"I’ve Been Determined to Open up the Adventure Narrative into Something Deeper" Ailsa Ross Shines a Light on History's Bravest Women in Her New Book
In her newest book, The Girl Who Rode a Shark: And Other Stories of Daring Women (Pajama Press), author Ailsa Ross shows kids and grown-ups alike that the great heroes of history are not always the men they've read about in school.
Featuring beautiful artwork by illustrator Amy Blackwell, The Girl Who Rode a Shark tells the stories of 52 women who beat unimaginable odds, made a lasting impact on our planet, and fought against injustice. From ancient warriors to modern-day activists, Ross delivers illuminating and page-turning portraits of resilience and bravery that will inspire readers of all ages.
We're thrilled to have Ailsa here today to talk about her new book, a rather unique pre-writing ritual, and why she's already feeling the itch for a sequel.
Tell us about your new book and how it came to be. What made you passionate about the subject matter you're exploring?
The Girl Who Rode a Shark: And Other Stories of Daring Women tells the stories of 52 real-life women adventurers.
Technically, this is a middle-grade book — though I’ve heard of lots of grown-ups keeping the book for themselves! I guess the lives of aquanauts and astronauts, treetop explorers and eagle hunters are fascinating at any age.
The adventures in the book take place from 2,000 years ago to today, and the illustrations are all by the amazing Amy Blackwell.
Initially, this book project came out of the @womenadventurers Facebook and Instagram pages I started a few years ago. I began telling women’s adventure stories because, well, there’s still a day in many schools where Columbus is portrayed as a kind of swashbuckling hero — and I’ve been determined to open up the adventure narrative into something deeper and more diverse. Hence this book.
You won’t read about Columbus — but you will get to know the story of Nzinga. She was a 17th-century queen who fought the Portuguese colonisers who were taking people away as slaves from present-day Angola. She was tough. She was brave. And she was said to have led her armies into battle herself.
Is there a question that is central to your book? And if so, is it the same question you were thinking about when you started writing or did it change during the writing process?
There wasn’t a central question, but I did have a central aim — to make a person feel more curious and brave in themselves as they read and enter the world of these stories.
What was your research process like for this book? Did you encounter anything unexpected while you were researching?
I read so many diaries and memoirs and biographies. I dug into archives, and I interviewed some of the contemporary women featured over the phone.
In terms of unexpected encounters, it was a happy surprise to find that there are so many more women adventurers whose stories could have been included. Maybe there needs to be a sequel?
What do you need in order to write – in terms of space, food, rituals, writing instruments?
I have so many rituals — but I suspect the ones that matter are: coffee, going outside before I look at a screen in the morning, and switching off my wifi for long stretches of time.
Before I begin writing, I also dab Hinoki (Japanese cypress) oil on my wrists. In The Nature Fix, Florence Williams cites a study that found that the phytoncides in cypress oil reduce stress by 53%. I like the sound of that stat. Really, though, I just like to smell like a tree.
What do you do if you're feeling discouraged during the writing process? Do you have a method of coping with the difficult points in your projects?
I talk about the problem with my partner or a friend, and they help me climb out of my head.
What defines a great work of non-fiction, in your opinion? Tell us about one or two books you consider to be truly great books.
All I want from non-fiction (or any genre) is to find that the world glimmers a little differently after reading. A few recent favourites have been:
*Upstream by Mary Oliver
*Birds, Art, Life by Kyo Maclear
*The Lonely City by Olivia Laing
I also loved Patricia Lockwood’s memoir Priestdaddy. You get to be that elastic with language? That free?
What are you working on now?
With the Writers’ Trust of Canada, I’m currently the writer-in-residence at Pierre Berton’s childhood home in the Yukon. I spend a lot of time walking Dawson City’s old Gold Rush streets — I’m in love with the ravens, the birches, all the lace curtains. I guess flâneuring doesn’t really count as work, though.
When I’m not outside I’m working on A Field Guide for Feeling Free: a more-than-memoir about eight iconic women writers who’ve been drawn to fierce landscapes — and learning to stay amazed by one place.
Ailsa Ross is an author, editor, and fact-checker. Born in Scotland, she studied law with a focus on women’s and human rights. Her work on the topic of inspirational women began on social media before expanding into the world of books. She lives in Alberta’s Jasper National Park with her family.