Reading Between the Lines - David Roberts Interview

We are pleased to release this multimedia interview with David Roberts that took place during the 2018 Banff Centre Mountain Film and Book Festival in Alberta, Canada. If you'd prefer to read the video answers rather than listen, click the blue 'Show transcript' bar.

Tales of climbing and mountaineering adventures have long been written, read and shared; stories of fleeting moments of fear, survival epics and questing on peaks 'unconquered'. Our rich heritage of mountain literature has inspired climbers and writers of today to continue documenting experiences in the outdoors; the extractions from the quotidian that encourage us to reflect on life as we sharpen our political or philosophical beliefs and calibrate our moral compass.

With ample space and time to think, it's no surprise that the most captivating climbing stories are ones that go beyond gear and grades - ideas and commentary on wider society permeate mountain literature. In this series of interviews, we talk to prominent climbing writers about their reading habits between - or even during - routes and expeditions, focusing not only on the growing realm of mountain literature, but also on books of other genres that have informed their thinking and writing.

David Roberts at the 2018 Banff Centre Mountain Film and Book Festival.  © Chris Prescott/Dark Sky Media
David Roberts at the 2018 Banff Centre Mountain Film and Book Festival.
© Chris Prescott/Dark Sky Media

Often referred to as 'the dean of adventure writing', David Roberts's name is synonymous with cerebral reflections on risk and reward in climbing and mountaineering. Among his most celebrated works are Deborah: A Wilderness Narrative, The Mountain of My Fear, and On the Ridge Between Life and Death. Independent of his writing prowess, Roberts was also a prolific alpinist with a ticklist that ranks him among the best Alaskan mountaineers of his generation: first ascents of Denali's Wickersham Wall, the West rib of Mount Huntington and a significant alpine-style ascent of Mount Dickey's Southeast face, to name but a few of his mountaineering achievements. The son of an astronomer and a literature fanatic, Roberts seemingly inherited the aptitude and passions of his parents - a Harvard mathematics degree and a Ph.D. in English are evidence of his polymath abilities spanning science and the arts.

Limits of the Known  © UKC Articles
Limits of the Known
Diagnosed with Stage IV throat cancer in 2015, Roberts, now aged 75, continues to reflect on the whys and wherefores of the climbing life, while reading 'more voraciously than ever.' His latest book Limits of the Known won the Boardman Tasker Award for Mountain Literature in 2018, and serves both as a deeply emotional memoir intensified through the lens of illness and an astute examination of the past, present and future of adventure and exploration. During the 2018 Banff Mountain Film and Book Festival, Roberts enthused about reading and writing, and even reminded me that I'd forgotten to ask him one of the questions he'd studiously prepared for...

'Mountaineering boasts an immensely rich literature, but by far the strongest contribution to it during the last two centuries (and counting) has come from British pens.'

- David writing in a note of thanks upon receiving the Boardman Tasker Award in 2018.

What was the first book you ever read?

You know, I don't remember because my mother read so many books to me. But the first one that sticks out was Winnie the Pooh. The whole four-book series, but especially Winnie the Pooh. I can't swear that I read it myself but it was so vivid and I totally identified with Winnie the Pooh. And my brother, Alan, identified with Eeyore because everybody forgot his birthday.

In On the Ridge Between Life and Death, you write about your parents' differing approach to life. 'Dad loved classical music and wildflowers, both of which left Mom unmoved; in turn, she could quote Keats and Swinburne and Housman by the yard, while to Dad, literature was a blank.' Your mother wanted to be a writer before dedicating herself to family life, but first you 'internalized' your father's drive and perfectionism as a child and became fixated by maths problems and numbers. Both parents must have been very influential in your early life?

Yes, I mean, it's very curious because I wanted to imitate my father, first. I majored in math through college. I wanted to be a mathematician. My dad was an astronomer. But at some point I realised that I wanted to write, and I had always thought of writing as a kind of easy profession because it wasn't highly technical, like math or science, and so I almost fell back on it as if it were sort of an easy anybody-can-write. And of course now I learned that not anybody can write.

So you didn't have a similar interest in words and reading when you were quite young?

Oh, I did, yes, I did. But it was strange, it would come out in odd ways. Like I was a very competitive kid, and I remember the thing we did in school in Boulder Colorado was that during holidays the teacher would write on the blackboard some phrases like, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. And we had half an hour to scramble those letters and make as many three, four, five, six letter words out of them. And I won every competition that that school ever held. And one time I beat the teacher and she got really pissed off. And I just loved playing with letters that way. That's a far cry from writing, because it wasn't even the meanings of the words that mattered. It was almost seeing them like numbers.

Like the patterns in [math].

Yeah. But at some point I realised that I do have very much an auditory memory, not a visual one. I can't remember what people look like but I can remember their names. And often, like here at Banff, I'll run into people who recognise me and I don't recognise them. But once I see their name tag, all kinds of associations go together. But I'm almost retarded when it comes to visual stuff.

Which was the first mountaineering or climbing book that you read?

I'm sure it was James Ramsey Ullman's The White Tower, which is a novel, a terrible novel. It's a novel written in 1945 based on protagonists from different countries: there's the American, the Brit, the German, the Italian, the Frenchman, and Ullmann mongers the worst stereotypes. The German's a Nazi, the American is kind of goofy and tender-hearted and he wins the girl in the end. It's an incredible pot boiler. And they're all climbing some unknown white tower that's the highest peak somewhere and they end up killing each other and dying in various ways.

But somehow, you know, I read it at age 12 and it hooked me just on the idea of the unknown; that it was worth trying to go out there and climb something that hadn't been climbed.

In The Mountain of My Fear, you wrote of climbing literature: 'Perhaps this is why mountaineers are usually inarticulate; everything having to do with climbing seems to stifle the soul's urge to communicate. [...] The men who have gone through the tension of an expedition have not written about it well.' You wrote these words in 1968. Broadly speaking, has climbing/mountain writing improved, in your opinion? Are writers delving deeper and thinking beyond summits and grades?

No, I think, if anything, it's gotten worse. There is an awful lot of good climbing writing. In fact, we have one of the richest literatures of any pursuit; much richer than a sport like baseball or … well, baseball is rich but football or even soccer. Your football. But there's also an incredible amount of boring, repetitive formulaic writing and I'm so tired of reading climbing articles in which there seems to be almost a standard formula in which the writer pretends that he's sort of making mistakes right and left and isn't nearly as good as other climbers, but of course he gets up and gets up something formidable and gets all kinds of plaudits for it.

And that passes for ironic reflective writing but it's really just a kind of tired cliché. And I think the machismo has tarnished climbing writing. When I started climbing, at least in America, it was not cool at all. It was nerdy and geeky. And so it would never have occurred to us to paint ourselves as heroes. But now climbing is chic and cool and everybody wants sponsorship. And Alex Honnold is a god. And that infects the writing.

'Mountaineering begs for someone to understand it, to convey it as it is, not as a melodrama of death.' you wrote in your first book. Why is climbing/adventure writing - more often than not - clichéd, do you think?

I think the exception is when a literature is not written with clichés. I'm not surprised. You know, it's imitation. I think the biggest problem is that becoming a really good climber requires cutting off a lot of feelings, particularly empathy, sympathy, doubt, vulnerability, and that makes it much harder to write about other people. So that the interpersonal gets really stultified in the writing.

Some of the very best climbing writing is by third-rate climbers. I mean, a book like Eric Newby's A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush, in which he doesn't even pretend to be a serious climber, is one of the real classics.

Which is your all-time favourite climbing book or mountaineering book?

I'd have to say it's still Terray's – I hate the title – The Conquistadors of the Useless/Les Conquérants de l'inutile. It's certainly the best climbing autobiography ever written and even now Terray, page after page, will sort of slip into that heroic narrative. There're whole sections where he is reflective and self-critical in a very novel and surprising way. And I think there's more of the truth of climbing in that than in any other book.

