Zibby is joined by historian, journalist, and author Hampton Sides to talk about his latest book, In the Kingdom of Ice. Hampton shares how this project was inspired by an assignment he researched for National Geographic and what role he played in establishing the upcoming Santa Fe Literary Festival. The two also discuss why Hampton is drawn to dramatic survival stories, who inspired him to pursue a career writing narrative non-fiction, and which sliver of history his next project focuses on. For more information on and tickets for the Santa Fe Literary Festival, check out their website here!


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Hampton. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss In the Kingdom of Ice and also your career and also the Santa Fe Literary Festival. Welcome.

Hampton Sides: Thank you. Great to be with you.

Zibby: That was a mouthful. We originally were connected through the festival. Tell me more about it. I know it’s the inaugural year. There is a whole slate of amazing guests coming. Tell me about your involvement. I know you were a fellow or something for one year. Tell me all about it.

Hampton: Santa Fe is a little hick town here in the desert in the Southwest. Yet we’ve always prided ourselves on being a place that artists and bohemian folks and musicians and especially writers come to maybe to get away from the rest of the world and to dream up all kinds of great novels and poems and screenplays and novels and so forth. It seemed like a no-brainer when the idea came to the fore a couple years ago to create, finally, a Santa Fe Literary Festival that would really bring together some of the greatest writers in the country, if not the world, to celebrate this peculiar spot here at the foot of the Rocky Mountains that has this long history of letters. Then COVID interrupted the plans for two straight years. Maybe it was even three years. Finally, it’s coming together. This year, we’re going to have — let’s see. We have John Grisham coming. We have Margaret Atwood coming. We have Colson Whitehead coming. Of course, George R.R. Martin, who wrote Game of Thrones, lives here in Santa Fe and will be a big part of the festival. On and on it goes, just an embarrassment of riches for this first year.

We’ll see how it works, whether this will sustain itself. I believe it will. I think the objective of this is to put this festival on a par with a handful of other major events like this that are in the West, particularly the Sun Valley Writers’ Conference and the Aspen Ideas Festival — those are two that spring to mind — to celebrate letters in the Southwest, but also Santa Fe cuisine. There’s going to be all kinds of field trips so that participants can get out and be with authors and have a little bit more intimacy than just some giant festival. There are a few in the country that are huge, but they’ve almost gotten too huge. There’s little sense of where you can actually meet with writers. That’s the goal here, is to make this a heavily curated but a very intimate, small-scale festival but with large-scale ambitions in terms of the quality of the people that are going to be coming. That’s it in a nutshell.

Zibby: Can anybody sign up to come? Open to the public, right?

Hampton: Open to the public. There are fees for these events, of course. It depends on how deeply you want to get into it. My involvement has just been mainly to rope in some writer friends of mine to come to Santa Fe. It’s really not a tough ask, usually, to get people to get on a plane and come to Santa Fe anyway. John Grisham’s a friend of mine, so I’m going to be interrogating him on stage about his career and his most recent book. It’s going to be a great event on so many levels.

Zibby: I know. When I heard about it, I was like, ooh, could I make this work, going to — I’ve actually never been to Santa Fe. It’s on my wish list of American cities that I have yet to check out. It’s May 20th to 23rd, 2022. Everybody should go. Very cool.

Hampton: Please come. We’ll have plenty of chili here for anyone, whether it’s red or green. This is the first year. We’ll see. I think it’s just going to get bigger and bigger as the years go by.

Zibby: It’s so cool. I’ve always sort of wanted to start my own literary festival, which is, I know, pie-in-the-sky dream. You never know.

Hampton: It’s a lot of work.

Zibby: That’s the issue. Maybe I’ll — I don’t know. Anyway, it’s very cool that you guys are doing this. I’m sorry I can’t be there this year, but I want to come one of these years because it sounds amazing. In addition to your role of festival-starter, most people probably know your — I knew you because of Ghost Soldiers, which I read when it came out a while back and loved it. I still have it. I can’t find it, but I have it somewhere prominent because I see the cover all the time. I feel like it might actually be in my mom’s house. I see it all the time, so I feel like this is such a treat just for that. I actually listened to part of this book, which was really neat as I was bopping around New York City listening to ice flows and newspaper editors and people stranded and all of that. It definitely made my walk from drop-off a little more exciting. Can you tell listeners a little bit about your latest project and how you stumbled upon this story and why you felt compelled to share it?

