Steven Heighton: “Locked in the Ice & Free to Play”

Steven Heighton’s second novel, Afterlands, was recently published in his native Canada and will be appearing in the United States (and several other nations) early next year. He is also the author of The Shadow Boxer, a Publishers Weekly Book of the Year for 2002, and the short story collections Flight Paths of the Emperor and On earth as it is. In this essay for Beatrice readers, he explains how fiction can emerge from a kernel of fact…

heighton.jpgDuke Ellington once said that it’s good to have limits. He was talking about jazz music, but I think the same can be said about writing. When I write poetry I often use some sort of constraining form—sometimes a traditional form, like the sonnet, sometimes one of my own devising—to help compress and intensify the material and also the medium, language. That’s what the limitations of form are for. Not to provide a stage on which a writer gets to preen and flaunt mastery of the craft; not to promote retrograde cultural nostalgia or politically reactionary attitudes. Simply, formal constraints impose a framework that forces the imagination to dig deeper, making the writer compress and intensify the material of the poem—or, sometimes, the novel.

The framework of historical fact I used in writing Afterlands was particularly suited to imposing constraints, and not only formally but geographically. In 1871 the U.S. Navy sent a largely civilian expedition north to the Arctic where it was to reach the North Pole, if possible, and plant the American flag. But the ship, the USS Polaris, was stopped by the ice, and after a full winter trapped in the ice it was forced to turn back. It didn’t get far. During a storm in which the ship seemed to be sinking, much of the crew—a white American, a black American, five Germans, a Dane, a Swede, an Englishman, and two Inuit families—were cast away on a large ice-floe, which then began to shrink steadily as it drifted south in the Arctic seas through the winter darkness. This microcosm of varied characters soon fragmented along ethnic and national lines, even as the floe’s steady shrinking forced them into ever closer quarters.

afterlands.jpgFrom a novelist’s point of view, this ordeal offered many attractions, including all the traditional excitements of a survival tale. Thematically, I saw, it could make a forceful, post-9/11 parable of ethnic nationalism, pack behaviour, and other kinds of extremism. But it was equally attractive in terms of form and structure. For if the floe was a microcosm, it was also a stage. I would have no choice about where to set my scenes. In fact, as the floe got progressively smaller, I would have less and less choice—a lack of choice that would, paradoxically, free me, allowing me to focus wholly on the scenes themselves and my captive cast of characters. This is a crucial truth about formal limits: By constraining you, they also free you.

With Afterlands I was freed from anxieties about the overall shape/structure not only in terms of place but also in terms of time, of incident, since what happened on the ice was somewhat documented. The ranking officer on the floe, an American, George Tyson, took rough notes during the ordeal and, after he and some of the other castaways were saved, hastily expanded and embroidered them into a book called Arctic Experiences. When I got hold of a first edition of the book I was as intrigued by the seeming gaps in Tyson’s account as by the account itself. The silence, the virtual absence of many of Tyson’s fellow castaways I found suggestive and eloquent. Tyson generally depicts himself as the One Reasonable Man, while the others neurotically plot to steal, desert, mutiny, murder, malinger, and cannibalize; I couldn’t help suspecting that the castaways, in their hunger and fear and desperation, must all have behaved badly at certain times, and at other times acted nobly, heroically.

I decided to excerpt key passages from Tyson’s memoir and use them in Afterlands as narrative vertebrae, then flesh them out with invented scenes from the viewpoints of two other important figures: Roland Kruger, a rebellious, free-thinking German sailor, and Tukulito, an Inuit woman who was the Arctic’s first professional interpreter. At times my improvised scenes replay Tyson’s own recountings, though from different points of view, allowing me to carry out a sort of dramatic triangulation on events and characters. At other times these scenes imagine what might have occurred in the narrative rifts, those tantalizing gaps in Tyson’s book. In other words I worked with what was recorded, while giving myself the freedom to fill in the silences, to riff and improvise in a way that a jazz musician would understand.

The final part of Afterlands works differently. Here I pursue my protagonists into the aftermath or “afterlands” of their lives, an area for which there is little or no documentation. (In writing Kruger’s coda I’ve resorted to pure conjecture.) Essentially, I use the factual foundation of the ice story as a launching-quay for a sustained, exploratory last riff. Call it an adventure in pure improv—an elating shift from constraint and containment into unbounded freedom—but a freedom still defined and ordered by the structural and length demands established in the first two-thirds of the book. So even in this final journey into creative freedom, with Kruger in Mexico, I was guided by the sort of helpful limits that the Duke relished when playing or composing jazz.

22 December 2005 | guest authors |