Winterover: A Novel
Winterover: A Novel
Who would you become after eight months with no sun in the coldest place on earth?
Who would you become after eight months with no sun in the coldest place on earth? Read more
What happens on the ice, stays on the ice.
-South Pole adage
At lunch, everyone was telling old station tales about the ones who went crazy: The guy whose girl had dumped him, how he’d loaded a sledge with graham crackers and beer, slipped the straps over his shoulders, and walked out into the polar night, heading for Vostok Station. The lady doing ice core analysis who went on a vodka binge, tore off her clothes, and then tried to shave her underarms with her butter knife in the middle of the galley. The biophysicist who had begun tearing the stuffing out of his pillow because it “made too much noise in the night.”
Bozer, the head of polar construction, looked at Denise, his ice-wife, a sociologist on an NEH grant for the winter. “I know a few people around here who are looking Hut 10-Ready.” Denise, whose plain face radiated serenity and whose thick bifocals suggested senility, half-smiled and put her head on Bozer’s shoulder.
“What’s Hut 10?” Cooper asked.
“That’s where we put the Hammer guy,” Bozer said.
"You have to explain who Hammer guy is," Denise said.
“I’m too toasty,” Bozer said. Denise pulled herself off Bozer and told Cooper about a galley worker who, a few years earlier, had snuck up behind his boss and hit him on the head with a hammer. He also caught an electrician who’d tried to intervene with the claw-end, tearing up the guy’s right cheek. Hammer Guy had scrambled out of the station before anyone could grab him and run out to the Dark Sector, where the scientists worked. He was later discovered at the VIPER telescope, tap-dancing and singing “Animal Crackers in My Soup.” The staff had detained him in a remote hut on the outskirts of the station area, called Hut 10, and Bozer had been recruited to build wooden bars in the hut’s single window, which the guy apparently gnawed on, eventually breaking three of his teeth in the process. “The military got a flight down to whisk him away,” Denise said, and looked at Bozer, “and remember how they were completely uninterested in talking to Hammer Guy until they’d seen the sights? They just left him in the hut while they had their pictures taken at the Pole marker."
“The point is that the polar winter is hard on the psyche,” Denise said. “The lack of stimulation—no new faces, no new scenes, no sun—can actually cause cognitive dissonance, or even disable coherent thought. I know the National Science Foundation and Vapcraft both try to screen out those most likely to break down under stress, but even in well-adjusted groups, we’re going to see five percent end up with some psychological problem.”
Winter-Over is a seriocomic, slightly obscene novel that tells the story of a year at Amundsen-Scott Station at the South Pole, including Cooper Gosling’s eponymous “winter-over” (very few people stay at the station over the polar winter due to harsh physical and psychological conditions). She is one of only a handful of women at the Pole, and must navigate the claustrophobic interior landscape of a remote station populated by a collection of people who don’t believe they belong anywhere else on earth—and with no flights in or out from February to October. Stuart Dybek, who awarded a fiction prize to the short story on which this novel is based, wrote that the characters here “retain what humanity they can in a place where the sentimentality scale measures absolute zero.”
When the novel opens, it is late 2003 and Cooper has been accepted into the National Science Foundation’s Artists & Writers’ Program as the lone painter. She’s a thirty-year-old substitute art teacher from Minneapolis whose life up to this point has been littered with abandoned canoe paddles, part-time jobs, unfinished canvases and a host of ex-boyfriends who had, one by one, begun taking showers and taking “real” jobs. This adventure comes with cachet, but is perhaps a final escape before Cooper must face the fact that her art is a failure and real life is her only option, including facing the tragedy that has defined her family.
After passing a battery of psychological exams, she arrives at South Pole Station to fulfill the NSF’s directive to produce a body of work that “accurately reflects your experience at the Pole,” cope with the isolation as well as the startling social environment in which she is thrust, an epic sociopolitical battle between the established scientists on base and the presence of two adherents to Intelligent Design, all while managing a personal disaster that threatens to endanger the well-being of everyone at the station.