Hampton: In the Kingdom of Ice is a story that I found out about through the backdoor kind of thing. I got an assignment with National Geographic to write about a Norwegian explorer. They sent me to Oslo to learn about this explorer, Fridtjof Nansen, and to go to this museum in Oslo called the Fram, which is dedicated to this amazing vessel, the Fram, that both Nansen and other Norwegian explorers used to do all these exploits during the heroic age of exploration. When you go to the Fram Museum, you keep seeing references to this earlier expedition, an American-led expedition that tried to reach the North Pole by sailing to the North Pole. There were these, at that time, rather crazy ideas that there was a warm-water basin at the top of the world. You had to get through the ice, but then there was going to be — it’s almost like a bathtub of warm water. Then you can just sail to the North Pole. Obviously, mistaken science there. A group of Americans starting in 1879 tried to do just that. Their ship got caught in the ice, drifted in the ice for two years. Finally, the ship was crushed by the ice and sank to the bottom of the Artic Ocean. These thirty-three men and their forty dogs were stranded very near the North Pole, but they didn’t make it to the North Pole. Now it was just a question of their own survival. How are they going to make it home?

I kept seeing references to this Jeannette expedition, this American-led expedition, in Oslo because this Norwegian explorer, Fridtjof Nansen, basically tried to duplicate the American expedition but to do it in a differently designed vessel, a vessel that he thought could withstand the pressure of the ice. It was clear they were drifting in the right direction. Generally speaking, the prevailing currents and the prevailing flow of the ice pack was bringing them to the North Pole. I won’t belabor the story of Nansen. That’s a whole nother chapter. There’s endless appeal out there, I found, in writing this book for these Artic tales of woe. There’s people out there who can’t get enough of Shackleton and the Endurance, Nansen, and all the different American attempts on the North Pole. There’s something about the hardship, the monotony of the landscape, just being stripped down to the elements, and of course, the classic themes, scurvy, mutiny, cannibalism. How these guys survive against all odds — of course, often, they don’t survive — that’s the big question. With this book, when you open up the jacket and you read the flap copy, I don’t say what happened to these men because — this is, finally, the answer to your question. Why did I write this?

Zibby: No, take your time. This is so interesting.

Hampton: I felt like this is a story that should be in the national shorthand of heroic survival stories. This is the American Shackleton story. Why wasn’t it well-known? If you asked a hundred people on the streets there in New York, “Have you heard of the voyage of the USS Jeannette?” probably three of them, maybe, have heard of it. It’s a very obscure tale. Yet in its day, it was front-page news, international news. Everyone knew the names of these voyagers. For almost three years, there was, it’s basically a vigil. When will these men return? Will they return? Did they die up there? Where are they? It’s like sending men to the moon. Of course, back in those times, there was no way to communicate. For all those reasons, I thought it was just a great classic Gilded Age story of survival, essentially. This was a time when America was beginning to finally emerge from the devastation of the Civil War and begin to flex its muscles on the world stage and compete with the European powers in various ways.

This was partly a scientific expedition. It wasn’t just an adventure. They were trying to prove all kinds of scientific and pseudoscientific theories. It was an interesting time when you begin to see a glimpse of modern America. All of this is happening at the same time a newspaper publisher who you alluded to earlier, James Gordon Bennett, who was the publisher of the largest newspaper in the world at that time, The New York Herald, he personally bankrolled this expedition. Even though it was run by the US Navy, it was paid for by this eccentric dude from New York who nearly stole the show for me when I was writing this book. I became so infatuated with this eccentric playboy multimillionaire guy. He had sent Stanley to find Livingstone in Africa and had this huge blockbuster newspaper hit with that series of stories. He was looking for another adventure to bankroll really just to create great copy for his newspaper.

Zibby: As opposed to the animals escaping the zoos and all of that.

