Thursday, April 13, 2017

Q&A with Peter Lourie

Peter Lourie is the author of a new book for kids, Jack London and the Klondike Gold Rush. His many other books include The Polar Bear Scientists and The Manatee Scientists, and he has taught writing at Middlebury College, Columbia College, and the University of Vermont. He lives in Vermont.

Q: Why did you decide to focus your new book on Jack London's experiences in the Klondike Gold Rush?

A: I love adventure. I love gold. I love all things North. And I love stories. Jack London’s experience in the Klondike gave him the settings and characters and the history that he needed to write his most memorable books. 

At 21 he got swept up in the Stampede, along with thousands who left their homes and jobs and rushed north to Dawson in the Yukon Territory to stake their claims. (Dawson is where the Klondike River flows into the bigger Yukon).  

It was a grueling journey over mountain passes and down the massive Yukon River.  For most, it was a bust; they ran out of money and supplies; they abandoned hope and sometimes lost their lives; their claims never delivered. 

Jack too failed to find gold, but he was able to capture the human side of the Gold Rush in his writing. That relationship between adventure and creativity is what excites me.

Q: How did you research the book, and what did you learn that might seem particularly surprising?

A: I’ve been to the Yukon Territory several times. Years ago I paddled the Yukon River by canoe from Whitehorse to Dawson, then returned to the Territory to revisit places along the Klondike Stampede Trail.  

What I loved about researching this book were the wonderful people I met along the way, historians and experts on Jack London and the First Nations of Canada. 

One Canadian historian stands out. David Neufeld from Whitehorse arranged a float plane trip into Lake Lindeman on the upper part of the Chilkoot Trail where Jack and the other Stampeders had to build boats for the long river trip down to Dawson.

David took me through the history of the Stampede when we walked the upper parts of the trail. He made the history come alive. He helped me understand that this was a trading route for the people of the First Nations long before it had anything to do with gold.

Q: What impact did his time in the Klondike have on London's subsequent career?

A: Jack had always wanted to be a published writer. When he got back to San Francisco after a year in the Klondike, he gathered his experiences into a series of Klondike stories that people wanted to read. In 1903 when he was 27, The Call of the Wild made him famous, and was soon followed by White Fang. 

The Klondike helped launch Jack’s career as a published writer. Writing at least 1000 words a day for 16 years, he was able to publish 50 books. Although he went on to write about many other subjects, it was the Klondike Gold Rush that led to his most memorable tales.

Q: How successful was he at finding gold?

A: Not at all. Jack came back with only a little pouch of gold dust. He had to pawn it in order to eat. Perhaps it’s a cliché, but true nevertheless, that Jack’s gold was the experience itself.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: My next adventure biography is about the father of polar exploration, Norwegian Fridtjof Nansen, and his Fram expedition of 1893-96.  Nansen made a daring attempt to be the first to reach the North Pole.

In his day the Arctic was the last frontier, cloaked in mystery, as unknown as the moon. People thought there might be land or even an open sea beyond the ice at the pole itself.  So in 1893, Nansen was determined to reach the North Pole before anyone else and solve its mysteries.

On June 24, 1893, he and a small crew of 12 on board a specially designed ship called the Fram (meaning “forward” in Norwegian), attempted to make it to the Pole in a way that most polar experts thought was simply crazy. 

Nansen planned to lock his ship into the polar ice pack and “float” on top of the ice carried by the currents to the pole and over to the other side of the globe. Above Siberia, the Fram got locked into ice, just as it was designed to do, and it drifted for a year and a half at about a mile or two a day. 

When it seemed his ship would miss the pole by a few hundred miles, Nansen decided to make a mad dash for it with another crewmember. They took 28 huskies, 2 kayaks, and 3 sleds heavily loaded with gear and food for 100 days. Their attempt on the pole is one of the great adventure stories of all time.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Jack London and the Klondike Gold Rush took five years to write. My first draft was hopelessly academic and off the mark. I thought I could tell the story of Jack’s journey up the Inside Passage to the coast of Alaska, then over the Coast Mountains and down the Yukon River to Dawson, by using his own words, by simply drawing on the wonderful descriptions of scenes and characters from his stories and novels.

But in revision I learned more about storytelling, and I am immensely grateful to my editor, Christy Ottaviano at Henry Holt, who guided me along the way. It was well worth the wait to get it right.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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