Like his best-selling Lost in Shangri-La, Mitchell Zuckoff’s new book is a page-turning true story of heroism and survival on a remote front during World War II. Where Shangri-La tells the tale of a plane crash that left a group of U.S. servicemen and members of the Women’s Army Corps fending for themselves in the wilds of New Guinea, Frozen in Time re-creates the events surrounding another, more tragic plane crash—in Greenland in 1942. After the crash, the surviving crew members withstood the arctic cold for 148 days as they huddled in the ripped fuselage, existing on supplies dropped by air onto ice riddled with lethal crevasses. Subtitled An Epic Story of Survival and a Modern Quest for Lost Heroes of World War II, the book chronicles one man’s modern obsession as well as the wartime resilience of others in a nail-biting narrative that reflects Zuckoff’s flair for unsparing historical detail.
Frozen in Time is a contemporary story, too, with alternating chapters told in the first person, a departure for Zuckoff, a College of Communication professor of journalism. He became part of the story when he joined, and partially financed, an arctic expedition last summer hoping to locate the wreckage of the downed Grumman Duck and repatriate the frozen remains of the men who didn’t make it out alive. Inspired by a tenacious American adventurer named Lou Sapienza, the mission was a bit of a fiasco, but the colliding egos and daunting logistics enabled the author to lace the memoir-style chapters with observant, dry humor.
Ahead of Zuckoff’s appearance at Brookline Booksmith on April 30, BU Today interviewed the journalism professor about his experience writing Frozen in Time.
Was writing in the first person a challenge?
It went against 30 years of training. As journalists we are told, and I think it’s correct, that the story isn’t about you. I think there is a tremendous narcissism among some writers. When they go and interview someone famous, the first word in their story is “I.” The celebrity interview: “I walked into the Hollywood Hilton and I saw Brad Pitt across the way.” So you’ve got yourself in twice before you’ve got Brad Pitt in there. I’ve always hated that. But here, it finally satisfied my own rules about the first person: that leaving me out would’ve been more misleading and more detrimental to the story than putting me in. So I had no choice.
When you write about experiencing a plane crash or flying a plane, you put the reader right there in the cockpit. What does that process involve?
This is something I’ve been working on for a really long time. I wrote a story about a child with Down syndrome 15 years ago—it became my first book. Even then, I wanted readers to experience her heart surgery as if they were doing it, as though the scalpel was in their hand and they were opening her chest and they were patching this hole in her heart. It’s just layer upon layer in writing and getting closer and closer to the perspective. It’s a lot of rewriting, fixing and then changing your point of view, as a writer and a reader, and saying, I’m in the cockpit, I have the control wheel in my hands, what do I see? Reading it aloud is so key. If you read it aloud you will hear where the flaws are, where it doesn’t make sense.
You engage the other senses too, describing vibrations and the noises and smells the men would have experienced.
I talk to my students a lot about sensory reporting. I love smell. We all know this—there’s a smell that will bring you back to summer camp 50 years ago. It’s such a powerful sense and if you can tap into that as a writer, if there’s a bouquet of solvents inside the cockpit of a new plane, for somebody who knows that smell, I’ve got them right there.
Is that a big part of what you love about stories like these?
It is an endless feast. I was almost happiest when I was writing about the snow caves when they started to smell. Then I felt like I could put people in there. You can say it was really cold 100 times, but now waste is building up, these guys have not showered in four months. They smell. The food smells. Sometimes the cans of food would break when they were dropped from the planes and they would rot inside the cave. And they’re under this wing filled with fuel, so there are fumes. That’s when I know that I’m close enough that I’m really writing.
Read the rest of the interview in BU Today.