Q & A with Richard Pierce – “Dead Men”

“Dead Men” is a love story wrapped in an adventure story injected with a healthy jolt of history. The story revolves around the aftermath of the race between Brit Robert Falcon Scott and his bid to beat Norwegian Roald Amundsen to the South Pole.  Actually, “Dead Men” is about what happened to Scott’s returning party, which encountered disaster.

Richard Pierce is a long-time writer and first-time novelist whose book description, well, just intrigued me. It wasn’t quite what I was expecting—the title has a much darker vibe than the story—but it pulled me straight along.  And if you are a writer, check out Pierce’s amazing story of perseverance in the publishing business.

My review follows.

First, Richard was kind enough to answer a few questions about “Dead Men” and how it came about.

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Question: What was the overall inspiration for “Dead Men”? Did you start with the adventure story or the love story—or both?

Pierce: I started with the adventure story, because I’d just got back from the Antarctic, and, having done a lot of reading prior to my trip, I wanted to write a novel about the mystery of Scott’s last ten days, which I’d only become aware of because of my trip and my reading. When I’d written two or three chapters of the historical story, I felt there had to be a link into the present for it to have its maximum contextual impact, and rooted round in my brain for weeks, until I was on the Tube in London one day, saw a beautiful girl standing there and reading a book and wondering what would happen if she fainted into someone’s arms, of all the consequences that might (or might not) come from such a solitary singular event. I still didn’t have the characters for the love story, but I had a starting point for it. As it is, as far as I’m concerned, the book is more love story than adventure story.

Question: Can you tell us a bit about your background and how long you’ve been writing fiction?

Pierce: How long have you got? I was born in Doncaster, and my family moved to Germany when I was about 3. We ended up staying in Germany for 11 years rather than the originally-planned two years, so I was very fortunate to grow up speaking two languages fluently, a skill which ultimately has shaped my entire life, because it meant I developed an ear (and an aptitude) for languages in general (and for words, I guess). I grew up reading manically, and always wanted to be a journalist or a writer. So obsessed was I with that dream that my father bought me a portable Olivetti typewriter when I was about 7. The typewriter accompanied me everywhere, including university and then travels in Europe.

It was at university (studying German, French and Linguistics) that I first started writing seriously; poetry at first. I then became entranced by Oscar Wilde’s writing, and then by James Joyce’s Ulysses when I spent a year teaching in Germany (I’d have been 20 by then), and decided to start writing prose. I wrote my first (unpublishable) novel when I was 21, inspired by Joyce and by the girl who ended up becoming my first fiancee. Dad had a serious stroke when I was about halfway through that novel, but encouraged me to keep writing, and inspired me to be determined by, the day after the stroke, beginning to teach himself to write with his left hand, because his right hand had stopped working. He made a full recovery, by the way (although he was already 73). Although I say the novel is unpublishable, I did get some encouraging feedback from Faber & Faber, although nothing ultimately came of it.

The short version of this is that, to all intents and purposes, I’d been writing “serious” fiction for 30 years by the time Dead Men was published. Perseverance does bring its rewards.

Question: I’m no Antarctica expert, but is the search technically possible? Is the location of this tent something that is an unresolved question about Scott’s expedition?

Robert Falcon Scott

Pierce: The search is technically possible. There have been many scientific papers written about the possible location of the tent (the ice moves about 1km towards the sea every year, depending on direction of the ice drift), and most experts agree that an iceberg with the tent in it will float out into the Ross Sea in about 200 years’ time, but where exactly is a matter of conjecture. To discover the tent would need ground-penetrating radar as I’ve described in the book. I should also add that the technology to drill down through 30 metres of ice is available, although it’s mainly used in the oil industry rather than in archaeology.

The real unresolved question about Scott’s expedition (and there are quite a few, actually) is why he, Bowers and Wilson spent ten days eleven miles from the next food and fuel depot. Scott’s diaries claim there was a blizzard which lasted 10 days, but science has proven that it is impossible for a blizzard in the Antarctic to last that long (they normally last 3-4 days). Diaries of the men at the main base also suggest that the weather was fine when Scott said there was a blizzard (and the geography and meteorology of the place are such that the weather at Cape Evans would have been exactly the same as the weather at the site of the tent). And it’s this question the book seeks to answer.

Question: At one point, one of your characters raises the issue about celebrating whether it’s “politically correct” to celebrate Scott “or anything that happened during the Empire.” Do you think Scott has been treated poorly, was that part of the motivation to write this story?

Pierce: There have been many judgments of Scott, from hero to villain, and the book is partly written to arrive at some balance. I have said elsewhere that I feel novelists actually have more freedom to be objective than non-fiction writers and scientific researchers. However, to rescue Scott’s reputation was not my main goal. As I keep having to remind members of the Polar community – this is a work of fiction, and large chunks of it are made up; novelists are story tellers, after all.

What has irritated me about the treatment of Scott is that those who denigrate him for being a failure do so extremely subjectively, and by witholding facts and inventing events which never occurred. Scott made some major mistakes, as did Amundsen. The difference is that Scott’s mistakes were punished by horrifically and unseasonally cold weather, while Amundsen got away with his mistakes. Scott is not the hero that traditionalists make him out to be, and nor is Amundsen the perfect leader his supporters make him out to be. They were both (and all their men) brave and courageous, and, above all, human beings with failings and weaknesses – and strengths; like we all are.

