In her book My Last Continent, novelist Midge Raymond shares a love story about penguin researchers who find themselves at the heart of a maritime disaster in the Southern Ocean. We've asked her questions about her novel, her research, and her interest in penguins.
1) What inspired you to write about Antarctica? Did you visit the continent before or during writing this novel?
I visited the Antarctic peninsula in 2004, on a small ship much like the Cormorant. Right after returning, I wrote a short story, “The Ecstatic Cry,” which was inspired by a moment in which I saw a passenger fall on the ice near a penguin colony. He was fine, fortunately, but seeing this reinforced the notion that, at the bottom of the world, you are at the mercy of the conditions and of the few people who are with you. This is when the character of Deb was born, and over the following years, both she and Antarctica stuck with me—along with the concerns I’d heard while I was there about the very large tourist ships venturing farther and farther south. In the years after my own visit, I read about several ships getting into trouble in Antarctica, including one that sank in 2007, and I realized this was a story that needed to be told. I wasn’t able to return to the continent while working on the book, so I relied on other resources to fill in the gaps. It was irresistible to me to set a novel in a place so otherworldly—Antarctica is unlike any other place on earth, and the people who spend their time there are also uniquely interesting. So it’s a place that was both fun and challenging to write about.
2) It’s clear that you’ve done a lot of research, both into the tourism industry in Antarctica and into the penguins you write about so lovingly. How did you conduct this research?
I was fortunate that a great deal of my research was firsthand—from my own visit to Antarctica, as well as a stint as a volunteer with penguin researchers in Argentina, at the Punta Tombo colony in Chubut Province. While I was in Antarctica, I learned a lot about the tourism industry from the expedition staff and crew, all of whom were very concerned with sustainable tourism. They introduced me to the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO), which is a member organization that promotes safe, environmentally responsible, sustainable travel in the Antarctic. The challenge, back when I went in 2004, was that many tour companies were not yet members of IAATO, which meant that they may or may not have followed the guidelines required to keep the Antarctic environment clean and safe for its creatures. Since then, a much larger numbe of cruise companies have joined IAATO, which is good news.
For the penguin research, I read a great deal, but the very best information came from being among the penguins onsite with the naturalists who know them so well. They could answer any question about penguin behavior or biology, and their love and admiration for the animals was amazing. I fell in love with penguins and asked a lot questions of the naturalists and spent a lot of time observing the birds, not knowing I’d one day use it in a book.
For details about the places I never visited, I relied on other sources—for example, I’ve never been to McMurdo and so I had to research what life is like at the station (through books, documentaries, and the U.S. Antarctic Program’s newspaper, The Antarctic Sun).
3) What was the most fascinating thing you learned about penguins? What was the most interesting thing you learned about the Antarctica overall?
There are so many fascinating things about penguins! One thing I learned is that, contrary to popular belief, not all penguins mate for life. They are far too practical, and they can’t afford to skip a year of breeding if they’re going to survive. The breeding habits vary a lot among the seventeen species—for example, Adélies are very loyal to their nest sites, and so if one penguin returns to its nest and its partner isn’t there, it will choose a new partner. One thing I love is that all penguins co-parent their young, but there are different ways in which they do this—for example, the male and female Adélies and chinstraps take turns incubating the eggs, while for the emperors, the job falls to the males to incubate the eggs.
The continent itself is just as interesting as its creatures. The most surprising thing to me was learning that due to its Dry Valleys, where it hasn’t rained in millions of years, Antarctica is the driest place on earth. You would never guess that when you’re on the peninsula, surrounded by ice and snow and sleeting rain.
4) Who is your favorite Antarctic explorer and why?
I’m fascinated by all of them, but I’m especially intrigued by Ernest Shackleton. His story is so incredible that if it were fiction, people would probably find it too farfetched. His decisions ended up saving the lives of every member of his crew—and none of his options were good ones. When his ship, the Endurance, got trapped in sea ice, he chose to abandon it and head out across the frozen water in search of land; he separated his crew from one another, took a twenty-two-foot boat across eight hundred miles of open sea, and then split up crew members again to trek to a whaling station for help. Every single choice could’ve been disastrous instead of miraculous, and in many ways this sums up what life is like in the Antarctic—it’s risky, and everyone is at the mercy of the continent and its wildness.
5) What books did you read to prepare for writing My Last Continent?
I loved reading the tales of the explorers—Richard Byrd’s book Alone, for example, and of course Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage, by Alfred Lansing. The explorers’ journal entries about the Antarctic are fascinating. For penguin information, there is no better resource (including amazing photographs!) than Penguins: Natural History and Conservation, edited by Pablo Garcia Borboroglu and P. Dee Boersma.
6) What would you say to first-time travelers to Antarctica?
Be ready and open to this trip changing your life. I would go as far as to say it would be a wasted trip if it doesn’t change you forever. Antarctica is so many things—wild, frozen, remote, stunningly beautiful, otherworldly—but we also need to be aware that it’s ground zero for climate change. Like the Arctic, it’s a place we need to look at and realize it will be forever changed, and much sooner than later, if we don’t deal with climate change. So I would encourage travelers to soak up every moment, savor every wildlife encounter, and ask themselves what they can do for the planet to help protect this amazing place.
7) What’s next for you?
I’ve got some events coming up this summer to celebrate the paperback release, and I’m also working on a new novel. In terms of travel, I hope to have the opportunity to meet a few more of the seventeen species of penguins out there in the world.