Willie Mitchell and I have been in touch for a little while now, since before the publication of his Antarctica-inspired novel. His enthusiasm for his subject matter is evident in his writing and in the manner in which he communicates the purposes of his works.
In a format that I may try again, Willie has been very kind to answer some short questions about his work and, in particular, his novel based upon the story of Shackleton’s ITAE of 1914-1917, Cold Courage. I’d like to thank Willie for his openness and willingness to engage with me and the Shackleton’s Endurance page in this post. I’ve been very fortunate to have a number of people work with me on various guest posts here and this is another example of that.
Many of our readers have a long interest in polar exploration and Shackleton in particular. Can you tell us a little about your own interests in the icy regions?
As a child growing up, I knew of the legend of Shackleton and the 1914 Imperial Transcontinental Antarctic Expedition but it wasn’t until my adult years that I was given Caroline Alexander’s book on the subject as a gift—it was only then that I got into the details. I was absolutely fascinated and in awe of their unfathomable experience. Additionally, I have had the good fortune to travel to six of the seven continents and spent time in Norway, including venturing to the Arctic Circle. Antarctica is on my bucket list and one day I will go to check that box. Then, finally, I have also been fascinated by exploration and discovering new lands. These pioneers throughout history discovered our planet to the extent that there is not much left to discover. It must have been an amazing, yet hard, and lonely existence at the same time.
[Ed. Caroline Alexander’s book The Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition and her work formed the exhibition that was displayed at Dún Laoghaire, Dublin.]
Were there any features of the story of Endurance that you thought would be best-served by creating a fictionalised novel around the expedition?
I noticed that much of the reading to be had on Endurance and the feted expedition was very documentary in nature, diaries, journals and I wanted to fill in some of the gaps, the relationships between the crew, what they might have said to each other, I tried to bring their characters to life, perhaps like never before. Cold COURAGE is based upon the facts of the expedition but wrapped around are these vignettes—my intention was to make it more readable for the many and really get this heroic story out there to the world. I also wanted to tell the whole story and the tale of not just Endurance but of Aurora too.
Henry McNish, Endurance’s carpenter, is given prominence in the imagined space following the expedition. Were you drawn to his story?
McNish was a Glaswegian, first of all, but when I visited New Zealand several years ago now I heard the story of an old mariner, an adventurer, and explorer who ended up being homeless living in the docks. He was so well respected that the local and visiting sailors would look after him and help him out with food, money and sometimes even whisky. It was this image that prompted me to start the story around McNish. The other thing is that as I first started my writing journey nearly a decade ago, I wanted to tell the stories of the unsung heroes, not necessarily the obvious ones, and all my books so far have followed that vein. It was just too obvious to make Shackleton the central character and I felt particularly drawn to McNish but also to Worsley, to Tom Crean, and of course, Frank Wild, the Right Hand Man.
A parallel plot in your novel is based on soldiers who served in the European theatres of World War One. What prompted you to include such a narrative line?
So, part of my deep admiration and respect for the crew of Endurance (and Aurora) was how after their ordeal they went straight to the war effort, without question. Also, in the spirit of telling the stories of unlikely heroes, all those soldiers during World War One were just beyond belief for their bravery and fortitude. Then, on another level altogether, there were those poor souls who were sentenced to firing squad for desertion, despite, in many cases, their previous bravery in what must have been terrible times.
As part of my research, I stumbled across the story of two private soldiers, Jimmy Smith and his friend Richard (Richie) Blundell. After many years of brave service on the front lines, Smith deserted as he could take no more, and was sentenced to death by firing squad, which comprised men of his own platoon including his best friend Richie. They couldn’t finish the job, and neither could the young Subaltern in charge, so Jimmy’s best friend Richie was ordered to fire the coup de grâce. It is stories like this that really teach us something about life, bravery, and, in this case, death.
What sources did you find of particular use when you were considering your characterisation of Shackleton and the men of Endurance?
As you can imagine, I conducted much research, reading, watching films and documentaries, but I also became a bit of a detective on the internet. It is truly amazing what you can find when you start digging into a subject, finding reference to many unknown facts and then researching even deeper to uncover some fascinating insights and golden nuggets. I researched each of the crew members, and where the information existed, their ages, where they were born, lived, married, whether they had children and subsequently managed to build up a picture and a character of each man to fill in the gaps and bring their personalities, their relationships to life.
Your most-recent publication, Gipsy Moth: Aviatrix, is now available. Are there similar themes explored in this novel as in Cold Courage?
As I continue my writing journey, I am building a theme—historical events that share epic stories, celebrate the unsung heroes, and have multiple layers and stories, twists and turns. Gipsy MOTH is about Amy Johnson the aviatrix born in Kingston-Upon-Hull and probably the most accomplished female pilot at that time, yet, most people recognize Amelia Earhart first. The book goes on a journey with my own Aunt Nikki and Amy’s discovery of flight with Amelia on the other side of the pond. The story takes twists and turns of relationships, of love, of struggle, adventure and in the end tragedy—both Johnson and Earhart, the most famous aviators of their time, disappeared during flights, one in the Pacific and the other above the Thames Estuary, and neither of their remains were ever found. They are stories shrouded in mystery and they remain so to this day.
Willy Mitchell is an indie author, writer, and storyteller. His first title was Operation ARGUS, and then the sequel Bikini BRAVO where a group of former Special Air Service operatives enter the dark and murky world of maskirovka and discover the lengths that some people will go for power and greed. Cold COURAGE tells the epic tale of Shackleton’s 1914 Trans-Antarctic Expedition and all that was happening in those extraordinary times. Book four, Northern ECHO tells the story of two boys growing up during the punk rock revolution in the north of England, and how a dark secret keeps them apart until the end. Mitchell’s latest instalment, is Gipsy MOTH about his Aunt Nikki, her friend, and fellow Aviatrix, Amy Johnson, and Amelia Earhart on the other side of the pond during the golden age of aviation.
Up next? SS Indigo is the story of an eclectic mix of guests mysteriously invited to a cruise on a luxury steamship around the Caribbean. The only thing they have in common is their lust for power, advancement, and wealth.