In Sixty Degrees North, one of Longitude's Year's Best Reads, writer Malachy Tallack travels westward along the northern latitude in the wake of his father's death. Through his journey he explores themes of isolation, wildness and exile while considering the relationship between the people and their land and confronting his own feelings about home.
Longitude. The 60th parallel gave your journey a meaningful shape. Did you find similarities between the countries linked by the imaginary line?
Tallack. I wouldn’t want to exaggerate the similarities between these places, but I do think they all share a quality that could be vaguely described as ‘northernness.’ It has something to do with dark winters that cast a shadow over the entire year, balanced of course by the long days of summer. While the parallel itself is imaginary, everywhere along that line has the same day-length. That, and a certain quality of light that goes with it, does very much affect the character of the place.
Longitude. Which destination did you feel the strongest connection with and why?
Tallack. I have always loved Canada and felt very comfortable there, but my previous visits had been further south, and mostly on the coast. I’d expected Fort Smith in the Northwest Territories to feel rather alien--going from Shetland to the middle of the boreal forest was a big leap--but that wasn’t the case. As a community the town felt very familiar. It was self-reliant and self-aware in precisely the same way that islands communities tend to be.
Longitude. How did your travels help you define “home” and your relationship to it?
Tallack. In some ways this book was a very long answer to the question: where is home? Writing it forced me to think about all the many interwoven threads that make up our connection to place. But, having done so, I also found myself able to answer that question in a short, simple way: my home is Shetland.
Longitude. You say that home is not a passive state. Where do you live now and how have you worked to make it feel like home?
Tallack. I live in Glasgow these days, which seems to undermine my previous answer, doesn’t it? I came here from Shetland three years ago, assuming it would be a temporary move, and so aside from making friends I’ve really done nothing to make it feel like home. And it doesn’t. While I like the city, home still feels elsewhere. Maybe I’m just more comfortable with that feeling, I’m not sure.
Longitude. You mention that we “live in a time of great division and alienation, in which ‘social networking,’ a parody of community, is passed off as a viable alternative or replacement for it.” Can you comment on how community is different in the northern lands?
Tallack. I think community is sustained by necessity, so it remains strongest in places where people are forced to rely on each other. These are generally challenging locations, distant from centres of population, and much of the north falls into those categories. A sense of community has been diminishing everywhere over the past century or so, but the huge popularity of social networking suggests that people still want (or need) that feeling of connection. They want to be part of a broad social group; they just don’t want the mutual responsibility that place-based communities require.
Longitude. Which destination stood out as unique from the others?
Tallack. St Petersburg is the largest settlement on or above the sixtieth parallel, by a very wide margin. It’s a big city, historically powerful, and has an entirely different character from everywhere else at this latitude.
Longitude. Window seat or aisle?
Tallack. Window seat, always. I am a very nervous flier, but I still prefer to see what’s out there.
Longitude. What advice do you have for travelers to Nordic lands and arctic climates?
Tallack. As with any travel, do some research beforehand. Know what kind of weather and temperatures to expect, and what kind of clothes you’ll need to take. There’s nothing worse than being unprepared. Also, if you’re travelling in summer or autumn, you’ll probably need something to keep the insects away.
Tallack. If you’re interested in the north I don’t think there’s a better place to start than Barry Lopez’s Arctic Dreams. It’s an extraordinary and beautiful book. I also really enjoyed This Cold Heaven by Gretel Ehrlich, about Greenland.
Longitude. What’s next for you? If you were to follow another parallel, which one would you choose?
Tallack. My second book, The Un-Discovered Islands, will be published in North America in 2017. It’s about islands that were once believed to be real, but which are no longer on the map: legends, errors and fakes. I’m also now writing a novel, based in Shetland. I think I’d avoid following another parallel. Next time I’ll take a more meandering route.