How I Wrote It: Alec Wilkinson, "The Ice Balloon"

Alecwilkinson“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.  


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