This summer marks the 100th year anniversary of the beginning of Ernest Shackleton’s Endurance expedition to the Antarctic.
Shackleton hoped this voyage would make him famous for being the first explorer to cross the continent of Antarctica. But, when his ship became stuck in the ice pack, he and his crew were stranded for more than two years. They faced subzero temperatures, icy water, starvation, and months of darkness, but Shackleton brought every crewman safely back to England. Talk about an extreme survival adventure!
My guest today is Rebecca L. Johnson, author of Ernest Shackleton: Gripped by the Antarctic (2003, Carolrhoda Books), a biography for young readers.
Rebecca, why a biography about Shackleton? What drew you to him?
I traveled to Antarctica three times on grants from the National Science Foundation as part of their Antarctic Artists and Writers Program. I had heard of Shackleton and his adventures long before I first arrived, but actually being in some of the places where he and his men had traveled and camped, and experiencing firsthand the wild, frigid, often terrifying environment of the Antarctic continent, made Shackleton really come to life for me. I was inspired to write about him, and especially the story of his Endurance expedition, which is one of the most thrilling tales of survival against all odds that I know.
How did you research Shackleton’s life?
I used as many primary sources as possible, reading copies of his letters and diary entries to get a sense of Shackleton as a man, a polar explorer, and a leader. Fortunately, it’s possible to access a great deal of this material on the internet now. I also have an entire shelf of Shackleton biographies that I used as authoritative references. During my research trips to Antarctica, I had the privilege of visiting Shackleton’s hut on Cape Royds that he and his men used as a base for his Nimrod Expedition of 1907-09. Being there, surrounded by articles from the expedition that are perfectly preserved in the dry polar air, was a marvelous experience, like traveling back in time.
You’ve written many non-fiction books, but how was writing a biography different from writing other non-fiction?
To write a biography you need to try to get into someone else’s head, to try to understand their motivations, their fears, and their desires.
Sometimes people think non-fiction means dry and boring, but your book made me feel like I’m almost stranded in the Antarctic with Shackleton. I love this sentence on page 79: “All through the night they sat huddled together, listening to the thump of floes and the explosive, hissing breath of the killer whales that circled the boats in the darkness.” How did you breathe such life into your biography?
By trying to use authentic details and writing in a way that draws the reader into the story using all of his or her senses. Personal experience helps, too. I’ve heard ice floes thumping together and killer whales exhaling in the icy waters of McMurdo Sound while the wind raged with enough force to knock me over.
Have you been to the Antarctic since you’ve written the book? On the author bio on the book’s back flap you mentioned you wanted to travel to South Georgia Island, the island where Shackleton is buried. Have you been able to?
It’s still on my to-do list!
I’m inspired by Shackleton’s optimism and how he kept up the morale of his men, as well as his persistence. What lessons has he taught you, as a person or as a writer?
Shackleton never gave up, even in the face of overwhelming odds. No matter what dire things happened, he maintained a positive attitude and was able to instill in his men the same motivating confidence. Whenever a project I’m working on feels overwhelming and I start to doubt myself, I often think of Shackleton. He would laugh at my worries (or procrastinations) and tell me to get on with it.
What is your next book?
I just released two new books this year. They are When Lunch Fights Back: Wickedly Clever Animal Defenses, and Chernobyl’s Wild Kingdom: Life in the Dead Zone. I’ve got a book in progress about Mary Shelley and Frankenstein, and along with that, I’m pursuing an idea about a recent and remarkable dinosaur discovery.
Rebecca L. Johnson has brought science to life in dozens of award-winning books for children and young adults, including Zombie Makers: True Stories of Nature’s Undead (ALA Notable, Junior Library Guild Selection, Junior Library Guild Top Pick, Kirkus Best Children’s Books, and more) and Journey into the Deep: Discovering New Ocean Creatures (Benjamin Franklin Award, Orbis Pictus Honor Book, Junior Library Guild Selection, Chicago Public Library Best of the Best Books, and more).
Whenever possible, Johnson works directly with scientists whose work she is writing about. She has made three extensive trips to Antarctica on grants from the National Science Foundation, spent months at sea diving on the Great Barrier Reef, descended into the ocean’s abyss aboard the Johnson-Sea-Link submersible, hiked miles (most of them vertical) in search of endangered kakapo on New Zealand’s Little Barrier Island, fought off mosquitoes and land leeches in the rain forests of Queensland, and tagged green sea turtles along Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast.
Born and raised in South Dakota, she has lived on several continents. In schools where she has given presentations about science in Antarctica, she’s often known as “the woman who almost got killed by a leopard seal.”
I like to do my exploring in the pages of books. Readers, how about you? Do any of you like to explore the relatively unknown parts of our world? What kind of adventures have you had?