This story highlights one of the most dramatic aspects of what we often call “toxic masculinity”—achievement at any cost. I was a bit horrified to see in reviews that some readers really liked the nameless protagonist, who doesn’t even like himself! But I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. Assertiveness and accomplishment are attractive qualities. What kind of reaction were you expecting readers to have?
One of the strange effects of fiction is that the main point-of-view character tends to elicit sympathy almost in spite of themselves. From A Confederacy of Dunces to even the most extreme cases like American Psycho, it’s difficult to be dropped into someone’s world and care nothing for them. Perhaps it comes from our habit of rationalizing our own worst traits, something we practice a lot. If this story were told from anyone else’s POV, the current main character would be a villain. But since we hear his thoughts, doubts, self-loathing, confessions, and regrets, we feel for him.
And I think it’s okay. I don’t think it’s terrible to sympathize with this character. He’s a changed person at the end, and his journey comes with very high physical and emotional costs. I wept for this guy every pass I made through the story while writing and editing it. I guess I saw a lot of myself and my own failings in him.
This is where the “strange effect” of fiction is really quite powerful. Being able to sympathize with people completely unlike ourselves helps open our minds to what others in the real world are going through. I try to remember this when I find myself judging people whose ambitions have lead them astray. We have a political and corporate climate right now that makes it easy to lose sympathy for people. There are some folks out there who are reviled by many, and I think it would break our hearts to learn how much some of them loathe themselves.
While the dangers of climbing a very tall mountain seem well known, you address a much more interesting danger: the risk of getting what you always wanted, and being publicly rewarded, for a goal that was selfish and pointless. Was your initial conception of the story based on the physical risk, the internal conflict, or something else entirely?
The internal conflict for sure. I’ve written in several places how this story was deeply personal to me, how it attempted to capture what I was feeling about my own success with my novel Wool. This wasn’t the first time I’d felt the effects of Imposter Syndrome, that sense that you don’t deserve your current place and will be found out and have it all taken away. One of my earlier careers was as a yacht captain; it was a career that I progressed through very quickly. I went from living on a tiny sailboat in the Bahamas (a boat with no bathroom, shower, refrigerator, etc.) to being in charge of 120-foot yachts in the span of just a year. I was only twenty-four years old, and I was making more money than I deserved. It felt like I’d taken a shortcut somewhere. My psyche rejected this reality.
I think this is why my roofing career brought me so much joy. Not only was the work more rewarding, and the clientele more enjoyable to be around, but the conflict with my ego vanished. I went home every day to my girlfriend and my dog and our house, and I felt like I’d done something worthwhile with my day. I never felt this while captaining yachts.
When I started writing fiction, it was just to cross something off my bucket list. My first few novels were this fun space opera, and they got a small readership, and I really enjoyed creating worlds for a handful of friends and family to enjoy. It all felt very much “right.” I was working in a bookstore for almost no money, and I couldn’t wait to sit down and push my latest novel forward another chapter to see what happens next.
Then I wrote Wool, which was a short story to help cope with the loss of my beloved dog. It wasn’t a story I promoted. I put it out there and moved on to my next novel. Everything that happened after felt like a dream. I wrote the rest of the full novel during NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) while the first story was still taking off. Within a month, I felt like that twenty-year-old at the helm of some big yacht that he wasn’t sure he could helm. And I was again earning much more than I knew I was worth.
“The Walk Up Nameless Ridge” is about every bit of this. Fate is fickle and capricious. There are more deserving writers out there who will never sell as many books as I have. That’s not a pleasant feeling. It’s akin to this other gnawing sense I get when I’m in a restaurant, and I’m watching the staff hustle around, and I remember waiting tables and being in the weeds, and it strikes me that these people are going to work a lot harder than me today and earn a fraction of the money. I know that sounds naive and weird, but I’ve talked to others who have the same feelings. I think these thoughts just don’t get voiced a lot.
What I found that helps is to direct a lot of my spare time into advocating for writers. And not just writers, but all the support people who make these works possible. I’ve been carried to the top and back by the efforts of many others. I think this story is about giving them their due, or reducing my own credit, or a bit of both.
