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How I Wrote It: Mitchell Zuckoff, on "Frozen In Time"

ZuckoffComing two years after his bestselling Lost in Shangri-La, Mitchell Zuckoff's Frozen in Time again tells the dramatic story of a World War II plane crash. In fact, this time there are three of them.

In 1942, a U.S. cargo plane slams into an ice cap in Greenland, then a B-17 crashes during its search and rescue mission, then a Grumman Duck amphibious plane disappears after rescuing one of the B-17 survivors. "Talk about bad luck," Amazon senior editor Jon Foro points out in his review, describing the story as "part Alive, part Shackleton." 

Zuckoff told us that the similarities between Frozen In Time and Lost in Shangri-La (both Amazon Best of the Month picks) were consistent with his passion for stories about human endurance. "I'm drawn to people pulled to extremes, pulled beyond expected limit," he said.

FrozenYet, he didn't want to straight-up replicate Shangri-La with another WWII rescue story. What appealed to him was the modern-day piece of Frozen In Time. In 2011, Zuckoff met with a photographer and explorer named Lou Sapienza, a "tireless dreamer" who had been searching for the Grumman Duck and the men who disappeared. Zuckoff loved the idea of telling alternating stories, present and past. "I was excited about the challenge of writing a modern day story and a historic story," he said.

The key was getting Sapienza to cooperate. When they first met, Zuckoff felt like he was being auditioned. In fact, at one point Sapienza asked, Why shouldn't I be working with Jon Krakauer? Zuckoff told him, "You should. But he's not here. I am." Sapienza seemed to like that, and the two men hit it off, which led to Zuckoff's participation in the risky 2012 expedition to find the Duck.

"The participatory part was fantastic," Zuckoff said. "It was one of the most exciting experiences I've ever had."

When it came time to sit and write, however, the journalist found it difficult to make himself part of the story. "That was the harder part: I've never written in the first person," Zuckoff said. "That writing is some of the hardest writing I've ever done."

The result, as Amazon reviewer Foro put it, is "a thrilling story of courage, perseverance, and loyalty that spans decades." We asked Zuckoff to describe a few details of his writing life.

Space

Shangri-laI write exclusively in a book-filled, 12-foot-square office in my house, at a three-level desk crammed into a corner. On the first level is my keyboard and, to my left, a stack of documents for a book I'm either working on or should be working on. On the second level is the computer monitor, flanked on either side by more stacks of papers and high-tech tools such as scissors and a box of index cards. On the top level, to the left, is a printer, and on the right is an old-fashioned lamp with a green glass shade. From it hangs a boar's tooth necklace I was given in New Guinea. Next to the lamp is a model of the World War II plane I wrote about in Lost in Shangri-La, given to me by a friend, and metal box with an orca tooth and a dollar bill signed by everyone on the Greenland expedition I wrote about in Frozen in Time. The walls are covered with award plaques won by my wife, a photographer with The Boston Globe, along with a few I've won, which reassure me on difficult writing days. The window is on the other side of the room, which is far enough away that I can't throw myself through it on those same tough writing days.

Soundtrack

At the risk of sounding like a pretentious git, I never listen to music when I write because I'm trying to hear the rhythm of the words. I once tried listening to jazz and found myself eyeing the window on the other side of the room.

Fuel

Pretentious git, Part II: When I've reached the point in my research where I"m ready to write at length--weeks on end, usually without missing a day--I make sure I'm downing a lot of protein. Years ago, I read a great piece by Sally Jenkins of The Washington Post about writing and playing high-level sports, and one of the takeaway messages was that my natural tendency to seek a sugar high when sitting at the keyboard was about as useful as eating a bag of M&Ms to run a marathon. Having said that, when I've finished writing for the day (usually very late at night) I reward myself with something sweet, occasionally followed by a glass of port.

Words

When I'm working intensely on a book, I read books that are almost always directly related to what I'm writing--histories, biographies, sometimes technical manuals. To escape my own writing, I read The New Yorker because it cleanses some of the bad writing I'm forced to read and replaces it with beautiful voices in 5,000- to 15,000-word sonatas.

Inspiration

I'm a huge believer in the exercise-nap combo platter. I'm serious. If I exercise early in the day and take a nap, I've got the energy I need to write deep into the night.

Temptation

I mostly try to avoid questions about my writing process. No, really, I try to avoid everything. I tend to write at night, when the house is quiet, everyone including my dog is asleep, and emails aren't popping into my inbox every minute.

~

> See all of Mitchell Zuckoff's books.

Damn – sorry I couldn’t stop by, Liz. My day got swallowed up. That’ll teach me to take off for a week.

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