You have also mentioned Tom Patey, Robin Smith, Menlove Edwards, Shipton and others in your books...

Yeah, they're all Brits!

That's interesting! Why does their work appeal to you?

Well, as I say in my most recent book, I think Shipton and Tilman had a tremendous effect on adventure writing. It wasn't immediate, but in the 1930s they deliberately diverged from the growing expedition narrative tradition of marshalling of troops to combat an impossible objective. They treated it with whimsy and light-heartedness and irony and humour and self-deprecation. Also, they invented the light, small-party, fast-moving alpine style way ahead of its time. Shipton should have been the head of the '53 Everest Expedition and not Hunt.

But it took a whole generation or more, maybe two generations, before the Shipton-Tilman style really had its impact on climbing writing with people like Patey. In one of my essays when I surveyed climbing autobiographies, I said that the two books - even though they aren't autobiographies - that I thought best captured the climbing life were One Man's Mountains by Patey and Samson by Menlove Edwards. Very, very different collections, posthumous in both cases.

'With my awakening to the high Colorado peaks had come a renewed interest in the literature of mountaineering. Two books that I came upon that year electrified me: Starlight and Storm by Gaston Rébuffat and Lonely Challenge by Hermann Buhl.'

- On the Ridge Between Life and Death

Fiction or non-fiction? Which do you find yourself reading more of?

I read mostly non-fiction. I read a lot of fiction too, but I think because I write non-fiction it speaks to me more directly.

Who's your favourite non-climbing author?

Well, you can never pick a favourite, but I'd put Graham Greene way up there. I was speaking to an American college class fifteen years ago, and this kid who was supposed to be the genius of the class said, 'Who's your favourite author?' I made my usual disavowal and I replied 'Graham Greene.' And there was this completely blank look on his face. This dumb kid had never heard of Graham Greene! I was appalled and I let him know it.

How do you prefer to read? Proper books or eBooks, print or electronic?

Oh, God, no. I have to have a book in my hand. I've tried it but I just can't. Something's just wrong with it.

Do you read books in one go or do you dip in and out of various books?

I dip in and out. Once I went through my bookshelves and counted the percentage of the books that I've started and haven't finished, and it was something like 90%. I always feel guilty if I quit a book before I finish it. But when I look back I think, you know, life is short. If a book isn't that good, you don't have to get to the last page. So I'm reading at any time maybe three or four books at once. But I also read a lot, especially since I got sick with the cancer. I have more time to read than ever. And reading and writing are probably my greatest pleasures now and the ones least affected by the cancer.

How often do you read out of your comfort zone?

That's an interesting question. Probably not very often. I read books that infuriate me but I don't usually expect them to when I start. For instance, I've read all the left-wing attacks on Trump like Bob Woodward's Fear. I haven't read any of the right-wing defences of Trump because I think I'd want to stomp on them and burn them before I got to page 20.

'Monopoly had lost its interest, and we spent the long hours reading our soggy books or simply thinking.' - The Mountain of My Fear

Which genre(s) did you like to read when you were seeking refuge in a tent on an expedition? You mention 'the library at the foot of the sleeping bag' in The Mountain of my Fear.

You know, I thought about that recently, about what books I'd taken on expeditions and there's a complete range from frivolous to deadly serious. I remember on Huntington, which was my most intense expedition, all of us read Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis, which is one of the funniest books ever written. And we were laughing out loud in the tent. And it was a tremendous relief from the tension of the expedition.

But on the other hand, I remember reading Paradise Lost all the way through in an igloo in the Kichatna Spires and a collection of Shakespeare's plays on Denali. And in the Revelation Range we had William Shirer's The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, which is this little small but incredibly fat 800-page paperback. So we tore it into four pieces because we really could sort of pick it up anywhere. And each one of us was reading a different fourth of it at the same time.

