December 29

Some years ago at the Banff Mountain Film Festival, my friend and fellow arctic author Lawrence Millman and I were on a panel about arctic books. Such panels are really an excuse to give the audience a reading list, and they got their money's worth thanks to Larry's erudition. I'm a huge fan of his. He has written 15 books and hundreds of travel articles for such periodicals as The Atlantic, Islands and Smithsonian. Here are two of his Atlantic pieces on mushroom picking in British Columbia and on the author John Cowper Powys. He writes about the Arctic whenever he can convince U.S. editors that Nuuk or Sanikiluaq has a tale to interest American readers -- an increasingly hard sell -- or that he has new information about the fate of Henry Hudson and just needs to be sent to some remote Canadian island to find the smoking gun. As editor of a series of arctic reprints, Larry has also resurrected many forgotten classics, including A Woman in the Polar Night and Northern Nurse. He's pointed me to such oddball arctic oeuvres as 30 Years in the Golden North and An African in Greenland. We also share opinions about such overrated books as This Cold Heaven. Recently Larry agreed to answer a few questions about travel writing for this website.

JK: A couple of authors like Paul Theroux excepted, is there such a thing as a professional travel writer -- someone who can make a full-time living writing books and magazine articles about travel? Or do writers have to
a) have family money/a supportive spouse
b) teach
c) guide tours
d) give inspirational talks to middle managers at IBM

LM: I'm still hanging on as a "professional writer," but only because I'm able to switch gears. If travel writing goes belly up, I switch to ethnography, publishing notes from my East Greenland fieldwork. No one's interested in the fieldwork? Okay, I switch to writing about mushrooms, which I'm currently doing. Who knows what will be next? Perhaps a book about bizarre foods entitled Wild Dogs I Have Eaten...

Admittedly, I have a very slight overhead -- no house, no spouse, no kids (except for a grown son in Sweden), and no dogs (except the ones in the skillet). I dare say I could not make ends meet as a writer if I were blessed/burdened with any, not to mention all of the aforementioned. By the way, I have taught in the past, and while that helped to pay the bills, I despised academia so much that I wouldn't go back for love or money.

JK: Do people actually pay for pieces on ethnography or mushrooms?? You've written many magazine articles on exotic destinations, not just the north. But if arctic writing paid the bills, would you choose to write mainly about that?

LM: By "people," I assume you mean editors -- a logical mistake. And, yes, they pay for both ethnographic and mushroom-related pieces. My book A Kayak Full of Ghosts (about Inuit myths) has been in print continuously since 1987, thus giving me two royalty cheques a year for 25 years. Nowadays, however, I get paid more frequently for talks and presentations about my work than for my actual writing. Concerning your question about Arctic writing paying the bills: I don't know because it doesn't.

JK: As you know, I've worked as an editor myself. Tell me about a couple of fiascos with editors that have formed your opinion of the breed.

LM: Hair-raising editor story #1: I retold a Haida myth that included a reference to a shark's penis (actually clasper) for National Geographic, and my editor said, "Sorry. We can't have any mention of penises in National Geographic." The result: the shark was castrated, the story was castrated, and the article was castrated.

Hair-raising editor story #2: I'd just written an article for The Atlantic on my dislike of the present tense in books and articles. So I wrote an article in, of course, the past for Outside. I looked at the proofs: they're in the present tense. I contacted my editor, and she said, "We've all agreed that this story is much better in the present tense." "But I wrote it in the past and, indeed, attacked the use of the present in a recent article elsewhere," I protested. "Too bad," the editor told me.

JK: Last Places is my favorite book of yours, and it seems to have had the biggest impact among readers. It's also the funniest book I've read on the Arctic, so I wanted to ask you about humor in travel writing. Apart from the parody, My Northern Exposure, which is funny mainly for the campy photos, there isn't a lot of hilarity in arctic literature. But some travel writers -- Bill Bryson, Redmond O'Hanlon, Tim Cahill -- have a reputation for humor. Could you comment on these and other travel writers who can make one laugh?

