Author’s Notes – Life or Death

Life or DeathAs with a number of other books, this one started with an accidental find. I was researching something totally different, but buried in the mountain of material was a short account about former professional hockey player, Eric Le Marque. I had never heard of Le Marque, but I was immediately struck by the unusual circumstances of his story.

In 2004, while snowboarding on California’s Mammoth Mountain, Le Marque lost his way during a fierce snowstorm. For days he trudged on frozen feet through drifts, fighting hunger, thirst, hypothermia and growing despair as he tried to find a way off the mountain. Remarkably, after search teams had given up hope of ever finding him, Le Marque was spotted by a helicopter crew. He was close to death and his feet were so badly frozen that both legs had to be amputated, but Le Marque emerged victorious in the end.

What made Le Marque’s story different from other survival stories was what he did to enable his rescue. Le Marque had been carrying an MP3 player and after several days of floundering, he used it to tap into a radio broadcast. He noticed that the signal varied in strength depending on the direction he pointed the device and Le Marque quickly figured out that that the MP3 player could be used like a compass. By following the strongest signal, he just might find his way off the mountain.

There was more to the Le Marque story, but the MP3 player-compass piece was the trigger for me. A theme surfaced and I began to hunt for other true stories involving individuals caught in high risk situations who had used innovative means to overcome seemingly impossible odds.

Fortunately, Scholastic was on board with the project from the get-go. With my editor’s input, we established a working title and subtitle – Mission Possible: Thinking Outside the Box. Although the final title ended up being different, the working title kept the theme alive and in focus for all of us during the many months of production.

Truth in telling

As with At the Edge and Survivors, I was writing narrative non-fiction again. The term ‘narrative non-fiction’ means slightly different things to different people, and each meaning comes with its own bundle of needs and restrictions.

I favour writing guru Lee Gutkind’s simple yet concise definition: true stories well told. The word ‘story’ in his definition carries the same meaning as it does in fiction – a compelling narrative arc composed of conflict, rising action, climax, falling action and resolution. The word ‘true’ indicates that the story must be factual. I take this last point literally. Every detail in the story must ring true and be accurate – the thickness of ice on a river, the colour of the sky that day, the direction the wind was blowing, the exact words uttered by a character who happens to be in trouble. Sometimes it takes intense research and multiple sources to flesh out such details, but for me that’s part of the fun of writing narrative non-fiction.

Ethical considerations

Time was running out for snowboarder Eric Le Marque

The quest for truth in service of a narrative arc can be a sticky process especially when writing for youngsters. Some stories are embedded with shadowy, ethically-charged choices. A character does something less than honorable, for example. Perhaps a law is broken. Maybe the means to the end is violent. Do I include this information when telling the story? Keeping in mind the young reader, just how forthright should I be?

The Eric Le Marque story, Ordeal on Mammoth Mountain, is a good example of this kind of dilemma. Initial reports of Le Marque’s rescue emphasized his innovative use of the MP3 player and told of his heroic struggle to stay alive on Mammoth Mountain. But there was a dark side to his story too, and some of those details surfaced only later. Le Marque had been a drug user and on the day he ran into trouble, he was carrying a day’s supply of crystal meth. Did young readers need to know this? Would including these facts taint the story and push it beyond acceptable levels for pre-adolescent readers?

On first telling, I decided not to mention the drug reference. Since Le Marque didn’t use the crystal meth during his 8 days on the mountain, I didn’t think it was pertinent to the outcome of the story. Later, during final revisions and after prompting from my editor, I examined the drug issue again. I re-read Le Marque’s own account. While it was true that Le Marque never used his supply of crystal meth on the mountain, he had, in fact, started the day in a drug-induced fog. This likely contributed to a few poor choices, and those led directly to Le Marque’s survival problem.

I revised the original version and laid bare the bones of truth. The new version contained the crystal meth-drug habit information, but also ended with a note of victory. After his experience on the mountain, Le Marque forged a new life for himself, kicking his drug dependency in the process.

Other highlights

Three astronauts were stranded in space, marooned between Earth and the moon

There were other stories that were difficult to write, though for other reasons.“Houston. we’ve had a problem”, the Apollo 13 story, had been well chronicled in books and film. I was telling it in a slightly different way for a different purpose, though – to highlight the strategies that eventually brought the crew home. The material was dense and complex, often technical and scientific. Keeping the narrative thread humming while introducing terms like ‘yaw’, ‘pitch’ and ‘earth’s terminator’ required a delicate balance.

Stranded which tells of the rescue of two Inuit hunters in Canada’s far north was another challenge. Newspaper accounts told sketchy pieces of the story, none of them completely. Baffled by the inconsistencies and confusing technical terms, I created an hour-by-hour timeline and logged the comings, goings and decisions of every hand at the tiller. The timeline became my guide and helped me untangle the story’s sequence.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, there were stories that seem to write themselves. Often this was because they struck a deeply personal chord. This Side Up With Care, the Henry Brown story, was one of those jaw-dropping, unbelievable types that set my imagination afire. Desperate for freedom, Brown willing submitted to discomfort and danger in his quest for a new life. I could easily identify with him, the crate that enclosed his body, his journey, the bumps and bruises he suffered along the way.

Completely Alone, the story of Juliane Koepcke, was jaw-dropping too, but in a different way. Not only did she survive a 3000 metre plunge from a plane – the sole survivor – the teenager stick-handled her way out of the jungle, fighting fear and danger with such resourceful determination and clarity of mind that the story seemed to unfold on its own.

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