What drew you to Alaska as the setting for your third novel?
My fascination with Alaska began with footage of musk oxen on the arctic tundra, the wind gusting snow around them; ice freezing into their coats. An arctic wolf closed in, almost hidden in the whiteout, and a new-born calf was separated from the herd. The image was stark, brutal and compelling. I discovered that in winter temperatures plummet to sixty below and polar winds reach hurricane force; that a night beginning in November has no morning until January. I knew that I wanted to write about northern Alaska and also knew that this white world in darkness wouldn’t just be the setting for a story, but would be a part of the story itself and a metaphor for themes I wanted to explore.
Vast and sparsely populated, Arctic Alaska is one of the last true wildernesses. You can be iso-lated here in a way that is hard to comprehend in urban life. I was interested in seeing what would happen to characters if they were forced to journey through the perpetual night in sub-zero temperatures, with no one to turn to. I thought that the utter isolation and violent cold would expose them mentally as well as physically, their fears and strengths laid bare. At his lowest point Matt feels that he experiences a long dark night of the soul, as if all other character traits had been stripped away.
But as well as the bleak harshness of Alaska, I also discovered gentle beauty. Through Matt and Ruby, I wanted to write a little about the arctic hares, foxes, snowy owls and ptarmigans, whose fur or feathers turn white in winter to match the land and skies. For a long time I’d wanted to write about a char-acter who was deaf. When I was researching Alaska I discovered that Inupiat people have had sign language as part of their regular language for centuries and that Inuit people have a higher-than-usual incidence of congenital deafness. Alaska and Ruby felt a good fit for one another. As the novel progressed, and the characters were journeying further and further from the nearest town, I felt the quietness of the snow-covered mountains and tundra.
Ruby is a wonderful character. How did you get inside the head of a profoundly deaf child?
I loved writing Ruby and two things helped me. The first was my own experience of deafness as a child. Unlike Ruby, I was only partially deaf but I can remember feeling on the outside of things, of not understanding quite what was going on and the sense of exclusion. I learnt to lip-read without even realising I was doing it and, although I have hearing in one ear, still frequently lip-read today. For me, it is completely natural to think that oral speech is only one way of communicating and I knew that Ruby – a vibrant and intelligent ten year old – would explore many ways of talking and listening. The strangest thing for me with partial hearing loss is disorientation, because hearing places us in the world in a specific way. For me everything happens to my left sound-wise. My right hand side is a permanent quiet blank. With Ruby, I wanted to explore that blank. I started thinking about Ruby when my youngest son was ten and so the second helpful thing in writing her character was simply to be around ten year olds, with their fresh way of looking at the world and their imaginative engagement with it. I saw how they create their own catchphrases, the games they play, the pressures in the playground and both their sophistication and innocence. Children write to each other all the time through texting, Snapchatting and a myriad of other methods that are constantly evolving. I think that adults learn social media as a second language and can become fluent, but for children and teenagers it’s a mother tongue. I knew that Ruby would choose to use this language, in which she would be as loud and fluent as a hearing child. I wanted the emotional climax of the novel not to be Ruby speaking with her mouth for the first time, but when her mother learns to hear her written voice. The first sentence I wrote for Ruby was a tweet and from that moment I felt I knew her, not only because of what she said but because she was a child who would choose to tweet about words. I felt I understood her reaction to deafness, her loneliness and her own unique take on the world.
This isn’t just a thriller – it touches on ques-tions of the fragility of the planet. Are you personally concerned about this issue?
Before starting this novel, I would read an article on a green issue and be concerned in a cerebral way. But as I researched and wrote The Quality of Silence, my concern became personal and passionate. I checked the storyline with an expert and was alarmed – and still am – that the scenario is entirely credible. I kept track of fracking in the USA as it took hold at an alarming rate. The fragility of our planet became a driver as I wrote, and for me the central image and symbol in the book is that of a white world, vast and unspoilt, hiding poison. I strongly believe that the least we can do in the UK is have a moratorium on fracking like other European countries and not fast-track.
You’ve done it again, Rosamund – another fan-tastically readable and highly original novel. Where are you going with your next one?
I’m allowing my imagination to come up with all kinds of stories and characters. Nothing at this stage gets pinned down or thrown out. I tend not to discuss the ideas with anyone, even family, as once I tell people what the novel is about I lost the impetus to actually go and write it!