Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing, with Alexis Troubetzkoy

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 Alexis Troubetzkoy

Alexis S. Troubetzkoy talks to Open Book about the allure the Arctic holds for him and the adventurers who people his new book, Arctic Obsession: The Lure of the Far North (Dundurn Press). In this ambitious biography of a landscape, he explores the history of our northern-most region and the challenges we will face due to the effects of a changing climate.

Open Book:

Tell us about your new book, Arctic Obsession: The Lure of the Far North.

Alexis Troubetzkoy:

The book tells of the human delusion and fortitude in the historical penetration of one of the most inhospitable regions of the world. What was the beguiling attraction that drove men into the far north? Of what sort of mettle were they who entered those unknown, unpredictable and inhospitable regions, some to return home, others to die? Additionally, the book dwells on contemporary issues besetting that fragile part of the globe — global warming and environmental, ecological and geopolitical concerns.

OB:

What triggered your own "Arctic obsession" and caused you to write this book?

AT:

In 1979 I was invited to join a group of businessmen travelling to Resolute, Canada’s second furthest northern settlement. In the course of the five days, I accompanied supply flights to far-distant meteorological stations. Flying at 7,000 feet, one saw every detail of the pristine land beneath us. Never have I been more impressed in my extensive travels than with these excursions — the beauty and isolation… It was as though God had secreted away for himself this far-distant corner of the globe and we were interlopers. It was spell-binding and indelibly impressive. My heart went out to the Arctic and I fell in love with her.

OB:

Arctic Obsession covers Arctic exploration from the earliest times to the present day. How did you decide what events and circumstances to focus on?

AT:

As I say in the introduction, “the canvas before us is sizeable and broad brushstrokes are required to come to terms with it.” I aimed for an authentic chronological account of exploration and development, but one that focused on the foremost individuals involved, people who uncovered new territory, whose legacy was important to those who followed or who left behind a body of Arctic knowledge. Also: I wished to picture the extraordinary men who braved those regions, suffered in them and perhaps died. What force drew them there?

OB:

What was your writing process like for this book? How did you make your way from the initial idea to completion of the project?

AT:

The process was simple: much reading, an outline and then research, research and research. As with any enterprise, the first step is always the most difficult, but the plunge was taken with the sketching of the first recorded Arctic exploration in 325 B.C. To write history is one thing; to tell of developing contemporary issues is quite another matter, and my most difficult challenge was the gathering of information and data on the issues of the day — warming, ice-melt, territorial claims, environmental changes, the flora and fauna, etc. It was important to maintain a global perspective on Arctic exploration and development, not to dwell exclusively on Canada. The journey from outline to completion was not without sweat.

OB:

What were you most surprised to learn during your research for Arctic Obsession?

AT:

The peculiar and singular explorations of two American Arctic giants: George De Long and George Kennan, both finding themselves in the Siberian wilderness. Additionally, I was surprised by the studies of Arctic inhabitants and animal life — their unique features and potential threats to survival.

OB:

Why do you think the Far North is so important to Canadians' sense of identity, even though most of us have never been there?

AT:

The Canada most of us know is ever so small. The distance from Victoria to St. John’s is just a mite greater than the distance from Windsor to our most northern reaches. Forty percent of Canada is occupied by a mere 0.3 percent of its population. Three-quarters of our people live within a narrow band of 100 miles from the United States. It’s a vast, vast land lying north of us. “From sea to sea” — not two oceans but three (the world’s only such country). In the next decades the far north will develop… perhaps so spectacularly as to become “a commonplace country… like Michigan or Switzerland.” (in the words of explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson).

OB:

What are you working on now?

AT:

I’m toying with the idea of writing something on Russian-American relations in the century and a half from the American Revolution of 1775 to the Russian Revolution of 1917. The two countries, one a democratic republic and the other an imperial autocracy, were generally speaking the best of friends, supporting one another, trading and interacting. Lots of fascinating and little-known friendly exchanges. Plus: colourful men and women — Americans in Russia and Russians in America.


Alexis S. Troubetzkoy, born in France of a Russian princely family, immigrated at an early age to the United States and then to Canada. A resident of Toronto, he served as Headmaster of three Canadian independent schools and has authored Imperial Legend, The Disappearance of Tsar Alexander I and A Brief History of the Crimean War.

For more information about Arctic Obsession please visit the Dundurn Press website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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