Jessica Day George

Monday, November 30, 2009

The Sisterhood of the Traveling Polar Bear - Sarah Beth Durst


Ever since I first discovered P.J. Lynch's picture book version of East o' the Sun, West o' the Moon, I planned to write a novel-length retelling of it. It was my favorite story, and I wanted to share it with the world. No one seemed to know it, I would corner the market on retellings of this tale. Right? WRONG! First Edith Pattou wrote East, and I read it with great trepidation. What if she'd stolen my ideas? Or what if, even worse, she'd ruined my favorite story? But no! It's a wonderful book, and I loved it, and I knew that I wanted a very different take on it, too. So I wrote Sun and Moon, Ice and Snow, and thought, There is room in the world for two of us.

But three? Could there be room for three?


But only because the third member of my unofficial group, the Sisterhood of the Traveling Polar Bear, is Sarah Beth Durst. Sarah's first two books, Into the Wild and Out of the Wild, were brilliant, brilliant fun, and she clearly knows her way around a fairy tale or two. So when she told me that she was writing a version of East o' the Sun, called Ice, I knew that it would be a tremendous book. Last month we exchanged signed copies of our books, and agreed to interview each other. I was much more relaxed about reading Ice, probably since my own story was finished and on the shelves.

But I soon lost my laid back attitude as I was sucked into a gripping adventure that interwove both an ancient mythology and modern-day polar exploration techniques. Ice is gritty and realistic, rich in detail and so vividly described that I actually felt cold while I was reading some of the scenes. Cassie and her Bear are beautifully drawn characters, full of life and personality. Often the complaint with fairy tale retellings is that the romantic part of the plot seems thin, the people barely know each other, but they're in love because the story says they have to be (check out Sarah's other books for more on that!). Here, though, the romance is strong and natural and tenderly done.

So now I shall cease my babbling and give you, Sarah Beth Durst!

1) Why did you choose to retell East o’ the Sun, West o’ the Moon? What drew you to this tale?

I knew I wanted to work with a fairy tale. I love all things fairy tale from the brave princes to the wicked witches to the castles in clouds... I'm not so fond of glass slippers. I think they'd be horribly uncomfortable and I'm a fan of comfy footwear. But I love the power of fairy tales. They have tremendous cultural resonance -- they are part of how we understand and interpret the world and part of how we understand the very concept of story.

I chose East o' the Sun, West o' the Moon because I was tired of all the princesses who slept through their tale. (No pun intended.) I wanted to write about a girl who saves her guy-in-distress. I also wanted to write about true love, real love, where the beauty and her beast work at their relationship and become a team. This folktale had all of that.

2)How did you first discover the tale?

I used to walk through Harvard Square every day on my way home from my day job. But I never managed to walk in a straight line. There were four bookstores in Harvard Square, and I always did a circuit through all four of them. One day, I was browsing through the folktale section at Curious George Bookstore, and I came across this tale, gorgeously illustrated by P. J. Lynch. The art enchanted me. I loved the lush, romantic paintings, especially the one of the "lassie" riding on the back of the North Wind -- it's an illustration of billowing wind with a very teeny-tiny, red-headed girl perched amidst the fury. When I saw it, I knew I had to write about this fearless girl.

3) What inspired you to make the changes that you did, ie place the story in a modern setting among Arctic researchers?

Growing up, I spent a lot of time wishing for a unicorn in my backyard or a magical door in the back of my closet. I used to memorize the position of my stuffed animals so I could check later to see if they'd moved. My Christmas list for Santa always included "magic wand."

I love the idea that magic could exist in the real world, hidden from sight. So I wanted to write about a modern girl in a modern setting. Given that the story centers on a polar bear... it just seemed logical that my "lassie" would be the daughter of Arctic researchers.

4) Your descriptions of the region were so vivid, have you been on an expedition to the Arctic?

I've never been on any expedition anywhere. Truthfully, I'm not an outdoorsy person. Bugs freak me out. I hate dirt. I like pillows and showers. I need to be temperature regulated and to have clean socks. But one of the things I love about being a writer is that you can live vicariously through characters who don't have the same hang-ups about mosquitoes and dirty fingernails. You have a legitimate excuse to bury yourself in research and immerse yourself in another world.

5) Each chapter heading has the latitude and longitude of Cassie’s location. Are they accurate? Could I map her progress?

Yes, they are and you could. I used dozens of maps -- topographic, vegetation, etc. -- as well as charts of the position of the sun at different lattitudes at different times of year. I wanted Cassie's world to be as real and accurate as possible to contrast with, y'know, the whole talking polar bear thing. The only thing that doesn't exist is the research station itself. And the ice castle one mile north of the North Pole. And the underwater city. And the... :)

6) Bear is a munaqsri (Ok, sorry, my sister has my copy now I can’t check the spelling!), responsible for the souls of all polar bears. Is this a real legend/belief, or did you invent it for your story?

You spelled it right. The word "munaqsri" is from an Inupiaq word that means "guardian" or "caretaker." I found the word in a North Slope Barrow dialect Inupiaq-to-English dictionary. (I think I'm the only person I know who owns one of those. Kind of got a wee bit carried away with my research.)

Aside from the name, the concept of munaqsri is my invention. I wanted Bear’s magic to be a part of who he is and a part of who Cassie falls in love with. So I decided to make him a man who can choose to be a polar bear at will in order to ensure the continuation of the polar bear species -- he takes the souls of dying bears and places them into newborn bears, completing the circle of life.

7) Your Bear is very much a wild creature, and an immortal, able to see things from a more eternal perspective, while Cassie is very human and very in the moment. The interplay between them was amazing, and I found myself siding with her sometimes, and with him others. Which was your favorite, and was it hard to find Bear’s perspective sometimes?

Cassie was easier for me to write. For her, I'd simply ask myself, "If I were in this situation, what would I be far too terrified to do?" and I'd have Cassie do that. :) Seriously, though, I spent a LOT of time working on their voices and their relationship. It was really important to me that their love feel real.

8)If a bear asked him to marry you, what would you say?

I said "yes" to my Bear years ago.

Lovely! Thanks, Sarah!

To check out my answers to Sarah's questions, go here:

And don't forget to pick up a copy of Ice!


Danielle said...

I just read Sun and Moon, Ice and Snowagain last Thursday.

Danielle said...

I forgot to say I love it! One of my favs.

Cara said...

I so love this fairy tale! I have read both East and Sun Moon Ice and Snow. I love them both and this one just sound perfect was well. I wish my library had a copy already!!! What fun interview:D Thanks for doing it Jessica and Sarah!

Ariadne said...

What a fun interview:) Now I have to go check out the other half...

Danielle 2 said...

I just read the first page excerpt and I just wanna say(scream...whichever)
"WHY DOESN'T MY LIBRARY HAVE IT!" *sobs hopelessly*

Sarah Stevenson said...

What a great idea for a dual/dueling interview. :) Excellent work. I loved ICE, so I'll have to go read yours now! (I enjoyed Dragon Slippers, so I'm looking forward to it.)

BBB said...

Okay, I randomly picked up a copy of Sun & Moon, Ice & Snow last week. I finished in in two days. I love, love, loved it!!! Thank you. It's my favorite book of yours and I've read them all. I'm going to check out Ice and East.