It’s no secret that I’m completely obsessed with polar expedition stories. There’s danger, nature at her most brutal, survival transfiguring even the most familiar things, literal hauntings, and hubris making and breaking everyone it gets its gnarly hands on. Ally Wilkes taps into these elements in her debut, All the White Spaces, with the added layer of a trans man’s coming-of-age in the world’s harshest environment: Antarctica.
Join me in celebrating the U.K. release date with this interview that covers all things from research, idea origins, and the revision process for this wintry, chilling debut. (In the U.S., the book comes out on March 29, 2022)
Crafting All the White Spaces
What aspect of this story came to you first? The characters, the setting, or something else entirely?
Definitely the setting! I’ve always loved stories of Polar exploration and survival, particularly those set in the Heroic Age (Shackleton, Scott, Mawson et al). You’ve got the unbeatable combination of harsh and deadly terrain, isolation, claustrophobia, a small group cut off from the world… and then all the interesting historical and social features of the late Edwardian era, with its concepts of heroism, sacrifice and other very ‘masculine’ ideals. Anyone interested in exploring this fascinating milieu in more detail should definitely check out I May Be Some Time: Ice and the English Imagination by Francis Spufford. What really got me thinking about the story’s potential was a remark in his introduction to my much-thumbed copy of Shackleton’s South: “the concept of heroism evaporated in the trenches”. I immediately knew I wanted to tackle a post-WW1 Antarctic story.
Is there a particular scene or moment you’re excited for readers to get to?
What a terrific question. I’m dying for readers to get to the first meeting between Jonathan – the rather naive stowaway – and his idol, the great explorer Australis Randall, who’s every bit as intimidating in the flesh. Incidentally, when I was querying agents, this was often the cliff-hanger at the end of the sample material, which pleased me greatly!
How much and what changes in this story between the first draft and the finished book?
It used to be a diary! I started writing All the White Spaces for NaNoWriMo in 2015, and the original plan was to write 30 diary entries, one each day, from Jonathan’s perspective. I’ve spent a lot of time reading the journals of real-life Polar explorers, and I was just so in love with that authentic tone. However, writing epistolary fiction is extremely tricky and there were bits which weren’t working at all: the amount of detail required to make the action scenes come to life for the reader really strained credibility as the scribblings of a teenager in a bunk or tent with no privacy, frozen fingers, and so on. Anna Davis, the head of Curtis Brown Creative (where I attended a six-month novel-writing course) very sensibly pointed out that I was encumbering myself unnecessarily with this method of storytelling. She was quite right. It was a wrench to let go of “This is the journal of Jonathan Morgan”, but I’m so glad I did!
What is your favorite story of polar exploration?
I don’t think anything can beat the story of Shackleton’s Endurance expedition, which truly has it all: a country on the brink of war, a stowaway, a shipwreck, fighting for survival on the ice, a perilous boat journey, men left behind to eke out a harsh existence on an uninhabited island, crossing unknown territory…it was a big influence on All the White Spaces, as readers might be able to tell! It also has moments of great poignancy and supernatural tinges: for example, ‘third man syndrome’ (where people in life-or-death situations perceive another presence with them) was brought to popular attention by Shackleton’s account of his desperate journey across the mountains of South Georgia, and was then immortalised in T.S. Eliot’s epic poem The Wasteland: “But when I look ahead up the white road. There is always another one walking beside you…”
The Expedition to Getting Published
Is All the White Spaces your first book?
I’d say it’s my first completed book. At the time, I had a couple of other manuscripts in that typical “I’ve written the novel!…what now?” state, and I’d open them up from time to time and make largely cosmetic changes, or come away glumly thinking that I didn’t ‘get’ why they just weren’t working. For some reason, All the White Spaces never fell into that trap. Once I’d finished my first draft, I worked hard to understand its flaws and potential, took an (extremely useful) writing course, and started rebuilding it from the ground up. I couldn’t let it go – there was something about it that just possessed me. In the end, it took me four years to rewrite it to my satisfaction and find an agent.
What are you working on now?
I’m currently rewriting my second novel, as I’m lucky enough to have a two-book deal in the US with Atria. Everything people tell you about ‘the difficult second novel’ – it’s all true! But I love it nonetheless. The book is tentatively entitled What Passes Through, and is set in the 1800s Arctic. This time I indulge my love for a very different type of Polar story – survival cannibalism! But it’ll be spooky too, of course.
Is there something you know now that you wish you could tell Past!Ally?
It’ll all be worth it. Seriously. Like many writers, I’ve always suffered from impostor syndrome, and spending years and years on what seemed like an incredibly unlikely endeavour sometimes felt like an extreme exercise in hubris and self-flagellation. But the moment I saw my ARCs I knew it was all worth it. To anyone reading this: write that crazy thing. Tell the story you want to tell.
What books are you excited to read in 2022 that are either new releases or backlist?
2022 promises to be an absolutely fantastic year for horror. I’m particularly excited for Road of Bones by Christopher Golden, with its blend of supernatural horror and snowy Siberian setting – his Ararat (climbers find Noah’s Ark, then get trapped on the mountain with something bad inside!) is a favourite of mine. I also can’t wait for Dead Silence by S.A. Barnes, as space horror ticks all my isolation/exploration boxes, and I’ve heard nothing but good things. And Manhunt by Gretchen Felker-Martin looks absolutely off-the-chain with its fantastic twist on that ‘gender apocalypse’ setting we’ve seen so much of in recent years (plus, that cover!). We’re also getting new work from Paul Tremblay, Alma Katsu (I very predictably loved The Hunger, and The Fervor sounds unbelievable), Catriona Ward, Grady Hendrix, Stephen Graham Jones… it’ll be an amazing year for sure.
And if you like thrillers, I’ve been lucky enough to read a few forthcoming ones from my 2022 debut cohort, and cannot leave without plugging them. You’ll want to watch out for Breathless by Amy Culloch (murder in the death zone of the world’s most dangerous mountains!), Nobody But Us by Laure Van Rensberg (Gone Girl meets My Dark Vanessa!) and Her Perfect Twin by Sarah Bonner (one of the very best uses of a COVID lockdown to enhance narrative tension I’ve ever seen!).
Ally Wilkes grew up in a succession of isolated – possibly haunted – country houses and boarding schools. After studying law at Oxford, she went on to spend eleven years as a criminal barrister, where she learnt how extreme situations bring out the best (or worst) in us. Ally is particularly fascinated by Polar stories and the exploration Gothic, despite suffering from seasickness and loathing the cold. Her debut novel All the White Spaces, set in the Heroic Age of Antarctic exploration, will be out in January 2022 (UK) / March 2022 (US). Ally’s short fiction has been published in Three Crows Magazine, Nightmare Magazine, and she’s also the Book Reviews Editor for Horrified, the British horror website.
Ally lives in Greenwich, London, with an anatomical human skeleton and far too many books about Polar exploration. When she’s not writing, she’s usually hanging upside-down (like a bat) on her aerial silks. You can find Ally on Twitter @UnheimlichManvr.