There are some writers whose name will always be associated with their first book. Joe Simpson was a 28-year-old climber when Touching the Void was published in 1988, a gripping account of his survival in the Peruvian Andes which has become a mountaineering classic. His latest book, however, is a novel.
The Sound of Gravity (Cape, September) begins with a death. A young, unnamed couple are climbing an unidentified mountain somewhere in the Alps, when the girl makes a small mistake. Their fateful ascent of the storm-bound mountain, her death and his immediate survival are described in painstaking detail—almost in real time—and comprise the first part of the novel. The second part is set on the same mountain, 25 years later.
Unsurprisingly the novel draws heavily on Simpson's own extensive mountaineering experience. "I've taken a very long fall, [there's] nothing romantic or glorious about falling off a mountain and dying," he says, speaking from his home in Sheffield. In The Sound of Gravity Simpson is writing to his strengths, especially in the powerful descriptions of the extraordinary weather on the mountain which "acts on you in a very psychological way. The wind can beat you, [even] the sound of the wind can utterly crush you."
It's a novel that has been a long time in gestation. Simpson started writing back in 2002, and had completed the first part, but was then interrupted by the media response to the documentary film of Touching the Void; in the first two months of 2003 he reckons he did about 400 interviews.
He then didn't pick up The Sound of Gravity again until 2006: "You know when you're reading a book and someone nicks it off you and you're a third of the way through? You think ‘do I go and get another one and start from the beginning? Or do I try and pick up where I left off? Or do I not bother?' I sort of didn't bother . . . I was quite scared of writing it. When I was busy it was easier to convince myself that I really didn't need to do this."
He describes the novel as "a very simple story about love and loss, and about how one [incident] can completely alter the course of your life—if you let it."
"There's a lot of guilt in surviving things," he says. "A lot of my friends have been killed over the years, and that was the first accident they ever had. I've had four accidents that should have killed me and I got away with them . . . simply surviving can make you feel guilty."
Climbing the ladder
Simpson never planned to be an author. From the age of 14 he started rock climbing, inspired by Heinrich Harrer's The White Spider, a story of the attempted ascents of the Eiger (a 4,000m summit in the Swiss Alps)—"all these people dying in the most horrific way, grim as anything".
Simpson chose to study at Edinburgh University for its close proximity to the Highlands, and there decided he was "going to climb all over the world for the rest of my life, and work out the details as I went along."
But then he wrote Touching the Void (in seven weeks) to set the record straight, "to put in writing the real story, not the crap that was going around." Was it a cathartic experience? "No—bloody awful it was!"
His first editor at Cape was Tony Colwell. Simpson sent him a letter outlining the story which would become Touching the Void and Colwell, "the classic armchair adventurer" was immediately enthusiastic. His colleagues were less so, as Simpson recalls: "No one at Cape wanted to have anything to do with it. Tony just went on and on and on at Tom Maschler. I think out of sheer exasperation Tom said: ‘Give him £2,000 and that'll be the end of it.'"
It went on to win the NCR Book Award in 1989 (now the Samuel Johnson Prize), and has since become a true backlist bestseller, with nearly 400,000 copies sold since BookScan records began in 1998—10 years after its publication.
His second book was a novel, The Water People. "There are some major flaws in it," he says now, but while he was still climbing, and there were mountaineering stories to tell, Simpson carried on writing non-fiction. He completed the climbing trilogy—which began with Touching the Void—with This Game of Ghosts and The Beckoning Silence.
"I find writing challenging full stop," he says. "Although I enjoy it I find it just as scary as climbing . . . It makes you feel very vulnerable. It's a very isolating thing to do."
Simpson retired from climbing in 2009 and says he would like to write more novels in future, moving away from mountaineering as a backdrop, although he accepts that his name will always be associated with Touching the Void: "I don't regret it, but I wish you could get appreciated for something else besides falling off a bloody mountain."