Ashley Shelby is the author of the new novel South Pole Station, which takes place at a research station at the South Pole and focuses on the issue of climate change. She also has written the book Red River Rising, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Slate, The Nation, and The Seattle Review. She lives in the Twin Cities.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for South Pole Station, and for your main character, Cooper?
A: My sister, Lacy Shelby, spent a full year at Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station during the 2002-2003 research season as a production cook. She’s one of a select group of women who has ever spent the entire winter season at the South Pole—she even received a Presidential medal and commendation for this achievement.
Anyway, she would send me letters from Antarctica at a time when I was working as a young editor in New York, and though she was never long on details (discretion is key to life at South Pole), the culture she described captured my imagination.
Climate scientists working alongside carpenters, meteorologists, astrophysicists, and research techs matching wits with janitorial staff, administrators, and dining assistants—what can’t happen in an environment like that?
As for Cooper, she started out sharing some qualities with me—an artist with early promise who felt she hadn’t lived up to those expectations. But, as characters are wont to do, she took on a life and a personality of her own, and transcended the flimsy scaffolding I’d constructed for her.
I am always interested in the artistic imperative, how we obey or don’t obey it, when we give up, and when we persevere in the face of enormous obstacles. Cooper is, in many ways, the product of these questions.
Q: What kind of research did you need to do to write the novel, and was there anything that particularly surprised you in the course of your research?
A: The research required for this novel was immense. Far more than I expected, especially given the fact that I had previously written a book-length work of journalism about a natural disaster in North Dakota, which had required a FOIA request, thousands of pages of hydrological data, and countless interviews.
Perhaps because of my journalistic background, I long for more than just verisimilitude; I want accuracy, even in my fiction. It really is a driving force in the creation of any fictional world for me, which is one reason it took me so long to write the book.
Because there’s so many disciplines touched upon in this book—astrophysics, climate science, management, the culinary arts, politics, visual art—about which I knew very little, I spent massive amounts of time reading and researching.
My characters can only be believable in their roles if they truly understand their work or their craft. Readers are sophisticated; they can sense when an author has just glossed over something in service to the plot.
And I’ve also learned that readers, self included, enjoy reading about work or labor in novels. That kind of thing really transports a reader into a different milieu, and frankly, I think we see too little of it in contemporary fiction.
In terms of surprises, I was astounded every day I sat down to work on this book. Did you know the human waste accumulated at South Pole Station is pumped into an underground “lake” beneath the ice? That Polies can’t go down if they haven’t had their wisdom teeth extracted? That there is an ATM at McMurdo?
Q: One of the book's themes involves climate change. Given the current political battles over climate change, what do you hope readers take away from your book?
A: When I began writing this book, I honestly thought that climate denial was about dead. I knew there would be other obstacles thrown in the path of those trying to halt climate change and plan for mitigation efforts for the effects already in the global climate pipeline.
The book is set in 2003-2004, at the height of the Bush-era climate denialism of James Inhofe, Lamar Smith, and Frank Luntz. I could never have anticipated that, in 2017, we’d be dealing with these kinds of denialists again, and that some would even be in positions of immense power. So any relevance to current events is entirely coincidental and, to me, disturbing.
Those who have read the book have found it interesting that the climate change-denying scientist, Frank Pavano, comes off almost as a sympathetic figure in some ways. In earlier drafts, he was more of a caricature of the kind of climate deniers we saw in the media in the early 2000s.
But, like Cooper, he became his own man, so to speak. I saw things in him that were not easy to dismiss; he had a backstory that was, in many ways, inexpressibly sad. He’s a lonely, brilliant man who made mistakes early in his career and ended up in this situation almost by chance.
This is not to excuse climate denialists; it is, however, a reflection of my own struggle to understand the human impulse to deny truth and the sheer complexity of an individual’s motivation, his mind, and his heart.
I never presume to tell a reader what she should take away from a work of art, but for me, the discussion about climate science was couched in questions about urgency, about truth, and about compassion for one another as we grapple with the very scary but undeniable fact that our earth is warming, and warming dramatically.
Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?
A: I would never advise anyone to write a novel the way I wrote this one. I am decent at world-building; I am not as good at plotting. The plot was always the most elusive piece of the puzzle to me, and I stand in awe of other authors who can set one spinning right out of the gate.
I didn’t know how South Pole Station was going to end when I started, and, frankly, I didn’t even know where it was going past the first couple of chapters!
But because it’s so character-driven, I found that the more time I spent with each of these individuals, the clearer their own trajectories became. Everyone is thrown together in this petri dish of human civilization at the end of the earth, so what happens to one person essentially happens to all.
I knew that tossing a climate-denying scientist into the middle of the world’s most important climate research site was a recipe for disaster (and disaster—or “conflict”—is what novelists want most). Once I had that in place, the plot began working itself out, especially once my protagonist showed a capacity for compassion for my climate denier.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I am working on another novel at the moment. I won’t say too much about it because I can’t be very coherent about it yet and because, knowing the way I work, it’ll probably end up in a very different place than it is now.
Suffice it to say it is a novel set in what I call a Post-Climate Impact America—not a dystopia by any means, just set far enough from the present where some of the initial impacts of a warming planet will begin to be felt by American cities.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I would just like to mention two places to find innovative approaches to climate fiction. There are plenty of apocalyptic novels about climate change, but I have not enjoyed those I’ve read; I have felt a dearth of humanity in them.
This is a highly subjective take, of course. But Eric Shonkwiler’s gritty novels, 8th Street Power & Light and Above All Men, as well as his short story collection Moon Up, Past Full, offer a gothic look at a climate-impacted Midwest with heart.
It may be a dust-covered heart, grafted with bits of Hemingway and Faulkner (and with some of the same demands of the reader as those authors) but it’s a steadily thumping one.
I’d also like to recommend the Chicago Review of Books’ excellent column on climate fiction, "Burning Worlds," written by Amy Brady. It’s blisteringly intelligent and grows more and more relevant by the day.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb