Love among the penguins – Q&A with Midge Raymond

My Last Continent by Midge Raymond

Today, I’m delighted to be a stop on Midge Raymond‘s blog tour for her fabulous novel My Last Continent from Text Publishing, which is an adventure romance set in Antarctica.

Deb and Keller meet as researchers for a few weeks each year to study the penguins while working for an educational cruise company. Theirs is a long-distance romance that works – but this year Keller doesn’t appear for the season and then Deb finds that he’s on board another ship which gets into trouble.

My thoughts on the book can be found below, but before that, I asked Midge some questions about the themes in her novel…

A: I have to ask you – have you been to the Antarctic? What made you want to set a novel there?

Midge_Raymond_photoMidge: I visited the Antarctic peninsula in 2004, on a small ship much like the Cormorant, and this inspired a short story, “The Ecstatic Cry,” which I wrote shortly after returning. This is the story in which the character of Deb was born, and in the following years, both she and Antarctica stuck with me — as well as the concerns I’d heard while I was there about the larger tourist ships venturing farther and farther south. After returning north and hearing about several ships getting into trouble in Antarctica, including one that sank in 2007, I realized this was a story that needed to be told. And the setting is so otherworldly — Antarctica is unlike any other place on earth, and it was both fun and challenging to write about.

And the penguins? … they obviously fascinate you. Do you have a favourite species?

Adélie Penguin – this species only lives in Antarctica

I love them all! I honestly couldn’t choose. I’ve definitely become more fascinated with all penguins over the years, and earlier this year I took a trip to meet a sixth penguin species—the Galápagos penguins. These penguins are endangered and very elusive, so I feel fortunate that I was able to see them and swim with them.

By human standards, Deb and Keller have a very unconventional romance, coming together each cruise/research season then living separate lives for the rest of the year. It struck me that they’re like some of the penguins they study who mate for life, but spend months apart …

This is so true of Deb and Keller. As you say, they are an unusual couple, but because their own lives are so wrapped up in Antarctica, their seasonal romance feels quite natural for them—in the beginning.  It’s perfect for them to be able to meet and be together in the place that they both love, but, unlike the penguins, it does eventually become difficult for them to spend only a finite amount of time together every year.

One of the issues you tackle in the novel is tourism in the Antarctic. Deb’s situation as a penguin researcher doubling as wildlife expert on a more educational style of cruise that facilitates the research seems an acceptable compromise. Are you worried about the environmental impact of increasing tourism in the area?

my_last_continent_500I am. Right now, it’s well managed, so this is the good news. When I was there, many of the naturalists on our vessel were worried about the large cruise liners, those carrying thousands of passengers, because if anything were to happen in such a remote area, in unpredictable Antarctic weather, it would be extremely challenging, if not impossible, to rescue thousands of passengers. The International Association for Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO) has established guidelines for Antarctic tourism to protect the continent and its wildlife, and it’s important that all tour vessels are members and continue to follow all these rules. Still, tourism has increased in the Antarctic—from around 6,000 tourists in the 1990s to upwards of 40,000 today, and since most visitors go to the Antarctic peninsula, that is a very large number for such a small area.

Rather than tell Deb’s story in a linear fashion, you tell it in several parallel timelines, which twist around each other and converge, giving us a full portrait of your heroine narrator.  Keller, however, retains his enigma – by the time we actually meet him, we’re already intrigued. Was it hard to work out the order we should find things out in the timelines?

It was! It was like putting puzzle pieces together; sometimes, a piece didn’t fit, and I’d have to start over—I’d realize that I’d revealed something too soon, or that I hadn’t offered enough backstory. So there was a lot of revision involved as I put it all together…but for me, that’s part of the fun. Revision is my favourite part of the writing process.

You use a pair of passengers, Kate and Richard Archer, to compare and contrast against Deb and Keller. The Archers are on a once-in-a-lifetime trip that’ll make or break their floundering marriage. Frustratingly for Deb, this pair are in the thick of the action throughout and their relationship adds another layer of emotional depth to the novel. Did they arrive fully formed as a couple?

Yes, Kate and Richard were always together in my mind, and I wrote a lot of backstory about each of them as individuals before they met each other, very little of which made it into the novel but which was essential to me in terms of understanding who they are. Kate was much more of an adventurer than Richard, and he was always very focused on his work, so their relationship is much more about “opposites attracting” than about being a perfect match, and their marriage is fraught with tension because of their differences.

The expeditions of the lucky Shackleton and unlucky Scott continue to loom large over Antarctica. Was it important to pay them homage in your text?

Yes, I think their stories are very important, and still relevant, because one thing that becomes obvious when you read about explorers and the continent is how quickly things can turn around in Antarctica. We are all at the mercy of nature when we’re there, whether today or 100 years ago.

I loved learning about the different types of ice, the floes and bergs, and the differences between the penguins. Are there any books you used in your research you could recommend for further reading?

penguinsI loved reading the tales of the explorers — Richard Byrd’s book Alone, for example, and Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage, by Alfred Lansing. The explorers’ journal entries about the Antarctic are fascinating. For penguin information, there is no better resource (including amazing photographs!) than Penguins: Natural History and Conservation, edited by Pablo Garcia Borboroglu and P. Dee Boersma.

Finally, I’ll be recommending My Last Continent as brilliant summer reading. What are you enjoying reading this summer?

Thank you! Just as summer was beginning, I read a wonderful novel about the relationship between Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne called The Whale: A Love Story, by Mark Beauregard. It’s not only a love story but a wonderful book about writers and the creative process. I’ve just started reading Colum McCann’s TransAtlantic, and next on my stack is Lionel Shriver’s new novel, The Mandibles.

Thank you Midge.

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Now for a few of my thoughts about My Last Continent

You’ll have some of the gist of what this novel is about from the Q&A above. It’s fair to say that I loved it and found it unputdownable – I didn’t want it to end. The moment I knew the book was an adventure about science, the Antarctic, penguins and eco-tourism with a central romance at its heart, I knew this was a book for me.

Told through Deb’s experiences, the scientific aspects of the book were balanced well – showing, and telling us when required what we need to know without overdoing the detail or talking down. There was a lovely passage where Deb describes the different technical words used for different ice conditions which totally engaged me, such is her need to communicate as our narrator. The message about the effects of our changing world is also very clear, as Deb says:

We’ve continued to examine the effects of tourism on the birds. Two hundred years ago, the penguins had the continent to themselves; now they come into contact with bacteria they have no defenses for. Four years ago, Thom and I tested tourists’ boots as they boarded after a landing and found almost two dozen contaminants. … And in truth, we can’t blame only tourism; migrating birds bring new toxins, too – we’ve found salmonella and E.coli, West Nile and avian pox. Still, whether it’s climate change or tourism, the only thing not changing is the penguins’ vulnerability. So we keep studying, and I keep wondering what impact our data might have.

I mentioned the central romance – it’s really a ménage-à-trois. There is obviously the relationship between Deb and Keller, conducted at long-distance except for the brief weeks on board ship, but they both also have a love affair with the Antarctic too, indeed in the early days…

A looming intuition seeps from below my consciousness, like the weighty, hidden part of an iceberg – the unwelcome awareness that for Keller, this is still about Antarctica, not about me.

They really are soulmates though, and by the time the narrative reaches it’s climax through the different timelines, we are so involved in the lives of Deb and Keller that it’s hard to conceive that something may happen. We know that there was a shipwreck from the first pages of the novel’s prologue, we know that Deb survives to tell her story – but does Keller?  That, I won’t say!

blog tour midge raymondI can say, this novel is going straight onto my year-end best of list, I loved everything aboutit. I was engaged from the opening pages, but from the moment that Deb and Keller meet, two lost souls finding each other at the end of the Earth, I was invested in their outcome, their romance, their sense of adventure as well as the dangers of the beautiful, icy wilderness of the Antarctic. Perfect summer reading for me. (10/10)

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Source: Publisher – Thank you.

Midge Raymond, My Last Continent – Text Publishing, 28th July 2016, trade paperback, 308 pages.

7 thoughts on “Love among the penguins – Q&A with Midge Raymond

  1. Midge says:

    Thanks so much, Annabel, for sharing MY LAST CONTINENT on your blog, and for the opportunity to talk about the book and penguins!

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      Thank you for popping by Midge. As you can tell, I LOVED the novel, and I loved your answers to my questions too.

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