As The Plot Thins (ATPT): First of all, thank you so much for taking time out to talk with us. To begin, how is everything surrounding the book, reviews/reception/opinions?
Andy Hall (AH): The reviews and reception of the book have been positive, extremely so. Book writing is tough, the business model and distribution is in flux, I know many fine, fine books are released and don’t get the attention and credit they deserve for those reasons and others. Denali’s Howl got a huge boost from local media in the Anchorage area just prior to release and then a few national publications including the Wall Street Journal gave it positive reviews around launch time.
I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the tone of the reviews, both profession and amateur, they’re almost universally positive.
I could take credit for it all by saying it’s all about the book but I’d be wrong, I credit the publicity team at Dutton for making sure Denali’s Howl got into the right hands at the right time. Once in the right hands, the quality of the writing comes into play, but only then.
ATPT: Has anyone made any remarks to you when you described the books topic like “Oh that sounds like Into Thin Air” or “like that book Jon Krakauer wrote?”
AH: I expected some comparisons to Into Thin Air but there have been few. Obviously there are similarities since the stories are about mountain tragedies but beyond that, each is a story about a group of people climbing in distinctly different times and places. Denali in 1967 is a far cry from Everest in the 21st century.
I was speaking at Powell’s in Portland and one of the audience members asked if I knew Jon Krakauer and if we had talked about our books. I said no, I don’t really know a lot of writers outside of Alaska. She seem surprised, but I’m not sure why.
ATPT: How long did it take you to write Denali’s Howl? What was the process like during that time?
AH: I’ve been loosely researching it for seven years or more, but I began in earnest three years ago. I spent nine months writing the proposal alone. I travelled to Fairbanks, Denali National Park, Atlin, British Columbia and Kona, Hawaii for research and interviews before I had enough to complete the proposal. Once that was done my agent sold the idea to Dutton. After the contract was signed, I had a year to write but I continued to research it for another seven or eight months before I really began putting it together.
ATPT: Did you ever imagine when you were five years old that later in life you’d be writing a book about the Wilcox Expedition tragedy?
AH: I had no idea that I’d write this book when I was 5. I had no idea I’d write this book when I was 40. Way back when I was in college my plan was to learn to write by working as a reporter and then write books. Early on, though, I wandered off of that path. I enjoyed the writing and photography but I kept getting pulled into editing and later into the publisher’s seat. I got married, I had kids, and I needed to be home at night rather than pursuing stories so I let the writing go to some degree. I maintained a monthly column at Alaska magazine but otherwise, I didn’t write much. I was 49 when I had a realization that I wasn’t enjoying my job any more and I had lost the path I’d set out on as a 25-year-old college graduate. My dad had passed away by then but I knew I had material that had not been seen before and I knew the story was good. So, I quit my job and went to work on the book.
ATPT: You were previously an editor and publisher for Alaska magazine. Did that help groom your writing to where you were able to write Denali’s Howl?
AH: I think my newspaper reporting really honed my writing skills; the magazine column and the articles I wrote allowed me to get expand beyond the strict news writing formula. The monthly magazine column was very informal and helped me relax as a writer. I also got a lot of feedback on the column so I had a good idea of what worked and what didn’t with readers. I guess all of that has gone into the mix and contributed to my writing style.
ATPT: The Wilcox Expedition tragedy happened in 1967. Why has no one written about this before?
AH: Actually the expedition has been written about extensively. Joe Wilcox and Howard Snyder, both survivors, wrote books about their experiences but they were limited in perspective to their experiences on the mountain. Another book was written about the incident about seven years ago but it was poorly researched and relied heavily on speculation on the author’s part. Overall, it grossly misrepresented the incident in my opinion. In fact, part of the reason I wrote Denali’s Howl was to set the record straight.
ATPT: How extensive was the research you did to prepare?
AH: As I said earlier I spent years researching. I’ve got close to 100 hours of interviews with survivors, rescuers and others involved with the incident as well as interviews with modern-day experts. I’ve got thousands of documents related to the event including letters, reports, journals, official exchanges, maps, photos, notes on meetings, etc. I’ve got two accordion-style briefcases full of documents and an equal number digital documents, mostly scans of old hard copies, on my hard drive. I also read a lot of climbing books and talked to climbers with lots of experience on Denali.
ATPT: Take us through your writing process. When writing nonfiction, is there a point when you look at the amount of research you have done and feel comfortable to begin writing or do you research and write as you go?
AH: When I started writing I tried to follow the outline I had provided in the proposal but it was difficult, I had plans to jump back and forth between 1967 and some of the present-day research I had done. It didn’t go well. Then I realized why I was having trouble. It is a linear story at its essence, it’s about climbing a mountain, it starts at the bottom and ends at the top. I had to write it that way. I figured I could move the chapters around later if it felt right. So that’s what I did.
While I was working on the book Roger Ebert died and I read a lot about him when I was procrastinating. One of his quotes really resonated with me, he said, “The muse visits during the act of creation, not before. Don’t wait for her. Start alone.”
I had a daunting pile of research in front of me and I knew I had hundreds of hours of writing time ahead of me. I started calculating the number of words I had to write and the number of days and then how many words I had to write each day. That really freaked me out, and it made it hard to get started sometimes but I took Ebert’s advice to heart. I got into the habit of setting the timer on my phone for 30 minutes when I sat down at the computer every morning. Facing 30 minutes of writing is easier than facing 8 hours of writing or some astronomical number of words per day. I told myself if the muse didn’t show up after 30 minutes, I’d find something else to do and try again later. It was rare that I didn’t turn the timer off and continue writing for the entire day.
ATPT: How extensive is your mountaineering experience?
AH: I’ve been clear from the beginning that I am not a mountaineer. I’ve never climbed Denali and I have no desire to. I’ve ice climbed and I’ve done quite a bit of recreational climbing but that’s the extent of it.
ATPT: Do have any future plans for more non-fiction? Perhaps a fiction novel about a mountaineering disaster?
AH: I’m not particularly attached to mountaineering as a topic. The connection to this story for me was the fact that my father was superintendent of the park at the time and I know or knew many of the people who were involved. As to more books, I’ll continue to write non-fiction, I think true stories are much more interesting and demanding for an author. I’m working on an idea now that involves an ancestor of mine that has nothing to do with climbing but I’m still in the early stages of research.
ATPT: Lastly, what’s the best book you recently read and what are you currently reading?
AH: I just finished a book by Dave Atcheson called Dead Reckoning. It’s about commercial fishing in Alaska, which is my other occupation. I run a commercial salmon fishing operation on Cook Inlet during the summer. Some writers have glorified and exaggerated it; I think Dave’s book really captures the unique lifestyle of the Alaska commercial fisherman and the risks and rewards that come with it.
I’m currently reading Rebels: The Irish Rising of 1916 by Peter de Rosa and Arabian Sands by Wilfred Thesiger. (I tend to have two or three books going at any one time.)
Denali’s Howl was released on June 12th, 2014 on Dutton Adult. You can find the book on his Amazon page for purchase.