Vast and sparsely populated, you can isolate characters in Northern Alaska in a way that’s hard to match anywhere else on earth. Here, there’s no running to a house and pounding on the door for help because the nearest house is over a hundred miles away. There’s no phoning the police or a friend or loved one because there are no phone lines, no cell reception, no WIFI. This remoteness and lack of communication heighten the sense of threat and, at a practical level for a writer, remove the thorny problem of “Why don’t they just go to the police?” The characters’ isolation makes them acutely vulnerable but also, in forcing them to be totally self-reliant, reveals hitherto unknown courage and resilience and, at times, despair.
In my story, a mother and child journey across Northern Alaska in November to look for the missing father. At this time of year in arctic Alaska, night lasts for two months and so the novel is set almost entirely in darkness. This endless night is a gift for a writer. Adults as well as children fear the dark with good reason. You cannot see danger, cannot ascertain if there’s a threat, or what it might be, or how close it is. Other senses go onto heightened alert: a sudden noise is alarming, a sensation of being watched makes the hairs on your neck stand up but you can’t verify if you’re right to be afraid. Darkness cloaks the story in a layer of uncertainty and apprehension. For mile after mile, the mother sees headlights behind her but cannot make out the driver or even the type of vehicle. She initially thinks of him as a protector but then realizes he’s a predator, tracking them through the darkness. The dark can let a person trust someone she should fear.
The lack of daylight also creates a more subtle tension. The characters are used to a diurnal day-night rhythm but in Alaska, the rhythm is stuck at night. They are disorientated because there are no visible markers in the landscape around them; their disorientation also becomes mental as they lose track of days. A character describes not knowing what day it is any more and feeling that out here there are no days, no turning of the Earth to reach the face of a sun, but a dark night of the soul in which only violent storms break time into different pieces.
In Northern Alaska, the temperature can plummet as low as minus 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Cold is a killing, remorseless adversary, as dangerous—or more so—than the human threat. Frostbite and hypothermia become real and urgent dangers. The mother sees cold as a predator conceived in a place without daylight, the daughter as a monster with rows and rows of scissor-sharp teeth that can tear her into shreds. But worse is the mother’s changed opinion, as she succumbs to hypothermia, that cold is vastly and cruelly impersonal, absorbing you into itself.
Whilst I plundered the setting of Northern Alaska for the thriller aspect of the book, there was also a literary reason for setting a novel in Alaska. This is a place where landscape easily becomes metaphor. It is a place that contains subtlety as well as enormity of scale. The tundra is vast but is made up of tiny fragile plants. Astonishingly, in the seemingly desolate landscape, there are animals and birds that stay and endure the Arctic winter, whose fur and feathers turn white to match the land and skies. Inupiat people have lived in Northern Alaska for centuries and their culture is extraordinary. Looking up at the night sky in Alaska, the stars hardly seem to move; near to the North Pole, the earth is almost literally revolving around you. If Alaska itself became more of a character than simply a setting, it is a character that is beautiful as well as brutal, unique, and multifaceted.