The fifth volume of our anthology published on October 1st and can be purchased here. To celebrate its launch and because submissions are open for our sixth volume (submit here!) we are interviewing each of the ten authors who appear in the collection. In “Climb On,” Shubha Venugopal writes about a couple struggling through power dynamics as they head out for an early morning rock climb. Shubha brings her characters and settings to life in a way that is entirely unique, and we are honored to include her story in the collection.
“Ashoke eased his truck through the park under a sky shot with cobalt. It was not yet dawn. He drove slowly, avoiding jackrabbits and kangaroo rats that flicked by like illusions. Dispersed across the flatness lay massive heaps of stones, their black silhouettes resembling rubble. The ruins of a civilization inhabited by giants.”
What inspired the idea for your story and how long did it take to develop?
This story began as a writing exercise from a prompt: I had to describe a place that functions as a character in the story, and that greatly affects the other characters. I was to put two people in this place and make the story about both of them equally. I needed to keep these characters in motion and to use their actions to reveal how they are impacted by this setting. When I first began this exercise in late 2014, I tried to dip into both characters’ minds, and to alternate sections between their different points of view. It was fun to do it this way, and I liked what came out of it, but I found that it wasn’t balanced. So I thought about whose story it was, and whose POV made the most sense from which to write. I ended up using the husband’s POV, and when I did so, the story became much stronger and more cohesive. It went through countless drafts with the help of many peers who helped me revise it by providing invaluable insights. I chose Joshua Tree National Park because it is impossible, in my opinion, to be in that unique place and to not have it affect you. The landscape is incredible; I’ve never seen anything like it. And the people who know it most intimately, and who interact with it most directly, are the climbers.
There are a lot of technical terms in this piece as it relates to rock climbing. Are you a climber or did you have to do a lot of research? I’m also curious: the setting is depicted so vividly, have you been to the various locations in this story?
I have done a fair amount of rock climbing over the years, but I’ve never been all that good and I tend not to take too many risks that might advance my skills. For this reason, and because I don’t do it that often anymore, I don’t consider myself a climber. I enjoy it, and have done it often enough, though, to feel as a climber might feel and see what a climber sees. I had to do very little research because of this background; I just looked at some catalogues selling climbing equipment to get some of the specifics. I also asked a “real” climber to verify some of the details, and this helped a lot in terms of the action in the story and with some of its technical aspects. I’ve climbed at Joshua Tree, so I have some familiarity with the terrain and its particular textures and shapes. I’ve rented shoes and other items at rock climbing stores as well, so I could visualize the store easily. Climbers often go to Joshua Tree with the intent of ascending certain pre-chosen routes, so when other climbers block those routes with a bunch of ropes, it can be frustrating. This problem gave rise to some of the conflict in the story.
On its surface, “Climb On” is a story about the relationship between an experienced and amateur rock climber. Aside from its usefulness as the central interest of your two characters, why is your story about climbing, and not, say, swimming or long-distance running? What about climbing reveals the conflict between your characters?
I have seen amateur as well as experienced climbers become quite competitive in their desire to master harder and harder routes. Climbers watch each other, and this close observation can add to that goal of wanting to be as good as someone more advanced and to perfect certain moves along a route. The characters in this story are unlike anyone I know in terms of their personalities; rather, they are composites of various people. I wanted to exaggerate that sense of competition I mentioned, and it made sense, therefore, to portray a relationship in which one person wants to prove something to the other. It can be nerve-wracking, if you have more knowledge, to watch someone less experienced do things that are possibly careless and dangerous. Thus it made sense for the other partner to want to protect the one who wants to defy him by taking risks. This naturally led to the relationship between this couple, especially because the husband is older and often treats his wife as if she were his daughter. Naturally, this provokes the younger wife; she wants him to consider her an equal. The dynamics of this couple matched well with the dynamics of climbers, so it all fit. Joshua Tree park is unique in that you can find a vast variety of routes without having to hike many miles to get to them. The rock type is excellent for climbing and the weather can be more predictable than stormy weather up on high mountain peaks. So without having to worry about describing a long, tiring hike and weather problems, I was able to focus on the conflict between this couple bonded by their love of the sport.
Are there any fun facts we should know about this piece? What was your biggest challenge in writing it?
I had written the climactic scene—in which the woman falls—in a particular way, and I liked it the way I wrote it. I could visualize it clearly. However, when I consulted with a climber, I learned that it could never happen the way I wrote it in reality. Certain aspects of the landscape and the sport made it not believable to someone who knows a lot about climbing. This realization drove me crazy. I had built the whole story around this moment and I didn’t want to let it go. So I had to keep trying to position the characters differently and to understand how such a fall could happen in this landscape in order to make the story work. It took quite a while to get those moments right—or at least close enough to right. Another side note: I watched a video once of a climber ascending a route using only one leg. It was fascinating to see how he moved, how it was graceful and athletic and jerky too, so I embedded that image into the story. Another fact I knew is that climbers like to get to climbs very early to “claim” their routes. That can make it particularly hard if someone beats you to it despite your early start. By beginning the story in the pre-dawn hours, I was able to use the gorgeous way light ignites the rock into flaming oranges and reds in the mornings to my advantage.
In what ways is this story similar to or different from your other work? What are you working on now?
This story is similar to my other work in a few ways. I often write about couples in various stages of love, loss, and conflict, and I often give these couples adventures in natural settings. For example, I have a story in which I use scuba diving as the activity/metaphor rather than climbing. I have stories about sea kayaking, jungle exploration through canoeing or hiking or bird-watching, swimming, ice climbing and mountaineering, spelunking, and other such topics. I love nature and I love to travel to unusual places, so the combination allows me to put my characters into adventures that play a role in their development and in their relationships. My stories about motherhood, parenting, growing up, generational conflicts, etc., also often use adventurous natural settings, as do those about couples: Alaska, Venezuela, Papua New Guinea, Tahiti, Fiji, Costa Rica, and India, to name a few. Right now I’m working on revising my many stories and shaping them into a collection. I am also writing a series of interconnected scenes that I hope will come together as a novel.