So I'd say everything from really serious to utterly frivolous. I cannot abide earphones, music, that kind of stuff, on an expedition. I really want the silence.

Interviewer: Yes. I was talking to Mick Fowler, you know, and he said on one expedition someone brought Stephen Hawking along and he was like, I couldn't possibly do that. He wants something really light-hearted. He just couldn't compute why somebody would want to read Stephen Hawking in that situation.

That would be a hard book to read on an expedition!

To what extent does your reading influence your own writing?

Oh, extremely. In college and grad school I took writing courses for four or five years. Then at Hampshire College I taught writing across a span of nine years. I ended up convinced that you can't teach writing and that the only way to learn to be a writer is to read, with a kind of eye that not only absorbs the meaning but looks and you say, now, how the hell did he do that, or how did she pull that off?

Kate Harris is speaking here in Banff. She's just written this wonderful book The Lands of Lost Borders and says that her process was reading her favourite authors and stopping over and over again to think, I've got to figure out how they did that and I've got to learn how to do that myself! That's produced a truly wonderful book.

In The Mountain of my Fear, you write hypothetically about sharing lived experiences in the mountains with others. 'Pictures can paralyse only their balanced grace, suspending something that words, which move as they moved, lose'; 'a kind of communication in which the motions of our climbing were more eloquent than words.' How would you compare a striking climbing image with a piece of writing about the same ascent? In the digital age of films and images online, do you think writing can compete with the power of the image?

That's a good question. I have now seen Free Solo twice, which I think is the best climbing movie ever made, but I think that what Alex wrote for the revised edition - he wrote two new chapters to the revised edition of our book, Alone On The Wall - goes deeper than the movie in ways that are not nearly as gripping or immediate. I mean, that movie makes everybody's palms sweat.

Oh, man, it's a brilliant powerful movie about an incredible feat. There's no way that the written word can capture what it was like to do the move on the boulder problem with the karate kick. But what Alex has written about the thinking that went into it goes so much deeper than his little sound bites in the film. And I think that's inevitable to the different media.

'I saw my own erstwhile obsession with climbing reflected in distorted but recognisable images. It had required the waning of my own fanaticism to awaken an anthropologist's curiosity about the whole business of climbing.' In On the Ridge, you write about losing your 'monomaniacal passion' for mountain walls to become interested in other people, which is something that many climbers and athletes struggle with. You worked with Honnold on his autobiography Alone on the Wall – a climber who is famously obsessive and in complete control of his emotions. What was your role in the project and what was it like to work with Honnold?

You know, I've collaborated with three great climbers on their books, first Conrad Anker then Ed Viesturs and then Alex Honnold. And it went very well with all three of them but Alex was actually the hardest to collaborate with because he's very smart, he's very quirky and self-critical, and I once wrote something that was verbatim from what I had tape recorded him as saying. I sent it to him and he'd say, I'd never say that. And I could have said, well, I could play it back to you, Alex, but you did say it. And he said no, I mean, that's not what I should have said.

And I said, okay, tell me what you should have said. And then it would take a while to squeeze it out of him. Alex could have written the book himself. He's really a good writer. And when I asked him if he wanted to collaborate, I didn't hear from him for a month and I thought, well, he's just blowing me off. But then he finally wrote back and said let's do it. And I said what changed your mind or what brought you around to wanting to collaborate. And he said, yeah, I'd like to write the book but it'll take me seven years and you've promised you could do it in six months. And we did it in six months.

You describe yourself as a compulsive writer and compare yourself to Jon Krakauer (your 'comrade' in writing), who seems to agonise over the process. You encouraged him and acted as a mentor. How did his writing evolve over the years, from your perspective as a mentor?

I've sometimes in down moments thought that the only thing I'll be remembered for is convincing Jon as a college student to become a writer instead of a construction bum. He was my student at Hampshire College. He had no ambition to be a writer but he had written some climbing articles, and he wrote a kind of senior thesis that he now hopes every copy of which is destroyed.

