Melanie McGrath interview

British writer speaks about cultural arrogance and her crime fiction debut

Interview, Time In

McGrath is obsessed with the Arctic. Until this point she’s only published non-fiction books Hard Soft and Wet about her travels in America, Silvertown with memoirs from the writer’s Grandmother and The Long Exile, the story of Inuit people in the Arctic. Her visit to the northen most hemisphere captivated the author and she’s moved to fiction to evoke further imagery and mystery surrounding the region. We ask her more…

Why the switch from non-fiction to fiction?
I see myself as a storyteller. Whether my material is fact or fiction isn’t so important to me as how to craft it into a compelling story.

Why the fascination with the Arctic?
I’ve travelled up to the Arctic a number of times, each time for several weeks, staying with local people, eating local food and what not. It’s an amazing area, so raw and beautiful it leaves you absolutely breathless, and I count myself as incredibly privileged to have spent time with the people who live there.

How did you create the characters, are they based on anyone you know?
Characters start off distant voices in your head. As you write, they get a little bit louder, until, one day they suddenly come into view. The moment when you’re first able to ‘see’ your character is an incredibly powerful one for a writer. My heroine, Edie Kiglatuk, was inspired by a female polar bear hunter I met up in the Canadian Arctic. I wanted to create a character who’d give the Arctic a run for its money. Edie’s a woman who can hunt a caribou in the morning, make a blood soup with it for lunch and sew the pelt into a gorgeous parka in the evening. She’s incredibly hardy, tough and resilient, a true survivor, and, like most Inuit, she’s got a really wry sense of humour about herself.

Tell us about cultural arrogance, which is a recurring theme in your work…
You can’t assume anything about anyone from another culture. You have to put in the work to get to know them, to try to put yourself in their shoes. That’s what’s so exciting about meeting people from cultures other than your own. Early explorers in the Arctic often said that the Inuit were ‘inscrutable’. What nonsense. It’s obvious that if you’re living in a place like Ellesmere Island, where the heroine of White Heat, Edie Kiglatuk, lives., where the sun doesn’t rise for four months a year and it’s dark 24 hours a day, where temperatures regularly dip below –50°C, where you’re hunting your own food and your closest neighbours are 600km away, you’re not going think the same way as someone like me, who’s lived most of her life in London.

What are you working on next?
I’m working on the next book in the Edie Kiglatuk series. In this next one, I’m really putting Edie through her paces. She’ll find herself out of her depth abut determined to get to the bottom of a death, which will take her into a dark and unfamiliar world of religious cults, human trafficking and political corruption.

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