Henriette Lazaridis is the author of the new historical novel Terra Nova. She also has written the novel The Clover House, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times. She teaches at GrubStreet in Boston.
Q: You write, “My obsession with Antarctica began when I was seven and saw a documentary on public television about [explorer] Robert Falcon Scott.” How did that lead you to write Terra Nova?
A: I viewed Scott as my hero for many years, starting with naming my Golden Retriever puppy after him. With Scotty the dog by my side, I would have adventures in the woods behind my house, always in some way imagining myself as intrepid as Scott the explorer.
I surely didn’t realize the depth of agony that Scott and his men endured, nor the fact that his flawed leadership contributed to his death and the deaths of the others in his Polar Party.
As I grew older, I dipped into the literature of Antarctic exploration, with maturity coming to understand the nuances to Scott’s story. And in my 30s, I began to wonder about that moment when Scott saw Amundsen’s flag already at the Pole. What must that have felt like, I wondered?
And from that question, Edward Heywoud and James Watts were born, explorers who don’t do the honorable thing when they are faced with Scott’s situation. Terra Nova unfurled from there.
Q: How did you research the novel, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?
A: As soon as I knew I was going to begin writing this novel that I’d been contemplating for years, I gave myself an embargo on reading the literature of Antarctic (or Arctic) exploration. I didn’t want my language or storytelling to be accidentally influenced by what I might read.
Instead, I dove into research about the suffrage movement. I knew a little about Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughter Christabel, leaders of the movement in England. But I was surprised by what I learned about the hunger strikers, suffragettes who were arrested and treated as criminal prisoners.
Insistent they be considered political prisoners, they refused to eat–and were force fed in prison. When they were near death (either from the force feeding or the starvation), they would be released to recuperate. As soon as they recovered, they would be re-arrested to continue serving their sentences.
This use of hunger as a political act, appearing in the suffrage movement as it has in so many other political movements over history, struck me. It offered a fascinating intersection with the hunger of a very different sort that befell explorers in the Polar regions.
Q: The Star Tribune review of the book says, “In early 20th century Britain, heroic women risked their lives to win voting rights, and men defied death by launching expeditions to the Antarctic. On the surface, these historic struggles don't appear to have much in common, yet Henriette Lazaridis seamlessly links them in Terra Nova, a literary novel that highlights their common denominator: how far men and women will go to achieve their goals.” What do you think of that description?
A: This feels like an apt description to me. This common denominator of ambition and its limits–that’s exactly what I was hoping to examine through my characters’ lives. The hunger of the hunger strikers and of the explorers is really just a physical manifestation of a figurative hunger, for success, for fame, for achievement.
In early notes to myself, I considered involving Viola Heywoud in the suffrage movement, but decided against the idea, feeling it would be too obvious. But after several different versions of her story, when I finally returned to the suffrage narrative, it felt inevitable. I couldn’t believe I had turned away from it at first, and it felt in fact like a sort of gift that the history of that period included both Antarctic exploration and women’s struggle for political independence at the same time.
Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?
A: Because I had a few different storylines for Viola, I had at least a couple of different endings for the novel as well. In my notes–ah, those notes!–I have a page where I’ve drawn out a decision tree for each of Viola’s options, and options depending on what I would decide to do with the other two characters.
Eventually, though, before I even finished Viola’s story, I did figure out where she would end up. The epilogue remained the same through, I think, two different Viola versions.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m very excited about the news that’s just come out (in mid-December) about the fusion project at Lawrence Livermore labs because I’m currently working on a novel about fusion! Strictly speaking, the novel is about a young woman physicist in 1972 who is determined to get to work on the fusion project that was under way at MIT at that time.
Meanwhile, she’s still wrestling with the fact of her mother’s violent disappearance in 1958–and doesn’t know that her mother had been involved in the Manhattan Project.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: Despite my French first name, I am in fact Greek. Both parents were Greek (but my mother’s mother was French-Swiss; hence my first name), and came to the States a couple of years before I was born. I grew up in a Greek-speaking home, with some French thrown in as well. I attribute my love of etymology and syntax to my early exposure to different languages, and I love having this double way of expressing myself.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb