An impossible quest. An epic love story. A mesmerizing debut.
In 1924, the English mountaineer Ashley Walsingham dies attempting to summit Mount Everest, leaving his fortune to his long-lost lover, Imogen Soames-Andersson—whom he has not seen in seven years. Ashley’s attorneys search in vain for Imogen, but the estate remains unclaimed.
Nearly eighty years later, new information leads the same law firm to Tristan Campbell, a young American who could be the estate’s rightful heir. If Tristan can prove he is Imogen’s descendant, the inheritance will be his. But with only weeks before Ashley’s trust expires, Tristan must hurry to find the evidence he needs.
From London WWI archives to the battlefields in France to the fjords of Iceland, Tristan races to piece together the story behind the unclaimed riches: a reckless love affair pursued only days before Ashley’s deployment to the Western Front of the Great War; a desperate trench battle fought by soldiers whose hope is survival rather than victory; an expedition to the uncharted heights of the world’s tallest mountain. Following a trail of evidence that stretches to the far edge of Europe, Tristan becomes consumed by Ashley and Imogen’s story. But as he draws close to the truth, Tristan realizes he may be seeking something more than an unclaimed fortune.
The Steady Running of the Hour announces the arrival of a stunningly talented author. Justin Go’s “debut is ambitious in many ways…it depicts a love that transcends time and disdains convention; and it fluidly moves between past and present” (Publishers Weekly).
|Publisher:||Simon & Schuster|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.30(d)|
About the Author
Justin Go attended the University of California at Berkeley, where he graduated with a BA in history and art history. He also holds an MA in English from University College London. He has lived in Tokyo, Paris, London, New York City, and Berlin. He is currently at work on his second novel.
Read an Excerpt
The Steady Running of the Hour
Gentle rain falls from a colorless London sky. I thread my way through the sidewalk crowds on High Holborn, checking the street signs against the map in my hand. Kingsway. Procter Street. Rainwater gathers in dark puddles, reflecting the white delivery vans, the jet-black cabs and candy-red buses.
I turn left and follow Sandland Street to Bedford Row, a line of four-story terraced Georgian houses with brick facades. Beside the entrance to number 11 there is a brass plaque: TWYNING & HOOPER, SOLICITORS. I push a button on the intercom, feeling dazed and shaky. At breakfast I had two cups of coffee, but they didn’t help much. I look up at the security camera. The white columns of the doorway have Ionic capitals.
—Good morning. How can I help you?
—I’m Tristan Campbell. I have an appointment with James Prichard—
The receptionist buzzes me in. She takes my jacket and leads me into a waiting room with a tufted leather couch.
—I’ll get Geoffrey right away.
A few minutes later she comes back carrying a tray with a porcelain tea service. The tea scalds my tongue, so I stir in more milk. I look up and see the receptionist watching me from behind her desk. Our eyes meet and she smiles. Absently I page through a copy of the Financial Times from the coffee table. I finish the tea and flip over the cup. SPODE COPELAND’S CHINA ENGLAND.
—Mr. Campbell. A pleasure to meet you at last.
Khan approaches with a quick stride and shakes my hand. He wears a slim-fitting suit of dark navy. His brogues are buffed to an impressive shine.
—Shall we go and meet James?
Khan leads me up a tall wooden staircase. Above us are vast murals on the walls and ceiling: a king on horseback heralded by angels; young Britannia with her shield and trident, receiving the tributes of the world.
Two young men in neckties come down the stairs, maroon folders tucked beneath their arms. They nod solemnly as we pass. I look down at my thrift-store clothes, a wrinkled dress shirt and a pair of old slacks.
—I feel underdressed.
Khan smiles. —Not at all. You’re the client. We’re the solicitors.
We walk down a corridor to a pair of French doors. Khan pauses here, lowering his voice.
—A word before we go in. Naturally you can address him as James, he doesn’t stand on formality. But I might suggest you answer any questions—
—As directly as you can. I can say from personal experience that vagueness goes nowhere with James. He sees right through it. Be as blunt as you can with him and he’ll be honest with you in turn. How does that strike you?
Khan smiles warmly. He knocks on the door and ushers me in. The office is large but spartan. A table with carved lion’s feet, its surface covered with paper stacked in neat piles. A leather couch and club chairs. An immense Persian rug. Prichard stands behind the table, a sheet of paper lifted intently before his face. He is silver-haired and wears a tie and waistcoat over a French-cuffed shirt. He raises a hand to us, then paces between the window and the fireplace, his eyes fixed on the page. Prichard signs the sheet over his desk and calls in a secretary to collect it. He turns, beaming.
—If you can fill the unforgiving minute, Prichard quotes, with sixty seconds’ worth of distance run—
He extends his hand. —James Prichard. Sorry to have kept you waiting. I suppose London weather is living up to your expectations?
Prichard gestures to one of the chairs; he and Khan sit on the couch opposite. They cross their legs in the same direction. Framed photographs hang on the wall behind them. Above Khan’s shoulder there is a black-and-white picture of a group of men in three-piece suits gathered stiffly around a bald man with a white mustache. The bald man’s head is tilted slightly to the camera and he holds a pipe in his hand.
—Is that Clement Attlee?
Prichard looks at me.
—That’s right. He was a client of ours.
I point at a tall, fair-haired young man in the photograph.
—And that’s you?
Prichard nods, but he doesn’t turn toward the picture.
—I did very little work on Mr. Attlee’s estate. It was handled by the most senior solicitors, but they let me sit in on a few meetings for posterity’s sake.
Prichard pauses. —At any rate, how was your journey? Don’t be put off London on account of Heathrow. Or British Airways, for that matter. Our charms are elsewhere. What hotel have they put you in?
—Splendid. Seen much of London yet?
—I got here last night.
—Well, have a look around before you go. The Tower. Regent’s Park. The British Museum.
Prichard looks at Khan.
—The confidentiality agreement, Khan prompts.
—Of course, Prichard says. You’ve read it carefully?
—And Geoffrey tells me you’re without your own representation?
Prichard nods. —As I’m sure you noticed, the agreement forbids revealing details of the case to any outside party, which makes advisors rather pointless anyway. Will you sign the agreement now? Without it I should not be able to tell you the details of the case.
Khan puts the thick document on the coffee table before us and offers his fountain pen. I flip to the signature page at the back and scratch out a misshapen signature. Khan calls in a young woman to notarize the document.
—Everything said henceforth, Prichard warns, is strictly confidential. Geoffrey, I can take over from here.
Khan walks out with the young woman, closing the door behind him. Prichard watches me for a moment, as if waiting for me to speak first. He smiles faintly.
—This is quite a long shot, but are you familiar with the Mount Everest expeditions of the 1920s?
—You’re forgiven. Geoffrey told me you were a history student, but it’s hardly the kind of thing one studies at university these days. Shall we move to the desk? I’m afraid I’ll need my notes to explain all this.
Prichard pulls out a chair for me in front of his desk and sits opposite. He shuffles among stacks of documents, some of them typewritten, others written in longhand on unlined paper.
—I’ve been brushing up on the case all week—I warn you, it’s quite a headache. I’ll endeavor not to bog you down with details, but it’s essential that you understand the ‘problem’ of the Walsingham estate, and the sooner you grasp the problem, the better, for our time is limited. Most of what I’ll tell you was recorded by Peter Twyning, the estate’s executor. Fortunately he took meticulous notes. The case was a headache from the moment Twyning took it on. And he knew it.
Prichard unfolds a pair of tortoiseshell reading glasses and puts them on. He examines the page before him.
—Our client was a man called Ashley Walsingham. At the age of seventeen, Walsingham inherited a substantial estate from his great-uncle George Risley, the founder of a very profitable shipping line. This was 1913. Risley was childless, and as Walsingham’s own father was dead, Risley looked upon Ashley as his grandson. When Risley died, Ashley inherited the majority of his estate. Peter Twyning managed the Risley estate and would later become executor of Walsingham’s fortune.
—Ashley went up to Magdalene College, Cambridge, in the Michaelmas term of 1914. Rather bad timing, wouldn’t you say? The war began that August and Ashley duly applied for a commission in the army. By the summer of 1916 he was about to be sent to France. In his last week in England he met a woman called Imogen Soames-Andersson.
Prichard looks up at me. —Does that name mean anything to you?
—A pity. I’d hoped it might. You see, Imogen was the sister of your great-grandmother Eleanor.
I shake my head. —I’ve never heard of them. Soames—
—Soames-Andersson. Anglo-Swedish—an unusual family. Twyning left pages of notes on the Soames-Anderssons alone. The father was a Swedish diplomat, first deputy to the Swedish envoy in London. The mother was English, apparently an accomplished sculptress. They had two daughters, Eleanor and Imogen. The English side, the Soameses, had quite an artistic pedigree, and the daughters were brought up in the same line, rather bohemian. Eleanor later became a painter of some distinction.
—She was my great-grandmother?
Prichard frowns. —Yes, we’ll get to that bit. As I said, Ashley met Eleanor’s younger sister Imogen in August 1916. They had some kind of love affair for a week, then Ashley was deployed to France. We presume the two of them kept in touch. In November 1916, Ashley was badly wounded in one of the last battles of the Somme offensive. He was mistakenly reported dead. Imogen was notified by this law firm of Ashley’s death, only to learn a week later that he was in fact alive. As soon as she heard, Imogen went directly to France. She found Ashley at a hospital in Albert, near the front line. They met briefly but had an argument, or so Ashley told Twyning. Then Imogen disappeared. As far as we know, she never returned to England and was never seen again.
—What happened to her?
Prichard takes off his eyeglasses.
—We don’t know. I don’t suppose we’ll ever know. Ms. Soames-Andersson had a reputation for being rather—impulsive, shall we say. At least in Twyning’s view. From his notes, I gather he considered her something of a wild card. Certainly he wished she’d never crossed paths with Ashley. There was much speculation on the cause of her disappearance, but nothing was ever proven. Evidently Ashley believed she was still alive, for he told Twyning so on several occasions.
Prichard glances at his wristwatch. He puts his eyeglasses back on.
—I’ve neglected the most important part. The climbing. At Charterhouse one of Ashley’s schoolmasters was Hugh Price, the famous mountaineer. Price took him climbing in Wales, with summer seasons in the Alps. In 1915 Ashley was elected to the Alpine Club, and by the early 1920s he was said to be one of the best climbers in England. In 1924 Ashley won a spot on the third British expedition to Mount Everest. A few days before he sailed for India en route to Tibet, Ashley came to this law firm and asked Twyning to revise his will. Previously his principal beneficiary had been his mother, but Ashley had Twyning amend the will to leave the majority of his estate to Imogen.
—But I thought she was gone—
—She had been missing for seven years.
—You can leave money to a missing person?
—Why not? It’s not illegal. It’s simply a very bad idea. Naturally Twyning tried to dissuade him from the changes, but Ashley insisted the money sit in trust until such time as Imogen or her direct descendant claimed the estate. He ordered that the trust sit for eighty years. If no one claimed it by then, it was to be divided among various charitable beneficiaries—the Ashmolean Museum, the Alpine Club, a few village churches in Berkshire. This clause was intended to make it impossible for anyone to preempt Imogen’s claim during her conceivable lifetime, or for the estate to escheat to the Crown.
Prichard flips over the sheet of paper on his desk.
—Ashley Walsingham was killed on Mount Everest on the seventh of June 1924, caught by a storm during a summit attempt. His mother received her portion of the estate, but Imogen never surfaced. For decades we’d been expecting to distribute the remainder when the eighty years ran out. We’d already drawn up the papers. But last month all that changed.
—You see Mr. Campbell, in the last few years there’s been a certain interest in Eleanor’s painting, though from what I’ve gathered it has less to do with her work than her connections. Evidently Eleanor was close to the Camden Town Group as well as some notable French painters. Last month a graduate student was looking through Eleanor’s letters at the British Library. She found something that caught her eye, and eventually the letter got passed on to us. We believe it concerns Imogen.
Prichard lifts a photocopy from his desk.
—This letter may clear up why Mr. Walsingham left the money to either Imogen or her direct heir. Not her sister or parents, mind you, but only her descendant.
He pushes the page across his desk.
—The letter was written in 1925 from Eleanor to her husband. The ‘C.’ mentioned here is, of course, your grandmother. She was eight at the time, and evidently having difficulties in school.
The photocopy is the final page of the letter. The handwriting is florid but precise.
Francis thinks I shall be able to get at least 8,000 francs for Smythe’s portrait. Provided it hasn’t been damaged in transit – as I fear given its odd shape & the inevitable shoddy crating. He’s certain that Broginart will take it as soon as he lays his eyes upon it. I’m not convinced.
Naturally it worries me to hear that C. is again at odds with her best interests. I agree that Miss Evans is rather dense & unsympathetic when it comes to C., yet there is no denying the girl is impetuous & easily distracted. Certainly we’ve striven to raise her as we judged best, but I suppose it’s equally true we’ve made allowances for her & always shall. Every day she is more the image of her mother, in both appearance & temper.
I laugh to think how I. would consider it another mark of destiny or divine signature that C. is not as we raise her, but as she was born to be. I must also admit I sometimes treasure C.’s obstinacy, having been without I. all these years. But above all, I worry, lest she meet the fate of her mother.
I must go now – the concierge has just announced the intrepid Mme. Boudin. Once again.
Love to all,
I hand the letter back to Prichard. He takes his glasses off and leans back in his chair.
—You understand the implication?
—My grandmother was Imogen’s daughter, not Eleanor’s.
Prichard nods. —With you her only living descendant. I suppose the letter survived by pure hazard. Legally it’s of little use. It doesn’t even call Imogen by name.
—It seems clear to me—
—If it’s truthful. But it may not be, for any number of reasons. That’s why the law won’t rely on a letter like this. We would need more substantial documentation.
—Official documents connecting your grandmother to Imogen. Considering they went to the trouble to hide your grandmother’s maternity, one wonders if such papers exist. Failing that, more evidence like this, put together, could be a persuasive argument. But we would need far more.
I take a moment to think.
—Would this Walsingham be the father, then?
—Possibly. It would explain a great deal.
—I don’t understand. You think I can find out something about this?
Prichard stands. He begins to pace around the room.
—We are at an impasse. The Walsingham trust was drawn up with great privacy in mind. What the trustees can do by way of investigation is strictly limited. Mr. Walsingham believed Imogen would come forward on her own to claim the estate, and he didn’t want anyone probing into their private affairs. This letter certainly suggests why. In any case, the trust explicitly forbids us from hiring third-party help of any kind. For eighty years there have been no probate researchers, no private investigators, nothing.
Prichard stops before a tall window, shaking his head.
—It’s exasperating to say the least. And it’s persisted all my career. Mr. Twyning always said the Walsingham fortune must sort itself out sooner or later, that with so much money involved an heir must surface. But it’s never happened. You’re the first outside party that’s ever qualified to be told about this trust, and I can tell you achieving that wasn’t easy. Even as a potential heir you had to be subject to a confidentiality consistent with the trust, which is why you can’t hire outside help any more than we can. That’s hardly encouraging, but it’s possible the evidence may not be particularly difficult to find. We simply don’t know, because we’ve always been straitjacketed. We know the truth exists, but we’re prohibited from looking for it.
Prichard looks at me.
—You’ve the opportunity of being more enterprising.
He turns back to the window. The rain has quickened outside and sheets of water are tumbling down the glass. A man on the street below dashes for cover.
—The Walsingham case was at our firm when I joined. That was forty-one years ago this March. I should like to have this case settled before I retire, and settled as our client intended. The money wasn’t really meant to go to any church or museum. So you can imagine how pleased I was to hear of this letter, and to learn of your existence. Let’s say it’s one of my legacy cases, and I shouldn’t like it to be a defeat.
—I wouldn’t know where to start.
Prichard nods. —Let me give you a piece of advice. If there is proof of your relation to Imogen, I doubt it will be in government archives or the like. You can look, of course, but you and Geoffrey already went through that business with your mother’s papers, and the one thing trustees have been permitted to do is look through vital records. There’s no paper trail to Imogen after 1916. All the usual records have been searched. Nothing turns up.
Prichard taps his finger on the photocopy.
—This letter is the breakthrough. It’s the thread you ought to follow. New evidence often opens new doors. In eighty years no one had the benefit of this knowledge, nor had they the freedom you have. Do you follow me?
—It certainly is. It’s also a mess, and I’m enlisting you to sort it out. You won’t thank me, for I’ve yet to tell you the worst of it. Today is the sixteenth of August, is it not?
Prichard sits down behind his desk and lifts another sheet of paper.
—Ashley Walsingham was killed on the seventh of June 1924. The news appeared in the British press on the twenty-first. As soon as he learned of it, Twyning tried to get in contact with Imogen, but of course he couldn’t. Accordingly, the Walsingham estate passed into trust on the seventh of October 1924. You recall it was an eighty-year—
—That’s in two months.
Prichard looks at me.
—More or less. If the estate isn’t claimed, it passes to the alternate beneficiaries on seventh of October. That leaves you roughly seven weeks. You see why I insisted you come to London straightaway. I grant you, it seems foul luck to have learnt of this letter only now, but imagine if we’d found it two months from now. It’s a question of perspective. A pessimist would say you’ve seven weeks to find what could not be found for eighty years—
Prichard leans forward. A wry smile crosses his lips.
—Mr. Campbell, let me ask you something. You’re not a pessimist, are you?
I hesitate. —I’m not sure.
—Spoken like a true Englishman. For my part, I’m confident you can achieve much by October. I don’t say you’ll find the proof, because we can’t be certain it survives. But you ought to be able to trace that which is traceable.
Prichard pushes a button on his telephone. He asks for Khan to be sent back in.
—As ever, Geoffrey shall bring you up to speed on particulars. He’s your man for the details. Good luck.
Prichard stands and I spring up awkwardly, following him to the door. He shakes my hand again.
—If I can help, he says, don’t hesitate to call.
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for The Steady Running of the Hour includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Justin Go. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Just after graduating college and at loose ends in San Francisco, Tristan Campbell receives a letter delivered by special courier. It contains the phone number of a Mr. J. F. Prichard of Twyning & Hooper, Solicitors, in London—and news that could change Tristan’s life forever. In 1924, Prichard explains, an English alpinist named Ashley Walsingham died attempting to summit Mount Everest, leaving his fortune to his former lover, Imogen Soames-Andersson. But the estate was never claimed. Information has recently surfaced suggesting Tristan may be the rightful heir, but unless he can find documented evidence, the fortune will be divided among charitable beneficiaries in less than two months. In a breathless race through Europe, Tristan pieces together the story of a forbidden affair set against the tumult of the First World War and the pioneer British expeditions to Mount Everest, and he becomes obsessed with the tragic lovers in the process. Part love story, part historical tour de force, The Steady Running of the Hour is a heartrending and utterly compelling debut that announces the arrival of a stunningly talented author.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. The novel’s title is taken from a line in the epigraph that begins the novel. How does the epigraph, from “Strange Meeting,” relate both to Tristan’s quest and Ashley’s life? Why do you think Justin Go chose to title his novel The Steady Running of the Hour?
2. Of Imogen and Ashley, Geoffrey Khan says, “These were not people like you and me.” What does he mean? What were your first impressions of both Ashley and Imogen? Did any of their actions surprise you as you learned more of their love story? Which ones, and why?
3. Tristan recounts how his half brother, Adam, told him, “I always ask for advice so I can worry about it. Then I go and do the thing I was going to do anyway, because knowing it’s a bad idea never stopped me.” Do you agree with Adam’s assessment of Tristan? Give examples from the book that support your opinion. Why do you think Tristan chooses to share Adam’s words with Mireille?
4. Describe the trust that Tristan stands to inherit. How was it set up, and why? Why do you think Prichard is so invested in having Tristan inherit Ashley’s estate?
5. Ashley tells Imogen that he joined the army because “I was bored at Cambridge. . . . And I was fool enough to worry I’d miss something if I kept out of the war.” Compare Ashley’s ideas of war with the realities he faces in the trenches. Describe his wartime experiences. Do they change him? If so, how?
6. Mireille says that “even love can sometimes be a mistake, and that perhaps this vanished love of Ashley and Imogen’s had been a wasted one.” Do you agree with Mireille about Ashley and Imogen’s relationship? Do you think they loved each other? Why or why not? Describe the nature of their love.
7. As Tristan delves more deeply into Ashley and Imogen’s history, his reaction to Ashley’s estate changes. How does it change? What accounts for the alteration in his feelings toward it? Why do you think Imogen never claimed Ashley’s estate, despite being named heir?
8. Eleanor criticizes Imogen for “turning away from ordinary choices,” saying, “If someone expects something from you, you can’t bear to give it to them.” Is Eleanor right about Imogen’s character? In what ways has Imogen turned away from “ordinary choices,” and what have the results been? Compare the two sisters. How are they different?
9. When a hotel clerk mistakenly thinks Imogen and Ashley are married, she’s displeased because “it’s just not how I want to think of us.” Contrast Imogen’s attitude toward marriage with Ashley’s. She believes that “one oughtn’t give names to what two people are to one another. It only makes it harder to be one’s self.” Do you agree with her? Why or why not?
10. When Tristan speaks of his plan to leave France and go to Berlin, Mireille is critical of him: “You don’t understand what’s going on around you.” In what ways do his experiences change him, and are they for the better? Why do you think Mireille reacts so strongly to the plan? Is she justified in her criticisms of Tristan? Why or why not? What are some of Tristan’s aspects that Mireille disapproves of?
11. While Imogen is in Sweden, she wonders if she and Ashley had “truly made choices, or had they given in to forces they felt too weak to resist?” What do you think? Did they have choices with regard to their love affair? Both Imogen’s relationship with Ashley and Tristan’s with Mireille unfold over the course of only a few days. Compare and contrast the two relationships. In what ways, if any, are the two relationships alike?
12. After the war, Ashley tells Eleanor that he won’t give up trying to find Imogen. She replies, “You are giving something up. . . . You just don’t realize it.” Is she correct? What is Ashley giving up by continuing to search for Imogen? Why do you think he persists?
13. Book 3 begins with an epigraph that, in part, reads, “If you are a brave man you will do nothing: if you are fearful you may do much, for none but cowards have need to prove their bravery.” Discuss instances of bravery that occur in The Steady Running of the Hour. Do you think that Imogen is brave for the way she handles her relationship with Ashley? Why or why not?
14. Duties figure prominently throughout The Steady Running of the Hour. When Imogen asks Ashley to leave the army, he tells her he cannot, because, he says, “I’ve a duty.” Do you agree with his decision to “see this through”? Why or why not? Does Imogen have any responsibilities toward Ashley? What are they? What duties does Tristan have toward Ashley’s estate, if any?
Enhance Your Book Club
Ashley Walsingham died in an attempt to summit Mount Everest. Learn more about Mount Everest here, http://www.history.com/news/7-things-you-should-know-about-mount-everest, and also here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mount_Everest.
Ashley believes that “it is climbing that makes one feel.” What does he mean? Talk about your passions with your book club. What do you do to make yourself “feel”?
Tristan’s quest takes him from London to the Somme battlefields and onward to the Eastfjords of Iceland and beyond. Describe the cities that Tristan finds himself in. What would you do in each?
To learn more about Justin Go, and more about the journeys and research he undertook to write The Steady Running of the Hour, visit his official site at http://www.justingakutogo.com.
A Conversation with Justin Go
The Steady Running of the Hour is your first novel. What’s been the most rewarding part of the experience of publishing your book? Was there anything that surprised you about the publication process?
It’s incredible just to see the book coming out. I worked on it for seven years, but even in the better periods I had grave doubts about the whole endeavor. When I finally learned the book was going to be published, I felt relieved simply to know I hadn’t been crazy all along. You give so much of your life to something like this, but you can’t count on getting anything back, not from the world at least. It meant everything just to be able to call myself a writer.
What I find remarkable about publishing is what a long and careful process it is. It’s almost like raising a child. When you’re waiting for your first book to appear, it can be painfully slow, but the exactitude is what makes it special. In a world where much of what we read was completed within minutes or hours, there’s something unique about books. There are more than a hundred thousand words in my novel. I can tell you I looked pretty hard at every single one of them, and other people did too.
As a debut novelist, do you have any advice for aspiring writers? Now that you’ve published your first book, do you wish you had done anything differently?
I think any aspiring writer should first decide if he or she really needs to do this. Writing novels is probably the longest and most unlikely path you could take toward fame, fortune or even happiness. But if you must write, put everything into finishing that first draft. Be fearless, if only for an hour or two each morning. Until I started writing, I didn’t realize how much fear had kept me from the life I wanted. I was afraid to write badly, so I didn’t write. I was afraid to be alone, so I didn’t move abroad.
Eventually I realized that the only thing that guarantees failure is never trying. If you aren’t willing to take risks and sometimes write badly, you’ll never discover what you can do. The miracle of fiction isn’t producing an adequate chapter that fits into your plot. It’s pulling out something from inside you that you didn’t know existed. The trick is to keep reaching for that, morning after morning.
Looking back, I wish I hadn’t doubted myself so often. A writer, especially a beginner, should be humble and always trying to learn. But it’s awful to stand on the brink of giving up. If you’re brave enough to write a book, be proud of yourself and keep going.
Like Tristan, you dropped everything to go on a European adventure, quitting your job and moving to Berlin. What motivated you to move to that city? How did you prepare for the transatlantic move?
I lived in Europe on and off after college, but eventually I wound up working at a law firm in New York. It was a good job and I loved living near my friends. But I felt unsatisfied. I wanted more to my life than an office job, and I felt I had something to give, but I didn’t know where to put it.
I started working on the book. I’d tried writing fiction before, but after I developed this story it became more serious. I wrote nights and on weekends. Gradually I realized the book was the one thing I was doing that I really cared about.
A few years before this, I’d stopped in Berlin for a few days, and I’d been fascinated by it ever after. It was unlike anywhere I’d been in Europe—a vast capital full of unpredictable spaces. When you went out in Berlin, you never knew where the night would take you. I thought it would be the perfect place to write a book.
So I saved as much money as I could and quit my job. I left for Berlin with a plot outline, a few rough scenes and three suitcases full of research books. Even once I was on the plane I couldn’t believe I was really doing it.
In The Steady Running of the Hour the action alternates from World War I to present day. Why did you chose to structure the novel with alternating chapters? Was it difficult to change time frames while you were writing? Or did you write each time frame all at once?
I alternated the chapters because I wanted both stories to progress at the same time, and I didn’t want the past to feel too “historical.” And I wanted them both in the present tense, to have the same immediacy. A big question in the book is whether Tristan’s life—or anything in our contemporary lives—can measure up to this epic notion of history, the Great War or the Battle of the Somme. But people don’t think about history while it’s happening. It’s personal mythologies that matter, the stories that Ashley tells himself about Imogen for seven years, or the way that Tristan feels about Ashley and Imogen.
I didn’t write the book in chronological order. I just wrote scenes when I felt ready. The Everest and war chapters were written last, because I wanted to research as much as possible before writing. I felt so much pressure to get the historical chapters right that it was a relief to write Tristan’s chapters, because I could relax a bit and rely more on firsthand experience.
Anton DiSclafani called The Steady Running of the Hour “an astonishingly vast, meticulously plotted, and beautifully told novel.” There are so many twists and turns throughout Tristan’s quest: can you tell us how you were able to plot them out so precisely? Did you know how Tristan’s search would end when you began writing?
When I started the book I plotted it carefully. I probably made ten outlines in ten different notebooks. I felt everything had to unfold in a very particular way. But of course I made mistakes, or characters or events changed and I had to replot things.
As the writing went on, I realized that knowing what happens is just the beginning. Next you have to figure out how things will happen, where they will occur among the alternating story lines, which characters will know about them and how they will find out. The infinite permutations are enough to give you a headache. Eventually you have to just follow your instinct.
I always had an image of where Tristan’s search would end. I’d gone hitchhiking in Iceland and I remembered a particular fjord, where I got dropped off and no more cars came. I lay down on a black sand beach and instantly fell asleep, as if I was meant to have some kind of vision. It felt like the end point of the long trip I’d taken across Europe, a destination I’d arrived at without knowing I’d been traveling toward a destination. I knew I wanted Tristan to end there. But what it actually meant for him to reach that fjord—the meaning of that developed as his story grew.
When talking about his research Tristan says, “All I need is one good piece of evidence, and I keep getting sidetracked. It’s hard because . . . every time I got sidetracked I found the best stuff.” How did you conduct your research for the novel? Do Tristan’s research methods mirror your own?
At the beginning I read very broadly. I got to Berlin with thick surveys of the Great War and Everest and Edwardian Britain. But eventually I realized that specific knowledge was far more useful than historical overviews. I didn’t need to know everything about Franz Ferdinand or British Imperial policy toward Tibet. What I really needed was to know what it felt like to be there. So I became obsessed with figuring out what the streetlights looked like in London in the summer of 1916, or what kind of dishes you could get in a good hotel, or what the mud felt like in the Somme that November.
A lot of that research was similar to Tristan’s. But he never worries about the thing that I found the hardest, which is getting inside a culture. It’s one thing to be correct with superficial details. But to be true to an entire vanished civilization—the way different people talked or acted, what they cared about, what they shared and what they kept to themselves—it’s nearly hopeless. The closest you can get is reading what these people left behind, their letters or diaries or memoirs. So I read as much as I could, until I felt neck deep in their world. No amount of research ever felt sufficient. But at some point I just had to close my eyes and imagine.