I loved the irony of the small woman and her android being the ones who save him, after he was so dismissive of their chances. I suspect that if he’d found them at the top, helpless, he’d have claimed victory regardless and made sure no one knew the truth. So he got everything he was after, but she really won. Did you know the ending when you began, or did it take a while to figure out?
I knew the moral I wanted to convey: I wanted this guy to get credit for something he only achieves with the help of others. My career would never have amounted to much without the advocacy of a handful of early fans. Or without the cover art from folks like Jason Gurley and M.S. Corley. Or the editorial help from my mom, or from Lisa Kelly-Wilson, Nadene Carter, and David Gatewood. It’s a team effort, but only the quarterback gets any credit. I wish Amazon product pages listed the cover artist and editor for every book, so you knew who made these works really shine. To me, these are the people conquering mountains, and moving off to conquer another, without ever leaving more than a bare trace of their egos behind.
The details felt vivid and accurate. Are you familiar with extreme climbing, or did you do research for this story? I’m going to assume you didn’t visit any alien planets . . .
Ha! I wish. I’d love to go to Olympus Mons before I die.
Most of what went into this story comes from the dozens of alpining books and articles I’ve read over the years. I was an avid rock climber in my teens and twenties, and I always dreamed of going up Everest or K2, but I always knew it would only be in my imagination. For this story, I needed an accomplishment like that—something I aspired to that I knew I wasn’t capable of. It really tapped into everything I dreamed about when it comes to writing novels, and all the bizarre ways that my writing career has exceeded those dreams.
I guess the real confession in this short story is this: I don’t feel like a writer. I know people think of me as a writer, and see me as a writer. I know that I’ve written a lot of stories and that I have a lot more to tell. But it doesn’t feel like who I am. I think of myself as a reader. A sailor. A roofer. A boyfriend. A son. Maybe this is my way out of Imposter Syndrome: outright denial. The only way I get so much writing done these days is to tell myself and everyone else that I’m retired and to assume that none of it will ever be published.
Is there anything else you’d like readers to know about this story?
There is something that I’m only thinking about now, because of my current situation. As I write these responses, I’m sitting in a sailboat in the middle of the South Pacific. My girlfriend and I just left an island called Palmerston, one of the most bizarre islands I’ve ever visited. It was settled by a man named William Marsters and his three wives over a century ago. The three families who live on the island are all direct descendants of those three women. They welcome passing sailors into their homes, and we leave behind whatever we can that might assist them. Visiting Palmerston in a sailboat is probably as close as an Earthling can get to taking a spaceship to another planet.
Now we’re sailing along in twenty knots of wind toward a submerged speck of land called Beverage Reef. This reef is basically just a mountain buried under thousands of feet of water. We’ll drop anchor here with no land in sight, no land for a hundred miles in any direction. And yet there’s a place out in the middle of nowhere to sit seven feet over pristine white sand and spend a few days snorkeling pristine tropical reef. It’s another of the very unique and bizarre spots on our wild and alien planet.
I guess when I sit here, bobbing along on some pretty tall seas and some stiff winds, responding to questions about this short story that I wrote years ago—it occurs to me that while some things like climbing mountains feel impossible, other things like sailing clear around the world feel simple. And maybe that’s the beauty of our individual gifts, the source of our admiration and envy, and the heart of the different characters in “The Walk Up Nameless Ridge.” What feels impossible is a matter of perspective. Tonight, we will anchor on top of a mountain and swim with sharks there. And hardly know we’ve accomplished a thing.
What can readers look for from you next?
My short story collection Machine Learning is due out in October. If readers enjoyed this story, there’s a lot more where it came from. I’m currently working on the sequel to Sand, which was recently re-released into bookstores. And there was a big announcement at Comic Con this year about the Sand TV show that’s in the works. So some exciting things afoot there. And of course, I’m always working on more short stories. No idea when or if I’ll publish all of them. Maybe if Machine Learning does well, John Joseph Adams will wring another collection out of me one day.
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