I was 42 when Spirit of the Titanic, my first children’s novel, was published in April 2011, changing my life for evermore. Three more novels followed, in and around the hundreds of talks I gave in schools, libraries and festivals all over Ireland.
Fast-forward to 2017 when I was contacted by the curator of Dundalk Museum about someone who had been long forgotten: Francis Leopold McClintock, a Dundalk man and, at one stage, the most famous of Ireland’s polar explorers. The museum had a few of his possessions on display and the curator believed that McClintock’s name should be more widely recognised. He wondered if I might write something about him.
I quickly discovered that McClintock’s name was tied up with the 1845 John Franklin expedition to the Arctic. My attempts to re-imagine McClintock’s life for a children’s novel teetered and finally crashed as I passionately read everything I could get my hands on about John Franklin, his second-in-command Francis Crozier, their crew and the two ships that carried them to the Arctic, HMS Erebus and Terror. No one got out alive. Aside from the tragedy of 129 brave men lost, there were also ghost stories that had been documented. I had found my fifth novel.
At some point I began writing. I wanted to tell two stories—that of the doomed expedition as well as that of the Coppin family in Derry, caught up in their grief after a child dies. Both stories are true—though you may not believe the circumstances of their overlapping.
On Thursday, 23 November, my husband and I arrived in Greenwich to visit the Greenwich Maritime Museum’s exhibition of Franklin artefacts, including Erebus’s bell. The exhibition was fantastic. One glass case displayed a book, Christian Melodies, which had belonged to one of Franklin’s officers. The first line of the page on show leapt out at me: ‘Home, there’s magic in that little word’. I had found my theme. Most stories, I think, are about an individual’s need to find a home and this certainly applied to both strands in my novel.
That Saturday morning, whilst showering, I felt a large lump in my right armpit. The air chilled and I caught my breath before my mind conjured up a reasonable explanation—a pulled muscle from lots of carrying and lifting throughout October.
We returned home in good cheer. Christmas was a few weeks away and I had the next three months, at least, to read my new books and finish the first draft, along with keeping my reluctant promise to see a doctor.
By January I had got the ships to the Arctic, where they were stuck fast in the frozen sea—as expected—awaiting summer’s return to melt the ice. Captains Franklin and Crozier had planned to be away for two years, no more than three, while I planned to meet my 31 March 2018 deadline. Oh, we all had plans.
Today, it seems to me that, just as those men realised that the ice was not melting, and that to stay on board their ships would end in certain death, I was faced with my own mortality, thanks to an eventual diagnosis of stage three breast cancer. The crews of Erebus and Terror were forced to consider abandoning the ships if they wanted to live. Meanwhile, I pretended that I had a choice about chemotherapy, radiation and more drugs than I had taken in my entire life up to now. Perhaps I was as terrified as they might have been.
I expected my work to both anchor and distract me from what felt like pure chaos. Hadn’t I written my way through periods of loneliness and divorces, etc.? But, in reality, chemotherapy demolished me in every way. Unable to write, I took to daydreaming about my characters—for the best part of a year. Once chemo was done, another operation was necessary before five weeks of radiation. Michael Palin had just released a book about HMS Erebus and this accompanied me every morning of those five weeks down to Beaumont Hospital.
It wasn’t the story of Crozier and his brave colleagues who ‘summoned’ me back to writing, however, but that of young Ann Coppin in Derry, whose family was grieving the loss of four-year-old Weesy. In January, a month after my last radiation in December 2018, I read Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle and it was, I believe, the sheer vigour of her narrator’s voice that triggered mine back into being.
As I worked my way through the subsequent drafts, followed by edits and proofing, my cancer treatment was also reaching its conclusion. I can hardly believe that this book is out in the world now and—such is the nature of this game—dragging me with it. But I do this as tribute to those men who died in the Arctic. I released them in my story and now must do the same for myself.
Nicola Pierce’s new book, Chasing Ghosts, is published by the O’Brien Press. Nicola is the bestselling author of Spirit of the Titanic.