Antarctica is a place of mystery and intrigue, which makes it an ideal setting for this blockbuster and chilling thriller, Terra Nova. Throw on your parka and mitts and dive in for a ride you won’t soon forget.
My second novel, Terra Nova, began with a song. Months before I began the first draft, my daughter was home from grad school and taking control of the car stereo, and one song stood out among the many good ones she DJ-ed for us. “Weight of Living, Pt. I” by Bastille. It was in part the strangely perfect elocution of Dan Smith, partly the melody, but mostly the lyric—one single phrase—that caught my imagination. “There’s an albatross around my neck,” Smith sang, and in my mind, I saw Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner who has shot an albatross and earned himself and his shipmates the curse of that bad luck. I saw the enormous albatross photographed by Sebastião Salgado in a collection from Antarctica I’d come across in an exhibit. I pictured a vast and horizon-less ocean and a ship pushing through surging waves.
I’ve been in fearful awe of the open ocean for decades now. Of course, there are lots of good reasons to fear a raging, stormy sea. But I’m afraid of the very idea of the ocean’s size. Just the fact that the ocean can extend for miles all around a ship before there is any speck of land—well, that right there is the stuff of nightmares. I already knew it was time for me to write about Antarctica. For decades, I couldn’t let go of a fascination with what Robert Falcon Scott must have felt when he saw the flag of his rival Amundsen already at the Pole, proclaiming Scott himself the loser in that race. Now here was this image of the albatross around the neck of the figure in Smith’s song, coupled with Salgado’s Antarctic bird, and there came the idea: I would write a novel set at sea.
Leading up to the days of my daughter’s sojourn at home, I’d become worried about my career as a writer. I had one well-received novel behind me (The Clover House) but that hadn’t banished once and for all the worries about never finding readers again, never writing the right words again. I’m a fairly confident person, but I was spending a lot of time in my head quietly apprehensive about beginning a new book. So I decided that the best way to do the thing that scared me was to do it involving the other thing that scared me. Writing a novel about the sea would be a way to face the essential terror of making up something new out of thin air. If I was going to do something scary, I might as well go big or go home and send my imagination right out into the terrifying sea.
But as I got myself ready to begin, I decided I had to change everything about how I’d written a book before. I had to dive back in with a completely new process. Where I’d written previous novel drafts on my laptop and during the days and evenings, I determined to write this draft longhand and before dawn. Where I had often written quickly, I decided to go slow, perfecting each sentence as I went, working on rhythm and cadence with great care. This new process was my way of fighting my writing fears, shaking things up as if to lift the albatross from around my neck.
And so I began. But instead of the Southern Ocean I had expected to toss my characters onto, I sent my characters—Edward Heywoud, his photographer James Watts, and their expedition teammates William Lawrence and Angus Tite—along Antarctic ice and snow. I began with them making incremental but steady progress in a more or less straight line, not crashing down into waves and moving wildly across the water.
I had every intention of getting the men into a boat at some point, I promise! But it became clear to me eventually that this novel had to be ice-bound and had to follow these men all the way to the Pole where they would be faced with a moral conundrum. Not even the second narrative thread that centers on Viola Heywoud involved in London’s suffrage movement—not even there did I manage to go to sea. The only way the sea makes an appearance is as the Broomway on the Essex coast, where the low tide turns the water into a mirror for miles and miles around you on almost all sides.
In the end, I think I did capture the feeling I was thinking that an at-sea narrative would provide. Though I kept my characters land bound, I made sure to set them in a world of fluid boundaries and upheaval, where the point you’re aiming for might disappear even as you travel towards it.
Rogue Readers: When have you gotten yourself moving on a project by facing your fear?
Henriette Lazaridis’s new novel, Terra Nova, will be published by Pegasus Books in December 2022. Her debut novel, The Clover House, was a Boston Globe bestseller and a Target Emerging Authors pick. Her work has been published in such outlets as Elle, Forge, Narrative Magazine, The New York Times, New England Review, The Millions, WBUR’s Cognoscenti and Pangyrus, and she is a recipient of a Massachusetts Cultural Council Artists Grant. Henriette earned degrees in English literature from Middlebury College, Oxford University, where she was a Rhodes Scholar, and the University of Pennsylvania. Having taught English at Harvard, she now teaches at GrubStreet in Boston. Visit her website at https://www.henriettelazaridis.com/.