A group of published UK-based authors and illustrators of picture books, children's and YA.
Happy New Year Allsorters! Now, gather round. Dan Smith has been penning top-of-the-range breakneck adventures for young readers for a while now. Anyone familiar with Dan’s work will think instantly of Big Game, perhaps. Or 2016’s high-octane jungle adventure Boy X. Well these are both about to be eclipsed by the mighty Below Zero, a chilling frozen-wastes adventure out today. It’s always a pleasure to chat with Dan Smith – a generous, funny and clever bloke who’s always up for a discussion. This January we find Dan cosied up in his snug Newcastle base, reflecting on the Below Zero journey…
Hey Dan! Great to sit down and chat. First up, Boy X and Below Zero are set in diametrically opposed worlds. Was it easy to swap the heat of the jungle for freezing terrain?
Well, I don’t know if ‘easy’ is the right word. Nothing about writing a book is ever easy! I’ve spent a lot of time in and around jungles, so I was able to write from experience when I was working on Boy X. I’ve never been lucky enough to visit Antarctica, so I had to do a lot of research for Below Zero! It made for a refreshing change, all that cold.
John Carpenter’s The Thing and Ridley Scott’s Alien both sprang to mind as I read. Were they inspirations – and were there others?
Oh yeah, I love a scary story. In fact, my publisher asked me to make Below Zero a little scarier that the original manuscript I submitted. The Thing was definitely an inspiration. It’s always been a favourite film of mine – the isolation, the sense of unease, the discovery of something hidden beneath the ice. I’m fascinated by the thought that there could be things down there that have been buried for millions of years. I read that scientists recently discovered an ancient virus frozen in the Arctic ice. But there are places in Antarctica where the ice is 4km thick. 4km! Imagine what might be down there.
Exactly. The sense of unease is very much there in Below Zero too… You hop heads in this novel; I love the switching of perspectives between Sofia and Zak. Was this part of the plan from the very start?
Not exactly. In earlier drafts, we only ever saw Sofia in the found footage. She was originally an adult member of the Exodus Project, but my editor quite rightly felt that it would be better if she was a younger character, and that it would draw the reader into the action more if we could see her experiences first hand. I grew very fond of Sofia once I was closer to her, and I can understand why Zak thinks she’s so cool. Mind you, if only she had left that ice core alone . . .
Yeah, we see her trespassing there in the opening scene. It made me think – Below Zero partly concerns itself, like Boy X, with the misuse of science by corrupt organizations. Tell us more about this fascination!
All scientists are bad. That’s the message. Don’t trust them. Especially if they’re drilling ice cores from deep below the surface in Antarctica. You’re right, though, I am fascinated by the science that inspired Below Zero – autonomous drones, mind control, DNA, the discovery of new life – but that’s when the voice in my head whispers, ‘Yeah, that’s all amazing and everything but . . . what happens when it all goes wrong?’
Tell us how you chose to handle landscape in Below Zero. The vast white emptiness might present a problem, descriptively at least, to a less experienced writer. How did you approach it?
Yeah, that was tricky. Endless ice can be difficult to describe. To make matters worse, I discovered that in Antarctica there is very little to hear, other than wind, that ice and snow have no smell, and that in the freezing temperatures (as low as 90c!) everyday objects hold onto their aromatic chemicals, so also have no smell. But I wanted to convey the sense of isolation, so the emptiness worked well for that. And there is something of particular note down there in the frozen wastes – the Aurora Australis. The southern lights add tremendous beauty in the skies over the ice.
Can you share a few of the changes that occurred between the conception of Below Zero, and its completion?
Oh, there were a whole LOT of changes! There were the changes I mentioned earlier, with Sofia, and a few bits and pieces with the ending. The biggest change, though, was the nature of what is hiding below the ice. My publisher was initially happy with the way I submitted it but on reflection asked me to come up with an alternative. It took me a while to settle on something I was happy with, but implementing it turned out to be more difficult than I expected. I thought it would be a case of lifting one thing out and replacing it with another, but . . . nope. Taking out that one thing was like pulling up a tree and dragging all the roots out with it. Still, what was it Samuel Johnson said? ‘What is written without effort is in general read without pleasure.’ That’s what I keep telling myself, anyway.
Good advice! Finally – share with us your favourite character from Below Zero, if you will…
Zak, obviously. No, actually, May. Yeah, May is awesome. Or Sofia. Hmm. Can I pick three?
We’ll allow all three on this occasion!
Thanks Dan. Best of luck with the book! Below Zero is a tautly written, atmospheric and thrilling experience… and early reviews bear that out too – they’ve been pretty damn glowing. It’s available (as they say) in all good bookshops and online, so get out there and grab yourself a copy!