When readers of Roland Smith’s Peak (HMH, 2007) last encountered his 15-year-old climbing prodigy, the Manhattan teen had just returned from scaling Everest, carrying the Moleskin notebooks his English teacher had given him to record the details of his trek. Now Peak Marcello returns for a new, even more dangerous, ascent in The Edge. PW spoke with Smith about what he’s written in between the two books, and how he went from being a renowned zookeeper to a novelist.
What made you decide to revisit Peak’s story after eight years? That’s a long time between books.
It is, but Peak is still doing well. It’s my best-selling book. And in between Peak and The Edge, I wrote three series – the Cryptid Hunter series, which was four books, the I, Q series, which was six, and the Storm Runner series, which was three books. So I wasn’t exactly idle. But the truth is, right after Peak was published, Harcourt was acquired by Houghton Mifflin and everybody I knew at Harcourt left. I mean, I’m sure I could have called somebody up and said, ‘Hey, I have another book,” but I just moved on. Then a couple of years ago, completely out of the blue, I got a call from somebody [at Houghton Mifflin] about Shane [by Jack Schaefer]. They wanted to know if I had read it and, of course, I had. I read it when I was a kid and I read it again years later. I love that book. And [the caller] said, ‘We’re reissuing that book and we’d like to have you write an introduction.’ I was so thrilled to be asked. And then I had a contact there again – Julia Richardson, whom I had worked with at Hyperion and she wanted to know: What about Peak? Is there a sequel? And I said, ‘Actually, I do have another story in mind.’
Do you climb mountains yourself? The climbing details in The Edge feel so authentic.
I used to climb. I was a zoologist for 22 years. My first job as a zookeeper, I worked the graveyard shift at the zoo, which is cool because it’s just you, the animals, and a security guard. The security guard was a climber. We both got off at 7:30 [a.m.] and we’d go climbing. Every day. Not altitude climbing like Peak but I live in the Pacific Northwest so there are plenty of options. I’ve been around good climbers most of my life. I don’t consider myself a good climber but I am still alive. I think it’s a good sport. And one thing I wanted to do in The Edge was to get Peak’s mom into the story. She was a great climber when she was younger and I really wanted [her and Peak] to climb together, so I sent them to the Hindu Kush in the Pamir Mountains.
Why did you choose Afghanistan as your setting? Have you been there?
I have not and would I go? Not now. It’s not exactly a tourist spot at the moment. Once you’re away from the cities, you’re facing mountains. The Pamir [Mountains] have not been climbed for a while because of all the troubles in Afghanistan which never seem to end. That poor country, it’s just been hammered and hammered and hammered, hundreds of years of war. I wanted to write a story set there that wasn’t about war, that was about the landscape. And then there was the snow leopard. One of the jobs I used to have at the zoo was ‘senior feline keeper,’ and I’ve always wanted to write about the snow leopard. They are a very interesting cat. They don’t act like other cats. I took care of them for several years and ever since I started writing, I have always wanted to put them in a book.
Are they actually white?
They’re actually a little grayish, and they have spots, but in the winter, their fur can turn white so it blends with the snow and the rest of the year, the spots help them hide among the rocks. It’s actually perfect camouflage for where they live.
Are they just in Afghanistan?
No, they’re in all the ’stans – Pakistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan. They’re really rare, of course, but there is not as much hunting as there once was in some of those places, so they’ve done a little bit better. They’re still endangered, for sure.
How in the world did you make the transition from zookeeper to novelist?
The only hard part was that I was pretty famous as a zookeeper. I led the red wolf reintroduction program in the Southeast and that success was what led to the gray wolf reintroduction at Yellowstone. Then I became an author and I had to reintroduce myself. I got a lot of, ‘Who are you?’
But had you trained to be a writer? Was that ever a goal?
I wanted to be a writer since I was six. I majored in writing in college. Then I got a work study job at the zoo when I was in college, and some animals escaped. I caught them and that got the attention of the people at the big zoo. (I had been working at the children’s zoo.) They offered me a job as a zoologist, for $3 an hour and medical benefits. I took it. I worked in zoos for the next 22 years but during that time I always wrote. I would get up at 4 a.m. to write and send things out, trying to get things published.
I finally got a contract to write my first book – a book about how to raise baby animals. I was working on that at the time of the Exxon Valdez oil spill and we went up there to help save the sea otters. I had to call the editor and say, ‘Your book is going to be late because I’m in Alaska. Oh, and by the way, I’ve taken a ton of photographs. This would make a good book, too,’ and she said, ‘Write that book first.’ So I did. It was my first book (Sea Otter Rescue, Cobblehill Books, 1990). It’s still in print. After that, I wrote five more nonfiction books while I was working on the red wolf program and having a lot of success with that. But it got to the point where I knew, if I don’t leave now, I’ll never do it. I left at the peak of my career.
How has your writing changed since your first published book? Any special challenges?
My first novel, Thundercave (Disney-Hyperion), came out in 1995. There were no smartphones in 1995. Now you really have to take the technology into account. It’s hard to actually get kids off the grid. But to keep the tension going in the kind of stories I write, I have to get rid of the technology. It’s like getting rid of the parents. It used to be the parents had to be dead, or crazy, or away. Technology has become the new parents. You have to figure out a way to write around it. When you write a historical novel, it’s actually a relief because you don’t have to worry about why someone who’s in trouble simply wouldn’t call someone for help. I wrote a book about the Lewis and Clark expedition from the dog’s point of view (The Captain’s Dog, HMH, 2008). There were no phones. It was so much fun.
Do you still like to tour to support your books?
A. I do. I’m off to Boise tomorrow. We just launched The Edge at Klindt’s Booksellers in The Dalles, Ore. It’s the oldest bookstore in Oregon – just three owners in more than a hundred years. It was a fantastic event. They were so excited, they put up billboards! That’s never happened before.
The Edge by Roland Smith. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Oct. $17.99 ISBN 978-0-5440-34122-7