Breathless, Amy McCulloch’s debut adult thriller, is set on the world’s eighth highest mountain in Nepal. Cecily Wong, is a struggling journalist given the opportunity to interview legendary mountaineer Charles McVeigh but with one catch: she has to summit the mountain as part of his team first.
I had a chance to ask McCulloch, a Chinese-White author, born in the UK, raised in Ottawa, Canada, now based in London, UK. questions about her book including how much she and Cecily are similar. But first a little more about McCulloch, the youngest Canadian woman to climb Mt Manaslu in Nepal – the world’s eighth highest mountain at 26,781ft, is the co-author of the #1 YA bestselling novel THE MAGPIE SOCIETY: One for Sorrow, and has written seven solo novels for children and young adults. She’s made bestseller lists in several countries around globe and her books have been published in fifteen different languages.
Now the interview.
JA: Tell us how much the character Cecily is like and unlike you?
AM: While Cecily and I share some similarities (we are both mixed race, Chinese and White, and both writers), I wanted Cecily to be more of a novice to the world of mountaineering than I was when I went to Manaslu, so she could be a window into the high altitude world for readers who might be unfamiliar with the sport. Yet I also drew on many of the challenges I faced to create her character: imposter syndrome – in the mountains and in my career, and a struggle to belong.
You mention being, like Cecily, at a nadir in your career and life when you first embarked first on walking and then on climbing. Can you tell us about that? Has physical exertion always been restorative for you?
Actually, turning to physical exertion as a means of healing was a surprise to me! Before my divorce, I was not a particularly active person, although I always loved travel and adventure. However, when my husband left, for the first time I felt truly lost – like my entire future was crumbling in front of me. I didn’t know what to do with myself, so while I processed these big emotions I decided to do something good for my body. I flew out to the Kerry Way – Ireland’s longest way-marked trail – and walked over 250km. I was amazed by what my body was capable of, so I ventured next to Nepal to trek the Annapurna Circuit. It was there that I fell in love with the big mountains, sparking a curiosity in me to see where my feet could take me.
How did you go about preparing to climb an 8,000 high peak?
When I said “yes” to climbing Manaslu with Nims Dai (as part of his 14 Peaks, Project Possible mission – later a Netflix series), I knew I was about to embark on the most difficult challenge of my life. I already knew I could handle high altitudes and difficult weather conditions, having successfully summited Aconcagua (the highest mountain the Americas) a few months before. But this was next level. I embarked on an intense training regime at home in London, tackling multiple ascents of the only hill in the area (London is a remarkably flat place!) and I headed up to North Wales several times to take 1:1 mountaineering lessons with British mountaineering guide Jon Gupta. It also took a while to get all the necessary gear together. I was particularly surprised how difficult it was to find extreme high altitude mountaineering gear designed for women.
How did you come up with the concept of your book and the characters? You mention that you always intended to write a book about your climb but what inspired you to make it a mystery/thriller? And did that occur when you were actually climbing?
I had been a full time author for a few years before I started on my mountaineering journey, writing science fiction and fantasy for young adults. The mountains are such an inspirational place that I knew that there would be a story in there somewhere, but I had no idea what shape that story would take. At first, I toyed with a scifi idea – maybe the first expedition to Olympus Mons, the highest mountain on Mars. It wasn’t until I was actually living at base camp in Manaslu that I realized the novel should be a thriller. It struck me that the mountain was the perfect setting: the isolation, the lack of authority figures, the risks of the environment like avalanches, crevasses and serac falls, but you’re also living amongst total strangers – people whose backstories and motivations are a mystery, and yet you need to trust them with your life. Fatal accidents are considered part of the accepted risk of climbing in these high places – what better place to get away with murder than somewhere already known as the death zone? I knew then that I could use my own personal experience as research, hoping create a unique, compelling, page-turning and yet authentic thriller in Breathless.
Tell us about Manaslu. I know it is the eighth-highest peak but had never heard of it before. Yet it sounds both beautiful and daunting.
Manaslu was the first eight thousand metre peak I’d ever laid eyes on, long before I ever believed I’d be able to climb it. It stands apart from a lot of the other 8,000m peaks, so it dominates the skyline – with a distinctive fishtail peak. It is stunningly beautiful and it is also considered one of the most ‘achievable’ of the 8000m peaks. Many people use it as a training ground for Everest, so it seemed like the right level of challenge as a next step for me in my mountaineering journey. Although ‘achievable’ is a funny word – it was also known as the ‘killer mountain’ for a long time as it had one of the highest death rates of any mountain in the world. There is no safe place to camp on the mountain – everywhere is prone to avalanche danger. It is definitely not to be underestimated.
Cecily is one of just a few women mountaineers in the book. Was that similar to your real life climb? Do you think that it’s harder for women to be accepted into the climbing world?
When I climbed Manaslu in September 2019, I held the record for the youngest Canadian woman, but even more surprising to me was that I was one of only eight Canadian women to have ever reached the summit in history, according to the Himalayan Database. That really showed me just how few women partake in this sport. For so long, I think there have been a lot of barriers to women being fully accepted into the climbing world – there’s the issue of equipment (as I mentioned above) not being designed with women’s bodies and needs in mind, and also the stigma that women in particular face when they participate in high risk sports while leaving their families at home. I think though the tide is changing – with more women than ever breaking ground in this sport, including my good friend and tentmate Stefi Trouget, who became the youngest woman to climb K2 without O2. I found the camaraderie I felt with other women on the mountain to be truly inspirational, and helped me find confidence on the mountain itself.
I loved your description of the teas and the foods you ate both in the town and in the camps. Do you miss that? Or did you take recipes home with you? To me, it seems like a real immersion into the culture of the people who live on the mountain. I’d never run into that in other books about climbing.
Thank you so much! I miss Nepal (and Nepali food) every day! It was important to me when I chose to climb in Nepal, that I used local operators and guides to support their economy as much as possible. What I didn’t realize is how those guides – Nims Dai, Mingma David and my Sherpa Tensing Kasang – would become more like family to me over the years. I have been invited back to their homes and even had the honour of being blessed by Nims’ mother during their Dashain festival. For me, it’s the people who make these climbing trips so memorable and impactful – and getting to immerse myself and learn more about Nepali culture is always the highlight.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on my next adventure thriller, set in Antarctica – a place I was lucky enough to visit back in 2016. I was intrigued to write about the “white night” – because when the sun never sets, there are very few places to hide. My hope is to continue to write books that transport readers to incredible places – with some page-turning thrills along the way.
Is there anything we didn’t cover you’d like readers to know?
I don’t think so!
Follow Amy at: