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.