Giller Prize Special: The Chat with Ed O’Loughlin

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We continue our Giller special this week in conversation with Ed O’Loughlin, author of Minds of Winter (House of Anansi).

The Giller jury says “Bright moments from the distant past spring up beside dark moments from the present, things hidden – a death, a gift, a lost clock – come briefly into view and then disappear forever. In Minds of Winter, Ed O’Loughlin’s brilliant story of polar exploration, time itself is an Arctic: a mysterious dimension of sun craze and apparitions, chance encounters and destiny. The mechanism of this novel is fascinating to observe, its implications are deeply human. In O’Loughlin’s work, our desire for knowledge, our obsession with the past, our grappling with life itself … all of it is generously, wittily on display.”

Ed O’Loughlin is an Irish-Canadian author and journalist. His first novel, Not Untrue and Not Unkind, was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2009 and shortlisted for the Kerry Group Irish Fiction Award. His second novel, Toploader, was published in 2011. As a journalist, Ed reported from Africa for several papers, including the Irish Times. He was the Middle East correspondent for the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age of Melbourne. Ed was born in Toronto and raised in Ireland. He now lives in Dublin with his wife and two children.

Once you've read this Chat, move on to the others in our Giller Prize Special Series: Michelle Winters (for I Am a Truck) and Rachel Cusk (for Transit).

TheChat-Giller-2017

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THE CHAT WITH ED O’LOUGHLIN

Trevor Corkum: What was the first thing you did when you found out you were a finalist for this year’s Giller Prize?

Ed O’Loughlin: I asked my mother if she was sure. She saw it on the Macleans website, which unintentionally broke the embargo and published the list a few minutes early. She called to congratulate me before the live announcement was made. Mothers get scoops.

TC: Tell us more about how Minds of Winter was born.

EO: About eighteen years ago I first read The Arctic Grail by Pierre Berton, which tells the stories of the men and women who risked and often lost their lives to find the Northwest Passage and reach the North Pole. The things they were seeking were really worthless, in practical terms, but they became mesmerized by the quest. I had a vague idea that perhaps at some point they would have become aware that the thing they were searching for was not of this earth, and that perhaps some of them—the ones who vanished, and whose fates are uncertain—found it in the end. The book grew from there.

I had a vague idea that perhaps at some point they would have become aware that the thing they were searching for was not of this earth, and that perhaps some of them—the ones who vanished, and whose fates are uncertain—found it in the end.

TC: Your novel is largely set in the Canadian Arctic, and includes maps of the North. What inspires you most about the North? What’s your relationship to the Arctic?

EO: Since I was a child I’ve loved looking at maps, and maps of the poles in particular. I saw the Antarctic and Arctic as dream lands at the ends of the earth. Of course, it’s easier to romanticize something that you haven’t experienced directly, and I’d never been to either as a kid. Since then I’ve made two short visits to the Arctic and I’m happy to say that the magic still works. But I’ve never been farther south than the Cape of Good Hope.

TC: You were born in Toronto, live in Ireland, and have spent considerable time in the Middle East. How do you juggle the many facets of your literary and professional identity?

EO: I was working as a foreign correspondent in the Middle East while I wrote my first novel, Not Untrue and Not Unkind, and that made it very difficult to write to a set schedule, which is really important for an author. As a result, that book took much longer to finish than it should have done. But for the last few years I’ve been a stay-at-home dad. I write when the kids are at school. Not much juggling required.

TC: 49th Shelf is built around a large community of readers and fans of Canadian literature. What Canadian authors do you count among your influences?
 
I read a lot of Farley Mowat’s books when I was a kid, including his children’s novels set in the north, and they are one of the main reasons why I became interested in the Arctic. I wish I could say Robertson Davies was an influence, but my work isn’t clever enough for that to be true. My last novel, Toploader, used science fiction techniques to re-examine the underlying truths of a real-world abuse, the so-called war against terror, but Margaret Atwood does that much better than I could. Steven Leacock was hilarious.