But somewhere in my basement I have a copy and it was that 80-page document on climbing that he wrote when he was 21 that convinced me he was a good writer. Then, three or four years later when he was literally pounding nails for a living and escaping to climb, like so many climbers, I had just started freelancing. I quit teaching and I was on the sort of pink cloud of thinking this is a great way to make a living, but it's not.

I spent 48 hours once visiting Jon, hammering away at him: 'You have got to try writing!' And he finally agreed to try it for six months. But he was utterly dubious. He was convinced he could not be a successful writer and six months into it I called him and I said how's it going and he said it's awful. And I said what do you mean, it's great. It's a great way of life. And he said, look Dave, I'm working my ass off and I'm making less than I would flipping burgers at McDonald's.

'As soon as we became friends, Jon started borrowing books from my fairly ample mountaineering library, devouring each tome like a youngster with a new comic book.'

- On the Ridge Between Life and Death.

Then it got better. Jon is a good writer. Of course, along came Into The Wild and then Into Thin Air and he became a bestseller and a household name, but not undeservedly so and not accidentally so.

However, Jon has a horrible time writing. He hates it and he has a really hard time getting started. Once I wrote about him, saying that Jon could sit down in front of a computer and spend three whole hours before he could get the first sentence on the screen and he wrote me back and said, scratch three whole hours and put in three whole days.

The more I talk to other writers, the anomaly is to be able to write as quickly as I do. I've never found it hard to just sit down and write. I've never had writer's block. I don't think you can afford writer's block. I've never had a really hard time writing a book or an article. Of course, that can make one glib and superficial, and that's always a danger I'm aware of, you know, that I could be too quick with words. But I haven't been accused of that much, yet.

Autobiography and the 'hostile act' of profile writing feature heavily in your works. In On the Ridge Between Life and Death you wrote: 'I found that I had a knack for writing profiles, a skill at digging beneath my subject's well-prepared façade.' Compare this with what you wrote about your teenage years: 'the life I led most deeply was entirely in my head [...] I didn't care if I had any friends, as long as I had interesting ways to be alone.' How, then, did you develop the ability to 'read' people so deftly over the years?

As a kid I was very hermetically sealed within myself and my main outlet was competition. I could deal with other people as competitors, almost as animate. And I wrote somewhere, on some third grade questionnaire, the teacher had asked what kind of people do you like as friends. And I wrote back, I don't care if I have any friends as long as I have people I can beat in games. And my mother was appalled by this but that was really true for me then.

I think that, really, what opened my eyes to the whole of humanity as much as anything was Sharon, my wife. We met when we were 22, 23 and she was so much more humane and perceptive and aware of other people, and she gradually, very gradually, taught me how to do that. I've probably never given her enough credit for that.

In The Mountain of My Fear, you explain that 'writing can't ultimately translate the climbing experience.' Using words, only a 'third hand filtration of life that was once lived' can possibly be perceived by another person. You wrote 'now that I sit in a warm room with a pencil and blank paper before me, instead of rock and snow, I feel our vanished moments forever lost. I want to wreathe their remnants with feelings I never felt before, especially not while the moments lived.' As a memoirist dealing with the elation and trauma of expedition climbing, how did you manage the selective and creative nature of memory and nostalgia, which, as you describe, 'blurs the memory of immediate thrill'?

Well, that's a fundamental question. You have to resist the first telling in your head. You have to dig, you have to be your own worst critic. I think I wrote somewhere that I became a better writer about climbing when I stopped climbing seriously and part of that was because as a freelance writer I spent a lot of time interviewing famous climbers. When I realised what obnoxious egotists they were and how utterly un-self-aware some of the very best climbers were and how that fed their skill and their excellence and their willingness to take risks, I thought, well, this is a very odd specimen, the great climber. Very far from a person who makes a great writer.

But it also piqued my curiosity about climbing as an endeavour and made me wonder what was the difference ultimately between an Eric Shipton and a Reinhold Messner. The one's so self-aware and the other's so un-self-aware.

