January 2, 1995
Running Toward The Horizon
by Wendy Smith
Elizabeth Arthur fell in love with the natural world at the age of six when she visited her stepfathers farm in Vermont. Not particularly happy growing up in the suburbs of New York City, she lived for summers at camp--lovingly portrayed in the memoir Looking for the Klondike Stone--where her favorite activity was sleeping out under the stars. A winter Outward Bound course in high school solidified her interest in wilderness adventure; the novel Beyond the Mountain draws on her personal knowledge of climbing. In the mid-70s, she spent two years on a remote Canadian island, an experience described in Island Sojourn, her first book.
But nothing prepared Arthur for Antarctica, the dramatic setting of her latest, most ambitious novel, Antarctic Navigation, just out from Knopf (Forecasts, Nov. 21). Being there was absolutely unbelievable, says the author, who spent the 1990 season on the ice as part of the National Science Foundations Artists and Writers Program. I had written what I thought was a whole draft of the novel, and from the moment I saw the ice I knew I was going to have to totally rewrite the book.
In his wonderful book, The Ice: A Journey to Antarctica, Stephen Pyne talks about the fact that minimalism has no meaning when youre facing the ice: its already the most minimalist canvas there is, and the only possible response seems to be to elaborate upon it. My book, once I got there, just exploded in terms of how much I wanted to bring into it. I had to expand my frame as wide as I could in order to get some sense of Antarcticas beauty and grandeur.
Antarctic Navigations protagonist, Morgan Lamont, leads a 1990 expedition to Antarctica, the culmination of her lifelong fascination with the doomed trek of Robert Falcon Scott, who died on his way back from the Pole in 1912. The sense of grand scale that Arthur acquired in Antarctica enabled me to begin with Morgans birth and take her to the age of 30, incorporating a lot of what human life touches on. As a fiction writer, I felt very limited by the well-made novel form. I wrote two novels, Bad Guys and Binding Spell, which were limited by what they attempted to chew on and limited in time; each took place over a couple of weeks. The process was not as satisfying as I thought writing should be. Going back to a bigger historical canvas in Antarctic Navigation, it was very satisfying to find that it was possible to get bigger instead of smaller.
Although Bad Guys and Binding Spell had their frustrations, Arthur believes they furthered her development as a writer. They taught me how to write in the third person in such a way that I could incorporate it into Antarctic Navigation. Morgans first-person narrative has quite long sections where she tells other characters stories in the third-person, and I would not have had a clue how to do those if I had not written these other two books. I definitely want to do that again; the first person/third person mix is just fascinating and has tremendous possibilities.
Its not surprising that this blend of perspectives appeals to the 41-year-old author, who discusses her own life with an intriguing mixture of intimacy and detachment. She speaks openly about such traumas as her parents divorce and her own failed first marriage, but passes over these topics briskly, more interested in assessing their impact on her as a writer than in dissecting her emotions. Despite the subtle delineation of her heroines psyche in Antarctic Navigation, one senses that ideas mean at least as much personally to Arthur, who closes the novel with a passionate plea that human beings rethink their relationship to nature, learn from other cultures, other times, how to regulate ourselves and control our actions.
It was this desire to get away from the clutter that is taking over the world that led Arthur to the Canadian wilderness in 1974. She had dropped out of the University of Michigan after two years: Michigan was a part of a search for a psychological connection with my father. My parents divorce, when I was five, was very hard on me. I saw my father rarely, and he died when I was 15. I thought since he had gone to Michigan, I would too, but it was the last place I should have gone. Im drawn to little organizations, and its this big factory with 40,000 students.
Arthur went to work at the National Outdoor Leadership School, where she met her first husband, Bob Gathercole, and moved with him to northern British Columbia, 40 miles from the nearest town, where they built their home with their own hands. Those two years were the turning point of my life. Prior to that, I had a general sense that I had a lot of things to say, but there was no specific story that needed to be told. After we left the island, I had to write a book to unravel the meaning of my experience.
At the same time, I learned from building the house that I was capable of organizing a project, following through with it, understanding its different parts, and keeping going when it got really tough. The process of making a book is very similar; you start with nothing, you have a pile of raw materials you have to
figure out how to put together, and those qualities of organization, architecture and discipline all come into play.
Writing was never a mysterious process to Arthur. Her father, Robert Arthur, was a mystery writer who started in pulp magazines, then moved to radio and television, working extensively with Alfred Hitchcock. Her mother, Joan Vaczek, was a poet and novelist. They both had studies on the top floor, and as a little girl I used to fall asleep listening to the sound of their two typewriters overhead. Writing was part of my growing up. I was aware that writers could be normal people, like your parents.
