Her debut novel, Above All Things, intertwines the viewpoints of English mountaineer George Mallory, as he makes his third and final attempt to scale Mt. Everest in 1924, and that of his wife, Ruth, who was left behind in Cambridge with their children. Above All Things will be published on March 7th by Viking Penguin (UK), and it has already been receiving many accolades in Canada and the US. I'll be posting a review later this spring, and this post has definitely whetted my appetite for more.
|Viking Penguin ed. (March 2013)|
But myth and mystery are simply beginnings. I began to read everything I could get my hands on about Everest and George Mallory – scouring the local library, used bookstores, and online speciality booksellers. One of the many wonderful things about writing in the internet age are the vast online resources of materials – images, films, essays – that are at a writer’s fingertips. Still, nothing is quite a meaningful or useful as the real thing.
A draft or so into the novel I received a grant from the Canadian government. This one not only provided me with time to write but also had money attached for travel and research. I packed my bags and headed for England, where I spent time at the Samuel Pepys Library at Magdalene College in Cambridge, The Alpine Club and the Royal Geographical Society (the RGS).
One of the things I love about well-executed historical fiction is the way in which the era seems to soak the pages – as though they have been immersed in it. A certain age can breathe on the page in a well written work. The job of the writer is to conjure that time and place a reader in it without, ideally, either of them being bogged down by details and ephemera. This was what I was faced with at these extraordinary collections – more detail than I had ever thought was possible. How was I to choose?
|Putnam US/Amy Einhorn ed. |
There were a number of items that I found that stuck with me, and either found their way directly in to the book or became jumping off points for an event or scene. The first was a massive ledger – a manifest of everything that had been packed in to crates and sent across the great Himalayan plateau – everything that was needed for the expedition to survive so far from home for long, isolated months. One item in particular caught my attention. There was a listing for six Hudson Bay Blankets (not to be used by coolies). I’m sure part of me stopped at the line because of its Canadian content – Hudson Bay Blankets are a familiar item to most Canadians – their iconic stripes and warmth decorate many northern cottages – but there was so much captured in that one line. It wasn’t just the kind of materials they took with them, but also the hierarchy with which they could be used. It allowed me to imagine what other items might be used with such conditions.
Another was the telegram. I’d seen photos of the telegram before, seen the text in books, but here it was – the actual telegram that was delivered to the RGS announcing the deaths of George and Sandy. There was the hard type with a superscript in pencil translating it. I could begin to imagine the distance it travelled, the clerk or assistant receiving it at the office, the translation of the code. All of the details added colour and texture to my imagined world.
|McClelland & Stewart ed.,|
Canada (June 2012)
It’s these physical objects and all the meaning and coding of a time and place that help both the reader and writer conjure the era and its inhabitants. These are the details to build a fictional world on.
Tanis Rideout's work has appeared in numerous publications and been shortlisted for several prizes, including the Bronwen Wallace Memorial Award for Emerging Writers and the CBC Literary Award. In 2006, she was named the Poet Laureate for Lake Ontario by the environmental advocacy group Lake Ontario Waterkeeper and joined Gord Downie of Canadian rock band, The Tragically Hip on a tour to promote environmental justice on the lake. Born in Belgium, Tanis grew up in Bermuda and in Kingston, Ontario, and now lives in Toronto. She recently received her MFA from the University of Guelph-Humber. Her first novel, Above All Things, will be published by Viking Penguin (UK) on 7th March.