Question:  Birdie is a striking character—what was the inspiration for her and what was the inspiration for her obsession about finding those remains? Is there some connection you’re exploring between art and science, and producing results? She seems to pursue both interests unselfishly—she’s not after the fame, necessarily, in either case. Is that the way you see her character?

Pierce: Birdie – now that’s a good question. She’s the first female character I’ve written who is not based on any woman I have ever known or loved. When I got the idea for the love story, but not for the characters or how to link the present-day love story to the historical adventure, I was at a loss, and stopped writing altogether for several weeks. Then, on one of my runs along the roads leading out of the village (and back), this tiny, short-haired blonde woman just popped into my head, told me she’d been named Birdie Bowers after Henry Bowers, that she was a painter and that I should write her story. I know that sounds ridiculous to many people who plan and plot their novels (or to non-writers), but that’s exactly what happened. Her Antarctic obsession comes from her father who had wanted to solve the mystery of the last ten days, and who had named her after his hero, Henry Birdie Bowers.

More importantly, she is a strong, temperamental female character, of which there aren’t enough in modern literature. Most female characters are nothing more than caricatures (even those written by women) who fit very neatly into the various stereotypes our society has created. I often think my writing is much more women’s fiction, because it is mainly character-driven, and the main character is usually a strong woman. Birdie also parallels very well with Kathleen Scott, Captain Scott’s wife, who was an artist and unusually independent for her time.

The link between art and science – that’s something I’ve never been asked before, and not something I’ve thought about. I think – and I’m analysing Birdie as a person now, not from the point of view of me writing about her – that despite her moodiness and irrationality (especially when she’s painting or becomes emotional), Birdie is very analytical and accumulates masses of information (and inspiration) from facts. I would hesitate to say she has multiple personalities, but her rational side feeds her irrational side, so she can turn dry facts (and science) into a myriad of different images and shapes. I suppose, in that sense, she’s almost what one might term a Renaissance woman – good at everything. Just to be clear – I didn’t seek to write in a connection between science and art.

As far as fame is concerned, I think you’re right. She doesn’t care to be famous, because it’s not fame that matters; it’s what you try to achieve. She deems herself lucky to have a talent which can be used to help others.

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Thank you, Richard!

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Review:

They meet, accidentally, on the Tube.  She is Birdie Bowers.  And although she has the same first and last name as one of the men who died with Robert Scott on his journey back from the South Pole, she is not related to the famous dead man. Birdie’s parents were obsessed with the Antarctic and knowingly gave her the name. Now she’s obsessed with a certain aspect of the fatal mission and on the way to the Royal Geographic Society as part of her research when they meet.

He is Adam Caird and it’s Birdie who has to explain to him that the ‘Caird’ surname also has connections-to Antarctic because Ernest Shackleton sailed away to save his marooned men in the tiny lifeboat James Caird.

Soon enough, Birdie pulls Adam into her pursuit for understanding a critical aspect of the doomed mission. Although quickly smitten with the skinny Birdie, it’s not Adam’s thing.

“I didn’t want to lumber my brain with useless half-truths,” he says.  “And with Scott, and most of the other things they wanted to teach us at school, there was too much Empire, so much propaganda. It’s all done and dusted, finished. How can you glorify failure? It doesn’t change anything? It hasn’t changed the world we live in.”

Great line: done and dusted.

Birdie is an enigma. She is also an artist who goes to her own shows incognito, it turns out. In fact, she’s a graffiti artist known for her abstract renditions of E.A. Wilson’s Antarctic sketches.

So from the outset, Pierce sets a pretty high bar for covering lots of story—getting these two to form an odd-couple team, getting these two to form an odd-couple couple, getting these two to come up with a plan to find the tent where Scott and two others died, getting them to Christchurch to make arrangements, and, finally, getting these two in position to answer all of Birdie’s questions.

Birdie is strong, temperamental, eccentric—and alluring. It might be a bit of a stretch to imagine that a graffiti artist has the wherewithal to pull off this expedition, but in Pierce’s sure style you can gently suspend disbelief and go for the ride.  Pierce does a great job building Birdie’s three-dimensional personality and “Dead Men” starts to gain an inexorable undertow that is hard to resist. Adam Caird is along for the ride—until the one that has to revive the team’s spirits, that is—and it’s easy to imagine being pulled into Birdie’s quest.

Caird stands in as our skeptic at first and we succumb right alongside him as he falls—although why he spends so many nights alone is a bit of a puzzle. (This love story is rated PG.)

In the end, I was struck by Birdie’s desire to answer her question—whether or not Scott and his men perished due to a prolonged blizzard—and her desire to answer it for the sake of information and nothing else, including fame. It’s the same way she treated her art. Birdie is a truth seeker.

Despite its thriller-esque title, “Dead  Men” is very much a love story  disguised just a bit as an adventure story.  It’s about two very different people coming together to find truth buried in the Antarctic ice over 100 years ago.

Imagine if you were compelled to answer one such question. Imagine if you needed to find the answer, even if it was “done and dusted.”

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