I like a good thrill as much as anyone (though mine are mostly cerebral!). You won't catch me clinging to a rope anywhere near a 29,000-foot frozen mountain peak. Yet I vastly enjoyed debut novelist Tanis Rideout
's version of George Mallory's third attempt to climb Mount Everest in 1924.
In Above All Things, the Toronto-based poet and writer interweaves chapters from George and his wife Ruth's points of view. The exhaustively detailed climbing preparations are quite fascinating. The climb itself is described using intense sensory realism. I didn't know the outcome when I began reading, though I imagine even if you did, you'd feel the suspense viscerally.
Q&A with Tanis Rideout:
Q: You're not a climber. Have climbers given you positive feedback about how accurate your descriptions of climbing are?
I’ll admit there’s been some mix about that. One review on Amazon from a climber says that it’s pretty clear that I’m not a climber! But I have friends who climb that said they thought it was a good portrayal and I received an email from a high altitude climber who has been to the Himalaya half a dozen times and is going to Everest again next year applauding it. That was gratifying!
Q: How did you manage to come up with so many fresh ways to say, "It's cold!"? And did you do anything to increase your writing flow, such as turn off the heat and suck on ice in the winter?
Living in Canada helps I think. I really don’t like the cold and so when I’m out in it I tend to fixate on the discomfort – how there are certain areas of the body that feel it more or less, how sometimes it’s sharp and sometimes dull. I tried to imagine it so much worse than I’ve ever felt.
And my editor was very very good at not letting me be repetitive – pushing me to come up with new ways to say it, describe it, so that hopefully readers felt it in their bones.
Q: The way you interwove the chapters of the wife waiting at home with the mountain climb chapters was itself enlightening. I felt like rushing through the home chapters, as well written as they were and as much as I sympathized with Ruth, to get back to the real thrills. I guess that helped me understand some of the "why."
It was really important to me to explore Ruth’s experience of the expedition as well – and it is much slower, sadder, I think. It provides, I hope, a break from the incessant climbing and cold, and shows us a different side of George. Hopefully, it helps with the understand of what George stands to lose, which should help to drive you back to the climb – the need to know.
Q: You could have left us readers hanging, so to speak, but you pulled off a great ending. Was that a huge challenge?
Part of why I started to write this was, of course, because I wondered what had happened on that last climb. I think our imaginations are captured by those mysteries – it’s why we still wonder about Amelia Earhart as well. I didn’t want to make a definitive decision in the novel, but I also didn’t want to be coy. I didn’t want to shy away from choosing an ending, but I wanted the reader to have to decide what it is that George does. Clearly this reader read it that George succeeded, others read it that he didn’t. That is really interesting to me.
The ending did change during the editorial process . Certainly, how he got to the moment where he makes the decision changed. Getting that beat right was difficult. It was a fine balance. I worked on it right up until the book was taken away from me to be published. Even at the last minute I was struggling with the exact wording to shape George’s decision.
Q: You wrote something about choosing your obsessions. Can you share with us some of your own, besides the one for getting to know and write about George Mallory?
I think that obsessions choose me more often than not. Margaret Atwood likened a writer's need to write a particular book to an albatross you can't get rid of. I think that's how it is with me. I tend to get quite obsessive about things, at least for a little while. I was fairly obsessed with boxing for a period of time. Comic books-- I wrote a series of poems based on comic book characters. Marilyn Bell and Lake Ontario. Right now I have some new ones percolating in my brain -- certain forms of technology. And in general I'd say I'm obsessed with narrative, story telling, how we explain ourselves and each other through story telling.
Q: Will you/would you write such an research-intensive novel again?
Absolutely! I love research. It's one of the great joys to me of writing. I think even if I were to write something set present day in my own city I'd still have to do a great deal of research. There are always aspects of characters that are outside of me. Research is like great self-directed learning. It forces me to take in things I might not otherwise.
Copyright (2013) by Susan K. Perry