LSQ: The unusual setting points to a time when our world looks different, but is recognizable and logical due to current environmental circumstances/trajectories. What were the motivations for this particular setting?
Lisa: One of my first jobs out of journalism school in the 1990s was reporter for Nunatsiaq News in Iqaluit, Nunavut. In subsequent years, I returned north to write magazine articles about Nunavut society, politics, and climate change, and in 2014, I returned to Nunatsiaq News as managing editor, a job I left a few years ago to write fiction.
All this to say, my love for the Arctic and the people who live there—both Inuit and newcomers—is deep and wide. With this story, I wanted to take some of what I’d learned from Indigenous and non-Indigenous experts about the changing northern landscape and build a story around that. I’ve had the singular privilege of traveling widely throughout Canada’s territories and have seen first-hand how warming oceans, slumping permafrost, and melting glaciers are impacting northern communities. I feel compelled to share that privilege.
LSQ: A different world that still retains its marketing, fanfare, and good old capitalism. What made you combine the concepts of eco-tourism, a family business, and circus presentation?
Lisa: As Stephen King says, the act of writing is akin to archaeology. You don’t write a story so much as “uncover” it by digging down and putting pieces together. I feel like this happened with “To The Pole!™”.
I wanted to set a story in a near-future Arctic when the North Pole becomes navigable, but then what? I started brainstorming ideas and concepts with pencil on paper. I like the rasping sound. It makes me feeling like I’m accomplishing something. Once I settled on a floating theme park, I had to answer some questions. What would it look like and how would it function? How would people get there? Who will own the North Pole in the future? And above all, how do I avoid sounding didactic and earnest? The family business gave it the narrative element I needed and the circus—aside from allowing me to feature northern animals, it just seemed to bolster the absurd nature of the story. Once I had Faisal in top hat and jodhpurs, the story came alive. I could see and hear the action unfolding.
LSQ: Svetlana seems to be a counterpoint character to the whole operation. How would you define her role as opposed to the MC’s?
Lisa: Yes, she’s definitely the counterpoint. Originally that role was taken by the protagonist’s twin sister June but I wanted a Russian character and I wanted her to be quite separate and different from the narrator, so I went back and reworked it. Svetlana became the scientist, the biologist.
Once I created this world, I sat back and imagined the narrator, Svetlana and Faisal—the aspiring actor—as average young folks from different backgrounds, trying to make a buck over the summer. Maybe in the end, they all go their separate ways, having shared this very intense, exotic and unforgettable experience, not unlike, I guess, some of the people I met when I was a young reporter in Iqaluit. Svetlana comes from a place of authority and reason. Through her, I can deliver these little facts about northern animals, without it sounding forced. And Faisal, he’s the joker, my comic relief.
LSQ: “To the Pole!™” is partially an eco-cautionary and animal rights tale, with a dash of satire. How important was the farcical when writing your story to bring out the more serious elements?
Lisa: It was top of mind. I read a lot of fiction—short, long, Canadian, international—and here’s something I’ve discovered. Humor and satire are ridiculously hard to pull off. I’ve been reading Kurt Vonnegut Jr., George Saunders, Anton Checkov, and Etgar Keret of late. Their stories are about heavy stuff—war, poverty, addiction, consumerism, religion, racism—and yet, they make me laugh out loud. How is that possible? Because their stories are so creative, and wonderfully told, you don’t notice right away the messages they tuck inside. This is what I aspire to in my own work.
The Arctic is changing more dramatically, and rapidly, than anywhere else on the planet. Northerners are understandably concerned. The future is scary and unpredictable, and not just because of environmental changes, but potential changes to lifestyle, traditions and the economy. Enormous cruise ships are already plying the Northwest Passage and docking near remote Inuit communities. Multi-nationals are scouring for natural resources and minerals. As the Arctic gets warmer, more people will come, bringing unforeseen outcomes. These things are heavy, complex, and challenging to write about, especially in an era of climate change fatigue. People want to be delighted by fiction, not preached to. Ultimately, my goal—and probably the goal of many writers—is two-fold: to write entertaining stories about things that matter to me. Striking the right balance, well, that’s the hard part.