What initially seems like a story dominated by landscape quickly becomes a narrative about the way human beings survive—or don’t—in extreme social and physical circumstances, when the heroic history of Antarctica has been replaced by cynicism and mind-numbing bureaucracy. The novel follows the events of the summer and winter of 2003-2004 in the lives of this small group of strange inhabitants—from astrophysicists and molecular biologists to cooks, solid waste managers, carpenters, construction staff, human resources personnel, a chaplain, and artists.
During the winter of 2004 at South Pole Station politics makes an unwelcome foray into this insistently apolitical environment, as stateside partisan wrangling lands a scientist promoting Intelligent Design in an office in the Polar’s Dark Sector, alongside cosmologists studying the origins of the Big Bang. A mid-season visit from some DVs—Distinguished Visitors—from Washington leads to the drawing of battle lines between the scientists and some very outspoken Congressmen, not to mention the lone Creationist scientist working quietly in total isolation.
The narrative at the Pole leads up to two major events: Cooper becomes pregnant during the polar winter, when no flights can land or leave, even for medical emergencies, and someone on base has a catastrophic mental breakdown, both scenarios putting the entire base at risk. There are hard choices to be made, and even the durable cynicism and disdain for human emotion grow brittle under the strain of the events of this strange polar winter.
I am a former journalist who used to write earnest pieces about catastrophic natural disasters and the mendacity of large corporations responsible for manmade ones (see Red River Rising: The Anatomy of a Flood and the Survival of an American City and "Whatever it Takes" in The Nation, respectively.) After departing from Penguin following a stint as an Associate Editor, I opened my own editing house to make ends meet while I turned my attention to fiction. In the last five years I've given birth to two children, won the Third Coast Fiction Award for a story based on this novel, been awarded a Minnesota State Arts Board grant, and was named a finalist for the Archibald Bush Foundation Fellowship.
I also began work on a comic novel about one year at South Pole Station, and am now in the final turn. Were I to receive funding for this project, I'd be able to get this beast edited into excellence. One of the major aspects of the narrative is political and scientific interplay between astrophysicists, cosmologists, and paleoclimatologists with individuals who are trying to prove that Intelligent Design is a viable competitor to the Big Bang theory and the theory of evolution, not to mention their desire to prove climate change is a hoax. My background in journalism has prepared me for the task of looking for hard-to-find source material, synthesizing, teasing out the telling detail, and integrating it into a compelling narrative, but I still have some tinkering to do and a little more science and religion to study, not to mention the visual arts (as my main character is a painter).
The nonfiction writer in me wants things in this book to be as true to life as possible, down to the smallest detail of the neutrino monitor one of the character lovingly tends most hours of the day, while the novelist wants the book to provoke questions about the boundaries of human endurance—physically, mentally, and emotionally. I need a good editor to make sure I've got my stuff right, and to delete ruthlessly when I've gone on too long.
What I'll Do with the Funds
Pretty simple. I will get the work edited. I'm an editor myself, by trade, so I know that you cannot--or should not--impose your work on anyone without first putting it in front of a brilliant and, frankly, ruthless editor. And yes, this is how much it costs to hire a good editor for a book of about 400 pages (I bask in the irony of being an editor unable to afford the prices of her own services!)
With any money left over, I will also build a website for the book. And then I will lean heavily on my contacts in the New York publishing world, including a handful of agents who have already expressed interest in the book, to get this thing into the hands of people who like funny novels with serious undertones set in weird locations and populated by nailheads, beakers, artists, cooks, tech geeks, power plant managers, sociologists, and other denizens of the edge of the world. Can't guarantee a book deal, but publishing this myself will always be an option on the table.
Seriously. Consider reading the first chapter. Love it. Hate it. At least you'll know.
**Music Credit: "Opening Doors" by Jamie Evans
- (30 days)