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‘Ice-pick-sharp, packed with intrigue, action and spine-chilling suspense. Devour will keep you gripped from the very first page’ Kathryn Fox

Tag Archive: Antarctica

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Penguins who haven’t read the rule book

May 8, 2017

I’m a big fan of National Geographic Traveller UK, so I was delighted to have my article on my experiences in Antarctica published in the May issue of this magazine which you can find here. I’m also really chuffed to see an illustration of myself by Jacqui Oakley. It’s a great likeness!

Just in case the link doesn’t work for you, here is the entire article which I hope you enjoy:

A black and white Chinstrap Penguin, no taller than my knee, pecks at my boots expectantly. Clearly he hasn’t read the rule book. Much as I have tried to stay at least five metres away from Antarctica’s wildlife, as visitors are asked to do, this inquisitive fellow is intent on investigating me and my camera bag.

I am on Deception Island: a volcanic caldera shaped like a ring doughnut with a bite taken out of it. At its centre, hides a deep harbour, and an abandoned whaling station. This is one of the few places on the Antarctic Peninsula where the beaches are clear of ice – at least in summer – thanks to heat from the dormant volcano beneath us. No wonder my feathered friend has chosen this thermally-warmed island to nest.
I’m standing on a beach of black volcanic sand at Bailey Head, looking out at an inky sea, and, in the distance, a turquoise iceberg that resembles a two-storey high teapot. Penguins, like fat little torpedoes, launch themselves out of the surf and waddle inland, wings out wide for balance. Despite the flurry of activity, there is order to the chaos. On one side of the beach, Chinstraps head for the water. On the other, they head inland. I am standing in a penguin super-highway.

Half a mile inland, the rocky nests of over a hundred thousand breeding pairs stretch as far as the eye can see. The ammonia-tinged stench of krill-pink guano is pungent enough to singe nostril hairs. Grey, downy chicks screech for food, adults bicker and ward off raiding parties of Brown Skuas and Giant Petrels. The noise is one of Antarctica’s profound contrasts: barely hours earlier, I was enjoying a silence I have only ever experienced in Antarctica. No people, no voices, no machines. Just a few Crabeater Seals, lazily basking in the sunshine on floating sea ice as I sit atop an icy ridge.

I’m in Antarctica researching my next thriller. I’ve already interviewed scientists at the British Antarctic Survey in Cambridge, and at the Australian Antarctic Division in Hobart. But to bring such an alien land to life in my novel, I want to experience it myself. I discover first-hand the dangers of Antarctica’s volatile weather: one minute pristine skies, the next, raging blizzard. I learn how the intense cold hinders me physically and mentally and that somebody must always know my whereabouts: that’s why turning a small numbered tag every time I leave, and return to, the ship, is critical. But I don’t expect Antarctica to claim my heart in the profound way it does, or to be inspired to write not just one, but two thrillers set here.

Forget, for a moment, our multi-coloured world. Imagine one that is only blue, white and grey. A continent as big as Europe covered in ice. A land that growls and cracks as ice shelves calve and crevasses rend open, where you’ll find statuesque Emperor Penguins, sleek and deadly Leopard Seals and balletic wandering albatrosses. A place where you can be alone, so truly alone, it is terrifying – there is no permanent population, only a few thousand souls that come and go to the isolated research stations.
Antarctica has many abandoned stations. Some are famous, such as Scott’s hut on Ross Island. Others are hardly known. It was only when I visited the abandoned Base W on Detaille Island that I began to understand the extreme isolation experienced by early researchers who did not enjoy the modern, heated stations of today with access the Internet and phones.

As I tramp across the ice, I see a wooden hut that reminds me of a village hall, complete with green and white checked curtains, except the wood is bleached silver and the door is warped and scrapes across the floor as I open it. I discover is a time-capsule. I am back in 1953. A copy of World Sports magazine, dated August 1953, lies open and a pair of long-johns hang on a line over a rusted pot-bellied stove. Tins of Scotch Oats and herrings, though rusted, sit in a cupboard, intact. On the dining table is a half-completed jigsaw puzzle of a quaint English village scene. I begin to comprehend why the inhabitants had bothered with check curtains. They needed a little bit of England with them to preserve their sanity.

