Gladfest interview: Dan Richards

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Dan Richards was born in Wales in 1982 and grew up in Bristol. He has studied at UEA and Norwich Arts School. Dan is the co-author of Holloway with Robert Macfarlane and Stanley Donwood, published by Faber in 2013. The Beechwood Airship Interviews, a book about the creative process and the importance of art for art’s sake, was published by The Friday Project / HarperCollins in 2015. Climbing Days, an exploration of the writing and climbing lives of his great great aunt and uncle - Dorothy Pilley and I. A. Richards - was published by Faber last spring. 

After speaking at Hearth festival in February last year, Dan returns to Gladstone's Library for Gladfest (1st – 3rd September) to talk about his new book, Climbing Days and to talk with Melissa Harrison (At Hawthorn Time, Rain) about writing the outside. 

Before the festival, we spoke to Dan to find out what to expect… 

The starting point for your new book Climbing Days was your great-great-aunt Dorothy Pilley’s memoir. How did you chance upon that?

I found the book in my father’s study one summer whilst visiting the family home. The room was always full of interesting things and mysterious objects when I was growing up. As a young man he took part in several expeditions to far-flung places, once returning from the Arctic with a polar bear pelvis he'd found on the tundra. That lived in the study and fascinated me as a child, so it wasn’t surprising to discover something unexpected on the shelves. 

Until that point, Dorothy was almost completely unknown to me. There were vague stories of her being difficult or eccentric. I knew about her husband, I.A. Richards, after studying English Literature, in as much as I was aware of  'I.A.R.' and Practical Criticism but I knew nothing of either he or Dorothy as people. I did know my father had climbed a lot in his youth and been on expeditions to places like the Arctic and this interest had been partly inspired by the mountaineering adventures of his great-aunt and uncle — he had once shown me a map of a route they’d pioneered in the Swiss Alps, reproduced in a climbing magazine — but their lives and achievements seemed very much confined to the past; to vague intriguing reminiscence, to antique mountaineering, and slightly fusty academia. 

However, there came a time, approaching the end of writing my second book, The Beechwood Airship Interviews, when I was asked, naturally enough, what I thought I might do next? Having recently discovered and read Dorothy's memoir, the image of the pair came to my mind and I suddenly thought what a good opportunity I had to explore both Dorothy and Ivor's lives and climbs and try to discover who they were. 

Did the fact that you were using Dorothy’s memoir as a guide make it difficult to find your own voice / narrative?

It wasn’t a really problem because I was coming to the subject with fresh eyes. The story became about my interactions with their mountaineering lives and legacy. Much has been written about Ivor’s academic work, far less about his climbing. Dorothy only wrote the one book, early in her life, so there was much unknown to explore. I refer to Dorothy and Ivor’s writing a lot but my journey forms the spine of Climbing Days

From the start, I saw my book as a way of combining the landscape writing and spacial preoccupations of my first book, Holloway, with the broader sense of quest in The Beechwood Airship Interviews — specifically the way particular spaces and environments affect the way people think and work. 

Your work often comprises interview transcripts, diary entries and other fragmented writings and texts – how do you decide what to include in a book and what to leave out?

I’ve always been interested in the layers of life which make up a story. When I begin a project, I often travel to the places where events took place to get a sense of the world where a person lived, wrote, worked, thought, and sometimes the different elements can seem disparate. In the case of Dorothy, her archives were held with those of Ivor at Magdalene College, Cambridge; the passports, letters, diaries, but a great deal of the living and most all of the climbing happened elsewhere, so I saw the need to draw everything together — the mountain world and that of academia — was there from the start. I decided to try and make contact with Dorothy and Ivor in every way possible — to trawl the archives, read their books, talk to people who’d known them, climb the mountains they’d held dear…one never knows what will be relevant; everything is interesting at the beginning of a project, it can be overwhelming! But there’s a refining process as you go through, redrafting, rewriting, retracing your steps — a key moment was discovering that Ivor had climbed a great deal on the roof, tuffets and spires of his university as an undergraduate. That really opened him up to me, his character, and I suddenly had an insight into the man Dorothy had fallen in love with. Similarly, Ivor’s poem Hope provided clues as to the woman who’d stolen his heart during WWI. 

But in terms of what to include and what to leave out, that really comes down to the shape of the story I’m trying to tell — do I need to speed the reader through a section in an impressionistic way or pause and explain a key aspect. I think that can only be known once I’m writing — you discover the shape of the book once you’re inside it; piecing it together and paring it back at one and the same time. 

I was lucky that Climbing Days allowed me to escape into mountains at regular intervals. I often find a rest from writing refocuses and sharpens me up when I get back to my desk.

Do you ever get it wrong or look back and wished you’d included something you didn’t? Or vice versa?

When I was writing The Beechwood Airship Interviews there was certainly a sense that I was talking to such amazing people and being given such a lot of fascinating information that I should try to include everything and I couldn’t, it was too much. I cut a lot in the final draft, whole chapters, which was sad but the book is still 500 pages, a bit of a beast! 

But that was very helpful and instructive. I learnt to make effective notes and file away images, quotes, ideas which caught my eye and imagination. Anything might be useful resource, keep it, pin it to a wall, put in in a drawer to turn up later like a kind of miraculous mulch. 

You traversed some pretty tricky terrain in following Dorothy’s path. What was the most difficult point for you?