Hampton: He was not above creating —

Zibby: — Drama.

Hampton: Yeah, dramas on the page that were not exactly true just to prove some kind of weird point or eccentric idea that he had. For all these reasons, I thought it was just a fascinating story that I thought everyone should know about in this country. Also, there is this thing that a lot of historians yearn for or fantasize about. That is finding an obscure story that was important and consequential in its day and resuscitating that story and hopefully bringing it back to the level where you think it ought to be in the pantheon of tales of American history.

Zibby: You communicated that so well in the book when you were saying this was the event of the summer. This is what everybody was doing, was hanging on all of these updates. It’s hard to believe sometimes that the things that we all collectively find so important and that grip our attention, like an election or this or that, in a hundred years, nobody’s even going to remember. Somebody’s just going to have to dig and say, oh, yeah, this was a really big deal at the time. It makes what we’re going through now get put into more perspective a little bit.

Hampton: Most of the story takes place in Russia. I think that our relationship with Russia back then was very complicated and weird but actually on friendlier terms, much friendlier terms, than it is now. I went to Russia. I went to Siberia to research the book, which was a really fascinating trip in and of itself. Where they finally made landfall dragging these small boats across the ice pack and then finally sailing across the Artic Ocean, they made landfall in this really, really remote part of Yakutia, Siberia, which is four hundred miles north of the Artic Circle. Just to get there, it took a week of planes, trains, and automobiles to finally get to this spot. That was a big part of the story, actually, for me also, was just to physically go to these places where these men — I’ll tell you this. Some make it home. They don’t all make it. I’m not going to say who makes it and who doesn’t. You think, they finally made it to open water. They’re getting into their small boats to sail across. Their journey is basically over now. Then you think, okay, they’re making landfall. Now their ordeal is over. No. Their ordeal is just beginning. Winter is starting to arrive. They’re starting to freeze to death. They have to fend off polar bears. They have to hunt for their food. It just goes on and on and on. That’s another aspect of the story that really appealed to me. It has all these phases of suffering. It’s like suffering porn, I guess.

Zibby: I feel like, though, you’re drawn to this. A lot of your stories are about getting through what seems like unbearable misery for a human to withstand. Where does that come from?

Hampton: I really don’t know. I don’t think I personally am that sort of person. I’m not someone who likes to test myself physically. Before I was a historian, I worked for a good number of years for a magazine called Outside. Outside, when I was an editor there, we were always looking for these kinds of stories, survival stories but also just that theme of, what combination of traits are people able to summon to get through an ordeal of some sort? What kind of leadership qualities do they have? What kind of, maybe, a sense of humor to get through a situation that is obviously not funny? That’s a theme that kept coming up there. Probably, through osmosis, I picked up a lot of that. It is kind of a classic theme. I’m always wondering how I would’ve gotten through an ordeal like this. I think the readers are too. As they turn pages, they’re thinking, how would I get through that? What combination of attributes do I have within me? Sometimes to your own surprise — often, these guys, they don’t know they have this. What’s also interesting is that almost invariably, there’s some guy way down on the pecking order who emerges as the real heroic person. It’s not necessarily the officers. Some of my books are set in war. That’s often true. The real heroes are the grunts sometimes who never knew they had it in them. Then they find out under pressure.

Zibby: Has this happened to you? Has there been a situation in your life where you didn’t know how much resilience you had until you were faced with it?

Hampton: I suppose so. Nothing on the level of the books that I’ve written. I’ve never been in a dire emergency survival situation like that.

Zibby: Sometimes it takes, though, these extremes to get us out of something that we’re struggling with ourselves, in a way. Knock wood here, but most of us will never know what it’s like to have to find our food in an ice block or whatever, but there are certainly challenges we face every day where it’s hard to get through or we’re not sure how. I feel like I’m drawn to memoirs where people get through all these hard things like abuse or addiction or whatever. I’m drawn to those stories because it inspires me, in a way. Whatever I’m going through, I’m like, well, I’m not going through that, but look at that. That was really extreme, and they got through it. That’s helping me in whatever silly thing I have to deal with, which doesn’t feel silly to me, but you know what I mean.

