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I’m excited today to be veering from my ordinary blogging routine by posting an interview with author Clare Dudman.

I first came to know of Clare’s work in 2007 through reading her short story “Eczema” in a collection of short stories. I emailed her about it and we had a little discussion about the ending. Somewhere along the line I connected with Clare on Twitter, through her blog Keeper of the Snails, and on Facebook. We’ve been conversing back and forth through these media for some time now, trading information on weaving, silk production, Woolworth’s stores, and cultural differences between the United Kingdom (Clare lives in England) and the United States.

I read Clare’s novel 98 Reasons for Being in early 2009. The book is a fictional account of Dr. Henrich Hoffman, the man best known for his Shockheaded Peter tales, and his time spent directing an asylum. I finished reading Clare’s novel One Day the Ice Will Reveal All Its Dead (U.S. title, the UK title is Wegener’s Jigsaw) last week. This book fictionalizes the life of Alfred Wegener, who was the first to come up with the theory of continental drift, a common and accepted idea now, but one that he got a lot of grief for when he was alive. Clare has an uncanny ability to seamlessly blend science and history into her fiction.

My email interview included quite a few questions on this book, plus a few general questions. I also asked Clare to clarify a couple of things after she had sent back her initial responses.

Let’s get started … (My questions are in bold; Clare’s responses are in plain text and her clarifications are in italics.)

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1) I think I’ve read somewhere that you started out as a scientist and then became a writer. What field of science were you in and what brought you to writing?

I was a chemist.  I had a Ph.D. in physical organic chemistry and most of my work in industry was to do with developing sensors.  My first love had always been writing though, and when my second child was born I took time off work to be a full-time mother and started writing a novel for my elder son.  I wrote about a thousand words a day and read them to him before he went to sleep at night.  When it was finished I sent it off to a competition called the Kathleen Fidler award.    Part of the prize for winning that was publication…by Penguin UK.

The novel I was writing for my son was called ‘Edge of Danger’ it was published in 1995 for 8-12 year olds.

2) Your books seem to all have poetic titles – “One Day the Ice Will Reveal All Its Dead” (American version), “Wegener’s Jigsaw” (English version), “98 Reasons for Being,” “A Place of Meadows and Tall Trees.” How do you come up with your titles?

I didn’t really like ‘Wegener’s Jigsaw’ mainly because not many people in the UK could say it.  I wanted ‘The Jigsaw Man’ but that had already been taken by quite a high profile book on forensic science.  My American editor didn’t like ‘Wegener’s Jigsaw’ for the same reasons I didn’t, and after going through a huge number my agent at the time came up with ‘One Day…’ which is actually a quote from the book itself.  I suggested it to my editor, not thinking that would actually be taken because it was so long…but he liked it the best, so it stuck.  I like it too now but it took some getting used to!  After that I decided I quite liked the long title idea and have stuck with it to some extent.

The title ’98 Reasons for Being’ came from the number of patients in the doctor’s asylum.  My idea was that, in the end, they were his greatest professional concern in life – not the children’s book for which he was more famous.

3) Have you ever written poetry?

Yes, I used to write a lot and have had some of it published.

Turning now to questions about “One Day the Ice Will Reveal All Its Dead” because that’s the book I just finished reading …

4) How did you come to write about Alfred Wegener? There’s an extract from a New York Times article (dated 12 December 1931) in the back of the book that mentions Wegener’s final expedition to Greenland and his death. Ominously it says that Wegener “perished under tragic circumstances,” but it gives no further detail. Did this article give you the inspiration to write his story? Did you ever find out how he died, specifically?

His body was found in the ice  – in the original copy of my manuscript they actually find his body, but my UK editor suggested I eliminate that to try to create a little suspense.  It is thought he died of heart failure as he tried to keep up with the sledge on skis.  This is really hard work, and since being invalided out of the first world war his heart had been weak.  There was no sign of injury and he had a calm and peaceful expression on his face.

I was inspired to write about Wegener because I’d heard about him in school when I’d first heard of his continental drift idea.  I heard that he had been ridiculed for this idea and later shown to be right, and also that at one stage he had been a record-breaking balloonist.  There was no mention of the Arctic explorations.  I only found out about those a couple of years before I wrote the book.  When I did I was astonished to find there was no biography in English.  I found the New York Times article during my research and thought that I would include it at the end.  I thought I would not need permission because it was quite old – and I think under UK laws I would have been okay.  But American laws are more extensive so I had to ask the New York Times for permission – and they were expensive!

5) One thing I noticed immediately about the book is that Wegener has all these adventures … really thrilling and death-defying things … yet he speaks so quietly about them. After reading a few chapters, I realized that the book reminded me of the journals I’ve read that were written by explorers to what is now Minnesota – Zebulon Pike and Joseph Nicollet. In your Author’s Note at the end, you mention that you got Wegener’s voice from his expedition diaries. How did you manage to keep his voice so consistent throughout?

Something that came over quite strongly when I was reading about him was his modesty and the way he didn’t engage with the people who were rude about his work (and there were quite a few).  I suppose in writing it I had ingested so much about the man I got some way into being in his mind-set.  All I did day after day was research and write about him, I was very lucky to be able to do this, so maybe that’s why it comes over as consistent.

