Monday, February 19, 2024

TBR: A Suffragist’s Guide to the Antarctic by Yi Shun Lai

TBR [to be read] is a semi-regular, invitation-only interview series with authors of newly released/forthcoming, interesting books who will tell us about their new work as well as offer tips on writing, stories about the publishing biz, and from time to time, a recipe. 


Give us your elevator pitch: what’s your book about in 2-3 sentences?


Clara Ketterling-Dunbar is an American suffragist who decamps for the English suffrage movement, just in time to have it roll over to support the WWI effort. In utter frustration, she signs onto a cockamamie Antarctic expedition (her words, not mine!), thinking that, in a place with no civilization, she can gain equity. But when the crew’s ship sinks, she’s dismayed to see that the men have thought of her as “just a woman” all along. Clara has to prove she can handle just as much as the men can handle, all while trying to survive in the Antarctic. This book is Clara’s diary whilst on expedition, and pegged to Ernest Shackleton’s Endurance expedition.


Which character did you most enjoy creating? Why? And which character gave you the most trouble, and why?


The answer is the same for both of these questions: there’s a clear villain on-board the ship, and he emerged as I was determined to stick to the timeline and historical facts of the original Endurance expedition. But the minute it became obvious that Clara was going to have suffer some serious indignities, including a sexual assault, at the hands of this crew member, I began to realize that I couldn’t stick to the historical events as much as I thought I had to: I couldn’t prescribe the things Clara goes through to any of the men I’d gotten to know through reading crew diaries and their later recollections of life on this expedition.


So I was really happy to get to craft this terrible creature from wholecloth, and remind myself that I was writing fiction. This realization gave me so much more freedom. And, at the same time, I struggled to find inspiration for this accursed human. Finally, it occurred to me that this guy was already lurking in my past. So I wrote him. Gleefully, and with no small sense of vengeance.


Tell us a bit about the highs and lows of your book’s road to publication.


No lows, unless you count the waiting. The waiting was damn hard. But I have a great agent, Kate Testerman, and she knew just the right editors to send it to. We had our first offer in two weeks and a competing offer not long after. Then we had to make hard decisions. Then, we had to wait for the contracts. All that was like a three-month process. Then it was another year and a quarter before pub date. So yeah. Waiting was the absolute worst bit.


I know. I’m an irrational PollyAnna about this, but I truly loved every bit of it, especially noodling through my editor’s notes and really thinking about them, and puzzling through how to make the revisions that would satisfy my editor’s rightful suggestions. I actually outright loved the revision process. When you’ve been toiling by yourself, crafting a storyline, having someone say, “Do you mean this?” is a godsend.


What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?


Write what you’re curious about. I wish to hell I could remember where I read this. I pride myself on taking pretty good notes, but um, apparently not.


My favorite writing advice is “write until something surprises you.” What surprised you in the writing of this book?


The lateness with which things that should be obvious came together. I was obviously writing a book about inequality all along. About strong women having to prove themselves. The Antarctic was a convenient backdrop, because I love the place and wanted to set a book there. I knew all of this. I sent the query and completed manuscript off to my dream agent February of 2022. It wasn’t until August of 2021 that I stumbled upon the fact that the women’s suffrage movement was happening at the exact same time as the Golden Age of Exploration, when all those men went off and did manly things. I’d been working on the book in some form (it used to be a time-travel book!) since early 2015. People. That is a lot of years to fail at putting some big puzzle pieces together.


But, as you can tell from the timeline, when it came together, it came together fast.


How did you find the title of your book?


Oh, I am so glad you asked how I got the title of my book, because I can give proper credit to my friend and writerly BFF Roz. She nudged me toward flexing the diary format of the manuscript to do double duty as a guidebook that outlined my hero’s hopes for the future. Then, after dropping that gem, she said, “You could call it ‘A Suffragist’s Guide to Antarctica,’ or something,” That conversation unlocked everything, and I will forever be in Roz’s debt.


As I mentioned above, when you’ve been living in your head for so long, outside voices are the best thing that can happen.


Well, that’s what works for my brain, anyway. YMMV.  


Inquiring foodies and hungry book clubs want to know: Any food/s associated with your book? (Any recipes I might share?)


Aiya, yes. All through the Endurance expedition and a great many other cold-weather expeditions of the time, they ate hoosh, a porridge of melted snow, pemmican, which is a kind of dried-meat cake made with tallow or fat, and sledging biscuits. There’s a pretty good recipe here, but I’ve gone vegetarian since I started writing this book, so I can only tell you that the one time I made it, on my would-not-find-in-Antarctica-in-1914-induction stove, it was…disgustingly satisfying. 


Here's something I still love, though: Kendal mint cake. Sugar and mint syrup. There’s no record of this having been eaten on-board the Endurance expedition, but I put it in my book anyway, because it is delicious and well known as a food explorers and walkers of a great many hills took with them places.











DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.