I haven't really answered the question because it's too deep to give a quick answer!

You wrote that climbing gave you a niche for publication in various newspapers and magazines. As climbing grows and reaches new audiences, in which direction do you think mainstream writing about adventure sports is heading?

I think that we're getting so many repetitive stories in magazines of great deeds performed by people pretending to be errant knights, but the hidden message is self-congratulation and it's very hard to break away from that, especially because of the adulation that Alex Honnold gets.

When I started climbing I could not have imagined that a climber would be somebody who would be asked for an autograph let alone besieged like a rock star the way Alex Honnold is and that makes it much harder to perceive what's honestly going on.

'In camp, along with potboiler novels and William Shirer's history of the Third Reich (a mammoth paperback we tore into pieces so that four of us could read it at once), I was browsing through the Bible - not in search of divine enlightenment but as part of my grad school education in literature.'

- On the Ridge Between Life and Death.

You gave up teaching literature to be a writer. Did teaching ever affect your motivation for writing yourself?

Well, I've often said that I thought I made a 14-year detour on the way to becoming a writer. Five years of grad school and nine years of teaching. 14 years studying and then teaching literature. During most of which I tried to write and was not very successful. But someone like Jon Krakauer says that's nonsense. "He believes that the writer I became was very much informed by all that learning and teaching.

I do have a grasp of western history and literature that I know strengthens my writing. I can toss in, not just to show off, but I can bring in an allusion to Milton or to The Odyssey without straining for it and I suppose that I got something from that. But I really do wonder what kind of life would I have led if, right out of college I had said, like Hemingway, who didn't even go to college, I'm going to be a writer. I probably would have given up at 25 and become a drudge in some standard profession today.

I mean, one good thing about not really starting to freelance until I was 38 was that I was enthusiastic about life at 40 instead of burned out.

'The deepest griefs, perhaps, inevitably remain private ones.' You have written extensively about loss. You made this comment in reference to Ruth Erb's experience on Dunagiri, where her four teammates - including her husband - were killed, but she never wrote about it. Do you think many climbers choose to write about harrowing experiences as a form of therapy, or as an attempt to justify why they climb? (Another topic you've written about extensively!)

Not for the most part. I think, you know, if a climb goes successfully it's hard to make a good story out of it. I write about loss and death because that's when the real human emotions and dramas emerge. And that's what provokes self-doubt. I don't think enough climbing writing is born of the urge to self-examine. I think too much of it is born of the urge to spread one's glory and fame. And especially now that climbing is so chic and so popular and that you can be a sort of a rock star.

Somebody told me that – I didn't realise this was true – that you don't even have to be a good climber if you have a great Instagram. You could become almost a household name as a climber just by spreading enough, spewing enough pictures of yourself and little tags about what you did last week.

You're nodding. That must be true. It's pretty horrifying.

'Sometimes, during an author interview, I will throw out the pat claim that writing has taken the place of mountaineering in my life. And each time, I know that this is a fib. [...] No, the adventures of my writing career have not replaced the passion for mountaineering that waned…but they have given me something mountaineering never did.' - On the Ridge. Writing for you is 'not a daring ascent, but more like a backpacking trip'. Do you feel that writing about climbing despite not doing it anymore nonetheless enriches your past experiences and your feelings about climbing generally?

I don't think you can ever sift through and re-examine your past too much. But also, for the last 25 years I've written more about the Southwest, the Anasazi, the prehistoric mysteries of this great civilisation that built amazing granaries and dwellings high on sheer cliffs, and that's really my greatest interest right now. The biggest difference between that and climbing, I've said several times, is that climbing is ultimately selfish. Because if you make a first ascent you've said, I did it, we did it. We did a great thing. But if you write about the Anasazi, ultimately you're not saying wow, I found a new ruin. You're saying, what was that ruin about? What were they about?

