In conversation with… author and poet Katie Hale

We chat with author and poet Katie Hale to discuss her latest book, her love for travel and how her Svalbard residency led to a marriage proposal.

In conversation with… author and poet Katie Hale

We chat with author and poet Katie Hale to discuss her latest book, her love for travel and how her Svalbard residency led to a marriage proposal.

In conversation with… author and poet Katie Hale

04/07/2024

We chat with author and poet Katie Hale to discuss her latest book, her love for travel and how her Svalbard residency led to a marriage proposal.

Katie Hale is an award-winning novelist and poet based in Cumbria, UK. She won a Northern Debut Award for her poetry collection, White Ghosts, and is the author of two novels. Katie has held Writer in Residence positions in several destinations, including Australia, the US and, most recently, Svalbard in the Arctic. Katie also leads writing workshops for universities, arts organisations and schools and mentors young writers.

Her latest novel, The Edge of Solitude, a tense eco-thriller, is set aboard a ship in Antarctica. We caught up with Katie to talk about her latest book, her love for travel and how her Svalbard residency led to a marriage proposal.

Where do you find inspiration for your projects?  

Leonard Cohen once said that if he knew where his great songs came from, he would go there more often. I think there’s a truth to that – partly because inspiration never seems to come from the same place twice. It might come from something I overhear, or read on an information board, or from an image in a gallery or an object in a museum. For The Edge of Solitude, inspiration came from travelling to Antarctica and learning about the ecology, history, and geopolitics of the region.

Profile shot of Katie in a red jumper on ice

Katie is an author and poet (Credit: Tamara Šuša)

But I do think inspiration can feel like – and can also come from – visiting a new place. There’s something about taking myself out of my usual environment that helps me see things differently, that allows me to see connections between ideas which would otherwise have stayed disparate. It could be somewhere as remote as Antarctica, but it could also be a walk from my own back door, or sitting with a coffee in a new town. Anywhere that takes me out of my usual pattern of thought, and away from the emails, the dishes, and the hoovering.

A project rarely comes to me fully formed. It’s a glimpse, an idea seen out of the corner of your eye, something to catch hold of and note down before it disappears – and then to spend months, even years, building up into something more complete.

So perhaps inspiration might not be a single place I can visit over and over again, but rather the product of lots of different places – which is always a great excuse for travel!

Do you prefer writing poetry or novels? 

It tends to come in waves. I rarely work on both at once, and usually whichever one I’m working on at the time is the one I prefer, because I get so immersed in it. At the moment, I’m working on writing a third novel, so I prefer the all-consuming world you can create when writing something longer.

But at some point, I’m sure I’ll go back to preferring the more fleeting feeling you can get from a poem – like a frieze, or a snapshot, as opposed to the full-length feature film of something like The Edge of Solitude. There’s also something to be said for the length of poems, too. When you’re 60,000 words into the first draft of a novel, a 14-line sonnet can feel very appealing!

Tell us about The Edge of Solitude.

The Edge of Solitude tells the story of Ivy: a disgraced environmental activist, who’s desperate to redeem her reputation and get back her relationship with her son. The novel opens as she embarks on a voyage to Antarctica, to work on a billionaire’s ambitious conservation project. But as she journeys further south, she realises how little she really knows about the project, and about her travelling companions – and as the landscape becomes more eerie and more isolated, she starts to question who she can trust, and which relationships are worth trying to save.

The Edge of Solitude book cover

The Edge of Solitude is set in Antarctica (Credit: Canongate)

In many ways, it’s a novel about the choices we all face, daily, on a much smaller scale: how much are we prepared to sacrifice, to save the dying natural world; and how culpable are we in the face of governments and global corporations?

It’s also a novel about love, human relationships and the desire for redemption. And about one imperfect woman trying to make good on her past mistakes.

From the Lake District to Antarctica – what inspired you to set the novel there? 

I’ve always been fascinated by Antarctica, ever since we did a geography project about it at school. I fell in love with the idea of endless icy landscapes, and treacherous expeditions – and of course with the wildlife, especially penguins. I think what initially fascinated me was the idea of an unspoiled landscape, though I didn’t know how to articulate it at the time.

Since then, I’ve realised that the ‘untouched wilderness’ notion of Antarctica isn’t true. There are remnants of the whaling industry, both in physical infrastructure left behind, and borne out through today’s diminished whale population. There are bases such as Port Lockroy, which nod towards the continent’s geopolitical history and also play a part in scientific research. And of course, there is Antarctic tourism, which both contributes to the challenges Antarctica is facing and also educates people about them. All of this is without even taking into account the effect that activity in other places in the world also has on Antarctica – or the effect Antarctica has on our global currents and weather systems.