When I first thought of being a writer, my model was my father, who made a living as a writer, as opposed to my mother, who, while she did publish a novel in 1959, didnt really have a career. Looking at my father, I thought that what a writer did was create plot ideas and then fill them in. It completely surprised me to discover that I was working from within my own life experience and trying to give it form that it had not had as I lived through it.
Island Sojourn was completed while Arthur was getting her B.A. at the University of Victoria in Canada. Jean Naggar, who in 1978 had just established her own literary agency, liked the manuscript and took Arthur on as a client; Corona Machemer, then at Harper & Row, published the memoir in 1980. Arthur has been working with both women ever since. I feel very fortunate to have had the same agent and editor for so long. Its made a tremendous difference; their belief in me was crucial.
I cant praise Corona enough; shes worked so tenderly with me. I remember, when Island Sojourn was being edited, talking to her for a half-hour on the phone about the meaning of a single word, whether or not we should change it or put it in a different place, and the same thing happened with Antarctic Navigation. Fifteen years later, the pleasure of working with someone who has that much concern for a single word is still very great.
Machemer also published Beyond the Mountain at Harper & Row in 1983. Arthurs first novel, in which a woman climber recalls her husbands death and an expedition to Nepal, was autobiographical, she concedes, to the extent that I worked through the grief that I felt when my first marriage broke up [in 1980]. But actually its less autobiographical that Antarctic Navigation, where Morgans philosophy of life--though not her experience--is very close to my own.
Beyond the Mountain was dedicated to poet and novelist Steven Bauer, whom Arthur married in 1982. He heads the creative writing department at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, and the couple lives in rural Indiana. Arthur has taught since 1985 at Purdue University [IUPUI] in Indianapolis. Stevens example revealed to me that a lot of writers make a living by teaching and also get a lot of satisfaction from its immediacy, because writing is such a long-term prospect, and youre so isolated.
Arthur followed Machemer to Knopf for Bad Guys, which appeared in 1986. The novels blackly comic portrayal of an armed incursion at a work camp for juvenile delinquents marked a radical departure for the author. As Bad Guys evolved, it just happened to have a kind of dark comedy, but I thought, That was fun, that's a new direction, thats not being bound by your own experience. Now Ill write a comedy in the classic sense. So Binding Spell was the one book that I set out to write almost according to a genre. Also, I wanted to draw on some of the comic reflections Id had living in this loopy town in the Midwest.
Nan Talese made a very nice offer that Machemer couldnt match in the confusion surrounding Bob Gottliebs departure from Knopf for the New Yorker, and Doubleday published Binding Spell in 1988. Nan and Corona are very different editors, and I think it was a good thing to have happen. It was an opportunity to see how the business works, the fact that there are very different ways of going about it and a lot of different kinds of houses.
But she was glad to return to Knopf and Machemer with Looking For the Klondike Stone (1993). In many ways that was the purest experience I had as a writer. The remarkable thing about it is that I assumed I was filling in some of the gaps in my memory with fiction; it seemed unlikely that I could be remembering everything about Camp Wynakee. But after it was published, campers I hadnt seen in 28 years suddenly appeared and said, I cant believe you remembered this! It was completely fascinating to learn that while a writer is always ready to fictionalize experiences for the purpose of a better, truer truth, that the opposite also happens; I had somehow un-fictionalized it, gone back and captured a common memory.
The memoir was written simultaneously with Antarctic Navigation, which Arthur found a very fruitful way of working. If you have two different projects, with two very different voices and challenges, it really helps. On the morning when you wake up and think, I just cant face that--whatever it is--you can go to the other one!
Knopf gave her a two-book contract, even though Arthur was unready at that point to show more of Antarctic Navigation than an outline. Sonny Mehta was willing to go with it. The combination of having Corona, who Ive known for so many years and trust so deeply, and Sonny, who had published my books at Pan, was very nurturing. I had an editor I loved and a publisher I respected, and they had taken this huge novel on the basis of a five-page description--I just felt I could relax and do my best. Mehtas personal involvement with Antarctic Navigation somewhat eased the blow of Machemers recent departure from Knopf, although Arthur feels bereft and hopes to continue working with Machemer, who plans to become a freelance editor.
One of Arthurs works in progress is another nonfiction project. I love both forms, Arthur comments. Theyre freeing in different ways. Fiction gives you the freedom to make up anything that comes to mind and to serve your own purposes within the text. Nonfiction already has a frame, so its a completely different kind of discipline. Its like yoga; youre working in a very limited area, but within it you can do amazing postures. Fiction just allows you to start running toward the horizon.