It's a question to something beyond yourself. Maybe that's self-serving to claim that but I find that compelling and human in a way that climbing can be only sterile. I mean, what good does climbing really do the world? However, I really admire the Honnold Foundation. Alex has a very conscientious moral character. He wars against his own sensitivity and you really see this when you watch Free Solo when Sanni, his girlfriend, is expressing all her fears and he has to sort of shut them off. But he is a very sensitive, caring person. Unusual in someone that good as a climber. I could name - I won't embarrass people - but I could name so many climbers I've interviewed who, I think, almost don't have an awareness of anyone except themselves. It's me first.

'If one read only the books and articles of climbers themselves, full of celebrations of great deeds and narrow scrapes in the mountains, one might never suspect that the choice to risk life and limb had any moral consequences whatsoever.'

- On the Ridge Between Life and Death

'One of the consolations of growing older is the process of sifting through the past, seeking clues that one was too busy to notice as they flew by.' In Limits of the Known you focus on your cancer diagnosis and on your relationship with your wife, Sharon. In writing about your illness, does it bring a similar sense of catharsis that you experienced in writing about Huntington in your first book?

Well, when I got cancer, for the first eight months I didn't think I was going to survive. I couldn't even think about writing. When I stabilised somewhat, the first most important thing to do was to try to get out west again and do some hiking. Once I could do that, I realised I wanted to write more. Of course I would have to write about it, since I couldn't have the adventures, the physical adventures that I'd written about so often, that I realised I would have to write about what all of that had meant throughout my life.

I thought that Limits of the Known might very well be my last book, and so I wanted to figure out what adventure meant to me, and also what it had meant to people over the ages. I also wanted to pay tribute to Sharon because she kept me alive and, through 50 years of marriage, a very turbulent 50 years, we had had all these ups and downs and I had never really written about her. Somehow the vulnerability of cancer loosened me up so I could write about intimacy in a way I hadn't before.

'Language means too much to me, perhaps.' - Limits of the Known. You write this as you describe a meeting with a friend who calls your cancer diagnosis a 'journey', while you disagree and prefer to call it an 'assault.' You remark that people talk about 'battling' cancer, but they don't use the same terms for other illnesses. This seems similar to the clumsy, clichéd language of climbing writing about 'conquering' mountains. Did writing about cancer feel comparable in some way?

It's similar, it's not comparable. Cancer scares the shit out of everybody and so, you know, it's maybe the most frightening word in English. I think somebody said shark may be more frightening. But there's a line in Wilfred Owen's best poem, Obscene as Cancer, about the war, the first war. And so I think that when someone's friend is stricken with cancer, as I was, the temptation is always to reach for the good side, the happy side, the hopeful side.

And I've started writing a blog, which I've never done before, and I've been writing it for three years, and it's really amazing to me how if, say something good has happened, everybody in their comments will jump on it and, wow, great to hear of the progress you're making. If I write about a setback, there's no comparable. Only a few people will say, wow, what a bummer, really down.

But even before I got sick I had waged a kind of private battle against that horrible metaphor of the battle against cancer. Susan Sontag's Illness as Metaphor was the one who first fingered it. Because it implies that if you don't win, if you succumb to cancer, you've lost. You didn't try hard enough, you're a failure. And conversely, that all you need to do is fight against cancer.

If anything I've learned about cancer and about illness in general is fighting doesn't do any good. Those cells are far smarter than your will, or far more blindly proliferating.

'Amidst all this erosion of my powers [...] I was reading more voraciously than ever.' - Limits of the Known. In recent years, has your illness influenced your reading choices in any way? What are you reading currently?

Yeah, I'm reading a lot of books about end of life. I'm going back and reading a lot of books that I read 40 years ago that I remember, and it's interesting how differently I read them now. I read Paul Kalanithi's When Breath Becomes Air. It's written by a 35-year-old cancer researcher who was stricken with cancer and died in a few months. He had never written anything, but this little memoir was a number one bestseller. It's an absolutely brilliant book and terrifying to read because he doesn't grasp at all the easy platitudes to try to gloss over the reality. It's horrifying and yet brilliant at the same time.

