Tanis Rideout’s novel, Above All Things, tells the story of George Mallory and his 1924 attempt to summit Mt. Everest. She used the real letters between Mallory and his wife, Ruth, to inspire her fictional account of his climb. While Mallory’s story has been written about many times before, the events around his mysterious death remain unknown. Rideout’s account of his life and death felt emotionally true in a way I’d never come across before.
My assumption was that Rideout had found something new in the love letters between Mallory and his wife. I wanted to interview her to learn about her findings. What did she uncover in those letters that made her account seem credible?
As I interviewed Rideout, first by email and then in person, I came to realize I had it all wrong. As an author, with two collections of poetry, Delineation and the forthcoming Arguments with the Lake and a role as Poet Laureate for Lake Ontario, she puts the story first. In Above All Things, the historical figure of Mallory leaves the realm of fact and becomes hers. That’s why he feels so true.
The Millions: What do you write about?
Tanis Rideout: My three books fit well together, though I didn’t realize that when I was working on them. I look at them now and think, “here are my issues I’m working out.”
I’m particularly interested in obsession. Prior to Above All Things I wrote a collection of poems, Delineation, about comic book superheroes and the women that love them. What ran through that was certainly obsession – romantic obsession, obsession for revenge, for justice. There’s a line in it that: I have become obsessed with obsession. That describes me.
George Mallory and Everest, in my novel, are a good repository for this “obsession with obsession.” So are two main characters in my next book of poetry, Arguments with the Lake. It is the imagined relationship between Marilyn Bell, who was the first person to swim across Lake Ontario in 1954 and became a hero, and Shirley Campbell, who failed to do the same and her life spiraled out of control. They had such different outcomes from the same attempt.
TM: This is another theme in your writing, differences in perception or point of view?
TR: Yes, I got interested in this when I worked for an organization called Literature for Life where I led reading circles in shelters and youth homes. We would read a book together and discuss it. I’d ask things like, “what would you do in those circumstances?” Why did a character make this choice? The idea is to engage with literature to help develop empathy. If you had a fight with someone, how did they see it from their side? It was like narrative therapy in that way.
TM: You mean the idea that life is a story you tell yourself?
TR: Exactly. Are you a victim in your story or how do you position yourself? I have a story of my life that I tell myself in which I don’t win things. I’ve never won a raffle or a draw. One time I had a friend buy me a ticket and then I won. And that’s my narrative.
I’m sure that it’s not true. I probably have won things, but I’ve just decided to ignore those instances. That’s the story that I tell, that I don’t win. It’s a small example, but we can do that on a much grander scale. I like to think that we can go back and revise the story. We can find the parts that don’t support a narrative and rebuild a story. It can be the start of a new outlook on life.
TM: Is that why you write?
TR: That is something I am interested in. There is a story in the novel about George and Ruth’s first meeting, which is based on my first meeting with my now husband. He swears that I was wearing a red dress. I swear that I didn’t own a red dress. One of us is clearly wrong.
Ultimately it doesn’t matter for us, but things like that split an experience. It interests me and is why I write. Is there a truth and does it matter? Or is it just about story? I tend to err on that side. It’s just about story.
TM: Is that the first responsibility of a fiction writer, story?
TR: Absolutely. Other people would argue that you could write good fiction and stay within the facts. Maybe it takes a better writer than me to do that? Hilary Mantel recently said, “I will make up the thoughts of a man’s heart, but I will not make up the color of his wallpaper” Her idea with the Cromwell books, Wolf Hall and Bringing Up the Bodies, is that she stuck to what is known.
I think that is hugely admirable, but as a fiction writer that isn’t of interest to me. I always assume everything that I read is fiction, even if it’s in the non-fiction section. The very notion of putting something on paper means that you are creating a narrative.
TM: Do the true facts behind a story change an experience for a reader?
TR: Is reading something “true” more emotionally valid? I don’t see why.
Either the story moved you or it didn’t. You went with the author or not. Learning if the facts of a story are true or not after the fact doesn’t need to make a difference to how you were moved.
TM: So you changed Mallory’s wallpaper?
TR: I changed Mallory’s wallpaper and then some. I renovated his house.
