The Pole of Cold
I live in the coldest town on earth.
You may have heard some debate about it. Our village, Oymyakon, reached minus 71.2° Celsius in 1924, but they had to guess at the temperature because the thermometer froze. Another town in the Russian Far East tried to claim the title, but then Oymyakon erected a sign in Russian that said THE POLE OF COLD, and it was settled. Signs can do that. The sign also brought the weather scientists and what they did, so I’ve never known how to feel about that.
The mountains surrounding the Oymyakon Valley create a natural inversion; chilled air suspends in place while heat escapes to the sky. Birds freeze to death in midflight. Hair adheres to the bed; eyeglasses stick to the face. You can hammer a nail with a banana. You can hear a voice for four miles. To find a person, you follow the trail of his breath as it hovers behind. Boiling water thrown from my kettle becomes powder before it hits the ground. Vodka freezes, salt water hardens, plastic shatters. You can’t touch a doorknob with your bare hand. You can’t turn off your car. Everything breaks. Even sap sometimes turns to ice, and trees explode.
Erika Krouse’s short fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Ploughshares, Story, and other magazines. Her collection of short stories, Come Up and See Me Sometime, won the Paterson Fiction Award and has been translated into six languages. She teaches fiction at the Lighthouse Writers Workshop and works part-time as a private investigator for Title IX and sexual assault cases. Erika’s new novel, Contenders, was published in March of this year. She lives in Boulder, Colorado, and is working on a novel and a collection of short stories.
Will Allison on “The Pole of Cold”
If you grew up in a very small town, maybe you can relate to Verochka, the main character in our latest issue, “The Pole of Cold” by Erika Krouse. “I’ve always imagined that I would leave here at the first opportunity,” says Vera, “and never look back.”
Vera’s hometown is a remote Russian village. Remote and small: population 472. Remote, small, and cold: as in, the coldest inhabited place on the planet, a town so frigid that trees explode, voices carry for four miles, and birds freeze to death in midflight.
At twenty-two, Vera is old enough to leave, and family ties aren’t holding her back: When Vera was a baby, her mother, Tuyaara Ivanovna Kulika, ran off to Moscow with a weather scientist. When she was fifteen, her father was killed in a plane crash. Only Vera’s aunt, Lyuda, remains—and she thinks Vera should hit the road too.
So when a kind, handsome, wealthy stranger comes to town and thaws Vera’s heart, she has every reason to start packing her reindeer-fur coat and her Arctic-fox hat. But if you grew up in a very small town like Vera did, maybe you know that leaving isn’t always as easy as it seems.
In her trademark crackling prose, Erika Krouse tells Vera’s story with equal doses of humor and heart, and her portrait of Oymyakon will have you reaching for your parka as you read. Also be sure to check out our interview with the author to learn about Erika’s deep, personal connection to this story as well as her moonlighting job as a private investigator.
Q&A by Will Allison
- WA: Do you have a personal connection to any aspects of the story?
- EK: Factually, I have almost nothing in common with Vera, the protagonist. I did live in high-altitude mountain towns for about eight years, so I understand winter, but not Siberian winter. My grandmother’s ancestors were supposedly from the Russian Far East, but I’ve never been there. Nevertheless, “The Pole of Cold” is one of the most personal stories I’ve ever written. Emotionally and thematically, it’s almost nonfiction. Like most fiction writers, I try to understand my life by changing the facts of a story until they align with the emotional truth of whatever I’m going through. If I can work out all the narrative elements in the story—conflict, character, plot, point of view, etc.—my own stupid problem suddenly makes sense.
- WA: Why did you choose to set “The Pole of Cold” in the coldest town on earth instead of, say, the hottest town on earth?
- EK: I first found Oymyakon by chance in 2007. I was mailing a good-bye letter to my mother, who had recently disowned me. However, I had nowhere to send the letter, so the coldest town on earth made some kind of psychological sense. Of course, I had to find an address there, which led to research, which led to obsession. It’s such a bizarre place, and I’m drawn to extremes. By the time I decided to write about the (frigid) experience of letting my mother go, this remote town felt adhered to that emotional process. That’s where the feeling lived for me. But yes, the hottest town on earth has its appeal too. They have acid pools, toxic gas geysers, and something called “fire wind.” Hmm...
- WA: Can you talk about the role research played in “The Pole of Cold”?