Hampton: Right. I’ve been drawn to a number of these stories. Ghost Soldiers, which you say you read a long time ago, was about the Bataan Death March, which is one of the worst chapters in American military history, the surrender at Bataan and the death march leading to these prison war camps that were squalid and horrible and run by the Japanese, and how these men survived all of that only to face what seemed to be an imminent execution by the Japanese. The Americans found out about this and sent the US Army Rangers in to try to rescue the last survivors of the death march. I guess that theme is there in that book as well. Looking back over — I’ve done now, six of these. That theme is present in almost all of the books that I’ve written, different versions, different iterations of it.

Zibby: You can just take this back to therapy this week and see what you can make of it. I’m kidding. I was looking on your website before. To your point about the Bataan Death March, I just sat here staring at the men who are so emaciated, the prisoners. It’s hard to even imagine that level of suffering. Staring at what becomes of a grown man’s body, it’s similar to Holocaust pictures. There’s something gruesome. You can’t take your eyes off of it as you try to wrap your brain around it.

Hampton: The other joy, the real joy of doing that book and some of these other books that I’ve done is getting to meet these guys into their lives as they’re looking back and trying to ask, again, these same questions. How did I get through that? Why did I survive and so many of my comrades didn’t? The grace and the stoicism that most of them had, I’ll take that with me for the rest of my life. Unfortunately, most of them have passed on. I’m sure all of them have at this point. That was one of the greatest experiences of my writing career, was getting to know these, they call themselves the battling bastards of Bataan. These are tough dudes.

Zibby: It’s one thing for you to resuscitate so many of these lost stories or highlight well-known ones from a historian’s perspective, but it’s another to then be able to write them in such a vivid, captivating, propulsive way as if we don’t know the ending of these things where sometimes you just know the ending already. How did you get into that part of writing? How did you hone that skill? Is it practice? Did you know you wanted to write? Did you know more you just wanted to tell the stories and writing came after? How did writing itself fit into your career trajectory and make you into this author now?

Hampton: Academic history has an often quite well-deserved reputation for being deadly dull, chloroform in print. It’ll put you to sleep real quick. I went to Yale.

Zibby: I went to Yale too.

Hampton: I was a history major. I don’t regret it. It was one of the great history departments in the country. I don’t really remember the word pleasure being often ascribed to the reading of history, the writing of history. The kind of history that we were taught, in our thesis papers, to write was more legalistic writing. It was like, come up with an argument. Come up with a thesis. Then summon your data to prove your thesis. Build your argument towards a summation that really proves that your thesis was absolutely correct. Then you might even go in personally and defend your thesis in front of your professors. It’s almost like a bunch of lawyers took over the history departments of America a long time ago forgetting that there’s all these other kinds of writing, other ways of telling history that should be at least equally valid, narrative being the one that I seized on. History can be really interesting to read if someone pays attention to the way it’s written, not just the, do you have the data? Do you have the facts? Do you have the argument? Do you have the provocative thesis? All the qualities that make for a good novel or a good screenplay or a good piece of drama on stage, some of those kinds of qualities, apply them to the raw stuff of history, and then you end up with a beautiful narrative that reads sometimes, at its best, like a novel, but it happens to be true. I grew up in Memphis. The first writer that I ever met was a narrative historian. He was one of the best. He was this Civil War historian named Shelby Foote who wrote this massive trilogy of the Civil War and was kind of the star on the Ken Burns documentary on the Civil War, with the beard and the pipe and the amazing Delta accent. His son, Huggie, and I were friends.

Zibby: Oh, I know him.

Hampton: You know Huggie?

Zibby: Yeah. I know him. I went to dinner at my friend Lea Carpenter and Elliot Ackerman’s house, and he was there.

Hampton: We’re good friends. We were in a band together.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, stop. Too funny.