It seems to me that writing is some sort of answer to mortality, even if it's an illusory one. The idea that something you wrote may be read after you die or even 50 years after you die has always been important to me. Basic. And yet, why will I care once I'm gone? You know, being an atheist makes it all a lot more serious because there's no hope of coming back, of knowing what happens after you die.

Which book would we be most surprised to find in your library?

I thought really hard about that and I came up with the Marquis de Sade's Juliette. I think it's the most frightening book ever written because it takes the one logical end, the consequences of atheism, and the great question that nobody has figured out, which is if there's no God, where does morality come from? Sade says there is no such thing as morality and, therefore, whatever you want to do is what you should do. And if that means killing and raping and combining killing and raping, do it. There's nothing to stop you except the law.

The playing out of that in an almost 1,000-page book in this pornographic narrative that's brilliantly written is horrifying, but Sade understood the connection between sex and death. He didn't invent it. Sade is too often treated as a kind of weirdo, abhorrent, but when you look at every war that's fought that combines slaughter with rape, with the most horrible brutality to children, you realise that he's onto something that's still too frightening for anybody to deal with.

I'm almost embarrassed to have Juliette because it's almost pornography. It is pornography, but it's also, as I say, the most frightening book I've ever come across. And I don't know what to make of it. I don't have an answer to his vision of the world.

If you could invite two climbing or mountaineering authors to dinner, dead or alive, who would they be? And why?

I've thought about that a while. Mallory for sure. Really enigmatic guy, died way too young. Had a whole hidden side. But what a fascinating guy, what a genius. Then I think I'd say Shipton. Mallory and Shipton, whom I'm sure I could have engaged in wonderful long discussions. Mallory would be cryptic and dismissive.

Choose a book that you would take to a desert island.

Oh, I've thought about that a lot too. The answer would be Robert Browning's The Ring and the Book, which is this epic poem that I've meant to read for 40 years and I've started six times and never gotten very far into, that I know is a masterpiece. I love Browning. I don't know why I can't finish it. I took it on a rafting expedition and the boat turned over and it got totally soaked. That was one excuse.

But my mother read it in college and I have her copy with her big best favourite lines. She had no trouble in college reading the whole damn thing. I've got to read it. I mean, it's probably the greatest work of literature I haven't read. You haven't read it, have you? I bet you couldn't find a person in Banff who's read it!

OK, you can take a luxury item too. What would that be?

Schubert. All the collected works of Schubert and some kind of device that I could listen to without too much technical fussing around. Schubert to me is the greatest creator of any kind in history, and the transport I feel listening to the pieces that mean the most to me is more intense than I get from any book or anything I've ever written.

What's next on your reading list?

I don't know. Nothing special, just whatever comes to hand. I expect to find books here at Banff that I'll carry home and want to read.

Banff  © UKC Articles
The world-renowned Banff Centre Mountain Film and Book Festival takes place each Autumn in Banff, Alberta. Don't miss nine epic days filled with stories of remote journeys, ground-breaking expeditions, and cutting-edge adventures told through the eyes of adventurers, authors, photographers, and filmmakers from around the globe.
The 2018-2019 World Tour is currently on the road in over 550 locations and 40 countries bringing audience favourites and special tour edits to a location near you. The 2019 Festival will take place from 26th October - 3rd November.
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4 Feb, 2019

Excellent, thanks Natalie.

4 Feb, 2019

Interesting, and thanks for adding the transcripts

4 Feb, 2019

Enjoyed that Natalie, thanks!

6 Feb, 2019

A fascinating and wide-ranging interview. And an author that I have read no books by - this is about to be corrected.


7 Feb, 2019

The three I read for the interview - The Mountain of my Fear, On the Ridge Between Life and Death, Limits of the Known - are well worth reading. David is critical of MoMF as he was very young when he wrote it, but it's still a great book. The final pages of LotK in particular are very emotional - the entire room had tears in their eyes after a reading of it during his literature event presentation at the Banff festival.

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