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Helen Mort A Line Above the Sky – Q&A

In advance of her book launch and conversation with rock climber Shauna Coxsey MBE at the Festival of Debate on 23rd April, Helen Mort talks to Rachel Bower about mountains, motherhood and women's bodies. 

Helen Mort
Emma Ledwith

I wonder if you could start by telling us a bit about the force behind the book? It seems to me that there is something very essential about this book – something searing ­– like it somehow had to be written. Does it feel this way to you?

I always want to write the best book I can but when I finished A Line Above The Sky I felt totally spent, felt that I’d put my whole heart into the process. I’ve long been interested in writing about my interest in climbing and mountains, and in particular about pioneering women who take to the hills and the way they are judged by the media and society at large.

So that wasn’t a new theme for me, but the book really started life when my son Alfie was born in December 2018. I realised that there was an uncomfortable paradox: I still defend the right of any mother to have adventures society considers ‘risky’, but my own sense of risk had changed. And I didn’t feel as single minded as I used to about mountain adventures. It led me back to consider the life of one of my inspirations, the climber Alison Hargreaves, who died in 1995 on K2. Her son Tom went on to become an amazing climber in his own right but in early 2019 – when my own son was only a few months old – he died on Nanga Parbat. I knew I had to explore the complex ways that mountains mediate our most important relationships.

Thank you. We definitely have to talk about mountains! Mountains and hills appear in all your books – your recent book Never Leave the Dog Behind, your novel Black Car Burning, your poetry collections, especially No Map Could Show Them. Tell me about mountains. Why mountains – what do they mean to you? Can you ever leave them?

I grew up in Chesterfield and I get my love of hills from my Dad. From the age of 3, he’d take me walking in the Peak District and encourage me to cover huge distances – I think he got me walking the 13 mile Kentmere Round when I was 4 or 5! When I was a teenager, I started climbing Scottish Munros with him and then I found out that I liked scrambling and rock climbing as well. Mountains were a point of connection for us, something we enjoyed together. I am so grateful to him for those trips. I think I love mountains the way some other people love the sea. They give me a sense of possibility, of focus.

A Line Above The Sky by Helen Mort

This is a book packed with different kinds of knowledge – knowledge learned through the body, through the land, through instinct, through lines of desire, through books, through letters and biographies. I wonder if you could talk a bit about the process of researching and writing the book?

I based a lot of the narrative on the brilliant biography of Alison Hargreaves by Ed Douglas and David Rose, Regions of the Heart. It tells Alison’s story with compassion and nuance. But I also brought in the other texts that I love, books like Maria Coffey’s Where The Mountain Casts Its Shadow, which is about the relatives of climbers, the ones left behind at home. I see many of those mountaineering books as old friends. I also revisited some of the Peak District edges and routes that I was writing about so that I could remember them with my body. And I was drawing on scribbled notes and texts and videos and photos from the hazy, sleep-deprived early months of my son’s life as well.

Yes, the book evokes those early months of life with a new baby so powerfully! How it was to bring together the deeply personal with the more public-facing research around mountains and the histories of climbing?

It feels really exposing to bring what poet Sharon Olds calls the ‘apparently personal’ to the forefront of your work. I think a lot of my fiction and poetry draws heavily on my life too and reveals some of my deepest feeling but the fiction genre gives a sort of protective shield. But for me, if there’s no risk, nothing at stake, then it isn’t worth doing. The public and the personal are always linked and, as writer, if you have a strong interest in something ‘public facing’, it’s probably because it connects to a deep part of your own life.

You write about Alison Hargreaves and her experiences with such care and thought; and also the ways in which women’s decisions are made so complicated by the world in which we live. Can you say a bit more about Alison, and how her life sheds light on these wider issues?

Alison Hargreaves’ life and death challenged our cultural ideas about how mothers ‘should’ behave and the way she was judged highlights of the public ownership of women’s bodies. She was born in Belper and learned to climb in Derbyshire, the same crags I love. She became one of the world’s best mountaineers, the first woman to climb Everest unsupported. Some considered her reckless for continuing to go to the Himalaya after the birth of her two children, Tom and Kate, and when she died on K2 the media had a field day. I don’t feel that fathers are subjected to this kind of public scrutiny. And I think it is connected to the way we police women’s bodies in general, whether or not they are mothers.

I am interested in how the characters – the women – in No Map Could Show Them come back in this book? I am thinking of the way that characters come back in Michael Ondaatje’s work – through his poetry, between his books – and I am wondering if there are people who stay with you – who you might have to write about again?

Alison Hargreaves has always been one of those figures for me. I can’t seem to stop writing about her, which is weird in a way because I never knew her. But I am increasingly drawn to writing about the strong women in my own family too, especially my formidable grandma. She had TB at 17 and spent years in a sanatorium. At 91, she is still better company than anyone else I know. She’s funny, sharp, clever and kind and I wish I could do her justice in words: she’s had a huge influence on my life and she looked after me from when I was tiny.

Thank you. Finally, the book explores relationships between women, and communities of women. Can you say a bit more about this?

I think when I was at school I was a bit scared of other girls because I was always expecting them to bully me (and often they were: I was ‘fat’, ‘posh’, ‘geeky’, ‘weird’, a swot who didn’t fit in, who loved long-distance running and looked ‘like a boy’). As I’ve got older and especially since my son was born, I’ve been able to trust other women and they’ve become a huge source of support and inspiration to me: other mums, fellow writers, fellow climbers. There are so many women in Sheffield who I admire completely and trust implicity: you are one of them! It is so nice for me to think that I wrote a lot of this book in a room next to you while you were working on your novel. I think that companionship and sense of shared purpose filtered into the text.

Learn more

Helen Mort: A Line Above the Sky - On Mountains and Motherhood will be launched at Festival of Debate on Saturday 23rd April at the Millennium Gallery.

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