"How did you replicate so perfectly the cold that a person reading this feels cold?"
"I'd experienced extraordinarily cold situations a couple of times, and quite often in the mountains in the Adirondacks, where my parents lived, where in winter it's not unusual for the temperature to fall to 40 below. Of course, you're clothed and protected, but you soon notice you've started drooling from the dryness, and if you expose any skin it becomes instantly numbed and then painful. If there's any wind it's nearly debilitating. You almost can't make your muscles work to walk forward if you are inadequately clothed. The pain is paralyzing. The cold will absolutely render pain over large parts of your body very, very quickly. And there's not room for a thought in your head, just a primal scream to escape the cold. It's like drowning. All you want is out."
"Why did you want to set the book in such an extreme place?"
"I thought, given my day job and parenting, it would take me a long time to write. So I needed a static location. I'd always been interested in the Arctic. So I thought, 'Well, this is one place that isn't going to change. I won't have to worry about the setting moving around on me.'"
"You worked on this off and on for 25 years?"
"For 20, yes. And then intensely for the last three. But the Arctic refused to stay dormant. I woke up one day to discover a little fact floating up on the airwaves -- that the arctic had 'lost 40 percent of its volume.' Interesting way to put it. I thought, 'What can that mean?' Naturally, it meant exactly what they were saying, however obliquely, was that the Arctic Ocean ice that was ten feet thick when I started the novel was now six feet thick."
"How did you decide upon Jessie, your female 'lead?'"
It wasn't Jessie to begin with. The leads were two males at first. They didn't work and I killed off one and kept the funny one and wrote it all again. That was swell except he didn't work either. I tried a female finally. That worked. So I wrote it out a third time, with Jessie Hanley. She was a cross between Beatrix Potter and a woman I met for probably a whole hour one afternoon some years ago.
"I gave her sort of a rocky educational background. Made her not very gentrified or well credentialed. Given that, she just has to be very practical and directed when she goes to work on solving a problem. She's from the wrong side of the river, wrong side of the tracks. And she's fought her way through. She's very good at her job. That's what she relies on.
"She thinks fast, she's had to. She's a loner, which in most work situations is not so good, but in this case is perfect. Instead of having the usual lab resources and colleagues to fall back on, this time she has to go it alone. She has to get to the Arctic and deal with the threat to this world-class facility."
"She's also funny."
"Yeah, she's a wise ass. She's not polished and not terribly well turned out. What you see is what you get with her, which is a slowly impressive medical sleuth."
"How did you become interested in the Inuit?"
"I am sure it's because I come originally from a group so small that it is an endangered people, like the Inuit. I'm from Latvia. Except for a brief period of independence after WWI, it was always in the thrall of larger outside forces in the guise of occupying armies and their philosophies, or comparatively gigantic neighbors. So I'm very aware of the psychology of the small group living in the shadow of the enormous power that knew best for the natives. The last folks in Latvia were the Soviets. They made a concerted effort to permanently remove and liquidate Latvians and replace them with their own citizens. Tens of thousands of Letts were shipped off in cattle cars into the bowels of Russia, or killed outright.
"Allegedly the Russians (and every other nearby nation in the region) were after Latvia's warm-water ports in the Baltic. The Russians didn't really have any ports that weren't frozen solid for most of the winter. That's the purported reason. More likely, Latvia was a heavily forested, appealing place they wanted for themselves. I don't think it's been that big a factor in Russian strategic needs for a long time. I think it was more that they simply could have it, so why not."
"Who did the Latvians who were your parents' age dislike more, the Germans or the Russians?"
"I don't think they disliked either nationality more. In fact, they probably identified with both. They, as kids, had fled with their families into Tsarist Russia to avoid the effects of the First World War (and there had been a violent dress rehearsal for the Revolution in 1905 before that).
"So as little kids of ten or so, they were taken into Russia with their families, to get out of the way of what was coming. Little did they know they would live through the Russian Revolution instead. The Russians had always been welcoming and receptive to the Latvians. Being young kids, my parents quickly learned the language. They both became fluent. But the Latvians had been held for centuries under a feudal system by the Germans. So the manor owners, the great local landholders, were German. And my parents spoke German as well, just as fluently.
"They didn't have any feelings against either group really. They knew both intimately. My great-grandfather was a German baron. He fathered five girls with my great-grandmother but never married. He was a German aristocrat and she just a Latvian peasant. With each child, though, he gave her land, and so my great-grandmother had quite a holding after a while. Still, given all that and a lifetime together, when he died, family legend has it that she wasn't even permitted at his funeral. Anyway, the Latvians are a tiny group and very experienced at invisibility. The first time I heard about Inuit standing motionless for hours on ice floes, by breathing holes for hours, hunting, I thought of Latvians. They also practiced a kind of elimination of their aged who could no longer make their own way."