Home base for journalist and New York Times best-selling author Hampton Sides may be Santa Fe, New Mexico, but he has strong ties to Colorado Springs.
Sides is in his second year of overseeing the Journalist-in-Residence program at Colorado College, where one of his sons is currently a senior. Come next spring, he'll teach two nonfiction writing courses on campus, sharing his experiences as a longtime writer, editor-at-large for Outside magazine, and regular contributor to National Geographic.
What's more, Pikes Peak Library District selected Sides' most recent book, In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette, as one of this year's All Pikes Peak Reads titles. (See "Five 'transformational' titles.")
In the Kingdom of Ice follows Captain George Washington De Long and his 32-man crew as they leave San Francisco in 1879 on the USS Jeannette, sights set on laying claim to the North Pole for their country.
The Indy recently spoke with Sides about the process of writing this book, some of the surprises along the way, and why, as a writer, he seems to prefer the "terrible" over the "grand."
Indy: It was a trip to Norway through which you were first introduced to the USS Jeannette, right? What had you been working on, and how did you come to learn about this expedition?
Sides: I was working on a piece for National Geographic magazine, where I write fairly often. This was a piece about a Norwegian explorer named Fridtjof Nansen, who had become somewhat obsessed by this earlier expedition, this American expedition to the North Pole. At his museum in Oslo, there's repeated references to the Jeannette expedition, and it's referred to without any explanation — as, "Well, of course you know about it." And I'm an American and I'd never heard of it. ...
So I began to look it up and dig into the literature and the primary documents, and just realized there's this great story that really had not been on our radar screen for a long time. ... I often get ideas for books, or approaches to how to do my stories, through journalism. I think there's kind of a semi-permeable membrane between history and journalism.
Describe the moment when you knew this was going to be your next book.
Well, I could say the day that we signed the contract and put it in commercial terms. [Laughs.] But ... the process that I use for deciding a book is sort of both rational and irrational.
The rational part is, "Does it have a good beginning, middle, end? Does it have good characters? Has it been written about too much or not enough?" There's a checklist of things that you can kind of go down and say, "Well, those are questions that have to be answered."
But then the irrational side of it is, "Does it really get this hair-standing-up-on-the-back-of-my-neck moment, where just something about it grabs you and haunts you and makes you realize you really want to sink your teeth into this for a long time?"
[The books] take three years, minimum. And then you know you're talking about it for another few years, and in a way you're living with it for the rest of your life, so you better pick something that gives you that moment of insight and thrill. ... I think all writers ought to feel that at some moment early on, and listen to that because it's an important gauge.
You traveled quite a bit for this book, retracing a lot of the Jeannette's voyage.
Yeah, unfortunately it wasn't a voyage to Hawaii, or something like that, you know, real easy and fun and warm. But I definitely traveled more for this book than any other because of the nature of the story itself.
The ship was originally from England, and it was partially rebuilt in France. And the protagonist and his wife were married and had lived in both England and France. And the patron of the expedition, James Gordon Bennett Jr., publisher of the New York Herald, actually lived in Paris and in the south of France. And the expedition was based on the ideas of a guy who lived in Germany, a cartographer, Dr. August Petermann.
So already the travel was starting to mount up, and I went to all those places. But going to Russia, and going to Siberia, and going to the Russian Arctic was a really complicated endeavor. A lot of permits, a lot of planning. And really expensive. [Laughs] ...
But I was able to take advantage of ... a brief window of pretty good relations with the Russians, before Crimea and Putin. So at least there wasn't that obstacle. The obstacle was just the miles.
I love going physically to these places. It gives me a certain level of confidence, and a certain tactile understanding of the place ... and plus, it's just fun. Sitting down writing for two years isn't always — there are flickering flurries of inspiration and wonderful days you might have in there, but those days can also be quite difficult. There's a certain element of drudgery, getting into your first draft. But the travel part is always a blast.
Did you ever get stuck on ice, like De Long did?
Yeah. Both literally and metaphorically.
