The Thrilling Adventure Story To Read This Christmas | SLMan
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If we hadn’t already read it in a weekend, The Moth and the Mountain is the book we’d want for Christmas. Author Ed Caesar is a contributing writer to the New Yorker who has reported from countries including the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kosovo, Russia and Iran. For his second book, he picks up the extraordinary tale of Maurice Wilson, an old-style British amateur with an unshakeable ambition to climb Everest. Ed spoke to SLMan about why Wilson’s story is special and his own life as a writer…

Where did you get the idea for the book, Ed?
I read a couple of paragraphs about Wilson in another book about Everest (the brilliant Into the Silence by Wade Davis) and the story stuck with me. There was something so vivid and thrilling about the tale: a man with no climbing experience who attempted to fly to, then scale, the world’s highest mountain, alone. Over the next few years, Maurice Wilson wouldn’t leave me alone. I sometimes used to wake up thinking about him. That’s when I knew I had to write the book.

Tell us a bit more about Wilson…
Maurice Wilson was the son of a mill owner from Bradford, a veteran of the Great War, a lost soul, a wanderer, a terrible husband, a prolific philanderer, a mystic, a seeker, an enthusiastic if ham-fisted aviator, and a determined but ill-prepared mountaineer. 

What grabbed you about him?
I loved his ebullience, and refusal to be beaten. As soon as he announced his plan to fly to Everest, and then climb the mountain, powerful people tried to turn him back. The British authorities were particularly keen for him to give up his plan. But he bested them at every turn. Whenever a new obstacle was put in his way, he would say, “The gloves are off!” There is something intoxicating and attractive about people who thumb their nose at higher-ups. I also loved his theatricality. Many people endure trauma. Not many people express their pain in the way Wilson did.

What do you think The Moth and the Mountain is really about?
Now you’re asking. Readers will decide for themselves. It’s been fascinating how deeply many readers have already connected with the story, and I’ve often been surprised about what has moved them. In my mind The Moth and the Mountain is about trauma, human connection and – slyly – the limits and possibilities of storytelling.

What is it about men and mountains?
Well, there are now plenty of brilliant women mountaineers but yes, until recently – and certainly in the 1920s and 1930s – the people who climbed mountains were men. They often couched their attempts in terms of ‘conquest’ of ‘virgin’ peaks. They wanted to ‘plant their flag’ at the summit. You’ll have to ask a Freudian psychologist what was really going on there.

Does the derring-do that Wilson embodies still exist today?
We’ve lost the sense that Wilson had in the 1930s, that the world was his to explore. He flew his plane solo after only 19 hours' instruction. It's extraordinary when you think about it. Recently, travel as an idea has taken a hammering: from Covid, from environmental concerns, from ideas about cultural appropriation. I still think of travel as a good thing, because it provokes empathy and widens worldviews. On the other hand, it’s right that we temper our lust for aviation, which is damaging the only planet most of us will ever get to explore. Today, the real derring-do is perhaps to be found in the explorers who are researching the very bottoms of the oceans. Oddly, for a mostly mapped planet, the ocean floor is largely terra incognita.
 

"We’ve lost the sense that Wilson had in the 1930s, that the world was his to explore. He flew his plane solo after only 19 hours' instruction."

You flew a Moth yourself in the name of research. How was that?
Terrifying and exhilarating. A Moth weighs less than a thousand pounds, unladen. It’s made of spruce and linen. The engine is only 100 horsepower; it’s as if it is powered by a hairdryer. The whole thing feels incredibly fragile. You feel every buffet of wind. You also fly incredibly low, so you can see the world in detail. It was a magnificent experience.

Did you also climb a mountain?
I didn’t, although I almost booked on to an expedition to climb Everest, before life got in the way. I still haven’t entirely ruled that out.

Have you seen the subject for your next book yet?
No. I’ll know it when I see it.

What inspires you to write?
My mortgage repayments are a powerful muse. Also: I’ve never wanted to or been able to do anything else, since I was a small boy. I don’t want or need inspiration; this is the thing I do, and the thing I have always done. 

What inspires you to read?
My favourite authors. To give you a selection: Tracy Kidder, Susan Orlean, Willa Cather, Richard Price, Martin Amis, Patrick Radden Keefe, David Grann, Mark Twain, Cormac McCarthy, Jane Austen, Saul Bellow, EL Doctorow, Barbara Demick, Andrew O’Hagan, Don DeLillo.

When and where do you read?
Wherever and whenever I can, but not last thing at night. It is murder to books to read them just before you go to sleep.
 
 

"Until recently [...] the people who climbed mountains were men. They often couched their attempts in terms of ‘conquest’ of ‘virgin’ peaks. They wanted to ‘plant their flag’ at the summit. You’ll have to ask a Freudian psychologist what was really going on there."

And it’s books, rather than a Kindle?
Books. I loathe Kindles. Books are such good technology. 

Tell us about a favourite book…
All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy. A teenage boy breaks horses in Mexico, and a girl breaks his heart. This was my introduction to McCarthy. I read it on a long train trip through Hungary and Croatia, when I was 18. It was possible, looking out of the window, to imagine myself in the middle of my own epic. This book started a love affair with McCarthy – the biblical, sonorous prose, and vastness of his landscapes. I would save my paperback of All the Pretty Horses from a house fire.

And a favourite author we should seek out…
David Grann pays more attention to the craft of storytelling than almost anyone. He is a master of structure. I am in awe of his skill.

What’s the best book you’ve read in 2020?
Experience by Martin Amis. There is dynamite on every page. There are irritating aspects – the relentless name-dropping, for instance – but my god, this is Amis in excelsis.

Have you read anything good about 2020 yet?
White Noise by Don DeLillo. It was written in 1985.

What’s the next book on your list?
The Untouchable by John Banville. I am one of two members of what has become known as the Gunpoint Book Club. The other member is Mark O’Connell, who is a wonderful writer of nonfiction. Every now and then we recommend books to each other that the other one has to read, as if at gunpoint. No excuses. Mark is a Banville aficionado. He’s given me The Untouchable. I can't wait to get going.

We’ve finished The Moth and the Mountain and we’ve got a taste for ripping adventure stories that speak to something deeper. What should be on our reading list?
The White Darkness by David Grann and Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer.

 
 

Buy The Moth and the Mountain: A True Story of Love, War and Everest by Ed Caesar here.

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