reading my way through every country in the world…

#7 Antarctica – Interview with Nikki Gemmell

By Nikki Gemmell
Vintage, 1997

I found reading Nikki Gemmell’s Shiver was like eating an ice-cream sandwich. The story of a young Australian journalist’s trip to the coldest place on earth – Antarctica – rich with images of ice, snow and white, is sandwiched neatly between two wafer thin passages about a subsequent trip the journalist makes to the dry, hot and plain deserts of Australia.

Both journeys are about discovery, both of the world and of the self, challenging comfort zones and learning to not only survive but thrive in extreme conditions.

It is well known that Gemmell herself journeyed to Antarctica as a young journalist and that many aspects of Shiver are autobiographical. Gemmell is a seasoned traveller who often writes about her travels and the importance that places have in shaping and constructing our lives. Having thoroughly enjoyed readng Shiver and wanting to know more about its author and the book, I sought to interview Nikki who not only graciously accepted but provided me with some wonderful insights about her writing, and views on world literature. A million thanks to Nikki for this and here is the interview:

Nikki Gemmell (Source:

1. How autobiographical is Shiver?

I was a journalist sent down to an Antarctica by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, and fell in love.  In that basic sense it’s autobiographical.   But the book is a novel.  In fact, initially I set out to write a non-fiction account but the narrative wasn’t singing; perhaps because it was all too raw, too close to the bone.  We (myself and fellow expeditioners) went through an extremely intense time down there.  When I made the decision to turn the book into a novel the words flowed, finally.  As a writer I was released.

2. Fin says in the novel, “I can never go back. I don’t reckon (Antarctica) is meant for humans”. What is it about Antarctica specifically that inspired this line?

I still feel that.  There is something so powerfully, spiritually  untouched and spare and pure about the place, it evokes in me an enormous sense of tenderness and protectiveness.  Of course, it’s one of the most dangerous and terrifying places on earth, as well – I just don’t want humans messing with it.  The silence hums, and you don’t get that in many places on this beautiful planet.

Antarctica )Source: Stephen Hudson, wikipedia)

3. Have you ever spoken to any other journalists who travelled to Antarctica after you were there? Did they have similar experiences and impressions?

Not that I can recall, so I have no idea.

4. What attracted you about going to Antarctica in real life?

I wanted an antidote to the cram of city living.  Sydney was too noisy to work, too agitated and rattly.  I needed to get away.  I’m attracted to frontiers, to places few people go to – and Antarctica felt like the ultimate frontier.  I also love diving into these places from a female perspective.  Antarctica’s history and literature has been colonised by blokes.  I wanted a different take.

5. Is Fin a completely fictional name or do you also have a brother who nicknamed you that?

It’s fictional.  My brother called me Nicks.

6. On the subject of nicknames, most of the characters in Shiver who journey to Antarctica have nicknames. Is this based on reality and, if so, why do you think this is the case? Is it because people adopt a different personality when travelling to, and living in, Antarctica?

It’s part and parcel of the Aussie Antarctic expeditioners’ world.  Saying that, I’ve always grown up around shortened names and nicknames.  My family were known (unfortunately!) as “the Humps” when I was a kid.  Why?  Gemmell/camel/hump.  I was baby Hump (the youngest in the family.  My mum and dad were Mr and Mrs Hump.)  It’s an endearingly Aussie trait to shorten names.

7. When you think back to your time in Antarctica what image(s) most immediately comes to mind?

A snow petrel on the wind.

Snow Petrel in Antarctica (Source: creative commons)

8. Fin says she has been told that “everyone comes back from Antarctica a different person”. How did the experience change you?

In so many ways – it’s all in Shiver. I think the main thing was that it taught me the importance of living a light life, with few possessions, and living your life with passion – do what you want to do with your time on this earth.  There were some tremendously inspiring people I was travelling with.  I grew up on that voyage.  It stopped the silliness.

9. Fin also says at the end of the novel, “I feel that I can never return to Antarctica”. Did you feel the same way after your trip? Do you still feel this way?

I do because of what went on down there.  It would be too emotional to ever return.  I’ve had my time there, I will never go back.

10. Do you remain in contact with any of the people with whom you travelled to Antarctica?

Yes.  Some of the women are dear friends, still.  But I haven’t kept in contact with any of the men.

11. Why do you think Fin/you felt such an irresistible urge to travel to the Australian desert after experiencing Antarctica?

They are similar in many respects – tough places with an incredible spirituality soaked into them.  Both the ice desert and the sand desert are under my skin and won’t let me go.

Source: Georges Nijis creative commons)

12. You said recently in an article in Notebook magazine (November, 2009) that having travelled all over the world, you now crave the “serenity of belonging” and specifically of being in urban Australia surrounded by your family. Now that you have “returned home”, how does it feel? Has, in your words, a “rangy restlessness” come yet to “undermine your shiny days”? If it does return, where else in the world do you most passionately want to travel?

I haven’t yet made it home!  I’m working on it though, so we’ll see.  Back soon I hope, flushed clean for a new adventure.

13. Finally, do you find yourself reading a lot of world literature to quell that “rangy restlessness” somewhat? If so, have there been any particular gems you would like to share?

I always love Michael Ondaatje for his powerful sense of place, his communion with the land – whether that be Sri Lanka or Italy or Canada.

(Hope you enjoyed this interview – a bit of a change for The Literary Nomad. Next time we will be in Ukraine with Everything Is Illuminated).

3 Responses to “#7 Antarctica – Interview with Nikki Gemmell”

  1. Pauline Quealy says:

    Hi, My Year 6 class is studying Antarctica this term and I wanted to read them an Australian novel based on Antarctica and came across this novel. It looks just what I am looking for. Do you think this novel is appropriate for 11 and 12 year olds?

    Pauline Quealy

  2. Alex says:

    Hi Pauline

    Great to hear from you. My immediate reaction to your question would be to say that I probably wouldn’t recommend this book for the age group comprising Year 6 and 7. That is unfortunate because it is an excellent and interesting read. My reservations are based on the fact that there are numerous adult themes throughout the book including fairly detailed sexual references. My advice would probably be to read it yourself as it is a quick read and you will see what I mean. Let me know what you decide to do as I would be very interested.

  3. Julian Arculus says:

    Approached this book from a different angle, having known & worked with the real version of the main male character in Tasmania back in the ’80s. Have to say it took me half the book to recognise him, he didn’t seem much like the guy I remember… towards the end the author cleverly slipped in a few telling phrases; the guy was concerned she might not be seeing him as he really was. I’m curious about the ending, because the reality was equally shocking but significantly different ~ presumably just too painful for the author to contemplate…

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