LM: I don't think of Last Places as funny. Rather, the situations I encountered were funny, and they seeped into the book. Why is so much travel writing funny? I could say foreigners are funny, but that's not politically correct. So let me say it! As for the writers you mention, Bill Bryson and Redmond O'Hanlon remind me of the vaudeville comedians -- they'll do anything for a laugh, and thus they're not very funny. Tim Cahill is perhaps the best travel writer around; his humor comes to him naturally, from his unerring ability to get himself into crazy situations. Let me conclude by saying that when I'm describing my fellow human-type beings, I have a hard time being serious, but when I'm describing an Arctic landscape, be it the Canadian tundra, a seemingly barren island in Hudson Bay, or the mountains of East Greenland, I'm totally serious -- how could I not be serious about a part of the world that's the nearest thing for me to heaven on earth?

December 8

In the store, you can now download sample chapters of Arctic Eden and The Horizontal Everest.

December 1

Besides the upcoming Holland Herald piece (January issue, if you're flying KLM), two other articles of mine are currently in press. One is a long obituary of Ellesmere scientist and historian Geoffrey Hattersley-Smith that will appear later this month in Arctic, the journal of the Arctic Institute of North America. The other is a review in Canadian Geographic magazine of the multimedia project Northwords, that took five urban writers to Labrador's Torngat Mountains.

November 8

For the next few days I'll be in Banff and Lake Louise, skiing, snowshoeing, and hopefully ice skating for a story in the Holland Herald, KLM's inflight magazine, about winter sports in this area.

October 24

While in B.C. this past weekend to help celebrate the joint birthdays of mountaineer Pat Morrow and cinematographer Roger Vernon, Pat showed me his upcoming ebook on Mount Everest, focusing on the famous 1982 Canadian expedition in which Pat became a surprise summiteer. The book includes Sharon Wood's story of her ascent in 1986, in which she became the first North American woman to climb Everest. This was the end of the era when Everest drew real climbers rather than guided trekkers -- although I suppose you can make a case that Sherpas guided Edmund Hlilary and almost every other Western climber before and since.

Pat's ebook was done with iBook Author and looks great. It includes embedded video and audio clips from that era, as well as about 150 photographs. What I like best is how on certain pages he stacked related images, which can easily be scrolled through with finger swipes without changing the page. While you can view the book on a computer, it reads best on an iPad or similar tablet. Digital books have finally arrived after the early promise of books on CD never quite caught on.

Every writer and photographer is wondering about book publishing in future. Projects like Pat's make a strong case for direct digital creation by the author, especially for nonfiction books which can include multimedia. This would relegate conventional publishers to distribution at best, and allow authors to keep the lion's share of the royalties. Another photographer friend who publishes his own instructional ebooks says that he makes as much profit on 100 ebooks as he did on 1,000 print books, when he worked through a traditional publisher. Of course, this means being your own marketing company, and spending endless hours on social media.

With so much in flux, and the book industry facing the same digital revolution that hit music publishers when they could no longer make easy money selling $25 CDs, it's little wonder that Douglas & McIntyre, Canada's premier publisher of words-and-picture books, filed for bankruptcy protection this week.

September 14

Writers like to kvetch among one another, and one of the ongoing complaints is the editing process. Veteran writers, especially, find it galling to have their work messed with by novice editors two years out of journalism school, or by industry types who happen to find themselves in editing roles. It's not about writer's pride: the editing is simply bad. It takes a certain diplomacy to correct the "corrections" without offending the full-time employees at the place that is paying you.

Nevertheless, a good magazine editor can better a piece tremendously. Even at its best, my writing improves when a talented second pair of eyes has a go at the draft. I had that experience recently with a piece I wrote for explore magazine. Explore has always been a relatively small publication, but in terms of quality, it has been the Canadian version of Outside or Men's Journal since James Little took over as editor in 2001. It usually wins more magazine awards than any Canadian publication except The Walrus and Toronto Life, with their half a dozen editors. For years, James has been the only editor at explore. Consequently, the magazine is often said to "hit above its weight class."