6) Periodically throughout the book, there are references to the beads of Wegener’s life. Was there some significance between these beads and Wegener’s life, or was this used as a writing device?

No, I was just using the beads as a metaphor for memories; the way we can recall certain episodes clearly like beads, and yet recall episodes in between hardly at all.  I suppose related, slightly, to this is that after I’d written the book I met Wegener’s grandson and he showed me a book that Wegener had given his wife, Else ‘I looked for a diamond and found a pearl.’  So he did think of such things.

7) What happened to Alfred’s wife and daughters after he died?

His eldest daughter, very sadly, died shortly after he did.  She’d just been married, and the illness I mention in the book finished her.  The youngest daughter married a famous climber (Heinrich Harrer), who died just recently and wrote the book ‘Seven years in Tibet’.  He became very friendly with the Dalai Lama and a film was made of him starring Brad Pitt.  Else lived quietly, writing a couple of books about her husband, and died aged 100.  His middle daughter also married and was still alive when I’d finished the book (and maybe still is).  She liked it, luckily, and said she’d felt that she’d been given back her father as a present.  I think that is the best review I’ll ever have of any of my books, and certainly the one I treasure the most.

8 ) Reading about the calving glaciers in Greenland and the ice sheet receding during the spring brought to mind the current issue of global warming. Did this topic influence your book in any way?

No, but I did look for it!  Wegener was aware that the glaciers were retreating, but I don’t think he thought much about the world warming – not any more than the idea that world is constantly in a state of flux and what will be desert one day will be a forest in another epoch.

9) How long did it take you to write this book?

The actual writing took about a year – the research about the same.

10) Did you have any particularly memorable experiences while researching this book that you’d care to share?

My main memories are of my trip to Greenland and wandering around the outskirts of the ice sheet on my own: the howling of the dogs as I approached the settlements, the smell of fish on the clothes of the people, the crack as a glacier calved close by, the incredible beauty and strangeness of the cliffs and the ice.  But I suppose my most memorable moment, as for most people, was September 11th 2001.  I was in a heliport on Uummannaq – just me and a Danish paint salesman.  I heard the two English words ‘twin towers’ in amongst all the Greenlandic, and the Danish salesman spoke to the official at the desk, turned to me and said something about New York being bombed and the third world war starting.  All three of us rushed into the control-room where there was a small television and watched everything coming down, and it didn’t seem real.  I had to travel on several planes and helicopters that day, and even so far away from New York everything was tense and quiet.  I kept hearing rumours that all the air traffic was on shut down over the US and UK, and when I eventually got to the main Greenlandic airport it was full of Americans who couldn’t get home.  I finally managed to reach my husband on the phone and asked him what was going on still hoping, despite all the evidence, that it had all been exaggerated, but all I remember him saying was: ‘Just come home.’

11) Do you have any writing routines that you follow? If so, what are they?

Just write.  Just keep going.  Sometimes you have to make yourself, but just do it.

12) You have a new book coming out soon – A Place of Meadows and Tall Trees. Can you give readers a little blurb describing it?

This is taken from the back of the book:
Impoverished and oppressed, they’d been promised paradise on earth: a land flowing with milk and honey. But what the settlers found after a devastating sea journey was a cold South American desert where nothing could survive except tribes of nomadic Tehuelche Indians, possibly intent on massacring them. Silas James fears he has been tricked into sacrificing everything he loves for another man’s impossible dream. But despite his hatred of the politically adept and obsessive Edwyn Lloyd, and under the watchful eye of Indian shaman Yelue, a new culture takes root as an old one passes away.   Together they ensure that the colony survives – but only by sacrificing almost all that they love.

Or see the film (it’s very short – just three minutes but it took me ages!) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K6Cf9zHe3PQ

13) Those who read your blog regularly know you have a special connection to snails. “(Hodmandod = snail. Hence ‘Keeper of the Snails’ = Dodman or Dudman)” is your tagline and every time you interview an author, you ask if s/he has a connection to snails. Other than your name, do you have any memorable experiences with snails?

I do like them, and I hate walking on them.  My most memorable experience, though, is with a slug (which I consider to be a special shell-less snail).  When we first moved into our house it had holes in the walls and in the night a couple of slugs slithered in and I found them mating on my kitchen floor in their own pool of sticky slime.  This was disgusting (and yet totally fascinating) enough, but even worse was what I saw when I peered more closely to see: hundreds of tiny mites squirming on the slime.  I’m not sure what I did next.  i think I left them to it and switched off the light.

14) Any superstitions about the number ’13’? My last question was the thirteenth and I didn’t want to end it there if it feels unlucky for you!

Ha, no!  If I ever see  a ladder propped against the wall I make sure I walk underneath it.

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To learn more about Clare Dudman and her work, check out her website and her blog – Keeper of the Snails. The latter she uses to share her research experiences, book reviews, aspects of the writing and publishing process, and pictures of her delectable confections (lemon cupcakes and a gumdrop-covered birthday cake come to mind). And, for goodness’ sake, read her books!

Thanks, Clare, for granting me an interview. This was so fun, I may have to do it again! 🙂

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