His name, his publisher proudly announces, is “nearly synonymous with high-velocity narratives” that “perfectly capture pivotal moments in history,” making what Hampton Sides does sound really easy. To hear Sides tell it, perfectly capturing anything is not easy, not ever. His historical narratives—among them Ghost Soldiers, Blood and Thunder, and, now, The Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette (Doubleday, Aug.), have all required massive amounts of research along with a synchrony of other circumstances: collective historical amnesia, a cast of colorful characters, a shift in the political winds, and, of course, much hard work.
“I’m always trying to find something that was consequential in its day that is not very well-known now,” Sides says, “Getting that sweet spot is hard, but it does happen.”
The Kingdom of Ice tells the story of a 19th-century Arctic exploration gone horribly wrong. The Jeannette expedition set out to prove a popular idea of the day, the theory of the “open polar sea,” but the ship got stuck in the polar ice, sank, and left its marooned passengers in a two-year ordeal in the world’s coldest and most remote spot.
“I was traveling in Norway for National Geographic magazine, and I met a man who was trying to recreate the voyage of the Jeannette,” says Sides. “Over the years as an editor of Outside magazine I would hear about a lot of adventures, but I had never heard of the Jeannette.” His ignorance activated his radar and set him off on three years of researching and writing, including a three-week stint in Siberia.
“It’s hard to understand now how desperate people then were to know what’s up there in the Arctic. Now we know it’s just a bunch of ice shifting around. We are not that interested. Back then it drove people crazy, the gnawing obsession to know what was there.”
Sides says what makes him most proud about the book is simply having finished it. “When I learn of what these men went through, the extent of their suffering and their travails, I thought, this was a story that should be known.”
Sides says he is not yet thinking about his next project. “I’m in that wonderful period between books when I’m not doing anything. I felt I was stuck in the ice myself for the past three years, so I’m enjoying being unstuck.”
He will be signing galleys at the Random House booth (2839) today, 9–10 a.m.