TOKYO (Reuters) - Author Tanis Rideout never hiked, hated the cold and at one time had barely heard of British climber George Mallory, who may have been one of the first men to make it to the top of Mount Everest before perishing on its slopes.
But an Everest-obsessed coworker at an outdoor equipment store introduced her to Mallory, the controversy about whether he summited the world’s highest peak, and video footage from his 1920s expeditions, and she found it impossible to get him out of her head - until finally writing, years later, her debut novel, “Above all Things”.
The book, which also tells the story of Mallory’s wife Ruth as she waits for her husband and tends their children, was based partly on the couple’s actual letters - including some found on Mallory’s body in 1999, 75 years after his death.
Rideout spoke to Reuters about Mallory - famed for saying “because it’s there” when asked why he wanted to climb Everest - her book, and Everest, the 8,850 meter (29,035 ft) peak conquered by Sir Edmund Hillary 60 years ago this May.
Q: What got you going on this book and Everest?
A: Everest was already something I really didn’t get ... why would people do that? Then you sort of throw that colonial glamour onto it, for lack of a better word - them in their tweeds, massive backpacks and their crates of champagne. (I thought) okay, I need to know more about this. And as I started reading, I pretty quickly got taken away by Mallory in particular. Ridiculously good-looking, incredibly charismatic and moved in all the right circles, a last Renaissance man. The last and great British explorer of that era. I would joke with my friends about if it’s possible to be in love with somebody who’d been dead for eighty years, I probably am.
Q: He was certainly very attractive, but your book of course features his wife as well. Was she in there from the start?
A: Ruth was always in the book. When I first started playing with it, I actually thought of telling the whole thing from her point of view but that became very limiting for obvious reasons really quickly. I studied a lot of women’s studies and women writers at university, and women’s history is important. People behind the scenes in history I think are getting much more of their due these days in fiction.
What interested me about the story as well was the myth-making of it, how we make these heroes. So to have Ruth’s point of view was a way to disrupt the mythology around someone like George Mallory and to be able to see him as much more of a fully realized character and not just as an epic climber that did this incredibly brave and crazy thing.
Q: The sections with the climb: how did you imagine it?
A: I started doing a very, very little bit of climbing. I attempted my first ever somewhat substantial climb earlier this year, on holiday in Hawaii - my husband and I tried to summit Mauna Loa. I didn’t quite make the top, I had my first experience of altitude sickness, it was terrible - but I had a bizarre moment where I was standing there and said, oh, I was writing about this for seven years, this is what it feels like. The cold’s easy, I live in Canada, so the cold is always there. I read a ton, there are so many great books out there about high-altitude climbing, other peoples’ stories and things that they imagine or hallucinate. That was what drew me to it originally, what happens to your body at these extremes, and where does your brain go under the circumstances.
Q: He’s out having all these adventures, and there’s Ruth at home. What was it like to go between these two characters?
A: I thought Ruth would be easier, at the beginning. We’ve all stayed home while somebody else, a friend or partner, has gone off to do something that seems so much more interesting than what we’re doing, going through the routine of our lives. I thought that would be so easy to write because I knew what that felt like. But it took a lot longer to get into Ruth’s head, partly because of the limits of the era and gender and class. How to balance that all, how to make her small, intimate emotional dramas be as big and important as an avalanche on Everest. It took a while...I read a lot of short stories, trying to almost make each of her sections a short story on its own. Her life needs to be as important as George‘s, because it is.
Q: How did you finally resolve the question of whether he summited or not?
A: Part of the reason I wanted to write the book was to puzzle out for myself what happened on that last climb....Personally, I think it depends on what day you ask me, whether he made it or not. On more romantic days I think he absolutely did, and on my more realistic days I think he probably didn’t quite make it.
Q: What is it about Everest?
A: If only I knew. I just don’t understand it and I think it’s because I don’t understand it that I put so much time into reading about it and learning about it. It still sounds utterly horrible. I would love to do the trek out to Base Camp and look at that mountain, but you could not pay me to ever even think about climbing it. It’s a weird presence in our culture.
Reporting by Elaine Lies