- EK: Research was a problem. It costs over $10,000 to travel to Oymyakon, so visiting was out. I had studied Russian in college, but I forgot everything except for “devil” and “bird” (chort and ptitsa; I know you’re wondering). Which meant that, apart from devil-birds, I had no way to communicate with anyone who lived in the region. There are no books about the town. Videos mostly just feature snow and reindeer. I read about the place obsessively, but most of the articles contained recycled information. On the flip side, the scarcity of information gave me the freedom to make stuff up. Is a twenty-two-year-old girl really the mayor of the coldest town on earth? Did a plane crash in the village, killing a reindeer herder and two American scientists? I have no idea. And neither do you.
- WA: What was the most challenging aspect of writing this story?
- EK: Navigating the multiple-audience issue was technically challenging. The story is Vera’s version of a message in a bottle, aimed at strangers who don’t know the region and culture, in the hopes that the message will eventually reach Vera’s mother, who does know the region and culture. So I had to figure out how to simultaneously address two very different audiences. The editors here helped me to achieve a much better balance, but it was tricky. Also, “The Pole of Cold” is part of a new aesthetic for me. I’m trying to write what I call “architectural stories.” I guess it’s a kind of minimalism. I want to write invisibly, with no ornamentation or excess. I want the sentences to stack from beginning to end like a built environment, so every story element is vital to the realization of the theme—form following function. I have this idea that if I ever manage these things, the membrane between the reader and the story will disintegrate, and reading will be as easy as falling. And we’ll all attain nirvana. Of course I’m not there yet, but that’s the dragon I’m chasing.
- WA: Your first novel, Contenders (Rare Bird Books), is due out this month. Can you talk about the difference between writing stories versus a novel?
- EK: For me, a novel is a marriage, and short stories are affairs. During the long process of writing Contenders, I couldn’t write short stories. I didn’t have the emotional capacity to switch forms, and I had such a tenuous hold on the novel, I didn’t dare look away. The novel took over my daily life and viewpoint for about a decade, and I saw everything through that filter. Whereas a short story is more like a fever dream that possesses me completely for a time and then passes. It’s something I can finish relatively quickly and regard as a closed circle. Novels feel perpetually gooey to me, like open wounds. Another thing: your novel can never catch up to you. It takes so damn long to write one, and the novel continually teaches you to be a better writer. So by necessity, you outgrow your vision, and you’re always better than your novel. Which is why you might hate it a little, even though you love it enough to devote years of your life to it. But a short story? That’s pretty close to where you’re at, right now.
- WA: In addition to writing and teaching, you’ve worked as a private investigator since What was the most challenging aspect of writing this story00What was the most challenging aspect of writing this story. Has that job informed your writing in any way?
- EK: It’s sent me to a darker place. I work mostly on rape cases. Interacting with rapists and rape victims teaches you things about life that you don’t want to know. “The Pole of Cold” isn’t dark, but Contenders definitely goes to some disturbing places, as do some of my short stories now. P.I. work also made me a better researcher and observer and more adept at uncovering the right questions. All that helps with writing and teaching and life. But it also annoys people, because I habitually go after their secrets. Some of my friends won’t drink around me anymore.
- WA: How long did it take you to complete this story?
- EK: Counting revision and the process of getting feedback, etc., all stories take about two to three months for me, beginning to end. It’s comfortingly regular. I do pick at it incessantly after that point, but that’s just an incurable mental illness. For “The Pole of Cold,” you can add in the previous seven years of research, but I didn’t do that with any intention of writing a short story—I was just geeking out on the place. I shouldn’t be allowed on the Internet.
- WA: What are you working on now?
- EK: I’m going through the schizophrenic experience of writing a novel and a short story collection simultaneously. I couldn’t do it before, but after writing one of each, it’s more productive for me to go back and forth now. Since my first novel took so long, I have commitment issues about writing a second novel, and the stories help. When I (frequently) flip out about the novel, I cheat on it by writing a short story. And whenever I crave something larger, there’s the novel. Looming.
- WA: What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?
- EK: It was more like criticism intended as advice. I was at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, in Richard Bausch’s workshop. I was the last to be workshopped, and nervous about it. I had noticed that the more advanced the work was, the more critical Bausch was, whereas he was 100 percent positive to the most novice writers. So I was thinking, “Please don’t be nice to me, please don’t be nice to me.” When it was my turn, he opened with something like, “Erika, you wouldn’t be caught dead in the same room as an emotion.” I was elated! And crushed. But he was right—I had been holding back emotionally because I was afraid of being melodramatic, which negates the purpose; I mean, we write and read stories to feel something. We want our hearts to stop.