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Excerpt from Minds of Winter

Prologue

HOROLOGISTS PONDER MYSTERY OF HOW 19THCENTURY CHRONOMETER SURVIVED FATAL ARCTIC EXPEDITION

Timepiece linked to Sir John Franklin’s fatal Arctic expedition returns to Britain disguised as a carriage clock

By Maev Kennedy
Guardian, London,
Wednesday 20 May 2009, 15.26 BST

In a mystery worthy of Agatha Christie, a valuable marine chronometer sits on a workbench in London, crudely disguised as a Victorian carriage clock, more than 150 years after it was recorded as lost in the Arctic along with Sir John Franklin and his crew in one of the most famous disasters in the history of polar exploration.

‘I have no answers, but the facts are completely extraordinary,’ said the senior specialist on horology at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, Jonathan Betts. ‘This is a genuine mystery.’ When and how did the timepiece return to Britain, is it evidence that somebody survived the disaster, or of a crime – even murder?

Betts has no idea – but he does know its shining brass mechanism could never have spent months in the ice, exposed to salt-laden Arctic gales. It must have been stolen from the ship, or from a crew member who cared for it up to the moment of their death.

‘This has never been lying around in the open air. I have handled a pocket watch recovered from the expedition, and it is so corroded it is not possible even to open the case. Conditions in the Arctic are so extreme this would have rusted within a day, and been a heap of rubbish within a month.’

The chronometer returned to the same building – once the Admiralty store from which it was issued, now Betts’ clocks workshop at the Royal Observatory.

The apparent fate of the superb timekeeper, made in London by John Arnold, after it was issued to Sir John’s ship, is clear from the official ledger also on Betts’ desk. Under ‘Arnold 294’, the faded sepia ink reads: ‘Lost in the Arctic Regions with the “Erebus.’ In the final entry, on 26 June 1886, more than 40 years after it disappeared, it was officially written off.

The fate of Franklin in 1845, his two superbly equipped ships carrying two years’ worth of supplies, including barrels of lemon juice to ward off scurvy, his 129 men who starved, froze and were poisoned to death in the ice, and the suggestion that some survived for a time by cannibalism, haunted the Victorian imagination.

A record 32 rescue expeditions were sent, spurred on by his formidable widow, Jane.
Inuit witnesses described Englishmen dying where they fell in the ice, apparently without ever asking how the natives survived such extreme conditions.

Rescue expeditions brought back papers recording the death of Franklin, abandoned clothes and equipment, caches of supplies including poorly sealed tins of meat that may have killed many of the men, and eventually skeletons. Every scrap of evidence was recorded – but there is no record of anyone setting eyes on the chronometer again.

It is clear to Betts that whoever converted it into a carriage clock for a suburban mantelpiece knew they were dealing with stolen property. The evidence of a crime concealed is on the dial, where Arnold’s name was beaten flat, and an invented maker’s name substituted – and then changed back again when the clock was sold 30 years ago and a restorer spotted Arnold’s name on the mechanism.

The Observatory bought it when it came up for sale again 10 years ago, but its true history emerged when Betts dismantled it, and matched it with the 19th-century records. None of those who handled it after conversion could have guessed its connection with the Franklin expedition.

It will be on public display for the first time in an exhibition opening on Saturday at the National Maritime museum, on Britain’s obsessive quest to find the legendary North West Passage to the east through the Arctic ice, which over centuries cost the lives of Franklin, his men and hundreds of other explorers and sailors.

Among poignant artefacts, including a sledge flag embroidered by his widow with the motto ‘Hope on Hope Ever’, one of the still-sealed cans of meat and the revolting contents of another opened in the 1920s, visitors will see the rather dumpy carriage clock, with three fat little ball feet and a carrying handle crudely bolted onto the chronometer’s original brass case.

Betts believes the only possible explanation for the conversion was to make Arnold 294 literally unrecognizable. Stealing a valuable piece of government property from an official expedition would have been a serious crime, punishable by transportation if not death. He yearns to know who dunnit.

North West Passage: An Arctic Obsession, National Maritime
Museum Greenwich, 23 May–20 January 2009

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Excerpted from MINDS OF WINTER. Copyright © 2016 Ed O’Loughlin. Published by House of Anansi Press. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.

October 23, 2017
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