The Looking Glass, Volume 11, Issue 3, 2007

Writer on Ice: writing styles and serendipity

Hazel Edwards

Hazel Edwards is an Australian author of over 170 books for adults and children including the classic "There's a Hippopotamus on our Roof Eating Cake" (continually in print for its 28 years and recently part of the Australian Government's gift to the newborn Danish Princess Isabella).  In 2000 she was a recipient of the Australian Antarctic Division's Humanities Program berth that took her on the polar resupply voyage to Casey station, Antarctica in 2001. 

A wide range of cross-media stories for children and adults have resulted, exploring Antarctica and its effect on people.  They all reflect the fascination Hazel found in the range of media, perspectives and voices involved in Antarctica’s ‘special mystique as the last eco-frontier for explorers, scientists, romantics and writers’.  From the e-mail links to keep expeditioner families in touch during remote winters, to formal research on vehicles, icebergs and wildlife, to personal journals from the edge of survival, the high-tech modern is combined with the traditions of the frontier.

The current list can be found at the end of this article, and much more detail, including her Antarctic Journey journal, is available from her website at http://www.hazeledwards.com

Being an author means the opportunity to live more intensively by participant observation in places like Antarctic expeditions, but also by using imagination and asking 'What if?' as in the creation of the cake-eating hippo. 'Sticky-beaking' or asking questions of extraordinary, ordinary people is considered legitimate research for a writer. And sometimes books travel even further than the author, into the minds and actions of readers.
(Antarctic Writer on Ice – introduction)

Antarctic writer on ice is a serendipitous map of the way I was introduced to Antarctica.  A professional author always considers her audience, and shapes the material appropriately.  I was fortunate to have had several readerships for my journey, both while onboard and with subsequent adult and child audiences in newspapers, magazines and books.

I wanted to share my creative literary process as I tried to shape those polar experiences as fact and fiction in writing for different audiences.  As a children’s author, I believe in the participant-observer approach of going and doing, distilling the essence of the research and then writing about complex issues in simple language afterwards.

But Antarctic was an unusual literary experience, and these different ways of writing about it, are an attempt to convey that.

Scientists and explorers think in the precisions of time, distance and location.  So I have quoted the sit-reps.  Sit-Reps are the situation reports in the language of degrees south, times beset in the ice, and temperatures recorded.  Certain readers adore detail which gives them a ‘hold’ on a subject and ‘Antarctica’ is BIG geographically, ecologically and emotionally.

Because my laptop exploded and I lost the capacity to retain files, I had to e-mail my daily thoughts to my cyber-capable daughter with a back-up to my co-author.  But since my satellite time was limited, I was only permitted about 400 words at a time and no attachments.  That is why e-mail entries are dated by the voyage day and retain the rawness of immediacy because these were originally the research equivalent of my writer’s idea note- book.

So many people responded favourably and forwarded to others the few e-mails they had read, that I began to think of the rawness and present tense of e-mailing as a valid form of conveying experience.  Thus my emails have been edited, but their previous sequence retained.

My written features and radio interviews with expeditioners attempt to convey different perspectives and language relevant to their occupations, gender, workstyle, motivations, or the equipment or transport of Antarctica.  Inclusion of my published review of the Antarctic Dictionary, which I wrote prior to the voyage, was ironic timing.  When the newspaper printed my review in January, I was actually in Antarctica using some of the terms which had been an academic exercise earlier.  So the actual terminology of Antarctic-speak is an aspect of this literary record.

As a journalist I had been commissioned to write “Postcards from Antarctica” in the form of e-mail articles, so some of the following extracts had a dual purpose.  I was writing for a private and for a public readership, and so I shaped the experience appropriately but still tried to be honest about reactions to ice, expeditioners’ workstyles and to the way I felt about the physical challenges.  My decision to write in first person was a technical one to take the reader into the subjective world of a female writer-expeditioner to provide a dramatic contrast to most audience expectations of a male polar expeditioner.

There appears to be an overlap in the chronology of events, but that was because the newspaper-published feature articles had to repeat events for a once-only reader.  Often the articles were published much later and my edited copy might differ from my original, especially if cut for space limits.  This is the reason for indicating the process in Antarctic Writer on Ice.

Shaping fiction requires different processes to shaping fact.  I included the ‘Lachieberg’ children’s iceberg story as an example of how a picture book developed and the significance of stories being shared with families or even the therapeutic value of being able to create for a specific reader.

The Lachieberg saga began because six year old Lachie had requested that I write an Antarctic story using his name.  Seduced by translucent iceberg beauty, and because the guys had jokingly named one the 'Hazelberg' I wrote a story about a jade iceberg. The title was 'Lachieberg'.  I checked the facts with the glaciologist onboard and e-mailed it to young Lachlan.  Mick the barge-driver requested a copy for his niece and offered to trade a beautiful photo of a jade iceberg.  Bartering skills is common Down South I learnt.  So we did 'find and replace' with his niece's name and changed the pronouns.  Then scientist Garry, a fine water colourist offered to paint a jade iceberg as he was going 'stir crazy' while beset, and painted it that morning.  Then the requests started.  Expeditioners with young children wanted a copy to e-mail with their child's name on.  E-mails are vital with Antarctic families and it's important to have news other than 'we're still stuck at such and such degrees.'  So I put a male and a female version of the 'ice-berg' story on the communal e-mail computer for downloading.  'Hope my daughter never meets one of the other kids, and they fight about whose story it is,' said the father of 3 year old Grace.  Then we had a chat about copyright.