James usually edits my stories, and although we sometimes disagree, I recognize what a good editor he is, and so it's easier to swallow the power imbalance between magazine writer and magazine editor. He not only has a structural overview of a story -- what is the piece's core point? is it clearly and succinctly making that point? -- but is an excellent line editor. His touch improves individual sentences, paragraphs, words. Of less concern to the writer, he also has a knack for good display copy.

For an upcoming piece on last winter's Labrador expedition with Noah Nochasak, James passed the editing job onto one of explore's other writers, who also does freelance editing, JB MacKinnon. Best known for his 100-Mile Diet book, JB is a hugely talented writer, and that is the best kind of editor. Editors might not want to be writers, but they have to be able to write well. Many cannot, and that is a common source of conflict in the editing process.

I had to cut the Noah story from 5,000 words down to 3,000 for space reasons. It survived my cutting, but the ending -- which was good in the original -- now stank. I had an idea for a new ending, but I couldn't get it right by the time I passed the story back to MacKinnon. He took my idea, plus a couple of offhand comments I made in my email to him, and constructed exactly the ending I was trying for. That's the process at its best.

Explore magazine was sold a few weeks ago to a company out west. The upcoming Winter issue, which includes my Noah story, will be James' last. A lot of writers will miss the experience. It's hard to say what the new magazine will become, but good editing is hard to find.

James Little in his first outdoor magazine job, and in Yoho National Park.


August 22

Slate's Culture Gabfest included a segment this week on the proliferation of niceness in literary criticism. Inspired by a New York Times article by Dwight Garner, it debated the premise that social media has turned literary criticism into a cheerleading exercise. Writers, especially those in the same genre, are often connected to each other via Twitter and Facebook, and since writers often review the books of their peers, they may find themselves having to publicly slag their online friends and followers. Hence, the epidemic of niceness.

I review books in my field occasionally. As a critic, I have a weakness for raving about what I love and telling it straight when I don't. Once I reviewed a picture book from a well-known writer who was expanding into photography. Problem was, his photography was nowhere near the level of his writing. The imagery was, in fact, quite amateurish, and even passages of text had been lifted verbatim from his earlier books. I was decidedly lukewarm about the effort, and when my review came out, the magazine's editor received an angry phone call -- on Christmas Eve! -- from the writer, wondering who the hell this critic was, anyway.

Outdoor criticism has always been as "nice" as literary criticism is in danger of becoming. Elsewhere on this website, I've written about how gear reviews are really just rewrites of a manufacturer's pr material. A magazine that published an honest review of a product would be in grave danger of losing the advertising that keeps the publication afloat. So editors, who fight routinely with the advertising department in other areas, never take on this battle.

Likewise, most photo books tend to be pretty pathetic affairs, not because the photography is poor -- the above example notwithstanding, most photo books are done by professional image makers. Partly it's the opposite problem, the flimsiness of the words. The text of an outdoor photography book tends to fall into one of two categories, the Genial Bland Nature Essay, and the Recycled Natural History Info. Also, most photographers are not trying to produce a great book, they simply want a big business card. On those rare occasions when photo books are reviewed, this is never addressed.

When my literary travel book, The Horizontal Everest, came out, the reviews were overwhelmingly, surprisingly positive. But a lady for one Florida newspaper, while conceding that the narrative was good, concluded that the Arctic sounded like hell. At first, I wondered why a newspaper most of whose readers come to Florida to flee the cold, would want to review an arctic book. Of course, I was a little miffed, because she wasn't reviewing the book on its own merits; it didn't stand a chance. Later I thought differently: It was actually flattering to be noticed by such a publication. And most of those Florida readers would have agreed with her assessment. In other words, the review fairly reflected the interests and opinions of her readership.

It reminded me of a tongue-in-cheek review of D. H. Lawrence's classic novel, Lady Chatterley's Lover, that appeared decades ago in the U.S. hook-and-bullet magazine, Field and Stream:

"Although written many years ago, Lady Chatterley's Lover has just been reissued by Grove Press, and this pictorial account of the day-to-day life of an English gamekeeper is full of considerable interest to outdoor-minded readers, as it contains many passages on pheasant-raising, the apprehending of poachers, ways to control vermin, and other chores and duties of the professional gamekeeper. Unfortunately, one is obliged to wade through many pages of extraneous material in order to discover and savour those sidelights on the management of a midland shooting estate, and in this reviewer's opinion the book cannot take the place of J. R. Miller's Practical Gamekeeping."

