A photograph of Jemma Wadham climbing a mountain

How I wrote it: Jemma Wadham on Ice Rivers

Glaciologist Jemma Wadham never anticipated a career as an author – until life-saving brain surgery changed her mind. She talks about balancing science and memoir, hope and warning and how she wrote a book in seven weeks.

Jemma Wadham’s work alone would make for fascinating reading: a glaciologist, she has travelled and studied in some of the world’s most remote places to uncover the secrets beneath ancient ice in the Alps, the Andes and Antarctica. But she’s also had a remarkable, and sometimes tragic, life. The sudden loss of her father, on Christmas Day, aged eight; her mother’s fatal breast cancer, a miscarriage and near-fatal illness all fold into her fascinating exploration and appreciation of glaciers.

Part memoir, part science book, part nature writing, Ice Rivers is beautiful and revelatory read. Wadham tells us how she wrote it.

What motivated you to start writing Ice Rivers?

I definitely wouldn't have written this book if I hadn't had brain surgery, which is a very strange thing to say because, obviously, brain surgery is not something one wishes to have. I didn't actually know there was anything wrong, other than I had some quite strange symptoms of losing my sight, my balance and had these ridiculous headaches. I ended in A&E and having brain surgery the next day, and then had six months of leave.

I'd never been out of full time work before. I did my degree, did my PhD, got into a lectureship aged 24 and worked solidly until I ended up in hospital. I suddenly had this space for me: I had no structure around me or no expectations of anything that I was supposed to do or not do.  What emerged was that I wanted to write and I wanted to write about glaciers, which had been my passion since my early teens, really.

You’re a career scientist. Did writing for a broader audience come easily?

It was strange because I couldn’t actually allow myself to write this book. I've written over 100 scientific papers and I've written an academic book, but that’s in quite technical language, but there wasn’t a big grant, or something that I should do for my university. In the end, a friend said: “Jemma, just give yourself permission to do this thing because it seems like it's what you really want to do.” Instantly I was like, right, okay, I'm gonna do it. I remember, the next day, sitting down in my kitchen and just being so free, because I could express myself as me and relive all these memories without thinking I've got to be technical or concise. That’s when I started. I wrote the rest of the book in a complete fury; I just had to do it.

Jemma on the side of a mountain.
Jemma on the side of a mountain. CHOUETTE FILMS

How did you balance your writing time with your recovery and your job as a glaciologist?

I sat down to write in May and I had surgery in mid-December. I had been incubating and wrestling with this idea of writing but not allowing myself to do it. I had a phased return to work in June but was soon working full-time with a big research group. So for every chapter of the book I took myself off to the Forest of Dean and I gave myself a week to write each chapter. I used all my holiday time to write the book, basically. I had seven chapters so I had about seven weeks to write it.

That’s a very intense process!

The biggest challenge was the time pressure. I can't even explain it; I can't work out how I wrote it, it just came out of me. I felt absolutely obsessed. I can imagine writing a non-fiction book from scratch involves an awful lot of research and that takes a huge amount of time.  But the way I see it, I've had 25 years of doing research for this book, it's all in my head. Some of these experiences have been so incredibly vivid. I just took myself back in my mind and as I wrote the words came. There was a lot of editing afterwards, too!

How did you balance those personal experiences with the scientific technicalities of glaciers?

When I first started writing the book I wasn't intending to be in it at all. But as I started to write I sort of appeared on the page. I was experiencing these things in these environments and I realised that the only way I could tell this story was through my own eyes and it was important that I did. There were some trips, such as one Antarctica, which should have the most brilliant and most amazing experience but my mother had advanced breast cancer and I wasn't quite sure if she was going to be alive when I came back. I think to crack yourself open and blend that with the sciences is not something that's that common, particularly for female scientists. Exposing vulnerability can sometimes feel a bit risky, but I realised that the only way to write this was in a really honest way.

Of course, Ice Rivers is mostly a love letter to glaciers, how they work and why it’s important for us to save them.

The one thing I wanted to do is to take people there and to fascinate them about the glaciers, how they work and also how they're connected to us. My main motivation really is for people to understand that connection, because I think it's really hard to make decisions about changing your lifestyle if you don't really have a connection to something. There are doom and gloom messages in there but I wanted is to show that actually there are some big differences if we do something now. You know, it's a bad situation but it could be a catastrophic situation – let's avoid the catastrophic situation.

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