The process of plotting is indicated by the en-acting a possible expeditioner disappearance overboard and drawing on the Bosun’s shipboard knowledge.  I put hypothetical plots to ‘boffins’ to get their comments on the scientific feasibility.  I have shown an author’s idea gathering and the need to have conflict, setting and character in fiction and fact.  The hesitant ‘I’ of the storyteller is a little exaggerated for dramatic contrast or humour, but the candid accounts are accurate.

‘What if?’ is also part of an author’s plotting, so the hypothetical SETI incident is included as an example of how boredom can provoke an author into creating.

Excepts from other expeditioners’ e-diaries (with their permission) indicate varied tones and different ways of writing of the same events. The Midwinter Dinner Invitation and response shows the value of humour in alleviating distance, but also the formatting of another Antarctic experience.

Antarctic Division formal emergency news circulars are written in a different tone and style from the laconic limericks performed at the Limerick Lunch.  Poetic descriptions of ice or Wagner’s music being played out of the back of the rescuing ice-breaker contrast with the narrative description of trying on survival gear.

Subsequent literary creations based on the experience of Antarctica will continue in the form of picture books, a photographic faction series on Antarctic vehicles for young children and an eco-thriller for young adult readers.

Since creativity is based on putting together things which have not been in that combination before, trying to give a candid account of the process of  researching and writing on ice and simultaneously experimenting with new ways of writing  those experiences as fact and fiction, for a variety of audiences  is valid.  I’ve tried to indicate one writer’s process: serendipitious but mapped … a fortuitous happening but one which was directed.

In 2003, an Antarctic Exhibition was held at Parliament House, Canberra and recipients of the Humanities Berth were asked to write about how the experience had influenced their future work.  This was my answer:

How being ‘Antarctic Writer on ice’ has influenced my subsequent work?

Since my Antarctic voyage, when speaking to groups, I use the iceberg as a symbol for writing a book. Nine-tenths of the work is unseen.

A respect for the work of ‘boffins’ and ‘tradies’ as excellent problem-solvers and tall story tellers has crept into my Antarctic non- fiction and novel characterisation. On-going contact with diversely skilled expeditioners has enriched my life. We still e-mail.  They have helped me with plot details, scientific data and photos.

As Tournament of Minds problem-writer, I created an Antarctic science scenario and solutions were performed by 60,000-plus students Australia-wide.  More watched.  At conferences, I present the viewpoint of a female, non-scientist ,50-plus author who concludes the Antarctic medical should also test for a sense of humour.

Pre-voyage, I thought physical strength would be vital, but words matter as a way of coming to terms with the scale of Antarctica and many readers have gained vicarious experience because books can travel further than one writer.

I was seduced by the surreal beauty of the icebergs and the serendipitous literary opportunities.

Maybe allocating a Humanities berth will give birth to new Antarctic literature?

Hazel Edwards’ Antarctic Publications

See www.hazeledwards.com for teachers’ notes

Antarctic Writer on Ice: Diary of an Enduring Adventure
Common Ground Publishers, 2002 -  www.booksonwriting.com
Paperback ISBN: 1 86335 090 X, eBook ISBN: 1 86335 091 8
Audiobook available from www.louisbrailleaudio.com
Braille version also available

Classroom play ‘Antarctica; Cool or What?’
in Right or Wrong co-scripted with Goldie Alexander.
Phoenix Education, 2002; South African edition, 2006 - www.phoenixed.com
ISBN 1 876580 33 X
Teachers’ Notes book of classroom activities also available.

Antarctica’s Frozen Chosen
Lothian/Hachette, 2003
ISBN 0 7344 0519 7
Young Adult eco thriller. Nominated for Davitt crime writers award 2004. Selected for Premier’s Reading Challenge, State Library of Victoria Top 150 titles. Serialised on radio 2004 & 2005
Audiobook available from www.louisbrailleaudio.com

Antarctic Dad
Lothian/Hachette, 2006
ISBN 0-780734408501
Picture book, illus Kevin Burgemeestre
Free downloadable classroom playscript and iceship model from www.hazeledwards.com
Audio/Braille version available from www.louisbrailleaudio.com.

Grandma Leaps the Antarctic
Bilby Book Publishing, 2005 - www.bilby.net.au
ISBN: 0-7253 1655 1
Auslan signed DVD, includes ‘My Gran’s Gone to Antarctica’ and ‘The Lachieberg’
2005 Educational Excellence in Innovation Award

Healthy Women
Choice Books, ISBN 094727779X (now available from Hazel Edwards)
Contains an interview with Antarctic Station leader Marilyn Boydell.

‘Any Ants in Antarctica?’ (article for school students in Comet magazine)

Articles in The Australian Magazine, Vogue, The Age, Brisbane Courier, West Australian, The Canberra Times, The Australian Writer, & The Herald Sun
Web-chats for literary conferences such as Territory Tales & Ipswitch and RMIT Lab 3000 Virtual Antarctic Conference multi-media resources.

Works in Progress:

Antarctic Closeup
National Museum of Australia: ‘Making Tracks’ series. Due for release Se[tember 2007

Hot Ice Squad
Mumbo Jumbo Animation: pre-school TV animation series for possible cartoons, books and toys.  Sassy, a pre-schoolers’ TV animation is in progress.

STAY the Antarctic Dog workshopped with Red Cluster Gifted students

Shooting Antarctica co-authored with Goldie Alexander
5000 words adult literacy mystery with Antarctic photos. Trialled and available.

"Writer on Ice" © Hazel Edwards, 2007.