So while I might have fallen in love with Antarctica because I believed in the myth of its pristine beauty, it was only when I got to know it a bit better, and discovered some of the complexities under the surface, that I became well and truly hooked.

Have you visited Antarctica? How did you do your research? 

I always knew I wanted to write about Antarctica, and that to do that faithfully, I wanted to visit. I was lucky enough to travel to Antarctica on board a Hurtigruten Expedition in 2020. In fact, we were one of the last expeditions to travel there before Covid closed so many international borders – though of course, with limited news and wifi, I don’t think any of us on board realised just how close things were. 

There were a particularly memorable couple of days when we circled the Falkland Islands, as South American ports closed themselves to us one by one, and we weren’t sure whether we’d be able to get home at all. Luckily, the Hurtigruten team managed to secure flights for us, and that – coupled with an emotional 10 minutes where I sobbed at a poor desk agent at Dubai airport – got me home just in time for the first lockdown.

Katie with a camera on a zodiac boat in Svalbard

Katie has always been fascinated by the polar regions (Credit: Katie Hale)

Looking back, that experience of not being sure how I was going to get home sounds like a bit of an adventure, but I think it really contributed to my overall experience of Antarctica, and to writing The Edge of Solitude: that feeling of isolation; of being so dependent on the group of people you find yourself with; of being far from home and unsure where you might be going.

All of these were feelings that fed into Ivy’s story. When I was writing about her struggling to make contact with her son in the outside world, or about her nausea crossing the Drake Passage, or about her feeling of being so distant from everything she knows and loves, it was based on my own experience. Similarly, Ivy’s awe at the vast glaciers, her joy at watching penguins, and her total wonderment at the vivid pinks and blues of an Antarctic sunrise are all my own.

You used to write a travel blog. Do you have a dream destination you haven't visited? 

Until 2020, Antarctica was always my dream destination – and I would still love to go back – but I’m also drawn to the Arctic. Is it something magnetic that draws me towards the earth’s poles? Something about the cold, I think, and the remoteness. Something about the way the landscape is always shifting, and about the intricate patterns made by ice.

Katie standing in front of a tall ship

Katie spent two weeks aboard a tall ship in Svalbard (Credit: Tamara Šuša)

Last year, I was lucky enough to take part in an artists’ residency on Svalbard; spending two weeks on a tall ship, sailing up the west coast of Spitsbergen with a group of other writers, artists and scientists. The experience affected me in ways I’m still coming to understand and made me desperate not only to return to Svalbard but also to explore more areas of the Arctic. I’d love to visit Greenland, Alaska and Northern Canada. One of my biggest dreams is to travel the Northwest Passage – so if anyone has space on an expedition and needs a Writer in Residence, get in touch!

What's next for you?

I always have at least a couple of projects waiting in the wings; they stack up in my head, waiting their turn to come forward, like lipsticks in one of those dispensers you get in Boots. After The Edge of Solitude, I’m working on a much smaller novel, set in Cumbria, on the edge of the Lake District. After that, I have a whole notebook filled with notes from my Svalbard residency and jottings of research about an Arctic expedition – so I suspect I may be returning to the ice and that an Arctic novel may be on the cards…

What luxury item would you take if you were working at Port Lockroy for the season?

In The Edge of Solitude, Ivy has a couple of luxury items: whisky, which she constantly berates herself for drinking too much of, and a small wooden carving of a Weddell seal, which reminds her of her son. I think my luxury item would have to be something similar – either a really good gin (I’m very partial to a G&T), or else something to remind me of my wife. 

Port Lockroy and penguins

Katie would take a reminder her wife to Port Lockroy (Credit: UKAHT)

When I travelled to Svalbard, and we were out of contact for two weeks, she wrote letters for me to open at intervals throughout the voyage. In such an unfamiliar place, they were a beautiful reminder of home. I can’t quite explain it, but they also somehow put the whole voyage into a human context and put our relationship into a bigger ecological one as well. I remember reading one just before standing on an ice floe – the way Ivy does in The Edge of Solitude, though I’d already written the scene by that point – and deciding I wanted my partner to be my wife. We got married just a few weeks ago.

Finally, what’s your favourite species of penguin?

This is such a difficult question because of course, I love all of them! But I do have an extra special soft spot for the rockhopper species of penguins. It’s such a joy to watch them move!


The Edge of Solitude is published on 4 July 2024 by Canongate. You can order a copy – and hear Katie talk more about the experience of travelling to Antarctica and writing the book – here.

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