TM: That is brave?
TR: I could have changed the names and had cart blanche.
TM: Why didn’t you?
TR: It didn’t occur to me to be honest.
TM: Maybe we live in a time where we believe less in the rational mind? Even economists have given up pretending that people make rational decisions. Perhaps collecting facts doesn’t necessarily get us to the truth?
TR: My version of Mallory is not the historical figure. I disregarded things that other people might think are important. That was in service of telling a good story.
I wanted to tell a story about a woman, a man, and a mountain and the tug of obsession. The facts of what happened are beside the point.
TM: But you did use the real love letters written between George and Ruth Mallory to write the story?
TR: I used them less to write the story than to color the story. The letters gave me language, gave me small incidents and events, gave texture to the world, the space, the time, in a way that is harder to gather from secondary sources – it’s a turn of phrase, it’s even the physical shape and size of letters – how someone has crammed in writing on every last space, or used an extra page for only a line or two.
They are less the big picture defining of the world – I already had the shape of that, the shape of the story – and more a way to shade the story in, to make it whole.
TM: So reading the letters helped you breathe life into the characters?
TR: In a weird way, reading the letters was a fantastic experience, and really did allow me to let go of the “facts” far more than just reading books, watching movies, etc. had. Suddenly I was able to imagine these characters more fully and as characters, as opposed to the characters that had already been built by previous researchers. They became a tremendous jumping off point to imagine beyond the letters. What wasn’t in them, etc. It really was a letting go – because there was so much color in the letters, etc.
TM: Did using the letters give you a responsibility to the people who wrote them?
TR: I’m a fiction writer, first and foremost – what matters to me most is story. I didn’t set out to write something historically accurate – those things exist, the world doesn’t/didn’t need it from me.
These are real people, real lives that I decided to fictionalize. I don’t think, personally, that fiction writers have a responsibility – which isn’t to say that sometimes there isn’t some discomfort around that – but I think I certainly fall on the Wayne Johnston side of the spectrum – in that he doesn’t believe there’s any obligation to the “factual” truth.
TM: Mallory’s death is a mystery. Did the letters help you find any truth about what happened?
TR: The “truth” of it largely comes out of my own experiences – the way I am in the world. I think they help lend veracity – I’m not sure that’s the same. Details can often cover lies.
TM: So do you write about yourself or other people?
TR: It’s absolutely about you as the writer. There’s no way to get around that. When I first started thinking about writing this novel, my life was so vastly different than now. I could chart my life in the different drafts of the book. This is what I was working through in this section, so therefore there is too much of whatever.
The relationship between George and Ruth changed so much because I went through a terrible break up and I finished the first draft the summer that my husband and I started seeing each other. I moved into a positive, good relationship and that shaped the novel.
TM: Then what can a love letter tell you about a person?
TR: Any letter – love letters or otherwise – betray so much I think. So much of it is in the language, or even in how the paper is used – is it cramped and tight fitting in as much as possible – empty and blank? What kind of language is used, do the same addresses occur to multiple people? It’s reading so much more into it than just the simple words. I think it opens up a lot about people, opens up a window into desires and hopes and disappointments.
TM: Did reading the letters make you feel like a snoop?
TR: At first – yes. It’s a very strange thing to sit there and read someone else’s letters – but as a writer, I think we’re snoops anyway – we eavesdrop and steal and borrow – I got over it pretty quickly.
TM: Will letters always play a significant role in your work?
TR: Letters are such an interesting window in to characters – or people, depending how you want to think of them. I prefer to think of them as characters.
I’m already planning a research trip to get access to some archives for work I am beginning, to just be able to “hear” more of the characters own languages.
Letters are a throwback – but receiving something written, in the mail – always such a lovely thing.
TM: So are you now more self-conscious when writing letters or emails?
TR: Ha, it is true! I had a friend years ago swear that if I died tragically she’d burn my old journals. Something I still think of doing. It’s strange in the days of emails – we certainly don’t hold on to our everyday correspondence in the same way. But yes – I would worry about someone reading my personal secret thoughts and sharing with the world. I know that’s hugely hypocritical, but it is true.