Small Talk: Joe Simpson

Joe Simpson, 51, wrote his first book, Touching the Void (1988), about his fight to survive after a mountaineering accident in the Andes. It was made into a film in 2003. He has since written several non-fiction books and two novels. He lives in Sheffield.

When did you know you were going to be a writer?

When somebody gave me two grand [£2,000] and told me to write Touching the Void – well, actually, when I had finished drinking the advance [payment]. Then I realised that I had to write it.

What is the last thing you read that made you laugh out loud?

Caitlin Moran’s book How to Be a Woman, which was very funny.

What do you snack on while you write?

I don’t tend to eat very much. When Beryl Bainbridge was asked what you need to be a writer, she said, “Black coffee and cigarettes.” In the days when I used to smoke, it was just that, but I stopped smoking two years ago. So now I just have coffee.

What music helps you write?

I often have talk radio on in the background; I find it more distracting when it’s deadly quiet.

Which book is on your bedside table?

Stalingrad by Antony Beevor.

What book changed your life?

The White Spider [first published in 1959] by Heinrich Harrer. It is about the first ascent of the north face of the Eiger. It’s an odd book to call inspirational, as it’s a pretty grim list of deaths and not particularly well written. But it made me think that if someone’s prepared to go through that, there must be something fantastic about climbing.

How do you relax?

I like playing poker – my friends and I play in casinos – and I love fly-fishing, saltwater fly-fishing in particular. I gave up mountaineering in 2009 and my legs are pretty shot now, so I would have to say just travelling, I suppose.

Who would you most like to sit next to at a dinner party?

I have just read a whole series of books about Genghis Khan, and I was going to say him but it might be a bit bloody worrying actually. If he didn’t like the cut of your jib, you could be dead before the end of the first course.

What are you scared of?

Heights. People say, “I can’t climb, I’m scared of heights” – well, everybody’s scared of flipping heights.

What novel would you give a child to introduce them to literature?

Private Peaceful by Michael Morpurgo.

Can you remember the first novel you read?

If anybody could say they remember their first novel, I suspect they’d be lying.

Where is your favourite place in the world?

Nepal or Bhutan. Waking up in the morning looking at mountains in Nepal – not much beats that.

When do you feel most free?

It used to always be in the mountains. High up, with just one mate, things going well, feeling fit, in a position of extraordinary beauty and extraordinary risk, it just felt absolutely like that was where you were meant to be and that was what you were supposed to be. Now that I’ve stopped mountaineering, I’m in a state of mourning for it all the time. I love fishing – I find standing in a beautiful river in a beautiful country or on a shore contemplative – but I think, if truth be told, it was always in the mountains. I’ve lost that now.

Joe Simpson’s ‘The Sound of Gravity’ is out in paperback (Vintage)

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