Now, that's nice.

August 9

Was wakened at 5:30 this morning by a potential photo buyer from Newfoundland who wanted one of our images for an advertising flyer and offered to "credit" us for its use. This is a dead giveaway that the client is not used to buying photos. Professional photographers sell thousands of images and do not care about seeing their names in print. We expect to be paid for our work, like everyone else.

Photo usage fees may amount to hundreds or even thousands of dollars. If you are looking to use an image in any form of advertising, that is the range you should expect. Typically, our minimum rate for even small editorial use is $100. Standard photo rates have dropped in recent years, but good arctic imagery is so difficult and expensive to produce that it sells for more than a shot of an accessible subject, such as Moraine Lake in Banff, of which thousands of competent images exist.

Some of these "we'll give you credit" types are bottom feeders -- disreputable publishers who know the price of imagery but hope to get something for nothing or very little from an inexperienced supplier. But most, including the woman who called this morning, are just naive. They figure that their nephew in high school takes pretty good photos, so how hard or expensive can photography be? They are exactly the same as those who undervalue writing because they themselves know how to write an English sentence. What, pay $60 an hour for a professional writer to do their copy? Thank you, but we'll have to look elsewhere, as our budget does not permit, etc. etc.

I have a line that I like to use when callers try to barter rights to one of our arctic images in exchange for exposure: "In the Arctic, people die of exposure."

July 26

A sobering article on the future of the professional writer appeared in today's Globe and Mail newspaper.

August 1

Am currently prescreening the feature films of the Banff Mountain Film Festival, helping decide which films become finalists and get shown during the festival in November.

July 22

A few quick snaps from this week's backpack trip to Mt. Robson, the highest peak in the Canadian Rockies. This is more photography than writing, but it lets my hiking partner, Romeo Bruni, link to images of our trip without my having to post them on social media like Facebook. Facebook has the right to use posted images in certain ways, and even though those ways are currently minor, it's something photographers have to be cautious with.

June 8

Just heard that Arctic Eden won the William Mills Prize, given to the best non-fiction polar book of the last two years, as judged by polar librarians. I was happy with how the book turned out, so it's always nice when such a discerning audience "gets" it.

May 17

Arctic Eden is one of the finalists for the William Mills Prize, a biennial award given by polar librarians. It honors the late William Mills, who worked as librarian at the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge.

The selection committee wouldn't have known, but I met William Mills when I spent a week researching High Arctic material at SPRI in the late 1990s. Over afternoon tea each afternoon, we discussed the British Arctic Expedition of 1875-6. I gave him some of my photos for SPRI to sell as arctic postcards; in exchange, William gave me the right to use some lantern slides from that expedition in my future books. Some of them appear in Arctic Eden.

May 13

Books about the Arctic, especially those written by travelers, tend to be full of mistakes. I wish I had a dollar for every time I saw the explorer Adolphus Greely spelled "Greeley", as in Horace Greeley, he of the "Go West, young man." Often the number of men on that expedition is listed incorrectly -- it's 25, or 24 plus Greely, not 24 total.

Good magazines avoid these embarrassments by employing factcheckers. A good factchecker is incredibly anal and scrutinizes every word for possible errors. Traditionally, a magazine could spend $2,000 factchecking a single feature, although I suspect it's a little cheaper now with so much information accessible online.

Ironically, factcheckers sometimes use books for reference. It's ironic because books are not factchecked. If a 4,000-word article costs $1,000 to factcheck, a 100,000-word book would cost $25,000, and in the economics of book publishing, that is far too expensive for all but potential bestsellers.

So what's a nonfiction author to do to ensure accuracy? Accuracy matters a lot to me, and I've tried to be my own factchecker, since as a former magazine editor, I understand how the process works. Expedition planning has also taught me to be detail-oriented. Still, it's hard to catch everything when you're that close to a project. I've later discovered or had pointed out to me three or four errors in The Horizontal Everest: I wrote that Greely became a brigadier general when I meant major general; I wrongly called Fort Conger a National Historic Site; I claimed that the motto of Britain's elite Winchester College was, "Manners maketh the man" when it's actually "Manners makyth man." Still, I'm not unhappy with that number and type of mistakes. I've seen more errors in scholarly books of the same length.

