Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Guest post by Tanis Rideout, author of Above All Things

Tanis Rideout is stopping by Reading the Past today with a wonderful original essay about her research process specifically on the artifacts that informed her work and helped her reach back and touch the past.

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)
Part of what first drew me to the story of George Mallory’s 1924 attempt on Everest was the mystery and mythology. How could I not be fascinated by all of it? George was one of the last of the classic English explorers – athlete, scholar, a writer with ties to the Bloomsbury group; a romantic figure whose friends called him Galahad and whose admirers compared him to a Greek statue. He’s the root of the enigmatic quote that we use as a culture to explain away our strange drives to do things – Because it’s there – and he tragically, mysteriously disappeared.

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.
(Feb. 2013)
The RGS in particular, with their boxes and boxes of files, holding every scrap of paper that was associated with the expedition, was a treasure trove. While each file was labelled according to dates with some indication what would be in it, often there was a great deal more than what I was expecting. There were photographs I’d never seen before, and long elegant strips of Tibetan calligraphy on onion skin paper with a tiny notation in the corner indicating it was a receipt for ponies. There was a fragile notebook from Camp IV indicating the weather, who had been at camp and how they were feeling. As I carefully peeked under the barely open cover, not wanting to crack and break the old spine, I imagined George jotting down stomach ailments and headaches, snow skirmishes and sunny days.

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)
The last was a letter. I’d probably already read hundreds of letters when I came across this one, maybe even thousands, but this one stopped me before I even picked it up. Letters were different in the early part of the twentieth century, that’s the first thing you need to know. They were often written on pamphlet style pages, a larger sheet of paper that had been folded in two, so that you had a small four page booklet to write on. Usually a person’s address would be already printed at the top. If the person writing was in mourning the edges of the pages would be printed black. That was what I had noticed first – and I knew immediately whose letter I would be reading. It was a letter from Ruth to a friend of both her and George – and it was painful and generous and sad and brave. As a writer though, it wasn’t just the content of the letter that grabbed me – it was the paper, the ink, the black edge.

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.


  1. Awesome guest post -- I am dyingdyingDYING to read this book, even more so now. Rideout's comment "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," is just spot on.

    1. I've been eager to read this book, too, even though (yes, sad to say) I'm not especially fond of heights! I especially enjoyed her perspective on how coming face to face with actual objects can thrust you immediately into people's lives and experiences. It makes you think about what the research process will be like 100 years from now. Paper letters are almost nonexistent. Condolence notes sent via Facebook and email just aren't the same, and don't have the same lasting value, either.

  2. Anonymous4:58 PM

    I would like to know if the cover of the canadian book version of Above All Things is an actual photo of George and Ruth Mallory?

    1. My guess is probably not, but I don't know. You'd be best off asking the publisher since I don't have a copy of the Canadian edition.

  3. I LOVED Above All Things. I read a galley back in November and have recommending it a lot (I'm a librarian). I even talked about it at a program I did on books that take place in the 20s. Very atmospheric, beautifully written, and a compelling story. I love how George's experience and Ruth's very difference experience are woven together in the novel. Great post!

    1. I'm so pleased to hear you enjoyed Above All Things. It's on my pile to read in the very near future, and the topic of your library program also interests me. There are quite a few new 1920s-set novels coming out, and it's become one of my favorite eras. (Also, your rats are very cute!)

    2. Ha! Thank you. I'm excited by all of the new 20s novels as well.