Books·How I Wrote It

How Ed O'Loughlin put himself into the hearts and minds of Arctic explorers

The author talks about how he wrote Minds of Winter, which is a finalist for the 2017 Scotiabank Giller Prize.
Minds of Winter by Ed O'Loughlin is on the 2017 Scotiabank Giller Prize shortlist. (Nuala Haughey/Anansi)

Ed O'Loughlin is a Toronto-born, Ireland-raised author and journalist. His first novel, Not Untrue & Not Unkind, was longlisted for the 2009 Man Booker Prize.

His latest novel, Minds of Winter, is a finalist for the 2017 Scotiabank Giller Prize. It's a mix of historical fact and fiction with a bit of the metaphysical thrown in for good measure. The novel is inspired by Sir John Franklin's doomed Arctic expedition, but also weaves in fictional extrapolations of the thoughts and motivations of other notable Arctic explorers, with vivid depictions of the Canadian north. 

In his own words, O'Loughlin shares how he wrote Minds of Winter.

Writing historical characters

"I've never met these people and I never will. You look at their lives and the information about how they lived and what kind of people they were and use as much of that as possible. I was fascinated by them. I had to try and come up with a theory about why they did what they did, because they suffered terribly for this quest. They were curious, they wanted to see what was over the next hill, but that's just me guessing.

"I don't have them doing anything that history says that they didn't do, but you're filling in a lot of blanks. You have to be kind to them. I treat them like sources. I used to be a journalist. You can't burn your own sources. You can't burn your own characters. But you are ultimately playing fast and loose with their lives."

A ghost story

"It's a metaphysical novel. At the end of the day it's escapist — this dream that maybe there's something beautiful beyond what we can see, maybe there's a way of cheating death. It's about what we reach for beyond the world we live in and the life that we have. It's kind of a ghost story, except without an actual ghost in it. The poles, to me, represent another world that actually exists in this world. Particularly in the age of exploration, when people didn't know what was up there, there were some very mad theories as to what might be found in the North Pole or the South Pole. The explorers there didn't know what they were going to find, I just found that inspiring as a metaphor for how we make our own way through life."

The intrigue of maps

"I love maps. I wanted to write a geographical novel. I was doing a lot of almost poetical motifs, with place names that occur in different parts of the world, places named after different characters in the book. I wanted to set up this subliminal pattern of geographical echoes.

"Anybody who loves Tolkien and Lord of the Rings loves the maps and you get sucked into them, particularly the edge of the maps. What's beyond them? What's past the white space? That was part of the attraction to the North and South Poles on these old maps. You don't see them."

Accepting the unknown

"Not knowing the answer is what appeals to me. I don't believe that there is a Bigfoot or a Loch Ness Monster for a second. However, I like the fact that we'll never be able to prove that there isn't. It could be taken that Minds of Winter has an unresolved ending, but I don't think it's unresolved. You can approach it in two different ways. You can read it very, very carefully over and over again and wonder why there isn't an index and try to figure everything out. If you did that, ultimately there is an answer. You can just read it and let it flow over you. That's how it's meant to be read. It's supposed to be a stream of impressions. In some ways it's not actually a novel at all. It's more like a poem. You know when you read a poem you don't get half of it but it's OK? This book is like that."

Ed O'Loughlin's comments have been edited and condensed. 


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