Richard Pierce

Richard Pierce - Copyright Charlotte Pierce-Saunderson

These days, one week after the official release of Dead Men, as more and more people read it, the most common question I am asked is why I wrote the book in the first place. It’s not an easy question, because there are several answers, and all of them valid and true.

I’ve said before that I was fascinated by Captain Scott from an early age, because the English book I had to read in Germany had a chapter dedicated to him and Oates, building them up to be heroes we could never touch, men of such magnificence that we could never dream of reaching such heights, nor dream of sacrificing ourselves for our country in the way they did. And now, at the age of 51, with at least one friend dead in Afghanistan, I know otherwise.

The luck has been on my side, I have to admit that, that I am lucky to still be alive despite all my vices, to still be alive because I am one of those cowards Apsley Cherry-Garrard refers to in his conclusion to The Worst Journey In The World, when he says “And I tell you, if you have the desire for knowledge and the power to give it physical expression, go out and explore. If you are a brave man, you will do nothing; if you are fearful you may do much, for none but cowards have the need to prove their bravery.”

It was these words, that, when I was first asked to go to the Antarctic in 2007, made the most impression on me amidst the tumble of words that rushed towards me in my research, my preparation, my desire just to know as much as I possibly could before going down there, before going South (as I shall now always say, because there is a ring to me about it that speaks of adventure, of the unknown, of wondrous days spent exploring not just a landscape, nor just a soundscape, but myself). It was just going to be work, then, with maybe some hours of writing poetry thrown in, but it turned into something more than that.

Just freshly obsessed with Maximo Park’s Unearthly Pleasures album, which I listened to over and over again on the way South, words were starting to congregate and form into concrete shapes even as I was on the first leg of the trip in November 2007. When I didn’t manage to get to the Ice because of the weather, I spent most of my time in the Canterbury Museum in Christchurch (which, by the way, has already bagged my journal of those days for its Antarctic collection), privileged to see much of their archive for which there is no room in the public galleries. I was also fortunate enough to be led around these spaces by the director of the museum, as well as the head of the New Zealand Antarctic Heritage Trust, which gave me the inside track, not just on the Antarctic artefacts collected since serious restoration of all things Antarctic began, but on the myths, legends and my series surrounding Scott, Amundsen and their men.

By far the most fascinating and gripping of these was something I’d never been aware of before: that Scott writes in his diary of a 10-day blizzard which wouldn’t allow him and Wilson and Bowers to move on to the life-saving One Ton Camp depot just 11 miles away, but that it is scientifically impossible for an Antarctic blizzard to last more than three or four days, that the geography of the place means that katabatic winds have to blow themselves out after that period of time, and that if there had been a blizzard in the region of One Ton, there would have had to be one at Scott’s base at Cape Evans, too. There was no blizzard at Cape Evans. All the diaries and meteorological observations speak of fine weather. That’s too good a story not to turn into a novel.

But there’s something else as well, possibly something much more important. This is where I have to prevail on members of the Polar community, and on those really obsessed with Antarctic exploration that this is a work of fiction. It’s a novel. It’s got made-up bits in it, big made-up bits. It is, in essence, a love story, or an amalgam of many love stories – Scott’s and Amundsen’s love of the Antarctic and of adventure, Scott’s love for his wife, Cherry’s love of Bowers and Wilson, Cherry’s love of his wife Angela who saved him from the worst of the demons which possessed him after his Southern journey, the love of the main contemporary characters for each other and for the mysteries they’re chasing, the love of all of us of a good mystery, of an enduring mystery, of all the questions human relationships throw up, of our quest to find the answers to our own daily problems, fuelled as they are by our personal passions and obsessions.

Here I have to admit that I have always been a sucker for a good love story. I remember, as a teenager, reading Mum’s women’s magazines, and always making a beeline for the romantic short stories, and, later in life, spending hours poring over women’s magazines, slightly more adult in content, like Cosmo, and in reading them trying to understand the female spirit, trying to work out how I could deal with those beings that I was very, very afraid of, and constantly falling in love with, forever in search of a happy ending.

Scott’s Hut in January 2008 - Copyright Richard Pierce

Scott’s Hut in January 2008 - Copyright Richard Pierce

And this is what all my writing has been about, and will always be about, I think, how love has the power to redeem, how, regardless of the tragedy of the human condition (whether we have any sort of religious faith or not), those moments of passion, desire, true love, are the moments that rescue us as human being, make us supreme in that very second we catch our breaths after looking into someone’s eyes and deciding that we can’t live without that other person. How love is what gives us hope and leads us to do great things, without thought of greatness, but for the simple reason that it is.

When the contemporary Birdie Bowers jumped into my head, unbidden, on a run towards one of the other villages here, she was a Godsend. I had, all my life, been searching for a strong female character, not one moulded, as so many are in male-written fiction (and female-written fiction, actually) to the prejudices and preconceptions of society, but a woman who could think and speak and act on her own, who could act on impulse, without caring what anyone else thinks of her.

That’s why.

Check out Richard’s Website to learn more or connect with him on twitter. You can find my review of Dead Men here.

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