How I Wrote It: Alec Wilkinson, "The Ice Balloon"
“Before the twentieth century, more than a thousand people tried to reach the (north) pole,” Alec Wilkinson writes in his wiry new book, The Ice Balloon, selected as one of Amazon's Best Books of the Month for January. The odds of actually reaching the pole were terrible. About three-fourths of those explorers died. But a one-in-four chance of success didn’t deter Swedish explorer S.A. Andree, who in 1897 attempted the most unlikely means of reaching the North Pole: by hydrogen balloon.
What makes this more than another adventure story is Wilkinson’s exploration of mankind’s compulsion to reach the extreme points of the Earth, despite all the absurd and obvious risks. Wilkinson, a writer for The New Yorker, chronicles other horrifically failed efforts to reach the North Pole--some of which devolved into cannibalism.
We asked Wilkinson what drew him to Andree, a dreamy and enthusiastic explorer, who, when his balloon began to lose gas and bounce past polar bears along the Arctic ice, wrote in his diary that he and his two companions remained “dominated by a feeling of pride.”
“We think we can face death well having done what we have done.”
You’ve previously written about a man who crossed the Atlantic in a raft made of trash and, over the years, have profiled other eccentric and/or quixotic characters. Are you drawn to subjects who seem compelled to risk their lives for seemingly idiosyncratic goals, or at least pursue an uncommon lifestyle?
The most interesting people for me are the outcasts and the visionaries and the ones who have the resources of mind and character to challenge failure. I don’t want to emulate them necessarily---I’m not sure I have the nerve---but I admire their vitality and their lives are often thrilling and instructing, even if, sometimes, in a cautionary way.
I think that the same feelings that drew me to those pursuits drew me to writing and then to looking around in the world for subjects that appealed to me. I was very lucky to have been a policeman. It broadened me to meet people who were so different from me, and it gave me a subject. I don’t think I would have become a writer without having had that experience at an impressionable age. Also, of course, I am only one writer in a line of writers at The New Yorker who respected eccentricity. Joseph Mitchell and A.J. Liebling established the genre, working from centuries old forms in British and American newspapers and from Shakespeare and the Canterbury Tales before them.
As I began reading The Ice Balloon, I couldn’t help thinking: how could Andree not know his adventure would not end well? Do you think he was a bit nuts? A fanatic?
Andree was an engineer, a formidable, big-thinking, and somewhat literal minded man who believed that science was a sacred tool. He was also a futurist, a pioneer who, having noted that all other means of approach had failed for centuries, was using unconventional and untried means to make the most daring Arctic assault ever made, in fact one of the most daring expeditions ever. Perhaps only Columbus had sailed off with as much uncertainty. Should Andree have known better? Was he nuts? Well, if Orville Wright had crashed and died, would people have said, ‘How could he possibly have imagined that such an ungainly craft could have flown?’ The disadvantage for Andree of being a pioneer was that the explorers who had left for the Pole before him had the example of all the other failures to adapt their own methods from. Andree had none, since no one had flown through the Arctic and above the ice before. Nothing anyone had done was helpful to him, unless he came down on the ice. Ironically, the Pole, when it was finally seen for certain, was seen in 1926 from the deck of an airship, from exactly the vantage, in other words, that would have been Andree’s nearly thirty years earlier.
This book began as a New Yorker article. It seems many of your magazine stories cry out for book-length treatment. What is it about Andree’s story that compelled you to expand on it?
In addition to Andree and his basketmates and their lives and the genesis and unfolding of their mission, the book describes the other explorers whose lives were intimately involved with Andree and his task---the American Greely who had so severely and patronizingly criticized Andree’s plan, and the Norwegian Fridjtof Nansen, who was a rival. I was very pleased to be able to write the magazine piece, but knew that there was simply not sufficient room to portray these people and what happened to them and the world that they and Andree lived in, or to make apparent the depth of his feeling for his mission and his bravery in undertaking it. Andree is a heroic figure. He left on an expedition of grave purpose, and when it failed, he rose to meet all the fearsome challenges of traveling over the ice through “the realm of death,” as another explorer described it.
If you could’ve asked Andree one question, what would it be?
With 20/20 hindsight, I guess it would be, ‘What if the clouds descend and don’t lift?’ Meaning, what happens if you sail into the worst conditions? If I could meet him in the afterlife, I guess it would be, ‘How did the three of you actually die?’
For your research, did you visit the Arctic or fly in a balloon? In addition to relying on Andree’s diary, how did you get into his head?
I went to Sweden, to Andree’s hometown and to the museum that has the relics. As for getting into Andree’s head, I hope I did, but if I did, I don’t know how. I found the diaries so compelling that I couldn’t stop reading them. Unintentionally, I committed parts to memory, simply by reading them so often. Also, I think it probably doesn’t require much of the imagination to understand the feelings of someone obsessed with a calling, a purpose that gives shape and resonance to a life. We all hope for such a thing, after all, whether in the form of a task or a cause.
Where did you write the bulk of the book – home, New Yorker office? - and what did you keep near your desk (books, photos) to help you convey the frigid, barren beauty of the Arctic?
I guess I wrote most of the book at home, and the only constant prop I had was a postcard of Andree’s balloon leaving the harbor, on July 11, 1897, which my wife found for me. When inspiration failed me, I’d pick up the diaries and read, or look at the expedition photographs, which are so strange and haunting. Nothing like them, so far as I know, exists elsewhere in the annals of exploration. The visual record of a group of lost men, brought to light years after they died.
Were you reading (or listening to) anything in particular while writing the book? Something or someone to get you in the mood of the unforgiving Artic ice and snow?
I didn’t read or listen to anything specific to the work, really, although of course I did to prepare. I read mostly fiction anyway. I assume that most of the processes of writing are unconscious, and that reading helps engage them. Also listening to music such as jazz and classical music, any music that involves deeper purposes than mere entertianment. I once heard Jimmy Garrison, the bass player for the John Coltraine Quartet, say about music: first you have to learn all about your horn, then you have to learn all about music, then you have to forget it all and learn how to play. It is a saying that adapts nicely to the practical purposes of writing. In this case, of course, I had to learn everything I could about Andree, everything I could about the Arctic, then I had to forget it all and hope that my preparation had been such that I would produce a book that would, what, have some value, I guess, be worth a reader’s time and attention.