Many of your books excavate and explore stories which have been marginalised or ‘written out’ of historical memory. Can you tell us how you came across the subject of your book, Chasing the Light?
Early in my research I came across a photo in the State Library of NSW, showing Ingrid Christensen and Mathilde Wegger on board a ship headed to Antarctica in 1931. Ingrid voyaged from Norway to Antarctica four times in the 1930s on her husband’s whaling fleet, leaving her six children behind. None of Ingrid’s words about her travels survived – if they were ever written down in the first place. I also discovered that women had been applying to Antarctic expeditions since at least 1904, in the days of Scott and Shackleton. And in 1937, 1300 women applied to a south pole expedition. In spite of many having the qualifications, none of these women were accepted. This was an irresistible ‘gap’ in the record that I felt compelled to investigate.
What are some of the ethical entanglements that are common to the genre of historical fiction?
The major one I have found is the issue of using real lives in fiction. I’ve written two historical novels that drew on real characters – and the events that inspired Chasing the Light, about the first women to reach Antarctica, took place less than 100 years ago. Those women are still very much in living memory. So the question is – if using real people, how do you deal with gaps in the information about them, and how to do you go about making internal lives for them?
Does the writer of historical fiction have a ‘duty’ to a certain kind of truth? How playful can they be with the past – and on what does this depend?
In my novels, if using the life of a real person in my work, then I do my best to deal with her fairly – acknowledging sources, and making clear what is real and what is fictional. But creating a compelling novel involves creating a world that feels real to the reader – and then it can be challenging when you reveal what you have fictionalised. Having an ethical standard – such as Atwood’s decision in Alias Grace not to alter known facts, but to feel free to create in the unexplained spaces – gives the novelist a scaffolding to work with.
Dr Jesse Blackadder is fascinated by adventurous women in history and forgotten and hidden stories. She has written nine novels for adults and children, including two major works of historical fiction. Her novels use history as their leaping-off point, entwining fact and fiction into compelling stories. She was the winner of the 2011 Antarctic Arts Fellowship and the Benjamin Franklin Prize for Historical Fiction.