To some, the first novel from Tanis Rideout might seem wildly ambitious - in Above All Things, she set out to adequately encapsulate in some 400 pages what it was like to be on George Mallory's team trying to summit Mount Everest in 1924. The anticipation and excitement, the uncertainty and terror, the physical effects of altitude and bitter cold, and of course, the looming, daunting summit itself beckoning from above - it's all here.
But much like the men she wrote about, Rideout set about her task with determination, dogged patience and very hard work. The result is a beautifully realized, well-paced novel that perfectly balances the small-scale, personal interactions, thoughts and experiences of the people involved with the sweeping, panoramic adventure of the bigger picture. Rideout has told a very hard story to put down.
The Belgian-born Canadian author was living in Kingston, Ontario when she began learning about the mystery and questions surrounding the famously-doomed expedition which took the lives of mountaineer George Mallory (37) and his climbing partner Andrew "Sandy" Irvine (22). The fate of neither Mallory nor Irvine was known for 75 years. While the pair were obviously presumed dead, there was no proof until Mallory's body was recovered in 1999. Irvine has still not yet been discovered, and whether the two reached the summit remains a topic of debate and speculation.
It's easy, then, to understand how the story could catch fire in a brain with an itch to write. Who were the people behind the expedition? What kind of minds and spirits must it take to feverishly pursue those heights? What about the people left behind at home, in a technologically different era, anxiously awaiting letter or telegram? While the technical aspects of the climb are riveting, it is perhaps the chapters devoted to the interpersonal that make Rideout's book so compelling and relatable.
Read on for an interview with Tanis Rideout, author of Above All Things .
AbeBooks: What made you decide to write Above All Things?
Tanis Rideout: I don’t know that I would say that I decided to write Above All Things, so much as I got quite obsessed with George Mallory and Everest, and had to write to get those things out of my head.
But I first came across the story while I worked at an outdoor equipment store in Kingston, Ontario where one of my co-workers would bring in documentaries about Everest. I was instantly fascinated and started reading everything I could get my hands on. That led me pretty quickly to the early expeditions, and I was simply caught up by the story and the characters.
Inherently it’s a fantastic story – man against nature, plus the mystery of what happened to George and Sandy - and I couldn’t shake it. I started writing.
AbeBooks: You joked in the acknowledgements that if it was possible to be in love with someone dead 80+ years, then certainly you were in love with George Mallory. What appealed so tremendously about him, in your research?
Tanis Rideout: It’s funny, because I think through the research and writing I sort of fell out of love with him, which I think was important.
At first I was in awe of him, the way we are at the beginnings of relationships, or when we have crushes – I saw what was good – he was gorgeous, and talented and athletic and dedicated. All very appealing. But as I moved forward into a fictional version I found a man who had flaws.
But he was so charismatic and outspoken and idealistic. It was hard not to be taken with George.
AbeBooks: What was the hardest part of writing the book for you?
Tanis Rideout: It’s a bit hard to pin down what the hardest part was. I guess it would be any time I was waiting for something – waiting to hear back from my editor, waiting to hear about how people were responding to it. There’s nothing to be done at that point in time, except to wait. At that time I’d done my work and it was out of my control. I think that’s actually the hardest part. Sure there are difficult days writing, and lots of self-doubt and questioning, but I suspect that’s just part of the job. So yes, I’d say waiting – for a yes or a no – is the hardest part!
AbeBooks: It can’t be easy, writing fiction about real people who lived, made choices, had opinions etcetera. Were there particular aspects you struggled with?
Tanis Rideout: When I started I didn’t really think much about it. I think I was pretty naive about it – and I always say I favour story over truth, fiction over fact – so that was often how I approached the writing, and largely still do. I’m a fiction writer, a story-teller, first and foremost. I’m interested in creating complex characters and seeing how they act and interact, so I was willing to change things in order to get a more complex emotional understanding, or to connect more to a reader.
It’s something I still think about now, as I begin writing new work – but as soon as we start ordering, narrating something it slips from being factually true anyway. And I quite like that idea – I’m interested in the intersection of fact and fiction, the stories we tell of our own lives.
AbeBooks: And is this style of writing fictionalized history something you’d return to?
Tanis Rideout: Absolutely! I love historical fiction – I love reading it. And I love history in general too, so yes, I think I’ll return to it in some way shape or form, although I’m also interested in tackling some more contemporary ideas and characters as well.
AbeBooks: Were you familiar with the mechanics of mountain climbing prior to writing? What research did you have to do?
Tanis Rideout: Not at all. I’m not a climber. I’ve done a little bit of indoor climbing and a little bit of what the English like to call Hill (or Mountain) walking. That is – I’ve spent days hiking up some mountains, but I haven’t done anything technical at all.
So I did a lot of reading, a lot of watching documentaries – I was also having to research the climbing techniques and equipment of the time, which is different than now. But I love research. If I could just do research without ever having to write a book, I’d probably be a very happy camper!
The wonderful thing about being a writer these days is the sheer amount of information that’s available to us online and in books. At first I just devoured absolutely everything I could get my hands on – books, magazines, movies and documentaries -I followed expeditions online.
A little while later I was lucky enough to get a research grant to travel to England and do some research over there. I went to Cambridge where I was able to read tons of private letters from over the course of George and Ruth’s (Mallory's wife's) relationship, and the Alpine Club where I saw Sandy’s ice axe, the British Film Institute where I watched the original film from 1924, and the Royal Geographic Society.
The RGS is incredible as they have every scrap of paper that is associated with the expedition – receipts for ponies and ledgers and camp journals. It was incredible and moving. Being able to handle the ephemera of the time really allowed me to imagine the world much more fully.
AbeBooks: What are some of your favourite books?
Tanis Rideout: Oh! Always the worst question! And it’s funny how they change. Alessandro Baricco’s Ocean Sea, A Moveable Feast by Hemingway... I love (Margaret) Atwood in general. Let me see - how about what I’ve read recently that I’ve really loved – NW by Zadie Smith, The Dinner by Herman Koch.
AbeBooks: If you weren’t a writer, what would you be?
Tanis Rideout: Before I was able to write full time I worked for a literacy organization called Literature for Life which runs reading programs for pregnant and parenting teenage girls in Toronto. It was a great job! And combined a lot of things that are important to me – social justice, literacy, women’s issues. I think if I wasn’t a writer I’d still be working in a field like that in some way, shape or form.
AbeBooks: What next for you?
Tanis Rideout: I’ve started work on a new novel that is slowly taking shape in my head – partially historical, partially present day. It’s fun and slightly daunting to be back at the beginning but I’m headed off on another research trip soon which will no doubt help tremendously!
Rideout's work has been published in numerous literary magazines and other publications. She has received a grant from the Toronto Arts Council, and enjoyed recognition on the shortlist of several writing and literature prizes, including the Bronwen Wallace Memorial Award. She has also been something of a fixture in the Canadian music scene, including joining forces with both Ontario indie-rocker Sarah Harmer and Tragically Hip frontman Gord Downie to champion environmental protection of Ontario waters. Her poetry collection Arguments with the Lake was inspired by those experiences. Rideout now resides in Toronto.