An Adventure Story of the Modern Age: Author Talk with Tanis Rideout at 7 p.m. tonight at the North Shore Writers Festival, Lynn Valley Public Library, free admission. For more information on weekend events visit northshorewritersfestival.com.
MUCH like a virus, an obsession can be contagious.
Before Tanis Rideout had penned her collection of superhero poetry or written her dramatic chronicle of George Mallory's 1924 ascent of Everest, she was working at a camping store in Kingston, Ont.
"God knows why they hired me because I didn't know anything about anything. I had barely camped," she recalls.
Between pushing Gor-tex and stacking climbing gear, Rideout met a co-worker who was fascinated with the world's rooftop. As the basis for a connection, it wasn't promising.
"I don't like the cold, I don't love physical exertion, I don't like being physically uncomfortable, and here's people going halfway around the world to climb this ridiculous mountain in the most insane conditions possible," she says. "I don't get it."
But as she listened to her co-worker's stories and saw his videos of early Everest expedition footage, something shifted for Rideout.
"You sort of throw what Everest is, the massiveness of Everest and then you cast it in this colonial light of the 1920s and these men in their Burberry tweeds . . . taking their bottles of champagne with them. I just thought the entire thing was glamorous and ridiculous and wanted to know more and started reading everything I could get my hands on," she says.
Out of that research emerged a picture of George Mallory, a real mountaineer who serves as the flawed hero of Above All Things.
"George was such a tremendously charismatic character that I couldn't shake him and I would joke around with my friends . . . that if it was possible to be in love with somebody who'd been dead for 80-odd years, then I probably was."
Rideout's version of George portrays a charming husband and an unfaithful zealot whose true loyalty is to the mountain.
"We all know you want the summit, George," a fellow mountaineer comments early in the journey, "but you don't have to climb over our dead bodies."
The comment is in jest, but no one laughs. George climbs without rest, but his mind drifts far beneath him, back to Ruth, the dutiful wife waiting for her husband's return.
"I think at one point in time really early on I actually thought about trying to tell the whole thing from her point of view, but that became quite limiting," Rideout says. "He was so incredibly interesting that she had to be, too. I just wanted to explore what kind of woman would stand, could stand toe-to-toe with a man like this for 10 years."
George is a powerful presence, but we also see him as an absence, like an apparition hanging over his family in England.
"All of us deal with a partner who has to put something else ahead of a relationship," Rideout says. "I've spent the last several years working on a novel which had impacts on my husband's life."
From first draft to publication, Rideout says she spent seven years refining her relationship with George.
"There's times when I think George is a terrible jerk and an awful husband now, and it hopefully makes him a better character than if he was just so good and brave and exciting," she says. "It was really . . . needing to get him out of my system."
Rideout reports she is now immune to George's charms.
"Over the course of the book I fell out of love with him, or out of crush with him at any rate," she says. "He kind of had to be pulled down off that pedestal and made into a regular guy."
In the early portion of the trek up Everest, the mountaineers debate the merits of burdening themselves with canisters of oxygen on their way to the summit. The argument against packing oxygen is that God would not have created anything on earth that would require man to resort to artificial means.
The willingness of the mountaineers to subject themselves to sinus infections, chapped lips and the possibility of an agonizing death was likely the result of their experiences in the First World War, according to Rideout.
"They probably were shaped by trench warfare and sitting in the wet, cold mud for months at the time," she says. "It sort of set up a requirement for continued sacrifice."
In gathering material for a book, Rideout likens herself to a scavenger, cluttering her desk with hand-written notes and interesting facts that make their way into her narrative.
While many details of the book are correct, Rideout says her novel should not be mistaken for a historical account.
"I am not a stickler for historical accuracy," she says. "I generally have always been in favour of whatever makes for a better story."
Rideout first garnered attention for Delineation, a book of poetry that explored the love lives of superheroes. But before she put pen to paper, Rideout was an aspiring actor for whom writing was an afterthought.
"I guess I always wrote in the way that everybody wrote terrible, angsty poems in high school," she says. "I don't think it ever occurred to me that one wrote books, or that you could be a writer."
Around her third year of university, Rideout read In the Skin of a Lion by Michael Ondaatje.
"It was the first time that I really fundamentally understood that there was another person at the other end of the book," she recalls. "I'd never met a writer . . . but I suddenly kind of physically understood that he had sat down and he had made this thing."
During difficult moments writing Above All Things, Rideout says she sometimes takes out Ondaatje's book and reads passages for inspiration.
During spurts of housekeeping, Rideout says she often uncovers old rejection letters, some of them reminders of the period in her life when a career as a writer seemed impossible.
"Most people who go into the arts in general, whether it's theatre or music or writing, we're such suckers for external validation. We need other people to tell us we're good at something. We love the applause," she says.
"When one person says that they like something, that means everything."
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