In this months issue of Writers’ Forum I have interviewed Nancy Campbell about how her experiences as a writer in residence inspired three books.
Nancy wanted to write a universal compendium of snow: looking at words for snow in fifty very different world languages to show how different peoples around world celebrate, and use, snow. Fifty Words for Snow builds on that fascination, looking at cold climates around the world, through fifty different words. This book is the accumulation of a decade of research and travel in the polar regions, which began in 2010 with a winter residency at the most northern museum in the world, Upernavik Museum, Greenland.
Nancy has been appointed as Writer in Residence by many places: the English canal network (as Canal Laureate for the Canal and River Trust), a fishing museum in Iceland, an ecological research centre in Denmark, a state-of-the-art modern library in the Swiss Alps, and most recently, a year in an 18th-century water palace in Bavaria. These appointments, usually for a relatively short duration of time, are an intense and immersive way of growing to understand a community and culture, and producing new work.
The residency at Upernavik Museum was her first role of this kind, during the winter of 2010, and she said she learnt a lot from it. Her role there was to write about the museum collections and the wider life of this small arctic community.
“I got to know the hunters and fishermen on this tiny, rocky island, and began learning Greenlandic from them. Learning the language was an important step in understanding the culture (few of the islanders spoke English). I lived in a tiny wooden cabin down by the sea, which when I first arrived, was completely covered in snowdrifts, and my desk looked out over the icebergs of Baffin Bay.”Nancy Campbell
Nancy drew largely on encounters and observations on the island. She found a few old books on archaeology in the museum and followed up with more reading at the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge when she got home.
“It was a life-changing experience. I had expected to write just one book as a result of that winter, but in the end it started a fascination with the Arctic that took me through a decade, and several book projects, including The Library of Ice and How to Say I Love You in Greenlandic before culminating in Fifty Words for Snow.”Nancy Campbell
Nancy told me that a sense of place drives her work, as well as her encounters with people in the landscape. It’s important for her, to gain a personal experience of place. She explained how early on in her writing career, when she was in a library in Switzerland, tweeting a dilemma: Should she go out for a walk in the mountains, or continue with her research? One writer responded: ‘But going for a walk is part of your research!’ Nancy proclaims she was absolutely right. Research is not only about reading. Being in a place allowed her to understand the atmosphere which she evokes so visually through her words.
Nancy revealed that as she travels she likes to take photographs and make sketches in her notebook. She prefers the speed and sensation of writing by hand and find it allows observations to transform more readily into thoughts than typing or using a dictaphone.
During the lockdowns, she has been using academic sites which offer online journal access such as JSTOR (https://www.jstor.org), especially for scientific research on climate change and glacial ice. But her writing is driven by her imagination, she these texts are used as a jumping-off point for her own ruminations, rather than quoting from them in her work. She also found https://publicdomainreview.org a great inspiration for researching images, as are libraries’ digital collections, such as the British Library https://www.bl.uk
“Even under lockdown in a pandemic, it was still possible to voyage around the world through books, and online. I read the environmental coverage in The Guardian and the New York Times. I am especially keen on amateur YouTube recordings as a substitute for my own direct experience.”Nancy Campbell
As a writer who interweaves memoir and nature writing, Nancy said she relies on memory a lot, infusing her books with past experiences from her life. While the Arctic words for snow obviously relied on her travels in, and knowledge of, the region, she also returned to early childhood memories of the Netherlands. She believes personal experience to be the richest research of all.
“My father was an art historian who was researching 17thC Dutch painting in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, and on visits to see him I grew fond of the chocolate hail which is commonly eaten by children at breakfast-time – Over 750,000 slices of bread topped with hagelslag are eaten every day in the Netherlands. Hagelslag became my Dutch entry for the book.”Nancy Campbell
Nancy’s research tip is that it is valuable to share your research topics with your friends, always. They may come up with some surprising leads. Nancy hadn’t realised there was snow in Hawaii until a friend in Munich, who is originally from Hawaii, told her about Poli’ahu, the Hawaiian Goddess of Snow. This revelation inspired her story for the Hawaiian language.
To read my future Research Secrets or Writing 4 Children interviews you can invest in a subscription from the Writers’ Forum website, or download Writers’ Forum to your iOS or Android device.