According to author Amy McCulloch, there are more than a few parallels between the experience of writing and mountaineering. Namely, both require “patience, dedication, and perseverance.” And neither one offers any shortcuts.
The accomplished author and mountaineer blends her two passions in her first book for adults, Breathless (Anchor), about a journalist who chases a story to alpine heights—only to find herself stranded on the mountain with a killer.
Was the experience of writing for adult readers significantly different than writing for kids?
The writing experience wasn’t vastly different—I never underestimate my middle grade or young adult readers, and I’ve always tried to write books that are nuanced, well-researched, and with characters that my readership can connect to. But my younger books have almost always been speculative fiction series, so it has been a different experience to write a story very firmly set in a real world location, and I did a lot of work to bring the mountain to life for the reader. Breathless is also by far the most personal novel that I’ve written, giving me the chance to explore themes that are very important to me – things like confronting imposter syndrome, women’s place in the wilderness, danger, and mortality.
Are you a longtime fan of the thriller genre? What are some of your sources of inspiration for writing mystery/thriller?
My love of mysteries started early—it was the cliffhanger chapter endings of Nancy Drew books that ignited my love of reading, and I quickly progressed to devouring every Agatha Christie I could find in the library. I’ve also always loved adventure stories with a thrilling heart, fiction and nonfiction, from authors like Wilbur Smith, Michelle Paver, and Jon Krakauer. Books that manage to transport me but also pose a puzzle to solve are among my favorites to read. More recently, authors who have made the jump from young adult literature to mystery/thriller are my inspiration—people like Ruth Ware (One by One) and Elle Cosimano (Finlay Donovan Knocks ‘Em Dead). Watching them skillfully make that transition gave me the confidence to believe I could do it too.
You are quite the mountaineer. Have you written about your experiences in alpine climbing before? Do you see any parallels between climbing and writing?
Alpine climbing is actually a relatively new pursuit for me—I summited my first mountain on New Years Day 2018 (Mt Toubkal in Morocco) and by September 2019 I was on the top of my first 8,000m peak. Between the training climbs and long runs, I hardly had any time to write about it—although I did keep a blog of my experience. I channeled all my knowledge and creative expression into writing Breathless. I definitely felt some parallels between novel writing and mountaineering—both require a lot of patience, dedication, and resilience. There are no shortcuts in either pursuit; you have to be prepared to take one step after the other—one word after the next—if you want to reach that summit (or finish that novel!).
What surprised you most as you were writing Breathless?
In my initial draft, I tried to be as faithful to the entire mountain climbing experience as possible, but on subsequent edits I realized that some elements of the climb are actually quite boring to read in fiction! There is a lot of waiting around at base camp for a summit window, with not much to do except play cards, read books, and check the weather. Ultimately I wanted to write a page-turning thriller, so some of the expedition had to be sacrificed for the sake of pace.
What can you share about your heroine, Cecily Wong? What’s at stake for her in Breathless?
Cecily is very much my ‘every woman’ heroine—a relative novice to mountaineering, she’s the reader’s window into this highly technical, extremely risky, and still mysterious world. As a struggling journalist, she’s put a lot on the line to complete the climb—her career depends on it, she’s drained her life savings, and left a long-term relationship. She’s also battling with imposter syndrome, both as a writer and a climber, but the mountain shows her she’s more capable than she ever could have imagined.
Do you have plans to write more for adults? Can you share what you’re working on now?
Absolutely! I’m currently working on another thriller set in an extreme environment—this time, I hope to take readers to Antarctica. Once again, it’s based off a personal voyage that I’ve taken—one where I found myself in situations where things could have gone terribly wrong. Also, at the end of March I’m also taking part in the 36th Marathon des Sables—a 155-mile ultra marathon through the Sahara Desert, billed as the “world’s toughest footrace.” I have a feeling that experience is going to end up as a book too.