I recently read and reviewed Above All Things by first time novelist (and Poet Laureate for Lake Ontario) Tanis Rideout. The book tells of George Mallory, an English explorer hell bent on conquering Mt. Everest and paying dearly for it.
Q. As a first time novelist, how did you decide on the subject of Mallory’s Everest assent attempt?
A. I’m not sure that I decided to write it – Everest, and Mallory, got into my head and the only way to get both of them out was to get writing. It takes me a long time to write, so ideas have to be things that I can’t shake, that I get obsessed with for a very long time. Margaret Atwood once referred to novelist’s ideas like an albatross you can’t get rid of. You don’t choose it and you can’t escape it. That seems pretty accurate to me.
I came to be obsessed by Mallory and Everest while I was working at an outdoor equipment store after university. One of my co-workers would bring in Everest videos to show on the TV we had at the back of the store. I quickly became interested in Everest in general – it encapsulated so many things I didn’t understand and didn’t like – the cold, the intense and marathon style physical activity – I couldn’t understand why anyone would go there, put themselves through all that suffering. One of the videos in particular really captured me. One of them showed footage from the first expeditions – and that just stopped me short. I’d always been interested in those colonial expeditions – Scott, Shackleton, that kind of thing. I started reading everything I could get my hands on and taking notes. After a while I realized I was writing a novel.
Q. Do you think George Mallory’s inability to balance his work and family, wanting to live in two worlds basically, is a recent problem (within the last 100 years or so) or something mankind has been trying to balance since the beginning of the family structure?
A. Wow – good question. I often get asked the question the other way – do I think much has changed between then and now in terms of family life. I’m not an historian, but I would suspect it is a more modern phenomenon – fed by a lot of different changes. For the most part, until very recently in history, I think our worlds were very small – most people lived with extended family, worked and played in small communities. As travel became easier and cities bigger I think people left home and began to have more separate work and home lives.
Gender roles play into that a great deal as well, of course, the separation of work and home into different spheres. I think men and women today try and find ways to balance those things out. But yes, I think, generally, it is a more recent struggle.
Q. Tell me a little about your experience as Poet Laureate for Lake Ontario. What does the job entails? Are there any responsibilities?
A. Lake Ontario Waterkeeper (www.waterkeeper.ca) – a member of the Waterkeeper Alliance is an environmental justice organization, committed to protecting our rights to swim, drink and fish are local water bodies. A few years ago they asked me if I would write some poems to read at a series of live shows, alongside musicians and dancers and activists. The idea was to raise awareness of the issues on Lake Ontario as well as to try and help people engage with the Lake in a different way – to get them to recognize it as their own. I was thrilled to join in. As part of the tour they named me the Poet Laureate of Lake Ontario.
I continue to write poems about the lake – I have a book of poems coming out in the spring here in Canada that is based on Marilyn Bell’s swim across the Lake in the 1950s – as well as doing whatever I can to support the organization and its goals.
Q. Where do you, as a fictional history writer, draw the line where history ends and fiction begins?
A. For me, I’m not sure that I draw a line. I think writers approach this very individually. Some stick entirely to the facts, others use the facts as a springboard. What matters most to me is the story – telling a good story. History, the historical record, is such a great source of information and inspiration, it can add so much colour and depth to a story, but I don’t feel any obligation to it. This in and of itself is interesting to me. How we alter stories even in our own lives. The line between fact and fiction is pretty blurry at any rate.
Q. What are the challenges of book promotion in the social media age?
A. It’s astounding how many venues there are for promoting books, for talking about books via all of the social media that’s out there. I know some people who use them religiously and others that don’t. I actually enjoy using things like Twitter and Facebook (and I’m starting to play a little with Tumblr.) It provides an incredible way to communicate with readers that just wasn’t available before.
It’s amazing as a writer to have people tweet that they liked, or didn’t like your book. It’s equally as amazing as a reader to tweet that you’re reading something and the next thing you know the author has responded to you. It’s true that there are so many books, so many authors out there, sometimes it seems a little overwhelming – seems like a great vast sea, but then one person connects with you and suddenly twitter can feel very intimate.
Shameless plug disguised as a question: Why do you love ManOfLaBook.com so much and often visit the website?
Wise gal answer: Well – I’d be remiss to mislead – and will totally admit that I hadn’t come across the site before! Much to my chagrin. There are so many incredible book bloggers, reviews, critics online. I’m much more familiar with the ones north of the border, here in Canada, and am just starting to explore the massive online community in the US. I’m thrilled to say that ManOfLaBook.com has been a fantastic jumping off point and I’ll definitely be checking in to see what else I should be reading.
Thanks to Ms. Rideout for the great answers and congratulations on her wonderful first effort.
Zohar – ManOfLaBook