As Tristan researches more about Ashley and Imogen, he is often surprised. Did anything surprise you when you were conducting your own research for the book? If so, what?
I was surprised nearly every day. And if I wasn’t surprised, I’d feel like I wasn’t learning enough. It’s the surprising things that shift your view of a period, or give you details that later become important. I’d be trying to figure out how long it took to send a letter from the Somme to London, and I would read something unexpected about codes in soldiers’ letters. Often I barely noticed these things when I first read them, but they stayed inside me and came out later.
The best surprise was writing something from my imagination, then finding it mirrored an archive later, in a document I’d never seen before. It was usually trivial things—I’d imagine Imogen knitting an afghan, or Ashley writing a telegram about Poste Restante letters, or Eleanor ordering certain pigments from Paris. Then I’d read a letter mentioning knitting an afghan all night or Prussian blue pigments or Poste Restante letters. It felt like a small miracle every time it happened. I hadn’t done anything special, of course. I’d simply seen a detail elsewhere and it had entered my picture of the period, so I had put it in the novel. But it felt good to be vindicated.
Eventually the line dividing truth from fiction began to blur. I was going to the same places as Tristan and looking up the same things, and occasionally finding results similar to what I’d imagined Tristan finding. Sometimes the sense of unreality was so strong that I had to remind myself that the letters I was holding were real, that they had been written by real people who had held those pages at the Somme or on Everest. After dealing with so much fiction, the reality of history seemed too much to believe. But it was true.
The climbing sections of the novel are particularly vivid. Did you rely on books or other research to get a sense of what an Everest expedition might be like?
Everest has a wonderfully vast literature—a mythology of its own—but it can be overwhelming. I studied every relevant book I could find, but also photographs, maps, films, newspapers, climbing manuals, everything under the sun. It kept me busy for years. The 1920s expeditions left behind detailed records in the Geographical Society and the Alpine Club in London. There I was able to see things like climber’s diaries and detailed equipment lists, as well as many letters.
But I most wanted to understand what it felt like to be up there in a tent in a blizzard, or traversing stone slabs in nailed boots. The official expedition books were fairly dry, but fortunately the memoirs of climbers from the 1920s and 1930s expeditions were often vivid. I also read more recent climbing books, because although the equipment and techniques have changed, the sensations of cold or altitude are largely the same.
Eventually I went to Everest myself, traveling through Tibet to the base camp. It was an incredibly hostile environment—even more cold and dry and windy than I’d imagined. But the mountain was hypnotizing. I could have stared at it for days. Finally I understood the magnetism of it, the reason that men like Mallory kept coming back. Once you’ve seen Everest, you’ll never forget it.
Your characters are so well fleshed out, they feel like people that your readers should know. Were they based on anyone in the historical record? How did you come up with them?
History was always the starting point. Ashley is a climber and Imogen is from a very specific background, so I began by imagining the world they would have come out of, the kinds of people they might have known. The best way into this was looking at real people. Eleanor and Imogen seem to have been influenced by Virginia Woolf and her sister Vanessa Bell, the painter, but I didn’t do that deliberately. Eventually it just creeps in.
In the same way, you couldn’t imagine a character like Ashley without the examples of the original Everest climbers, particularly George Mallory. He was such a magnetic spirit that you get the idea that all the Everest climbers were men of great artistic and intellectual passion. But they were actually quite different. I tried to get to know all kinds of climbers from the period to broaden the foundation for Ashley’s character.
But no matter what your inspiration, characters ultimately just need to feel human. I might decide that Imogen loved Nijinsky’s dancing or Laforgue’s poetry, or that Ashley was an advocate of guideless climbing. But what really defined Imogen was her passion, a kind of emotional conviction I’d witnessed in certain people in my own life. In Ashley’s case, I began to understand him through his humor, a gallows humor I’d often seen in books and letters from the war. I thought Ashley’s humor might conceal what he really cared about. So you start with history, but ultimately the characters grow from what you believe about people. And your imagination.
What would you like your readers to take away from Tristan’s quest?
The beauty of literature is that everyone can take away something different. I see fiction as a kind of mirror to the world—a human reflection, not a factual one—and I don’t think novels should have a single meaning any more than life does. I try to tell a story without telling the reader how to feel about the story. The hope is that if you place readers close enough—until they’re experiencing what’s happening before them—they’ll have their own emotions, richer and more individual than anything a writer could impose.
But of course, I have my own feelings about Tristan’s quest. I spent a lot of my twenties chasing after some grand ideas I’d got in my head. I wanted to see everything, to experience everything. That gave me certain ambitions, but it also made me unhappy, because I was never really satisfied with what was around me.
Tristan is caught between his ideas and his reality. When he starts learning about Ashley and Imogen, everything in his own life seems trivial by comparison. But as time goes on, I think Tristan understands that what draws him to Ashley and Imogen isn’t some grand historical legacy, but that both of them craved something greater in their lives and were willing to fight for it. That’s what Tristan wants—to know what matters and go after it. In the end, I think he does that. He has to turn away from the past and that’s hard for him. But ultimately he chooses his own life.
Can you tell us anything about the novel you’re working on now?
It’s set in Europe between the wars, so it pretty much picks up where this book ends. I find the 1920s and 1930s to be the most fascinating period. There was so much political turmoil and at the same time such remarkable artistic achievement. I’ve been making these huge timelines and the backdrop is astonishing—the publication of Ulysses and The Wasteland in 1922, the German hyperinflation, American expats flooding the Paris Left Bank, the Nazis and Communists battling in the streets of Berlin, another world war looming.
But that’s just the setting. What interests me are the human relationships within all this—what they were like, not only around the centers of power but on the fringes of empires, in the remote corners of deserts or mountains. It’s a big story, so eventually I’m going to have to whittle it down to what works best.
I’d promised myself I wouldn’t do another historical book, because it’s so demanding. But I think the need to anchor things to research also anchors them to the real world, and that’s a good thing. I’m trying to get as immersed as I can, as close as possible to experiencing the things I’m writing about. And I’m continually inspired by the people whose books or letters I read—not because they teach me about history, but because they teach me about being human. Maybe one day I’ll give up on the past and write about other things. But not yet.
