David Grann is the author of the new book The White Darkness. His other books include Killers of the Flower Moon and The Lost City of Z. He is a staff writer for The New Yorker, and he lives in New York.
Q: How did you learn about Henry Worsley and his Antarctic explorations, and at what point did you decide to write this book?
A: I’ve always been interested in polar exploration, Shackleton and Scott, and in 2015 I read about this British man, Henry Worsley, setting out to do what Shackleton failed to do a century earlier, to walk across Antarctica without the help of dogs.
I was immediately drawn to the story. I followed it, and tragically learned about Henry’s death. I reached out to his family to see if they might meet with me. A friend of the family said they weren’t ready. I wrote back and said I completely understand.
A year went by, and I sent another note and the family said to come to England and meet with them.
Q: How did you research the book, and did you learn anything especially startling or surprising?
A: This was the first time I didn’t go to the place I was writing about. Also, Henry was not alive. It was a great challenge in terms of telling the story. The family was kind and generous. They shared his diaries. He kept a private diary and took videos.
Despite the obstacles, I felt closer to Henry’s consciousness moment to moment than to any other subject I’d worked on before.
There are questions about the landscape—it’s mind-boggling in Antarctica. It takes a long time to wrap your mind around. It’s the coldest, windiest continent. What most struck me is that it’s the driest continent. It’s like writing about Mars in terms of the environment.
And every story always has, in terms of the people you write about, unexpected revelations. This was not merely about feats of endurance, but the love story between him and his wife.
Q: What does Henry Worsley’s family think of the book?
A: I’m always reluctant to speak for others, but I’m very close to the family and from talking to them it’s fair to say they’re—I can’t say happy, because the story is so painful, but they’re happy Henry’s story is told in book form, to give it a place in our larger consciousness.
Q: How would you describe his legacy?
A: He was one of the more remarkable people I’ve written about, as a leader of others, the ability he demonstrated with the soldiers he led and the people on the expeditions. These feats of endurance, the pursuit of almost spiritual objectives, it’s all part of his legacy. And there’s the tragic element that he died on his last expedition.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m working on a new book now about an expedition, a sailing voyage, a shipwreck on an island. There’s a mutiny and the parties descend into Lord of the Flies.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: One thing that’s so interesting about Henry’s story is not only that it involves extraordinary feats of endurance, but they tell us a lot about leadership. The story illuminates that. With every story you’re trying to find deeper meanings, [insights into] the human condition.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with David Grann.