Hampton: We were trying to do everything we could to prevent his father, Shelby, from actually writing the trilogy of the Civil War by cranking up the Hendrix and the Pink Floyd. Anyway, I got to know Shelby in high school and then after college, did a series of interviews with him. I think he was enormously influential in terms of explaining what this sort of subgenre is of narrative history where you don’t have footnotes. You don’t necessarily have an argument, a thesis. I think you’d be hard-pressed to figure out what Shelby Foote’s thesis was of the two-thousand-page trilogy other than he wanted people to turn pages. He was interested in character, primarily character development. He was interested in plot. He was interested in things like foreshadowing and highlighting an event that happened in 1861 and then somehow building in a crescendo towards things that happened at, say, Appomattox.

These are things that rubbed off on me. It was like, oh, the stuff of history can be literature, at least can aspire to be literature. I’m not saying I’ve always succeeded at that, but I’ve always aspired to that. I think that’s where it came from. Yale was, oh, my gosh, some of the greatest lecturers, some of the greatest characters in that history department, but I didn’t love — gosh, I hated history papers. I hated that argumentative style. I hated expository writing. I spent all of my time in college, actually, working on The Yale Daily News and a magazine called The New Journal, which I was the editor of. I was always straddling the fence between, am I a journalist, or am I a historian? Even today, I think of myself as a journalist who writes about history as opposed to just a historian. I know a lot of people say you can’t even call yourself a historian unless you have a PhD in history. I don’t buy that, but there is that school of thought.

Zibby: I don’t talk to those guys. Then quickly, what are you working on now? Are you at work on another adventure?

Hampton: My most recent book actually was a book about a battle in the Korean War called the Chosin Reservoir. It actually came out two years ago just before COVID. I timed it just right. Now I’m working on a book about the third voyage, the final voyage of Captain James Cook, not Captain Hook that was the pirate and not Captain Crunch, who is one of my favorite captains, but Captain Cook who, in his third voyage was given this assignment to go try to figure out — it’s taking me right back to where the Jeannette story took place, which is Alaska and Siberia. He was trying to get up and over Alaska or through Alaska and find the Northwest Passage. Of course, he didn’t find it. All he found was ice. He nearly got caught in the ice twice. Along the way, he stumbled upon this island called Hawaii that was not on any maps. He was the first European discoverer of Hawaii. When the ice nearly trapped him in Alaska, he decided, I got to go back south and winter somewhere warm. Why don’t we go back to that lovely place, Hawaii? He did. Of course, he was murdered in Hawaii by the native Hawaiians. It’s another sprawling adventure story with a pretty resounding and controversial ending. It’s been weird working on this book because Captain Cook, like so many white dude explorer types from the Colonial Era, is being canceled all over the world. Statues are coming down or being vandalized. He’s persona non grata in New Zealand now, and Australia and all over Polynesia, of course, for somewhat understandable reasons. Although, Captain Cook was really an explorer. Oh, there’s a beautiful dog.

Zibby: Sorry, my dog just walks in herself.

Hampton: He was an explorer, and a relatively enlightened explorer, and one of the greatest navigators of all time. Exploration is generally viewed as the first wave of colonialism. You got to find these places first and put them on the map, which he did. Then what came after Cook is a whole nother story. I’m working on this thing. I’ve got a zillion books here behind me. I’ve been reading and traveling. This, unfortunately, is a project that has required a lot of hardship travel to places like Tahiti, all over French Polynesia, Hawaii, New Zealand.

Zibby: I’m so sorry for you.

Hampton: Someone’s got to do it.

Zibby: Turns out it’s you.

Hampton: During COVID, between lockdowns and so forth, I’ve been having some pretty interesting trips in the wake of Captain Cook.

Zibby: I can just see that whole trailer. Not Captain Hook. My seven-year-old son could make you a really fun trailer for that if you wanted. I’m sure that your panel at the Santa Fe Literary Festival with John Grisham will be amazing. That sounds like a totally unique opportunity, so if any listeners are going to be in Santa Fe March 20th to 23rd. When is your actual panel? Do you know?

Hampton: No, May. May 20th.

Zibby: Sorry, May. Oh, my gosh, May. I can’t speak. May 20th to 23rd. Hampton, thank you so much. This was really fun. Thanks for chatting with me.

Hampton: Take care.

Zibby: Buh-bye. Thanks.

Hampton: Bye.


IN THE KINGDOM OF ICE by Hampton Sides

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