Cormac James reveals the idea behind ‘The Surfacing’
The discovery last month of Sir John Franklin’s ship may have made his novel topical but, as the author explains, he was searching for something very different
An early Polar explorer: “Perhaps that’s why the story of the Franklin debacle and the Franklin searchers appealed so much,” says author Cormac James. “ I couldn’t resist the chance to have such wilful sacrifice go wrong”
Cormac James: “in The Surfacing my interest is not primarily in the Franklin history, or the period, or even the Arctic. Nor the historical nor the geographical so much as the psychological space they move in”. Photograph: Christophe Coudouy
A month ago, most people had never heard of Sir John Franklin. Hardly surprising, as he hasn’t been seen for 170 years. Now he’s in the news all over the world. For me, though, the discovery of his ship (by Canadian marine archaeologists) is something of a disappointment. It’s like seeing a favourite author suddenly shoot to fame from obscurity. What was a private pleasure is now public property, with all the cheapening that the bright lights tend to bring.
If my personal interest in Franklin is complicated, at least the history is easy to map. Context: the search for a trade route to the Far East over the top of Canada – the famous Northwest Passage. The Victorians’ brashest effort (two customised ships, the Erebus and Terror, carrying 129 men) went up there in 1845, with Navy hero Franklin commanding, and was never heard from again. Despite dozens of search expeditions, it was a decade before any definitive trace was found. That was on a remote island in the Canadian archipelago – a brief note mentioning Franklin’s death and both ships’ abandon. Also, a trail of possessions and bodies along an overland route taken south, as the starving sailors attempted to reach the North American mainland. In none of the debris found then or since did anything adequately explain the debacle of abandon, hunger, and even cannibalism – the last resort of those desperate men.