Joe Simpson: Staring Death in the Face, EIBF 2012, Review

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Joe Simpson with Alan Morrison (Chair)
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Joe Simpson, the author of Touching the Void was introduced by Alan Morrison, the Group Arts Editor of The Herald in Glasgow, to an absolutely packed theatre where every seat appeared to be taken.

Morrison noted that it was some time since Joe Simpson had last appeared at the Edinburgh International Book Festival - in fact 1997 - and since then his first book, Touching the Void,  had been made into a BAFTA winning documentary film.

Morrison's first question was why Simpson was now writing novels. Simpson replied, "because you can lie!" but immediately qualified that by saying that a novel gave the author much more freedom. He said he had tried his hand at one novel, but felt that he could do better. He was perhaps a little intimidated by having to create the characters that you yourself believed in; this to him was more difficult than simply recording what actually happened.  

Simpson revealed that his latest novel The Sound of Gravity was about love and loss; about a man who thought he was in control, but found he was unable to hang on to the hand of the woman he loved, so she fell to her death. In the book the man blames himself and agonises about his failure to save his wife.

Morrison commented that the description of this event was clearly by someone who had himself climbed on a glacier and had a severe fall; only an individual with this kind of personal experience could make the description so vivid. It made, he said, a most powerful opening to the book - 'gripping' in every sense of the word! 

Being so brilliantly descriptive, Morrison asked if Simpson kept diaries of his climbs so he could draw on these? Simpson reflected that he really did not need diaries as he had vivid memories of the beauty and power of the mountains; it was something of a love - hate relationship as once you have experienced the mountains you keep being drawn to them. 

Simpson then described how, when climbing, everything became significant; on one occasion he heard the unmistakable sound of someone falling off the rock - and even though he could not see what had happened, that one sound told him everything.

Morrison added that the weather was frequently the villain of the piece. Simpson was aghast at some of the people who tried climbing without serving any 'apprenticeship' as he called it. People who felt that if they had a mobile phone, then they could just call for help or a helicopter. Mobile phones and satellite navigation devices, or GPS, tempted people to try climbs for which they were simply not prepared.

Asked if other literature had influenced him, Simpson felt that although he had obviously read widely, other books were not a great influence. He added that he had received an Honorary Doctorate from Edinburgh, which was nice to get as he claimed he did not graduate from the University - he said he did not understand philosophy!  (Interestingly he is shown as having an MA from Edinburgh University in other references.)

He agreed that there had been some time between his books, but said that his time had been well spent as a motivational speaker and that this had proved very lucrative. He had not seen himself in this role,  but people seemed to be inspired by others who had done extraordinary things. This is why the novel is eight years late.

Simpson gave up climbing in 2009 and decided to write more, however, he found writing more frightening than climbing! He had even thought about children's books, but said he really did not like children anyway!

Why did he give up climbing? He spoke about his climb of one demanding 21,000 foot face which had not been climbed before and, although he had reservations about going, he still went. In fact, he climbed it alone in three days, but then appreciated that the next time he might not come back.

Simpson suffered greatly from many climbing accidents and the pain after a climb was now often hard to bear. He thought he would now try fishing! But why, he was asked, did people take on things they don't need to do? He reflected that a small number will always push the limit, but he said that he constantly stressed that those trying climbing should not cut corners. They needed to gain experience over time.  

He contrasted the numbers climbing Everest with groups of perhaps six hundred people on the track with the freedom of climbing a new route on an unknown mountain. Why be part of a human circus when you could have solitude and peace?

Asked if climbers are honest, Simpson replied that you can't lie when you are scared, but if you set yourself a challenge and it goes wrong then you only have to convince yourself and not others.

Simpson concluded by saying that he had enjoyed a wonderful life, climbing all over the world and travelling widely with his speaking. He hoped to write more, but this depended on him sorting out a dispute over the ownership of manuscripts with his publisher and he said he "hates losing" so watch out! As a parting shot at Alan Morrison he asked, "who on earth chose the title of the session, 'staring death in the face'?" To which Alan Morrison had no answer - perhaps the Festival organisers will confess!  

It was clear why he is such a popular motivational speaker as we had a splendid evening.

Event: 22 August 2012