Smelling the scent of eucalyptus leaves in the air was one of the first things Byron Bay author Jesse Blackadder noticed when she returned to Tasmania after six weeks on the Antarctic ice-beaker 'Aurora Australis'. Actually seeing a glimpse of the lights of the Aurora Australis phenomenon in the sky through the thick sea fog on the last day of her journey was an "overwhelmingly beautiful" and memorable sight for her.
Jesse travelled to Antarctica in November 2011 to research her new novel about Norwegian explorer Ingrid Christensen, the first woman to set foot on mainland Antarctica. Not only did the wild, icy landscape provide Jesse with inspiration for her novel, but her travels helped her uncover some clues about Ingrid's mostly undocumented journey to the continent in 1937.
With two published novels under her belt already, Jesse is writing her new novel as part of her Doctor of Creative Arts project at the University of Western Sydney. Her trip was made possible after she won the 2011 Australian Antarctic Arts Fellowship which gives people with a non-science focus an opportunity to experience Antarctica first-hand so they can communicate their unique experience and understanding to other Australians. The new novel follows her last successful historical fiction novel 'The Raven's Heart' and with the first draft of the book almost completed, Jesse hopes to see it published in the next year.
"After finishing 'The Raven's Heart', I discovered I really enjoyed working with real history and fiction and I was interested in women and the early explorer times in Antarctica," Jesse said. "When I looked into the history of these women, I found not much was written about Ingrid and when I saw a photo of her, I liked the cheeky look on her face and thought I'd like to tell her story."
"Up till now, explorer Caroline Mikkelsen was thought to be the first woman to land on mainland Antarctica, but this historical 'fact' is now seen as controversial, because it appears Caroline landed on an island near Davis Station rather than on mainland Antarctica."
"Ingrid Christensen went to Antarctica four times, but between her third and fourth trips, Caroline landed before her," Jesse said. "When she travelled, Ingrid left six children at home and I wondered if she cared that she wasn't remembered as the first woman to set foot in Antarctica. Her life was so ripe for a fictional story because there was so little in existence written about it.
"During the 1920s, women were actively prevented from going on expeditions to the Antarctic frontier. It was impossible to get there independently and women who wanted to go as intrepid explorers couldn't raise the resources needed to get there. Because Ingrid was the wife of a wealthy whaler, she and her friends could afford to go. It's interesting history looking at the absence of women in this controlled masculine environment that persisted until the 1970s and 80s. Now about a third of the workforce in Antarctica are women and they participate quite fully in Antarctic life."
In today's electronic age, people could be mistaken for believing that all historical research can be done online, but many museums and collecting institutions only have small portions of their collections digitised. When Jesse started researching Ingrid's life story and found very little online, she knew she'd need to travel to Norway to uncover the mystery. In Norway, she discovered the museum of whaling which was established by Ingrid's wealthy whaler husband. Much of the material she found was written in Norwegian, so with the help of translators, Jesse uncovered Ingrid's husband's diary where he had collected newspaper clippings of Ingrid's voyage, as well as old photographs of her. On her last day in Norway Jesse had a stroke of luck when she met Ingrid's granddaughter who had a copy of Ingrid's missing third diary.
"When I asked her what her grandmother said about going to Antarctica, she replied 'She never spoke about the trip'," Jesse said. "This got my imagination working. Why didn't she talk about her trip? Did something happen on the voyage that she didn't want to talk about? It's good fodder for fiction. I can create answers to these questions from my imagination, but will probably have to change people's names. For me, the story plays out in the writing of it. Often there's a surprise at end I didn't see coming - something in me needs the 'what's going to happen?'"
Choosing to tell stories which champion women and puts them in pivotal roles has long interested Jesse. Her novel, 'The Raven's Heart' was inspired after Jesse visited Scotland and discovered the ruins of Blackadder Castle and heard the tragic history of the Blackadder family and the story of Alison Blackadder, who was to become the lead character in her historical fiction novel.
According to Jesse, the key to being a successful writer is having the discipline to sit down at the desk even on days when you don't feel inspired to write. When she wrote 'The Raven's Heart', Jesse didn't know if it would be published and after rewriting the novel four times she won an editorial grant to work with the Harper Collins team of editors and was lucky enough to have her book published.
"To be a writer needs lots of practice and hard work," Jesse said. "Talent and aptitude is important, so is being a passionate reader and sometimes it's about getting a lucky break. You should treat your writing like an affair, where you find 15 minutes here and there. Novels get written one sentence at a time. If you write diligently for one hour a day, you will have a novel. It's about being disciplined about using the time that you have."
Before Jesse won an arts grant to support her financially while she was writing her book, she worked as a freelance writer and would get up at 6am - "the most productive time of the day" - to work on her novel before she started working her day job.
"I had a dream in my early 30s," Jesse said. "A voice said 'you must write' and I knew that was my purpose. While there are days that are boring and days that go well, overall I feel I am doing what I love to do and what I'm meant to do."
Jesse grew up in Sydney and while she loved science, she went to university and studied a Bachelor of Arts, majoring in film production. Her love of film, photography and writing have been brought together through her travels and research explorations, where she has created websites and short promotional films for her novels.
"I feel I have a good eye for it," Jesse said. "You can see how the book world is moving in that direction, there's a lot of technological support behind a book now."
After a career spent working in media production and public relations, Jesse decided to move to Byron Bay in 1998 after she became ill with chronic fatigue-like symptoms.
"It was a change-your-life experience," Jesse said. "I wasn't happy and I wasn't being creative. My heart wanted to move to Byron for a sea change and I when arrived, I had a ready-made community and I felt rejuvenated and started writing again."
Jesse then wrote her first published book 'After The Party', a contemporary novel set in Byron Bay that was inspired by a creative writing exercise she'd undertaken as part of an online writing course.
"It was my love story for Byron Bay; I was enchanted by the place," Jesse said. "I looked around for two years until found a publisher for it. When I looked online, I saw it had been voted onto the list of best Australian novels and I was chuffed."
Finding a publisher is not always easy, but for Jesse, she lucked out with a "dream run" the first time she approached a publisher with a book she'd written about her immediate family.
"The publishers loved it and wanted to print it, but my family was horrified," Jesse laughed. "I was very naive when I wrote the book and didn't expect that would happen. It was a tricky situation and I chose to not have it published."
Her advice for writers wanting to get published is to approach publishers who print books in the style you have written, send them the first three chapters, and take part in pitching competitions at writers' festivals.
"Some publishers don't even look at the cover letter, and go straight to the manuscript," Jesse said. "You can tell if someone's appalling in the first three paragraphs. It's not common that writers spring fully-formed from somewhere. Writers come up through the ranks, getting short stories printed in anthologies and winning awards."
For Jesse, her latest novel brings together her love of science and art and she plans to return to Antarctica in the future to write a contemporary story about the icy continent.
"While I was there I realised no-one has looked for or found Ingrid's landing place on the mainland," Jesse said. "I might try to find it in future."
Just like Ingrid Christensen, Jesse Blackadder is a woman with determination and plenty of gumption, and a desire to discover new adventures in territory where no author has gone before.
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