Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Charles Taylor Prize Interview Series, with Wade Davis

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Wade Davis

The Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction honours the legacy of author and journalist Charles Taylor. Since it was first awarded in 2000, the prize has come to recognise the finest Canadian non-fiction. Past winners include Wayne Johnston, Carol Shields and Tim Cook.

Open Book is thrilled to partner with the Charles Taylor Prize for a series of interviews with the 2012 finalists. Today we welcome Wade Davis, nominated for Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest (Knopf). In addition to his success as an author, Wade is a Harvard-educated anthropologist and a respected explorer, even earning the title of Explorer in Residence with the National Geographic Society.

Read on to hear from Wade about the incredible research he conducted for Into the Silence, as well as exciting upcoming projects and explorations.

Stay tuned this week to hear from all five finalists. The winner of the 2012 Charles Taylor Prize will be announced on Monday, March 5.

Open Book:

Tell us about the book for which you were shortlisted.

Wade Davis:

On June 8, 1924 George Mallory, aged 37 and the most illustrious climber in Britain, along with his young companion Sandy Irvine, just 22, were seen crested the Northeast Ridge of Everest, going strong for the summit when the mist rolled in and enveloped their memory in myth. Neither man who be seen or heard from again. Their disappearance would haunt a nation and give rise to the greatest mystery in the history of mountaineering.

From the start I was less interested in whether Mallory reached the summit, than in the spirit that inspired them to carry on. I knew that of the 26 men who took part in the three expeditions of 1921, 22 and 24 nearly all had endured the fires of the Great War, the mud and blood of Flanders. They were not cavalier about death, but they had seen so much of it in the trenches that it had no hold on them. What mattered was how one lived, the moments of being alive. Life was precious but effervescent. Perhaps this explained their willingness to climb on, accepting a degree of risk that might have been unimaginable before the war. This was the theme I explored over 12 years of archival research and in the many months it took to write the book.


What were some of the most challenging and most enjoyable elements of writing this book?


I set out to find out not only where every man had been every day of the Great War but also to ascertain to the extent possible what each had experienced. This research led to more than fifty major archives in North America and Europe. It was famously said of both Passchendaele and the Somme that the British army lacked the clerk power to tabulate the dead. If so, it recorded just about everything else. The Great War was so thoroughly documented that one wonders how the men found time to fight. Every unit maintained a war diary, with the task of reporting on operations, intelligence, casualties and any other pertinent information rotating among the junior officers. These diaries, together with letters, personal journals, and trench maps made it possible to track each of our men through the war with a level of specificity I would not have imagined possible at the outset.

The British war zone in France was relatively small, the number of men engaged enormous, and the outpouring of literature after the war so vast that virtually every corner of the battlefield at every point in the war has been described by multiple voices, by enlisted men and officers, in poetry and prose, in tones as brash and confident as a fearless Yorkshire sergeant, or as haunted as a young subaltern calling out from a well of despair. As long as I knew that one of our key figures was present at an action I could extrapolate from other sources what transpired. Mallory, for example, may not have described the black night when his unit moved south to the Somme, but Ramsay, his commanding officer’s batman, did.

I also endeavored to tell the Tibetan side of the story. I secured, for example, a copy of the namthar, the spiritual autobiography of Dzatrul Rinpoche, the lama of Rongbuk who blessed the climbing parties and their porters. I had this translated for the first time by monk scholars in Kathmandu. To sense the ambiance of the Rongbuk monastery in 1921-24, I lived for weeks at the Thubten Chöling, the monastery established in Nepal by Trulshik Rinpoche, the spiritual heir of the lama of Rongbuk. I returned as well to Everest with Dorjee Lhatoo, veteran Everest climber and head of the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute in Darjeeling. Dorjee over the course of two months taught me the ways of the mountain.


What do you love about writing non-fiction specifically?


For me the research is the adventure, whether in the field or in the archives.


Tell us about a favourite non-fiction book.


Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain.

Vera Brittain, a nurse, lost her fiancée, Roland, her two best friends from Oxford, and finally her beloved brother Edward. By the end of the war, she wrote, there was no one left to dance with. The war, wrote Roland in a letter to Vera, “distilled all youth and joy and life into a fetid heap of hideous putrescence.” Testament of Youth traces a journey from innocence through horror, agony to revelation. It is to my mind the most poignant and heartrending memoire to emerge from the Great War.


What can you tell us about your next project?


I have several books in the works. The Sacred Headwaters, which followed Into the Silence in fall 2011, tells the story of the ongoing efforts to save what is arguably the most beautiful and unknown region of Canada. In the fall of 2012 Island Press will publish a short book on the Grand Canyon of the Colorado. A second collection of my photographs (2000-2010) will be published by Douglas & McIntyre in 2013.

I am also currently editing for publication with Rocky Mountain Books the journals of Oliver Wheeler, the unsung hero of the British expeditions of 1921-24. The first Canadian on Everest, Wheeler in 1921 spent more time higher on the mountain, alone and exposed to its wrath than any of the British climbers. It was Oliver Wheeler not George Mallory who solved the mystery of the North Col, and thus found the doorway to the mountain, the route to the summit. In addition to these projects, I have been commissioned by the National Geographic to travel to the wildest remaining places on the planet, a three-year project that will result in a book, and several films.

Wade Davis is a scientist, anthropologist and writer who received his Ph.D. in ethnobotany from Harvard University and has spent twenty-five years studying the plants, psychotropic drugs and ceremonial rituals of indigenous cultures around the world. He is the author of the international bestseller The Serpent and the Rainbow, which was later released as a feature motion picture, as well as six other books including One River. Davis's writing has appeared in Outside, National Geographic, Fortune and Condé Nast Traveler.

For more information about Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest please visit the Random House Canada website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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