On top of the world
A tale of a doomed love and death on the world’s highest peak, the debut novel from Tanis Rideout is winning lofty praise.
Looking back on her experiences prior to the publication of her first novel, Above All Things (McClelland & Stewart), Tanis Rideout, Artsci’99, says the most surprising thing about the final push in this literary journey has been finding professional partners.
“I was surprised by how much other people embraced the novel, how committed and generous and involved they were in this thing that I created. It’s really an incredible feeling when complete strangers – not your friends, but professionals – see something of value and work as hard as you do to deliver it to the world.”
Above All Things, a fictionalized account of George Mallory’s ill-fated 1924 expedition to conquer Mount Everest, has been lauded by critics. National Post book pages editor Philip Marchand has praised the novel for its lyricism, while another reviewer has hailed it as a “timeless romance, an unflinching love story tha touches the very core of the human condition.”
Tanis Rideout became fascinated by Mount Everest’s George Mallory during her student days at Queen’s. The novel relates one fraught day in the life of Mallory’s wife, Ruth, waiting in Cambridge for news of the climb. Perhaps because it also gives voice to a woman largely relegated to the sidelines of history, the book is drawing comparisons to Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife, a New York Times bestseller about Hadley and Ernest Hemingway’s marriage.
Rideout became fascinated by Mallory and his cohorts while still a student at Queen’s. She was working part-time at an outdoor adventure shop on Princess Street, and a co-worker played Everest documentaries on the store television. Initially, it was Mallory’s charisma and daring that sparked her imagination, but as she delved into his life, she discovered that alongside the adventure were a romance and a deep partnership.
“I’d definitely say that my Women’s Studies courses informed me a great deal as a person and a writer,” Rideout says. “With Above All Things, I knew that it was incredibly important for Ruth to be a part of the book. I still hate that we tend to think in terms of men’s stories and women’s stories, and so I really wanted to bring both those together in my book.”
Tanis was born in Belgium to a military family. Her father was posted to Kingston twice, and the second time, Tanis opted to stay. While pursuing her degree at Queen’s, she applied to the Creative Writing courses led by faculty poet Carolyn Smart. “I wouldn’t have considered myself a serious writer when I applied,” she recalls. “I liked writing, but I didn’t know you could be a writer, if that makes sense. Initially I was rejected for her course, but when I followed up to ask for some criticism on the work I’d submitted, Carolyn relented and invited me to join the class.”
It was in these classes, Rideout says, that she learned what a writer really does. “I think it was the first time I ever had to consistently produce work – not waiting and hoping for a poem, but knowing that if you sat down in front of a computer or piece of paper for long enough and worked at it then you’d produce something. I learned that writing is work.”
It was also in these classes that Rideout formed a friendship with Smart that continues to this day. “I was always moved and impressed by Carolyn as a writer and as a reader. At the end of my first course with her, I invited her out for lunch to say thank you. And then for years we would have lunch dates. Her input has always been hugely valuable to me as both mentor and friend.”
Tanis Rideout continued her dialogue with Carolyn Smart when she revisited campus in mid-November as the featured author in the second event in the Review’s “Write Thinking” literary series. The series, held on campus and open to the public, is being held with the kind support of the Queen’s MasterCard program. For more details and to view photos, please visit www.queensu.ca/news/alumnireview. – Ed.