The Vanquished Enemy: Everest Above All
The first time I read about Mount Everest, I was seventeen and I picked up the copy of Into Thin Air my mother had borrowed from the library. I started the book in the afternoon and read late into the night. To a teenager in a sunny suburb of Los Angeles, the world of howling blizzards, treacherous glaciers and altitude sickness at 29,000 feet was spellbinding. Nothing could have been more remote from my surroundings. I loved it at once.
It was only after I finished the book that I realized I'd been absorbed by something more than the climbing disaster. There was a lingering question I couldn't answer. Why would people risk everything to climb a mountain for no tangible benefit, when they knew it could bring them only discomfort or even death?
In the following years I read everything I could about Everest, going back to the first expeditions in the 1920s. The climbers themselves captivated me most. George Mallory was famous for disappearing with Andrew Irvine on their 1924 summit attempt, but what really intrigued me was his view of mountaineering as a transcendent experience that changed lives, but the heart of it there remained a mystery. Writing of a successful Alpine climb, Mallory asked, "Have we vanquished an enemy? None but ourselves."
My Everest fascination stayed with me through college, but it seemed just another strange obsession, like the Great War, whose images of mud and trenches had enthralled me ever since I read All Quiet on the Western Front in high school. Things only came together when I started writing fiction. One day, reading the letters of the war poet Wilfred Owen, I thought about how the climbers of 1920s Everest expeditions had nearly all shared in the trauma of the Great War. For all their differences, the two events seemed uncanny reflections of each other. They had both involved struggle and profound tragedy, but they had also led to moments of rare fellowship, even beauty.
Suddenly I had so many questions. Why would men who had spent years fighting choose to go on an expedition that was itself so much like war? And how had such extreme experiences marked these men's personal lives, and the lives of the people they had loved?
I began plotting a novel. The amount of research needed seemed overwhelming. Over time it led me to dozens of libraries, to the archives of the Royal Geographical Society and the Alpine Club in London, and ultimately to Everest itself.
I reached Everest base camp on a blindingly sunny October day. It was cold, dry and windier than anywhere I'd ever been. But I couldn't take my eyes off the summit above. I watched the plume of snow streaming over the peak from Nepal into Tibet. For the first time in my life, I wanted to climb the mountain, and I wanted it badly. It was crazy, I knew, and I doubted it could ever happen. But I finally understood. Justin Go
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Great Read With Major Flaws. This novel is frustrating experience but one I will probably advise readers to take. I admit this hooked me in almost immediately as it is, at its base, beautifully written with a very engrossing plot. Two stories run parallel to each other; the first takes place during and after WWI where Imogen and Ashley engage in a passionate love affair in one week. The other is a present day (well 2004) story of Tristan, the young man who might be the great-grandson of that affair and might be the heir of Ashley's multi-million dollar fortune. What results is the back/forth telling of both stories, moving in and out time periods, with Tristan running around the world trying to prove he is the rightful heir. Now, for a good chunk of the novel, this is incredibly engaging; although, I found the WWI story FAR more interesting. While the lovers behave very stupidly thru most of this affair and Ashley ends up torturing himself on a Mt. Everest attempt, readers can become invested in what happens to them. Less so with 21st century's Tristan looking for treasure. He is never given enough a personality to really engage me and his own love affair with a Parisian girl is just flat. I could never see why we should be invested in it, other than to keep the parallel stories running. But for me--the biggest problem is the ending. I have reread whole sections and the last chapters multiple times and I am still not sure what I'm supposed to know or what, exactly, has happened in EITHER story. I nearly threw the book across the room--but multiple reviews on Amazon express the same frustration so I guess it's not just me. I wanted to LOVE this book and I was ready to--but the loose ends and questionable ending killed that. And while many other readers found the chapters about Ashley's assault on Everest to be riveting--I didn't. I thought it went on way too long. But despite all that, readers who love a WWI backdrop and suspense with their romance, should look at this. Just be prepared to not have all your questions addressed--or if you do--post it somewhere so the rest of us can find out!
Oh thank goodness I'm not the only one! I was so prepared to give this a 5 star review until I got to the end. Like Irishclairekg, I thought there were a few spots that dragged here and there including the Everest chapters and I thought Mirielle to be a bit needy and that whole relationship, like she said, a bit difficult to get invested in. But it was the ending that left me scratching my head truly perplexed. I went back and reread several time to try to figure out where I weni astray, only to come to the same conclusion each time, that I had no idea what indeed the author was trying to say at the end - was it a lie, was he trying to spare her the truth!? I just hope the author clues us in eventually because this is going to drive me mad from wondering!
It kept me reading though the attitudes of the certain characters were not always clear. Enjoyable.
This book was not worth the time I spent reading it. I found it to be slightly boring and I hated the ending. I would not recommend this book or ever read another book by this author.
I really was not a fan of this book it was very slow but more than anything it never really grabbed me. I kept waiting to get realy interested in the story because the idea is such an interesting one but it neverhappened. There wasnt much mystery to the story and parts dragged on. The characters were boring to me and underdeveloped. The endjng was the worst though andbecause of it I would not recommend this book. Thr author is a beautiful writer but he left a lot to.be desired.
When Tristan Campbell is summoned to London to visit the offices of Twyning & Hooper, he has no idea what to expect. He learns he is the main heir to a lost fortune, but in order to gain it, he must prove beyond doubt that he is the great-grandchild of a woman named Imogen Soames-Anderson and a World War I soldier named Ashley Walsingham. And he has only 8 weeks to prove it. That is when the terms of the will expire and the fortune will be distributed among numerous other lesser heirs. This sets him off on a journey through Europe chasing the tracks of Ashley and Imogen, discovering their story, and piecing together the seams of his past. Along the way, he finds love and learns much about life and himself and what really matters. Beautifully written, this novel has a very compelling plot that leaves you guessing. The story moves between Tristan’s contemporary travels and into the past more than 100 years prior. The book was absorbing and entertaining, with strong characterization and beautiful descriptions of people and places. The love stories that enfold are emotional and intriguing. The ending left me hanging and a bit frustrated, but that is what still haunts me today. It keeps me thinking about the story and the lessons behind it. A wonderful debut novel. Keep an eye out for this author – there are great promises to come.
