Washington -- The novelist who survived the Ice arrives on a day when the Baltimore-Washington area is paralyzed by the Slush.
Schools in several districts are opening late. Morning rush hour is frenzied. Broadcast announcers break in breathlessly with weather updates. All because a light rain has fallen in the pre-dawn hours, adding a thin glaze to the ice and snow left over from a previous storm.
But Elizabeth Arthur, who journeyed to the Ice -- Antarctica for the uninitiated -- to write her latest novel, is unfazed by this Mid-Atlantic madness. Like Morgan Lamont, the protagonist and narrator of "Antarctic Navigation," she appears to have formidable will and energy, capable of carrying her great distances, over much rougher terrain than a few icy patches in Lafayette Park.
Kick and glide, kick and glide, kick and glide. The skimming motion of cross-country skiing carried Morgan Lamont to the South Pole and back. But it's also an appropriate way to survive a cross-country book tour, the author's first.
Ms. Arthur kicks and glides, for example, past the unhappy reactions of some folks at the National Science Foundation, whose program made her trip possible. The first and only novelist chosen for the foundation's Antarctic Artists and Writers Program, she took pains to thank the individuals who had helped her at McMurdo Station, the base of United States operations in Antarctica.
But, while the book credits the program, the foundation employees cited asked to be omitted from her acknowledgments, apparently disturbed by the less-than-flattering depiction of life at McMurdo Station. While her time there was "one of the finest weeks of her life," Ms. Arthur writes, her character was destined to have a rough time at McMurdo.
It wasn't factual, but it was true, she says -- a distinction apparently lost on the offended scientists and bureaucrats.
"For some scientists, things are either facts or lies," muses Ms. Arthur, still surprised by the vehement response, but not defensive or hurt. "The truth that is constructed of fiction can be elusive to someone with that mind-set. I just hope they come to understand theirs was an over- reaction."
Ms. Arthur also is gliding past a few "genuinely savage" reviews, the first in a six-book career notable for almost swooning praise, including comparisons to Marcel Proust. "Monumental slush," novelist Alan Cheuse proclaimed. Yet others have heaped compliments on it.
"All I can say is that it's a book that's arousing strong feelings, which is always interesting," she says with a shrug.
The reviews, good and bad, pale alongside the pleasure of meeting long-time fans at bookstores, who approach her with well-thumbed first editions of her earlier works.
She is easily approached. A friendly, outgoing woman, the writer, 41, is delighted by small things, a quality evident in her two books of memoirs. Two windows in her hotel suite at the Hay-Adams! A well-known photographer, shooting her for a publisher's catalog! Cookies with the tea sent to her room!
Part of her high spirits may come simply from being finished with a long and difficult project, as difficult to navigate as the Ice itself. "Antarctic Navigation," published by Alfred A. Knopf, has been tugging at Ms. Arthur's imagination since the mid-1980s. But it had to wait, in part, because it took her time to figure out how to get to Antarctica, a fitting parallel to her protagonist's quest.
Program for non-scientists
It occurred to Ms. Arthur early on that the National Science Foundation, which oversees the U.S. Antarctica program, might have a program for non-scientists. She kept calling, only to be transferred to the wrong departments. This went on for years, quite literally.
"They don't want too many people to know about it," she says of the program, which has sent fewer than 30 artists, photographers and writers to Antarctica in its 37-year history. "I feared I might have to pull it off without ever going."
Finally, she got the right person on the phone. She arrived in Antarctica in 1990 for a three-week stay, during which she was given the freedom to roam McMurdo. However, the costs of her trip were underwritten by another grant, from the National Endowment for the Arts.
In the novel, Morgan Lamont's yearning for Antarctica is a life-long preoccupation. It starts with her birth date -- March 29, 1962 -- which happens to be the 50th anniversary of Capt. Robert Scott's death in the Antarctic. The ill-fated Scott mission -- the British explorer not only died, but was beaten to the pole by a Norwegian expedition -- has long been a source of fascination for some romantics.