I made two trips to the Dent Blanche in Switzerland, a mountain synonymous with Dorothy and Ivor and a pinnacle of their climbing lives. The first trip was with my father, a fairly ramshackle attempt which involved a freezing night spent out on the peak, the second with the Swiss Guide, Jean-Noël Bovier — a successful summiting which involved a thorough dragooning and subsequent bout of Stockholm Syndrome…nearly dying at one point wasn’t terribly fun, but both of those climbs were exhausting and challenging in different ways and in the main I had the most wonderful time! It was tough going but probably the closest I got to understanding the physical excellence, nerveless skill and extraordinary drive of my relatives.

Your next book, Outpost, will seek to explore what draws people to the wilderness. Did you have a theory or ideas before you started your research and has that changed or evolved as you’ve gone on?

I’m drawn to silence and immensity. There’s a great deal of beauty in harsh savage landscapes, I think, and I found a great deal of that in the mountains I visited whilst writing and climbing the last book. 

Jack Kerouac wrote of his time as a wildfire-spotter on Desolation Peak that 'No man should go through life without once experiencing healthy, even bored solitude in the wilderness, finding himself depending solely on himself and thereby learning his true and hidden strength.' 

I think it’s easy to imagine that the earth is an entirely human sphere, one forgets that there are environments that do not respond to the tap of a touchscreen or flick of a switch, that have their own rhythms and rules. Wilderness corrects this amnesia. They manifest greater forces than we can possibly invoke, confront us with greater spans of time than we can possibly envisage. Wildernesses — mountains, tundra, forests, oceans, deserts — refute our excessive unthinking trust in the man-made and pose profound questions about our durability and importance. They knock us down to size. And whilst some people are awed and aghast by the terrible scale, stopped in their tracks, others are moved to explore and submerge themselves in these savage arenas — 'a living nature, where man is nothing…' as the eighteenth-century naturalist Alexander von Humboldt wrote of the Venezuelan jungle. 

I’m in the latter camp, I think. If the question at the heart of Climbing Days was ‘why do people climb mountains?’ Outpost will seek answers the question of what draws people to wilderness. What can the spartan expedient architecture of such places tell us about the human condition? What compels us to go to the ends of the earth, and what future do such places have? 

In the next year 18 months, I plan to visit the ice-lands of Svalbard, fire lookout towers in the mountain forests of Montana and Washington State; desert shebangs in New Mexico and the space-pods in Utah of mooted Mars missions; the Cordouan Lighthouse near Bordeaux — the only remaining manned maritime lighthouse in France, the oldest lighthouse still in operation and the only one in the world open to visitors; brutalist concrete tree-houses in Switzerland; and the whaling station on South Georgia Island where Ernest Shackleton raised the alarm and mounted a rescue of his stranded Endurance crew. I hope to emerge from my travels with fresh eyes, recalibrated, dazed and changed. 

I’ve recently returned from two expeditions — helping renovate several tjalda and sæluhús refuges (Houses of Joy) in the Icelandic interior, and walking over 150 miles between a string of bothies across the Cairngorm mountains of Scotland… each was wild in a different way. Both fairly knackering, I have to say! 

Who influences your writing style?

I read a lot. I think it’s so important to immerse yourself in books and stories. I love Richard Brautigan’s writing — Sombrero Fallout is one of my favourite books — and Denis Johnson was the most marvellous writer, his Train Dreams is astonishingly great. They’re both pithy writers but funny and occasionally surreal with it, as are James Salter and Pascal Garnier. I love their style and sense of momentum.

Nan Shepherd has the most wonderful poetic mountain voice, her writing sings — as does that of Horatio Clare and Gretel Ehrlich. I’ve recently discovered The Solace of Open Spaces by the latter and it’s fantastic; questing, vivid and tough. Massive in every sense apart from its length, the vast arid plains of Wyoming packed into 131 pages. Maggie Nelson’s Bluets is sad, punchy, heartbreaking really, and very beautiful. 

Everything I read goes into me, into the mulch and hopefully changes and improves my style and work in some way or other. I want to be the big eye and the big ear; I’m greedy to read and learn. 

You’re leading a few events at Gladfest this year. One is an ‘in conversation’ with Melissa Harrison. How similar or different do you perceive your writing lives as being? Will there be disagreements?

Hopefully not but you never know! 

Melissa is a fine writer and I have the worrying impression she enjoys writing, as well as being fairly disciplined and productive. None of those things apply to me. In fact I hate writing. Just answering these questions has been hell. I’d much prefer to be out renovating a bothy in the middle of Iceland but that doesn’t ‘buy the baby a new hat,’ as my gran would have said. So there it is. I love having written, that’s the best feeling in the world, but you have to write to have written…who knows? Perhaps Melissa and I will fall out dramatically onstage when she questions whether sitting staring out of the window all day or reading Richard Brautigan and drinking tea, only very occasionally scribbling in a notebook, qualifies me as a writer at all? 

How have I written 3 books, having said all that?

It’s a very good question, frankly…panic mainly. Panic and guilt. 

Have you taken a look at the Gladfest lineup? Is there anyone you’re particularly looking forward to seeing or meeting?

I’m sure the Francis Spufford and Sarah Perry event will be a hum-dinger! 

Tara Guha’s workshop looks intriguing and I see Joanna Cannon is reading too — she’s a thoroughly excellent speaker. 

And there’s apparently going to be an onstage fight on the Saturday between the award-winning Melissa Harrison and some shyster with a phobia of pens! 

Dan Richards is at Gladfest 2017 talking Climbing Days (Sunday, 3rd September, 10am) and Writing the Outside with Melissa Harrison (Saturday, 2nd September, 1pm). Tickets are priced at £7 each. Dan’s workshop demonstrating how to use archival objects to create narrative non-fiction is now sold out. 

For tickets please book online, call 01244 532350 or email