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Author interview: Andy Kirkpatrick, Unknown Pleasures

Monday, 5 February 2018

Ahead of the March release of his new book, Unknown Pleasures, Andy Kirkpatrick took some time out of his lecture tour to enlighten us on climbing Yosemite's El Cap, his ascent of Moonlight Buttress with The One Show's Alex Jones, and to offer some essential advice for anyone thinking of taking their teenage daughter on her first big wall.

Unknown Pleasures is a collection of your writing, how did you go about choosing which pieces to include?

I've been writing as a profession for about twenty years, so I had a lot of words to pick through! Luckily I'm not a fast writer when it comes to creative stuff, so early creative writing (not gear or technical writing) was thin on the ground, but with some strong pieces (Broken was the first thing I ever wrote but it made a into Climbing magazine's ‘best of’ anthology). Once I stopped writing for magazines and just for myself, for my blog, the volume of work exploded, with topics slowly drifting away from just climbing, so these were harder to pick from.

A lot of space in the book is dedicated to your climbs on El Capitan. What does the mountain mean to you?

El Cap is the perfect crucible, hard climbing that can go on for days, even weeks, thick with history, both terrifying and fun, and with perfect weather. I think I've climbed it about thirty-three times now, and every ascent leaves me wanting more (even though I always tell myself I'm not coming back!). 

You climbed El Cap with your daughter, Ella, when she was just thirteen. What advice would you give to other parents thinking of taking their children on their first big wall?

A lot of people said at the time "how can you risk your daughter's life", to which I'd reply "How could I not?", the risk involved lower in reality than that involved in simply cycling to school.

In the book you sound sceptical about climbing Moonlight Buttress with TV presenter Alex Jones; what surprised you most about your time with her?

I'd done quite a lot of work in TV and films, and met quite a few stars (Johnny Depp and John Peel being stand outs), and so understood that world quite well. Very often you get a job like that and think that being on TV every night means you'll get famous, that life will change, but it never does. Often people feel exploited by TV companies, in that they can be very demanding, but you've just got to see it as being what it is, and not fall for its imaginary reality. I get production companies getting in touch every few months and at first I used to get all excited, but I now realise they just waste your time, that taking a footballer up Kili just gets in the way of stuff that's more rewarding and meaningful. I think the outcome of the climb was over two million pounds raised, which must have done a lot of good.

There’s a moment in Unknown Pleasures when you vow to give up climbing for good as a sérac falls down on you while ice climbing in Chamonix. Have there been many other scary moments over the years when you’ve promised yourself you’ll never climb again?  

People often ask how many times I thought I might die, but I always reply that what's more important is how many times I knew I was going to die! (but didn't). Although I have had a lot of close shaves I can only think of that one time when I thought about giving up. As you get older and safer you experience these extreme events less and less, but instead of congratulating yourself on being safe, you just miss those moments, because although your life is a risk, you know that you're really alive.

Unknown Pleasures is a mix of extraordinary highs and lows. Do you find it cathartic talking about the low points and do you ever worry about the public’s opinion?

When I was a kid there was something up with my brain, my mum thought I had autism or a lesion on my brain (when I was nineteen I was told I was extremely dyslexic, but I'm not sure that really means anything), but whatever is up with me I have no filter. When I write I am writing to myself, to make sense of things, which means there are more questions than conclusions. I write out my uncertainty, my weakness and doubt, relationship disasters, as a form of therapy. I share these as I need validation and attention, but on my terms. Being loved is nice, but not if that means I can only write what people want to read. I think I've only had one person write in a comment that I'm over sharing or giving too much away, but then the next comment disagreed, saying that my honesty was helping him get through some dark times.

Why do you think you seek the unconventional perspective on many of the topics covered in the book?

I think we're domesticated animals, we don't like to be alarmed or startled, made uncomfortable, and so our tastes in music, literature, news, TV, food, tend to reflect this (this is the secret of brands, be it Starbucks, U2, Levi, and political parties, in that you get what you expect, what you pay for). This is why Hollywood churns out derivative dross full of stars we know… dross sells. If someone bought an album by Megadeath and found they'd gone all folk or country and western, they'd be upset, maybe outraged and never buy another, switch to a band who is true to what they are, the same if Simon and Garfunkel went all death metal. But being 'dependable' is short hand for being boring, what starts as genuine creativity ends up as a job, a prison. Just because your brand is climbing does not mean you cannot evolve, and you must only write about climbing. I'm sure a talented writer like Joe Simpson could write a wicked book about cricket or poker but no one would publish it and few would buy it. That's the beauty of blogs, no one is paying for your work so you can write what you want. I don't know what's wrong with going to a website to read about crampons and finding a piece on the subject of Maoist famine, all you need to do is press the back button and go where you'll find what you've read a thousand times before. Climbing media can break away, but only if they serve up something that suits the readers pallet, sexism in climbing or the attack on national parks by Trump, just a plate of McNuggets rather than a Big Mac. Of course this does upset lots of people, who'll say "I like X, but you also write about Y, which I don't like, please just stick to X", or even "you're not qualified to write about Y", to which I tend to reply "You're an adult, just ignore Y and read X" (or just "fuck off" if I'm feeling grumpy). 

What would you be doing if you weren’t a climber?

Well if I wasn't a climbing writer, I'd either write more, or climb more!

You include a quote from Ed Douglas who says that ‘you are a lot cleverer than people think’. Why do you think you are portrayed like that? Does that make you determined to ‘prove them wrong’ in your writing?

I'm not a very sophisticated person, my vocabulary is limited, my grammar and spelling is poor, I have three GCSEs, never went to university, never been a professional, so I'm pretty alien to most climbers, oh and I'm from Hull. My talent is detail, I'm a voyeur, a rememberer, a noticer of small things, which early on translated into writing about gear, but slowly developed into writing about people, then broader subjects. I know I'm not clever but I am smarter than many who think they're intellectual, intellectual certainty the biggest obstacle to knowing both ourselves and the world. Beyond some iron laws I'm an uncertain writer, meaning I ask more questions and if I give some kind of answer it's often nuanced and open for interpretation. I do always feel I'm picking a fight with everyone, but when you write blogs about Trump winning and Brexit happening, and people dismiss you as a ‘Daily Mail reader’, but then you're proved right, it gives you little satisfaction, but does make you trust your instincts and that eye for the little details. I guess if this book is a book about anything, then it's a book about the things people miss.



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