Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Hot Crimes in Cold Climes

Earlier this afternoon, a good chunk of my recent interview with M.J. McGrath, the British author of the new thriller The Boy in the Snow (Viking), was posted on the Kirkus Reviews Web site.

You can read that here.

Being brief as it is, that piece focuses primarily on McGrath’s latest book, the sequel to her highly praised debut novel, White Heat (which I named in January Magazine as one of my favorite books of 2011). While the earlier story took place in the frigid, far-north Canadian terrirory of Nunavut and on Ellesmere Island--the home of McGrath’s protagonist, Edie Kiglatuk, a half-white, half-Inuit teacher and sometime guide in her 30s--Boy moves the action west to Alaska. Together with her friend, Sergeant Derek Palliser, Edie has traveled to the so-called Last Frontier in support of her ex-husband, who is participating in the annual Iditarod dog sled race. Of course, troubles follows Edie: she discovers the frozen body of a child, left on the edge of a forest outside Anchorage under ceremonial circumstances. Unsatisfied with the efforts of local cops to get to the bottom of this sad mystery, the remarkably gutsy Edie decides to do some digging herself. It isn’t long before she’s mixing it up with members of a reportedly dangerous Russian religious sect as well as sex traffickers, and involving herself in a bizarre scheme that’s linked to the current Alaska gubernatorial campaign.

As is frequently true of the author interviews I conduct on Kirkus’ behalf, there was way more material available from my e-mail discussion with M.J. “Melanie” McGrath than I could have hoped to squeeze into my column. So I’m posting the remainder below.

J. Kingston Pierce: You worked early on in the book-publishing field, before becoming a full-time writer in your late 20s. Why did that evolution take so long?

M.J. McGrath: You can’t really write a book until you know who you are and what you have to say. Like most people, I spent my early 20s exploring that stuff. It’s possible that for me the process was accelerated after the very early death of my father. [It] kind of focuses the mind.

JKP: When did your father pass away? What age was he at the time, and how old were you?

MM: My dad died when I was 26 and he was in his late 50s. His father was an alcoholic and the family grew up pretty poor. Dad worked very, very hard to escape the circumstances of his early life and I often think it was this, coupled with the unhappiness of his childhood, which led to his early death. So I’ve spent almost the whole of my adult life without a father, and even now, I miss him.

A sister of mine once consulted a clairvoyant who told her that my dad said I was driving too fast. I did used to drive too fast, so who knows. Whatever, that clairvoyant certainly made me into a better driver.

Losing a parent early really changes you, or it changed me. I suddenly felt on the frontline of mortality. It was me next in line. So I’ve lived almost my whole adult life very aware of my own mortality in a way that many people don’t. That’s partly what drew me to crime fiction. I know what it’s like to feel: “You’re next.”

Author M.J. “Melanie” McGrath (photo © Patricia Grey)

JKP: You've taken on some journalistic assignments over the years, many of them been built around travel writing. How did you move into that field, and are you still writing about travel?

MM: I’ve never thought of myself as a travel writer, but I love to write about place and its connection to identity. In each of the different settings I’ve lived--from Las Vegas, Nevada, to Bonn, Germany, Leon, Nicaragua, and London, England--I’ve been a slightly different person, and this really intrigues me.

Would Edie Kiglatuk be the same woman if she lived in Tokyo? No, of course not! Though she’d still eat a lot of raw fish.

I can’t imagine writing about a place unless I’d been there. For The Boy in the Snow I traveled across Alaska. Turns out it’s pretty big.

JKP: How long did you spend in the 49th state, and did you have any unusual or revealing experiences that you can share here?

MM: I spent a spring and part of a summer traveling alone in Alaska, staying with local people. It’s a wonderful, fabulous place but also quite strange. The usual rules don’t apply. The whole state was just getting out of [Sarah] Palin fever. There was a bit of a Palin backlash going on. I got chatting to one of Palin’s aunts one time. She said, “I don’t know why some people don’t like Sarah. She’s such a sweet girl.” Sarah Palin’s many things but “a sweet girl” wouldn’t be at the top of my list.

I spent quite a lot of time hiking out on my own. I remember one time just outside Anchorage, I came across a bear safety notice. There was different advice for grizzlies and black bears which, as I remember, said that neither grizzlies nor black bears often attack humans, but that once they launch an attack, grizzlies can sometimes be persuaded to stop but black bears, never. The sign said, “If a black bear attacks you, fight for your life.” I was on my own, I didn’t have a gun or bear spray. Of course, an hour or so into the hike, I saw something black and furry moving through the trees making an odd coughing sound, and I remember stopping and thinking, OK, so now I might have to follow the advice board and fight for my life. I wasn’t even scared so much as really, really angry. Murderously so. I guess that was the adrenaline. I remember feeling really pissed off at the advice, at how general it was. Fight for your life. Sure, but how exactly?

