An interview with Sarah Myles - Ockham Book Awards shortlisted author

An interview with Ockham Book Awards shortlisted author Sarah Myles about Towards the Mountain. Her book is about her grandfather's journey home to New Zealand following the Erebus disaster and is also a reflection on the legacy of grief and the possibility of healing, forty years on.

Having grown up in a family whose grief over the Erebus tragedy was still palpable, there was clearly a need to address the grief directly. What made you decide it was the right time?

I became very curious at my grandmother Eileen’s funeral in 2016 and the memories and conversations that began to surface. There was a willingness to talk about my grandfather openly and often, which was lovely, and I couldn’t remember (during Eileen’s lifetime) when that had ever happened. For me, uncomfortable old feelings arose, accompanied by one very strong memory in particular - the day the Big Blue Men showed up at my grandparent’s house to identify Frank. So, Eileen’s death became a catalyst. Plus, I knew the 40th anniversary was in the not too distant future, so that provided a publication goal. I also need to add, it just felt right. And once I started, it seemed like everything conspired to help me.

Writing this memoir must have brought you much closer to your family. Was there anything you discovered about your family that was particularly surprising or unexpected?

When I interviewed Frank and Eileen’s four children, I noticed conflicting accounts of family life after the crash, and important details so obviously missing from their accounts – in particular, that none of them could remember Frank’s funeral. I began to realise how trauma affects memory, and I found many other examples of this. Also, none of them had ever discussed what happened immediately after the crash, so the book helped them learn about each other’s experiences. These were the biggest surprises for me in my family research.

An unexpected discovery came when I travelled to Perth to interview my uncle, Brett, in 2018 and he shared Frank’s personal possessions with me. They had been stored in his attic for years! The amount of memorabilia from Frank’s war years, and his precious photo albums and diaries, added weight and truth to my writing. This was a very precious find.

Your research led you to uncover details about the crash that were hitherto unknown to the victim’s families. Why was it so important to you to find out the true details of your grandfather’s death?

I wanted to fill in the blanks in the hope it would bring more understanding and peace. There were still so many unanswered questions about what actually happened to Frank, and I believe this had put a roadblock in our grief process. I also wanted to get to the bottom of all the conflicting stories in the media and political domain. I used factual source documents (dates and names and details) which cut through the emotion and confusion that were all part of the Erebus story. I soon realised there were hundreds of other families with questions similar to ours, and I felt a responsibility to help them, too. Also, the people who had the knowledge weren’t getting any younger, so it required some urgency.

As someone who has researched and written about grief, how do you think people recover and heal from loss?

Healing through grief is a very personal experience, and I’m not sure you could ever say people ‘recover’. It’s very important to acknowledge there has been a loss, and acknowledge that we are affected by it. When grief arises, sometimes it is accompanied by guilt or anger or blame or regret. As painful as this might seem, it is very important to feel these emotions so they can move through us and not get stuck within us.

For mass loss like Erebus (or Pike River or Canterbury or the Whakaari eruption) the whole country is affected. Loss can be shared and mass grief is a valid experience. Even if we didn’t know of anyone involved, we can still feel connected to the situation or the place or the people affected. That’s the compassion that connects us all.

I think loss stays with you always. While grief might become less intense after a period of time, and we become more able to build some kind of life around it, I don’t believe it ever vanishes entirely. Often it still surfaces, even years later, at a poignant moment like an anniversary or a birthday or when you hear a piece of music. For some, acknowledgement and ceremonies help. For others, viewing the body helps. In the case of national disasters, memorials and mass gatherings are important, because we can see we are not alone. We understand our grief in relation to others and sometimes this gives us perspective. In my opinion, truth-telling is absolutely part of this. If you have all the information, then you know where everything lies and you have a much better chance of being able to move through it.

There are beautiful and poetic moments in the book about Antarctica itself: ‘I once heard that there’s hardly any new snowfall in Antarctica; that the continent is too dry, a desert, really, so each new snowstorm is old snow, being transported to another place…’ How did you respond to the challenge of writing about Antarctica, without having been there yourself?

It was all in the research! I found mountaineers, Operation Overdue police officers and Scott Base staff who were willing to share their experiences with me. I found source documents and reports that were produced at the time, and I read accounts of exploration and weather and history.

I also had to wrap my mind around the very strong connection I felt to Antarctica, the pull that has always existed despite having never been there. I also felt great responsibility towards this land of adventurers and scientists. It baffled me but also made me very curious. I explored this connection through the Māori concept of tūrangawaewae (a place to stand). It wasn’t until a friend shared her family’s interpretation of tūrangawaewae as “first breath, last breath” that I truly got it – Antarctica was the place of Frank’s last breath. Acknowledging that Antarctica is a part of who I am today has been very healing for me and I’ll be forever grateful to my friend for shining a light on this.

Receiving an Ockham award nomination for your first book is a wonderful achievement. Are you working on any new projects? Has it been difficult to find a project as personal and meaningful as the one which became Towards the Mountain?

I’m not sure I could top it! And I may not want to. . . This project required me to go to hard places, and while I did return in one piece, it was bloody hard going at times. I may never find a project so personal or meaningful again, so instead, I will offer myself over to the big, beautiful magic that is creativity and see what happens. I’m thinking fiction, totally unrelated to my life, and fun! Bestseller?!


Listen to Sarah reading from Towards the Mountain below and don't forget to tune in here on Tuesday 12th of May at 6pm for the awards presentation!