Literally, we took this reinforced vessel, pretty much an icebreaker, from the Bering Strait up to Wrangel Island. And we did run into an ice field, even though it was August. Three or four times we got blocked completely to a halt on the ice, and we had to back up and ram through it. It gave me a sense of what the Jeannette was like and what De Long had to deal with for those years they were stuck in the ice.
I kind of had this notion that ice out on the water was this static thing, this sort of monolith that's just out there. And if you get stuck in it, you're stuck. ... What helped a lot was getting out there and just listening to the ice, and realizing that it's constantly moving and churning, and it's alive and it's making all these really bizarre sounds. It's a living force. And to have that for two years, knowing at any moment that pressure could crush your ship and be the end of you, it informed their journey. It was just an interesting thing for me to get at least a little sense of appreciation of.
You weave letters from George De Long's wife, Emma, throughout the book. And in the acknowledgments you mention that they were part of a "magical gift that all historians fantasize about." How did you come to acquire these papers, and were you the first to really dig into those?
I heard that there were some distant relatives of De Long in New England ... and so I literally just cold-called, like, 20 De Longs, until I got to one particular De Long.
A lady answered the phone, said [the man I asked for] was deceased, but she was the widow, Katharine De Long, and she happened to have this trunk up in the attic that she had looked at long enough to ascertain that it was Emma De Long's stuff, and she didn't know what to do with it.
"It's funny that you called, because I'm trying to figure out what to do with it. Would you please come look at it?" I was on the next plane to Connecticut. Turned out to be [Emma's] personal papers. ...
Some of the stuff had been already given to the Naval Academy Museum, so it's not like no one had ever seen any of it, but most of the things that people had seen were edited letters. After her husband died, she edited his papers, and his journals and logs, and then she also wrote her own book, which was heavily edited. This was a lot more of the raw, unvarnished stuff. ... So it was cool.
It was really interesting to work with. And she was a great writer in her own right, actively involved in the expedition. ...
It was pretty late in the game when I finally decided to print the letters in that way, and it just worked really well. It gave a sense of urgency, and kind of made the tragedy, as it was unfolding, a lot more personal.
Was this your first "magical gift"?
You mean the trunk-in-the-attic thing?
Yeah, I've certainly lucked into some good situations, but a whole trove of letters like that, that was certainly the first time. And probably the only time.
I was really surprised to find [naturalist] John Muir make an appearance in this book. ... What were you surprised by during the process of investigating?
Well, one thing is just how well known it was. What a big deal it was then ... Everybody knew about the expedition. And then juxtaposing that with today.
When I give these talks, I usually ask people — barring those who may be reading, or who have read the book — "How many of you had ever heard of this?" And it's usually one or two people in a whole auditorium. How does an event that well known and publicized around the world become so obscure? And I don't have a reason, exactly, but certainly one of the main reasons I wrote the book was this feeling I had, that it ought to be better known.
And also similarly surprising is, when I was in Russia, it's a lot better known over there than it is in the United States. ... It's partly because it happened in Russia, ended up in Russia, the czar entertained the survivors, and it was one of the few times where the U.S. and the Russians really cooperated, in terms of the search and the funeral train/procession across the whole Eurasian continent. I guess there was an element of cooperation and collaboration between the two nations.
But for whatever reason, yeah, it's better known in Russia.
I find that happens a lot when I go overseas, that they tend to know more about our history than we do.
Sometimes. You know, we tend to like our pure success stories: Apollo 11 or [Robert] Peary reaching the North Pole, although that's been disputed of late. We like our victories. We don't like these "noble and tragic failures," the way the British do.
I did read somewhere that you like to write about those [noble failures]. What is the draw for you?
I don't know. I guess part of it is, the pure success stories where everything clicked and everything worked and they made it, tend to be stories that have already been written about a lot. That's the first thing.
But also it's like, when things really go wrong — to me, Apollo 13 is a much better story. Everything went wrong and they had to rise above and they had to improvise and they had to come up with some sort of solution. To me, that kind of story is just inherently more interesting because it brings up a certain kind of character.
It's not like I go looking for them, it's just looking backward over the books that I've done, there's a tendency to gravitate toward that kind of subject matter. ...
Lost causes. Exotic quests. And noble failures.