PW: One Day the Ice Will Reveal All Its Dead [reviewed above] is narrated by Alfred Wegener, the originator of continental drift theory. What inspired you to choose him as the subject of a novel?
Clare Dudman: When I studied geography at school and came across continental drift, I was enthralled at once. The idea that the apparently solid ground is, in fact, moving seemed to me to be quite astonishing. It seemed kind of obvious, too, when you really looked at the fit of the continents on maps on the school walls. But what really attracted me to Wegener was the romance of his tale: the idea that he was right and yet ridiculed—and died before his idea was accepted. I remember, too, that [I'd read] that he had made world record balloon flights, and I thought then he must have been an interesting man. In fact, it was something I discussed as part of my interview for university when I was asked which famous scientist would I most like to meet.
PW: On the paragraph level, your novel is profoundly hopeful. Wegener clearly loves the world, loves the complexities of it.
CD: He dies, but the important thing is that he dies happy. He knows he's right, he has contributed something important to the world, and even though people don't agree with him yet, they will—and his wife has helped him realize that this is the thing that matters.
PW: To what extent are Wegener's passions your passions?
CD: I suppose many of his passions about the landscape and science are mine, too—I like to understand how it all works, and I like to link things together.
PW: How long did it take you to write the novel?
CD: It took me about six months to write, but about 18 months for the research. I wanted to find out all I could and be as true to him as I could. So I had to find out a lot about the history of science, about Greenland. Fortunately, the Arts Council of England gave me one of their writers awards. I was able to go to Greenland and found someone who would take me in a small boat to the place where Wegener made his last fatal ascent onto the ice. It was an amazing trip.
PW: What other challenges did you face in writing One Day the Ice...?
CD: I was a little worried about writing his story in the first person to begin with—a British woman of the 21st century pretending to be a German male scientist at the end of the 19th century seemed audacious—but my agent, Rupert Heath, reassured me it was working, so I just continued, working out how I'd feel about the difficulties he encountered. I suppose all humans are the same in lots of ways. As for the poetry in science, once you get rid of some of the [specialized] vocabulary, things become more understandable, and then the simplicity and beauty of the ideas can be revealed.
PW: Your background is in chemistry. When did you start writing?
CD: I've wanted to write since I was about eight. I remember the moment. I was walking across the classroom, and I had an intense desire to write a poem, and realized this was something I could do without asking, that probably no one would mind. So I did. But when I was 16 and had to choose my specialization, my parents had this idea that if you could do science, you should. I'd wanted to study art and English, but eventually I became fascinated by all sorts of aspects of science, too.
PW: What's up next for you?
CD: I have just finished a book on Dr. Heinrich Hoffmann, the 19th-century progressive psychiatrist, who wrote the set of cautionary tales for children, Struwwelpeter, or Shock-headed Peter. The tales used to be quite well-known and popular—Mark Twain made a loose translation. I have taken the stories and used them to describe aspects of Hoffmann's life as a superintendent in a Frankfurt asylum for the insane.