In any case, lucky me, I never had to put it to the test. The creature--I never got a clear look--lumbered off. But I’ve used that feeling I had--that initial recognition of being in a life-or-death situation--in my work.

JKP: Prior to writing your first novel, you penned three non-fiction books, the best-known of which is The Long Exile (2006), about Canada’s forced relocation, in 1953, of three dozen Inuit natives from their traditional home on Hudson Bay to Ellesmere Island. I understand it was your effort on that book that inspired White Heat. But what provoked your transition from composing non-fiction to writing fiction? Was this something you’d wanted to do for a long time?

MM: I see myself as a storyteller. Some of the stories I tell are true, some are made up, though even in the ones that are made up there is usually some factual element. The Boy in the Snow deals with sex trafficking and political corruption in Alaska, and it’s true to say that Alaskan politics have been notoriously corrupt and that Anchorage has one of the highest rates of sexual crime per capita in the USA.

JKP: I guess that doesn’t surprise me. During my very first visit to the city of Anchorage, back in the late 1990s--in fact, during the cab ride in from the airport--I was offered the services of a prostitute. It definitely left an impression on me! But let me ask: Had you ever tried writing fiction before White Heat?

MM: For a long time I was very interested in hybrid forms like memoir and that’s what kept me busy. My fiction still has some factual basis in that it deals with real places and real issues. Crime is growing exponentially in parts of the Arctic. In Arctic Canada, for example, homicide is seven times the national average. So my work is partly a reflection of reality.

JKP: After studying the Inuit culture all this time, do you think you have a good grasp on the breadth of its nuances? Or are there things that you’ll simply never understand?

MM: I’m still trying to work out my own culture!

I don’t think there’s anything in Inuit culture I don’t understand, but that doesn’t mean it’s not very different in some ways from my own. Inuit have evolved to live in small bands or communities who depend completely on one another for their survival. The Inuit verb “to love” also means “to care for.” So Inuit tend to be great sharers. And they don’t often outwardly express anger or indeed any strong emotion because, not so long ago, to have done so would have been threatening to their survival. It’s also quite taboo to talk about the dead. For these reasons, there tend to be a lot of secrets in Inuit communities as well as long-held but unexpressed grudges. In that, they’re not so different from goldfish bowl communities anywhere, but it tends to be more extreme in Inuit culture.

JKP: What elements of yourself--your history, your attitudes, your behavior--have gone into the character of Edie Kiglatuk?

MM: Edie is partly a sort of fantasy version of me, the me I might be if nobody was noticing or likely to tell me off. That element of being scared shitless but going ahead anyway, for example--there’s definitely something of that in me. I think that losing a parent early focuses the mind and maybe makes you more likely to say yes to experiences, even if they’re ones that fill you with foreboding or fear.

JKP: One of the things that originally made Edie interesting was that she had such difficulties with her family and alcohol. Yet she seems to be in better control of both in this new book. Can we expect to follow a more put-together Edie from here on out, or will we see more of her weaknesses crop up in future stories?

MM: Edie is no more or less flawed than the rest of us. Like all of us, Edie’s struggles with her demons are more successful at some points in her life than at others.

JKP: White Heat succeeded in part because it was set in such an alien environment. However, for The Boy in the Snow, you leave the barrens of Ellesmere Island in favor of setting your story among the more recognizable cities and tamer frontier culture of Alaska. Why did you make this switch?

MM: I’d like to think that White Heat succeeded not simply because it was set in an alien environment, but because the characters are people readers find easy to engage with and the story gripped them.

JKP: Again, though, why--so early in your series--did you choose to leave Nunavat and write instead about Alaska? Was it simply because you wanted to write about the Iditarod, or because you thought it important to expand Edie’s character by showing how she would operate amongst a larger population of qalunaat (white men)?

MM: It was just a story I wanted to tell. In many ways the Arctic region defies national boundaries. Many people living in the Arctic, particularly indigenous people, think of themselves first and foremost as inhabitants of the Great North ... rather than as Americans, Canadians or whatever.

JKP: Will future Edie tales return to Nunavat?

MM: The story I’m writing now, the third in the Edie Kiglatuk series, is set back in Nunavut, but the fourth won’t necessary be.

JKP: Finally, I have to ask this: You mention in the biographical section of your Web site that early in your career, you had to write an essay “on whether I could prove I wasn’t a bat.” How, pray tell, does one go about proving such a thing?

MM: As I’ve matured I’ve decided that it’s OK to live with the uncertainty. I guess I could weigh up the evidence. On the one hand my eyesight isn’t so good. On the other hand my prose style is probably a bit more sophisticated than the average bat’s.

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