by Sandra Parshall
M.J. McGrath’s first mystery,White Heat, set in the Arctic Circle and featuring Inuit hunter and guide Edie Kiglatuk, was a bestseller in the UK and was published in the US in August. Edie is a strong, independent woman who feels compelled to investigate fatal hunting accidents that Inuit elders would prefer she forget about. In the process, she uncovers a high-level threat to the starkly beautiful land she loves.
As Melanie McGrath, the author has produced critically acclaimed, bestselling non-fiction (Silvertown and The Long Exile) and won the John Llewelyn-Rhys/Mail on Sunday award for Best New British and Commonwealth Writer under 35, for her first book, Motel Nirvana. She writes for the British national press and is a regular broadcaster on radio. Melanie lives and works in London. Visit her website at http://www.melaniemcgrath.com.
Q. Why did you choose Arctic Canada as a setting for White Heat? How did you become familiar enough with it to write about it?
A. I spent quite some time travelling in Arctic Canada and Alaska. I tried wherever possible to stay with local families because I prefer it that way! One of the places I visited was Ellesmere Island, the most northerly land mass in the world, and the setting for White Heat. While I was up there, I stayed with an Inuit family who took me dog sledding, hunting and snowmobiling out on the sea ice, but I also ate meals, watched TV and played computer games at home with them, so I really got to know them as individuals and picked up a lot of detail about their daily lives.
Q. What kind of person is Edie? What are her greatest strengths and greatest weaknesses? What – or who – inspired the character?
A. My initial inspiration for Edie was an Inuit woman polar bear hunter I met up in the High Arctic, but Edie is very much her own person. She's very, very tough, and not without her problems, but she's vulnerable and caring too. The only way to really get to know her is to read the book!
Q. Was she fully fleshed out in your mind before you began writing the novel, or did she develop along with the story?
A. You come to a story with the idea of a character but then they kind of take over and develop whether you like it or not!
Q. Edie is a tracker and hunter. Do you have any similar experience, or did you have to research the kind of life she lives?
A. I did go tracking with Inuit up on Ellesmere Island. We were looking for musk-ox, and found one, who was not quite as thrilled to see us as I was to see him! He was just readying himself to charge us when we backed off.
But I've had other experiences hunting and tracking too. A few years ago, I wrote and presented a documentary for the Discovery Channel in which I learned how to track and hunt from the San people in Nambia in southern Africa. I am in total awe of the knowledge many indigenous people have of their environments.
Q. In the book, Edie comes up against a native Council of Elders who are reluctant to investigate a suspicious death because it might reduce desperately needed income from tourism. Do you believe this desire to downplay or hide anything negative is a common attitude in that part of the world?
A. People are people, whatever part of the world they're in.
Q. When you decided to turn to fiction writing, why did you choose mystery? Are you an avid reader of the genre? Who are some of your favorite crime fiction writers?
A. I'm not a good sleeper so I read a lot. I'm naturally drawn to mysteries but I read all kinds of stuff. I like character-led stories, whatever the genre. As for crime fiction writers, can I tell you who my favorites are when I've read them all?
Q. What has been the most challenging aspect of mystery writing for you?
A. Keeping it all in my head without my brain exploding.
Q. Will Edie be solving crimes in future mysteries?
A. The girl just can't help herself, so the answer is definitely yes. The second Edie mystery will be out next year.