Antarctica is the most alien and beautiful place I have ever been. It is an icy Garden of Eden, a place that retains its innocence and unspoilt beauty. As long as The Antarctic Treaty that protects it is upheld, Antarctica can continue this way. Long may it last.

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Cold Comfort – adventure article in The Scotsman

April 5, 2017

I am on a former Russian scientific research vessel, crossing the infamous Drake Passage on my way to Antarctica. I have been warned that this 800 kilometre stretch of water can be rough. I hadn’t expected to experience the inside a washing machine, or so it feels as the little ship cork-screws through ten metre swells, buffeted by sixty knot winds, which puts this storm at a Force 10 on the Beaufort scale. The captain bellows orders over the ancient intercom system in Russian, which isn’t very helpful. Should I head for the lifeboats? I hear the clank as the doors to the decks are shut so the lifeboat option is out. We are told later that this was for our protection. I climb into my bunk bed to wait out the storm. But as the ship lurches to a forty-degree angle I am flung from one side of the shared cabin to the other, landing on the door. I slide down to the floor in a crumpled heap. Through the porthole all I can see are waves pounding the glass. I have to admit that at this point I ask myself, ‘What the hell am I doing here?’
After what seems an eternity, the wind has abated and the ship gently rocks. The external doors are opened, and I step out into another world. It literally takes my breath away. The sea barely ripples and on the inky-blue water floats jagged sea ice. We pass icebergs, some three storeys high, in various shades of white, turquoise and occasionally jade green. The eerie quiet is broken by the chattering of Gentoo penguins who watch us from their raft of ice and then dive into the water like fat little torpedoes. An ice shelf, a hundred metres high, juts into the ocean and towers over us like The Wall in Game of Thrones. I feel as if I have arrived on another planet, and a truly beautiful one it is.
I am in Antarctica researching my next novel. I’ve already interviewed British Antarctic Survey scientists, I know the story I want to write, and I’m convinced Antarctica is the perfect location for a thriller. Therefore, I’m keen to discover why only a few thrillers over the last twenty years have been set here (Kim Stanley Robinson’s Antarctica, Matthew Reilly’s Ice Station and James Rollins’ Subterranean spring to mind). In contrast, the Arctic has proven to be a popular location for crime fiction, particularly the Scandinavian, American and Russian Arctic. Very quickly I realise why.
Antarctica is extremely remote. Unlike the Arctic, which has permanent residents and offers accommodation for travellers, Antarctica only has a temporary population of a few thousand scientists, expeditioners and support staff who come and go, mainly during the summer. The research stations are often thousands of kilometres apart. If you want to leave, you may be waiting weeks, even months, for a plane or icebreaker. It’s not simply a case of booking yourself on the next flight home. Fortunately for me, this means Devour’s central character, investigative journalist Olivia Wolfe, will not be able to escape the danger that awaits her at Camp Ellsworth. Placing characters under pressure is what thrillers are all about. And extreme isolation is a marvellous way to up the ante.
In Antarctica, you can’t pick up the phone and dial emergency services. There is no law enforcement, except at McMurdo station which has U.S. Marshalls on the base. The Antarctic Treaty stipulates that military activities are prohibited. So, if aggressors turn up uninvited, as they do in Devour, Olivia Wolfe will need to draw on her survival skills if she is to stay alive. Thriller readers love characters in jeopardy, and Antarctica gives me plenty of opportunities to ramp up the danger.
I should add that none of this applies to travellers. Tourist ships have a doctor on board. In an emergency, the crew will look after you. Other ships will come to your rescue if needed, as will station inhabitants. There is a very real camaraderie amongst those working in or around Antarctica.
I’m a bit of an adventurer and I’m known for the extreme research I do for my thrillers. I’m a big believer that first-hand experience helps me bring my story locations and characters to life. Reading books and blogs, or watching videos gives me great background information. But if I want my readers to see, hear, touch, smell, even taste, Antarctica, the best way for me to do this is to experience it for myself. Then I record it and decide later if I will use it in my novel.
There were so many amazing moments. Feeling the weight of ice freezing on my eyelashes like tiny white pearls. Arriving at a colony of one hundred thousand pairs of Chinstrap Penguins and being assaulted by the ammonia stench of penguin poo that felt as if it had singed my nostrils. The bark of what I believed to be a dog, even though I knew that sled-dogs were no longer permitted in Antarctica, and discovering it was the cry of a fur seal. The moment I leant down and touched ice that no person had ever touched before. Experiencing the terror of being caught in a blizzard.
The weather in Antarctica is notoriously volatile. One minute clear skies, the next, ferocious blizzard. Violent winds blew ice all around me. The air was thick and white. I couldn’t see the horizon or even my feet. I was disoriented and dizzy, my sense of balance lost. It was like being inside a ping-pong ball being batted back and forth. Even experienced adventurers have died in such white-outs, hypothermia setting in, numbing their mind and body, and eventually killing them. This experience enabled me to write the opening chapter of Devour in which a key member of a scientific team dies in a white-out. Or is it murder?
What also attracted me to Antarctica was its history of extraordinary heroism. Who doesn’t know the amazing stories of Robert Falcon Scott, Roald Amundsen, Ernest Shackleton, or the recently honoured William Speirs Bruce? Of course, amazing courage is not just the preserve of the past. In 1998, Dr Jerri Nielsen discovered she had breast cancer and because it was winter and the sea was ice-locked, had to operate on herself and extract tissue samples. Pilots then risked their lives to fly through permanent darkness and in sub-zero temperatures to air-lift her to hospital. This kind of bravery against all odds is what thrillers are about.
Antarctica is full of surprises, and one such surprise was the Russian crew on the ship that took me there. Armed with my English-Russian phrase book, I learnt something of their lives and their love / hate relationship with the icy waterways of the Poles. The ship’s engineer was a man seemingly impervious to the cold, whose dry sense of humour and old-fashioned sense of honour inspired another of my characters, the mysterious Vitaly Yushkov. The story is richer because of him.
My time in Antarctica not only fueled my imagination but it was the start of a love affair with our planet’s last great untouched wilderness. I would return in a heartbeat.