An American citizen, Tristan Campbell, receives a summons to the law office of an attorney in London, England. It involves a mysterious inheritance that must remain a secret. The entire inheritance will be Tristan’s if he can find paper proof of his grandmother, Imogen Soames-Andersson, in only seven weeks. It sounds like an easy job except that no one has heard of Imogen for years; indeed there is some sort of mystery about the marriage of Imogen to the once famous mountain climber, Ashley Walsingham. So the quest begins! The novel moves back and forth between Tristan’s search (eighty years after the life of Ashley and Imogen) and Ashley’s experiences as a mountain climber, soldier in WWI, the lover and husband of Imogen, and then as a mountain climber again. Tristan and Ashley could not be more different if they tried. Tristan remains very quiet and unbelievably, solidly methodical, considering what the outcome could be. He travels from London to Europe researching paper trails for Imogen and her sister Eleanor. The trail is fascinating as Eleanor was an artist of some talent and assumed more of a motherly role to her sister. Imogen is mentioned here and there by name only so it is Eleanor who is the link to provide the full story of the turbulent love story of Imogen and Ashley. Tristan then goes to the places where these sisters and Ashley Walsingham actually lived. Ashley is truly the most powerful figure in this novel. He is a talented, intelligent man who has a chiefly unruly and daring spark to his personality that endears him to both Imogen and his fellow mountain-climbing and military peers. Imogen will try to make him choose between her and the war, but Ashley’s sense of patriotic duty exceeds even his deep, deep feelings for her. One wonders what lies ahead for these star-crossed lovers who cannot live without each other. Justin Go’s writing talents clearly excel in the way he provides descriptions of the stark brutality of the war as well as the incessant tension present in the mountain climbing experiences of these characters, undaunted by innumerable, formidable obstacles to success. Add to that a heightened sensitivity and perception that every character in this novel possesses and one has the perfect combination for a phenomenal read. This is historical fiction depicting a side of cultural history rarely exposed to the public. There’s something for everyone herein, adventure to romance to mystery to warfare, et al. Fascinating, literate fiction crafted by a talented writer!
Quest's are full of adventure, romance, and hopefully at the end you find what you have been searching for. Tristan's quest does not fail to hit on the first two and for me also the third one depending on your view of whether what he did find in the end was worth what he had lost, for me it was so that is why I would include the third one as also being present in this novel. Tristan is just a normal "joe" when he gets a letter out of the blue from a law firm in England saying that if he could contact them that maybe both him and the law firm could both benefit from it. Tristan is much more trusting than I would have been I would have thrown that letter in the trash and curse spam mail forever but luckily Tristan is trusting. Searching back through the past by scouring through items that have survived time Tristan is racing against the clock to prove that Imogen Soames-Andersson, a woman he has never heard of before is actually his great grandmother. Up until that moment Tristan has always assumed that Eleanor, who was Imogen's sister even though Tristan didn't know that his "supposed" great grandmother even had a sister, was his great grandmother but Tristan is about to find out that his family has their share of skeletons in the closet. So who is Tristan's real great grandfather? And what does this all have to do with him and a bunch of lawyers? The novel is the telling of two stories decades apart but connected to each other through blood. Ashley Walsingham dies in 1924 attempting to climb Mt. Everest leaving behind a large fortune to a woman that he hasn't seen in years, Imogen Soames-Andersson, a fortune that Imogen will never claim. A connection is found that Imogen's sister Eleanor may not have given birth to her daughter Charlotte after all that Charlotte is actually the result of the union of Imogen and Ashley in the weeks before Ashley was to leave to fight in France in World War I. This letter written be Eleanor leaves little doubt that Tristan is Ashley and Imogen's great grandson and that this entitles him to the still unclaimed fortune. But like all good things this one comes with a deadline of two months because if Tristan cannot find more proof by then the 80th anniversary of his great grandfather's death will pass and the fortune will be distributed amongst various charities. This is where Tristan's quest really begins as he follows clues all over Europe searching for lost information that will be his definitive proof that Ashley and Imogen are his great grandparents but soon this search proves more important to him than a vast fortune. As Tristan's tale unfolds so does Ashley and Imogen's story, they alternate chapters going forward to the present and back through time with each new chapter and each chapter is labeled with the place and date so I wasn't confused at all about where the story was, which can happen when you don't label the chapters for a story that goes back and forth throughout time like this one does. As Tristan visits certain places throughout Europe you get to enjoy the part of Imogen and Ashley's story that occurred in the same place Tristan is in. This I thought was one of the neatest parts of the book because it connected the past and the present with something tangible like a location and anyone who has visited an old battlefield or a town that long ago was ravaged by war you feel that pull from the history of the place that is hard to put into words to describe but that feeling is there none the less and you can imagine Tristan feeling that pull to find out the history of his family and the experiences that they had in these places he visits. Tristan follows every clue and in the end he finds what he was looking for the whole time and I will give you a clue that the pot at the end of the rainbow is not filled with gold! The Steady Running of the Hour has a little bit of every genre in it, you will find romance, suspense, mystery, history, and lots more on the pages of this book. There were some parts that I felt dragged on to long which made certain parts of this book a little dull for me if not for these parts this book would have been a 5-star but because of them, I gave it 4-stars.
A brilliant story. A quest thru the lives of people seperated by the ages. From a love affair at the start of World War I to the present day, the story unfolds, and captures your spirit. The young lovers caught up in the act of living and discovering that life sometimes throws curve balls that wreck our dreams. The contemporary young man in search of clues to their life, and if their relationship is a connection to his lineage, and a possible inheritance. Through his search he finds direction to his life, and a love that takes spark and may grow. The complaints about the ending are understandable, but I believe the author took a bit of poeitc licence to leave us into our own search for the proper ending. For me, the ending was just that, poetic--ending as it should.