April 14

On every expedition, including this last one, I spend about an hour a day writing the day's events/thoughts/ideas/partner's one-liners in a journal. It's hard to steal that much time when you're sledding for eight hours a day and have five hours of chores, but it's possible to do it in the course of other tasks. I did the cooking on this trip, and I would melt the water for our Thermoses the evening before. Depending on how cold it was, this could take over an hour. So as the ice was melting and the water warming up, I'd scribble away, pausing frequently to add more ice, pour a potload of water into a Thermos, etc.

Despite the interruptions, this was an ideal time for writing. After supper, the effort of the day catches up with you and you get too sleepy. By the following morning, you've already forgotten some of the nuances of the previous day. I think there were only two occasions, including one crazy day when we were sledding for 13 hours, that I had to wait till the following day to get the journal written. These journals are vital to any formal writing I later do. Since I sometimes write about journeys years later, the notes preserve details that would otherwise be forgotten.

February 15

The poet Theodore Roethke called the misery of time lost and dreams forsaken while sitting in an office, "the inexorable sadness of pencils." Today I leave the pencils behind again for a month and a half and head out on the land, gathering stories, perhaps, for future pencils to deal with.

February 3, 2012

For Christmas, my expedition partner Noah Nochasak of Nain gave me two wonderful gifts: a harpoon head that he had carved himself -- just what we need here in the Rockies, for those errant whales that some tourists believe populate Lake Minnewanka -- and an Inuktitut-English dictionary of the Northern Labrador dialect. The book was even more special because it was co-edited by my late friend, Auggie Andersen, who gave me valuable advice when I was planning my first expedition.

To some writers, including myself, dictionaries are the best possible gifts. They are sources of information, inspiration, humor. I have spent thousands of hours reading dictionaries like some people read novels. On my desk, I have a pocket dictionary that I sometimes refer to when I'm looking for a word while writing. ("How do I say, 'shorn' without using 'shorn'?") But my real treasures are a pair of unabridged 13-pound dictionaries, Webster's and Funk & Wagnall's. When I see writers with abridged dictionaries on their desks, I conclude that they are using words rather than in love with them.

Studying other languages renews one's love of dictionaries, because every dictionary, and every language, has its style. When I was studying Russian, I acquired A Phrase and Sentence Dictionary of Spoken Russian, put out by the U.S. War Department during WWII. It had the usual phrases pertinent to the era -- "A military airplane may be armed with rockets"; "There is no room in this lifeboat" -- but it also gave real insight into the Russian psyche. Example phrases were usually morose. Aunt: "My aunt died last week." Soup: "There is a fly in my soup." The Russian glass of life was always half-empty, never half-full. This became even more apparent when I acquired another dictionary in the same series, this time of the Spanish language. The Spanish example phrases for the same words were sunny and optimistic.

My new Inuktitut dictionary has a refreshing quirkiness that increases the language's intrigue. Forget about the many Inuktitut words for snow -- that's a myth. (See The Horizontal Everest) But consider these gems:

mutjomattingilaugunguna -- stop shoving his head into the soft snow

nangiatsaniannagu -- don't make him jittery when we come to the spot where it is dangerous

nillasejuk -- he is waiting for the warm spring air to cool down before traveling any further

ivuttaujiagivait -- he accidentally lost his catch to a moving ice floe that crushed them

kemmalingngujuk -- a person who is tired of chewing on sealskin to soften it

Kakkinagiva -- after eating mussels, he finds it difficult to eat because the shellfish caused his throat to tingle

KilluaKatsik -- when a dog or human has swallowed something indigestible and it is trailing from its anus

Kiminniajuk -- a person's limbs become numb because the clothes he's wearing are too tight



All words and images ©2008-12 Jerry Kobalenko. Unauthorized use strictly prohibited by law.