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Meet L.A. Larkin at Heffers Bookshop, Cambridge

March 18, 2017

This event will have a live link-up to one of the British Antarctic Survey stations in Antarctica.

Join me, Professor Martin Siegert from the Grantham Institute) and Athena Dinar from British Antarctic Survey for a fun night discovering how Antarctic science can become an enthralling thriller…

Where: Heffers Bookshop, Cambridge, UK

When: 25 May 2017, 6:30pm

Tickets can be purchased via Eventbrite here.

The details:

How did thriller author L.A. Larkin turn an Antarctic expedition into an action-packed conspiracy thriller? Meet the scientist, Professor Martin Siegert, who led the Lake Ellsworth project that inspired the enthralling story of Devour. Larkin creates a terrifying premise: what if the microbial life discovered in the sub-glacial lake could be weaponized and used to destroy civilisation?
L.A. Larkin has been likened to Michael Crichton by The Guardian and to Alistair MacLean by The Times. She is known for her ‘extreme’ research, including learning to shoot pistols and rifles, attending a hackers’ convention, and practicing sewing up a wound. Her current novel, Devour, has won praise from authors like Peter James and is described by Literature Works as ‘exciting, original and utterly captivating.’
Join Larkin and Siegert for a lively and highly entertaining evening discussing thriller-writing and how Antarctica inspires both scientists and authors. They will be interviewed by Athena Dinar from British Antarctic Survey (BAS) who Larkin met when researching her first Antarctic thriller.

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