it’s not nearly as isolated as it used to be. When I first went down to the Ice in the early 1990s, we phoned home to the States by booking an appointment with the Telecom operator at Scott Base. You got ten minutes and the connection was usually so bad you were screaming into the phone. It was expensive too. I don’t remember how much…but it seemed like a lot. The other way you could communicate with loved ones was by being hooked up with a ham radio operator. You’d get on the radio with them and they’d ring your home phone. You had to remember to say “Over” when it was the other person’s turn to talk. Of course the whole world could be listening to your conversation. So the rules were no swearing. You also had to book an appointment for those phone calls. The Navy was in charge, so there were always lots of sailors in line pining for their girlfriends.

And certainly before I was ever in the Antarctic, it was even more isolated.

But yes, even with the Internet we were isolated, especially in the winter. Once the last plane left in February, we were on our own — when I was there for the winter in 1995, there were 200-250 of us at McMurdo Station. And I think 10 at Scott Base. As the winter went on, the parties got wilder and wilder. We were bored, parties allowed us to let off steam.

What were the practical problems you encountered down on the ice and are these incorporated into the novel?

Hmmm, practical problems. The static electricity sucked. I worked in the science lab and we had carpet. The humidity was 1%, so any time we touched metal we got a big zap. Is that a practical problem?  I didn’t put the static electricity problem into the novel. I did talk about how we didn’t have any real crime fighting technology. No dusting for fingerprints, no forensics, no police detectives. Just our federal marshal…who was nothing like the character I created in the book. He was an okay guy, though he did wear his little gold star on his parka. On the other hand, I didn’t think it was fair that there was a police figure but no lawyer or other advocate for suspected ‘crims’.   The only crime down there was petty theft and an occasional assault fuelled by alcohol. [If there was anything more serious going on, we didn’t know it.]

What was the inspiration behind Death on a Long Winter’s Night?

The fact that there was no crime fighting technology. How would you catch a killer without those tools? Also, the fact that it was winter and there was no way to get off of Ross Island, so no escape for the killer or the innocent. And I wanted to write about Antarctica again.

How long did the book take to write – from research to publication and can you tell us a little about the writing process?

 

The research was pretty much the experience of wintering over. By then I had been to Antarctica five times and absorbed a lot about life on the Ice. In fact, when I was re-editing the book this past year, I was amazed at how much I used to know about the Ice that I wouldn’t be able to capture now. I wrote the book over a couple of years starting in 2001 and then put it aside.

The manuscript was a finalist for the Richard Webster prize in popular fiction in 2004 (I think that’s the right year) that was at that time sponsored in conjunction with Hazard Press, Christchurch. (May Hazard rest in peace).  But they were only publishing the winner of the contest.

I decided this past year to bring the book out again and have a look to see if I wanted to have another go, given the popularity of ebooks. I edited out 20,000 words and got some good feedback about how to quicken the pace. I learned a lot through that re-editing process: quicker pace, less characters to keep track of, not so much description. Even had to sacrifice some scenes I was quite fond of. For example, I originally had a chapter that takes place in the station infirmary with the doctor. He’s not a very good doctor — a dermatologist — and he can’t stand dead bodies, so he hasn’t really examined Poke’s body.

I found it fascinating that you created a mythology of Antarctica, which features skuas – can you tell us a little about that? Have you incorporated this mythology into any of your work?

You’ll find the myths I wrote about Antarctica in my first novel, Drifting at the Bottom of the World, published in 2003 by Bella Books. I started writing that novel while wintering over in 1995. The myths sprung out of my realisation that since there was no people indigenous to Antarctica, there had been no myths created. So I made some up. They centre on the animals you find down there. I figured that if anyone would be creating myths, it would be them. I also wrote a creation myth that puts the rape of a child as the act that brings about the fall of humanity from a state of grace. None of this stuff about a woman disobeying God, aka the patriarchy, by eating an apple to cause our expulsion from the garden.

Can you tell us about the other books you have had published or are working on?

As I mentioned, Drifting at the Bottom of the World. I just finished No Such Luck, which is a novel in seven pieces. It was my creative project for my PhD at AUT. It contains a novella, vintage newspaper articles, an old photocopy, a photograph, an audio interview (fiction in reality but in the context of the novel appears to be a real interview), a videotaped news clip, and a handwritten letter. It’s set in the American south where I grew up. The novel’s artefacts span a time period of 70 or so years and the tragedy of racism is at the heart of it. I didn’t realise until I got into it that this was such a deep theme with me — racism. My family has been in the south since the 1600s and it seems the issue is pretty much in my bones. I am still deciding how best to publish it. Ebook? I don’t know.

The amazing American actress Berlinda Tolbert worked with me on the audio interview. She played the character Miss Naomi Mays, an older African-American woman who is talking to the interviewer about an incident from her childhood when she suffers an act of violence at the hands of a white man. The interview supposedly took place in 1972…way before digital media and the online kingdom. So her interview is very private, meant only for a local oral history project. Berlinda co-wrote the script and she really improved it. I wrote for the page, she wrote for the ear.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

My thanks for getting to talk about Antarctica and my work. Really, Antarctica is the soul of the earth.

One point I wanted to add is that until October 1st all profits from the sale of Death on a Long Winter’s Night are going to Lisa’s good friend and Ice pal, Mariah to help with Mariah’s medical expenses after surgery and chemo for cancer.

 

Death on a Long Winter’s Night is available through Amazon:

http://www.amazon.com/dp/B008GWMO08

http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B008GWMO08

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