Welcome to STEM Tuesday: Author Interview & Book Giveaway, a repeating feature for the fourth Tuesday of every month. Go Science-Tech-Engineering-Math!
Today we’re interviewing Rebecca Barone, author of RACE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE EARTH: Surviving Antarctica, a thrilling narrative nonfiction tale that chronicles two different centuries’ treacherous expeditions to the South Pole and the men who raced to be first. The newly released book has received multiple starred reviews, including one from Booklist that says: “Readers will be caught up in the real-time action sequences and should end up rooting for everybody as these determined individuals face unimaginable physical and mental hardships.”
Mary Kay Carson: Tell us a bit about Race to the Bottom of the Earth and how you came to write it.
Rebecca Barone: First off – thank you Mary Kay Carson and the team at STEM Tuesday for hosting me today! It’s an honor to be featured here! Race to the Bottom of the Earth is the story of two races through Antarctica: one in 1912 to be the first to reach the South Pole and one in 2018 to be the first to cross Antarctica solo, unsupported, and unassisted.
Antarctica has always captured my imagination! There’s something about how entirely inhospitable it is to life, and yet humans go there! I’ve always been mesmerized by the contrast. When I saw a New York Times headline in November, 2018 that two men were attempting a “first” in Antarctica – right as I was sitting at home eating lunch – I rushed to read the article. As luck would have it, I had read a Wikipedia article about the 1912 race to the South Pole not too long before. So that adventure was fresh in my mind as I was reading about the 2018 race.
It was like a lightning bolt hit. Before I had even finished the NYTimes article, I knew that I had to put these two races together into a story. What really sealed it for me was finding out that neither race was intended to be a race. That the two adventures could parallel each other, entirely inadvertently, more than a century apart, was like a story-telling gift. I had to write this book!
MKC: The book goes back and forth in time, in alternating chapters, between the two races. Why did you choose this structure? Did you write it in that order?
Rebecca: From the start, I was struck by the parallels between the two races. By placing the two stories so directly side-by-side, I wanted my readers to draw history forward into the present. It’s so easy to place 1912 as nothing more than static, black-and-white pictures in a textbook, but they’re really men with personalities and characters like people we know and love today. I did an in-depth outline in the book’s order, but I drafted it with each timeline separately. Even more so, I went through and wrote all of Amundsen’s story, then I went and wrote all of Scott’s, then O’Brady’s, and finally Rudd’s. It wasn’t in the book’s order at all!
MKC: How was your research process different for the 1912 and the 2018 race?
Rebecca: I could talk with people involved in the 2018 race! (Not so much with the men who were around in 1912…) Both involved a ton of reading to research. But it was wonderful to talk with some of the Antarctica expedition experts involved in setting up both O’Brady’s and Rudd’s journeys. And I shouldn’t be glib about the 1912 race; talking to experts in 2018 was certainly helpful with the Amundsen/Scott race, too. Even today, it seems like anyone who is interested in Antarctica comes down heavily as either Team Amundsen or Team Scott. It kept me on my toes to talk with people so heavily invested with Antarctic history!
MKC: To whom did you imagine yourself writing to while drafting the book?
Rebecca: I always write for myself. If I don’t like it, if I can’t get excited about it, then I figure no one else will.
MKC: Why do you choose to write STEM books? Do you have a STEM background?
Rebecca: I do have a STEM background! I’m a mechanical engineer! I love knowing how the world works, and STEM has taken me to some pretty amazing places: hot testing development cars in Death Valley, learning about car crash biomechanics in Spain, and even developing injury criteria on the sidelines of an NFL game. I don’t see STEM and books as all that different – both describe our environment, both are ways of explaining and making sense of the world around us. They’re both ways of telling stories. If I ever do write fiction (who knows?!), I imagine even those stories would have some STEM elements to them as well. I can’t imagine divorcing any story from technical subjects – for me, the narrative and the STEM inform and support one another.
MKC: For readers who loved Race to the Bottom of the Earth, what other middle-grade books would you suggest?
Rebecca: I’m deep, deep into researching and drafting my next book about breaking the Enigma cipher in WWII (so much fantastic STEM!!), so I’m woefully behind on new MG. But, from 2019/2020, I loved Jennifer Swanson’s Save the Crash Test Dummies. I mentioned it earlier, but I worked in an auto safety lab in grad school where we regularly crashed cars, and I loved revisiting that topic in her book. She did such a great job of weaving information in an accessible, entertaining way! For older readers, I thought Candice Fleming’s The Rise and Fall of Charles Lindbergh was spectacular. She makes the subject and the themes immediately and obviously relevant to readers living through the events of the early 21st century.
Thanks again for inviting me to the STEM Tuesday blog! If any of your readers have more questions about Race to the Bottom of the Earth, I’d love to chat via social media or my website.
Win a FREE copy of RACE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE EARTH!
Enter the giveaway by leaving a comment below. The randomly-chosen winner will be contacted via email and asked to provide a mailing address (within the U.S. only) to receive the book.