a few words with emily chappell

emily chappell

every ride undertaken by yours truly each weekend, is augmented with a garmin gps unit attached to the handlebars. contrary to common belief, i do actually switch on the device before leaving the house, and it displays my (lack of) speed, distance covered, calories burned and, most importantly (it's the big number at the top) what time of day it is. you see, i ride without a watch, something i have previously found to be a great irritant, so i leave it at home on bedside table.

though the above variety of parameters are dutifully recorded by the garmin, none of them get anywhere near strava, for i simply delete them before heading off the following morning. i have previously advertised my aversion to numbers, particularly those that threaten to interrupt the enjoyment of my bicycle rides. i care not one whit for galeforce winds and driving rain; i simply enjoy riding my bicycle, and i think that sentiment goes for many others in the velocipedinal realm. it's mostly a pleasurable experience, one that ends when we want it to and before it becomes too uncomfortable. endurance cycling, on the other hand, such as described in emily chappell's 'where there's a will', reviewed in yesterday's post, sounds perilously close to masochism. so i asked emily, what's the attraction of events such as the transcontinental?

"Well, perhaps 'endurance' is a misnomer. I'm still trying to figure out the precise terminology to use for the sort of cycling I do, because so much of the available language is permeated with this idea that it's all about pain and suffering, and pushing on when everything in you is screaming to stop. In reality, that's not a very big part of it.
"I am very rarely in pain on the bike, and if I'm suffering to an unreasonable extent, I'll stop riding, rather than do myself any serious damage. And those feelings and processes where I have to battle against my own reluctance, are all so much more interesting than just 'overcoming suffering'. I still haven't quite put my finger on how a person manages to contain the simultaneous desires to stop and to continue.
"But I've now written a whole book trying to capture that feeling. And perhaps that was the attraction of the racing. To take myself to that elusive place, and to see what I discovered there. Also, the joys were always far, far greater than the ordeals."

i won't pretend that my weekend rides are anything special. unless you have a predilection for riding quickly past single malt distilleries, while trying to keep dry and remain upright, there's simply not a book in it. and that could conceivably explain why my recall of each expedition is remarkably scant. folks like philippa york have astounding powers of recall, determining just where, when and who fitted that 38 inner ring to the campagnolo chainset of her peugeot carbon bike from the early 1980s. conversely, i cannot remember what i had for tea last sunday.

emily chappell seems similarly blessed, and possessed with a fluid and confident writing style. i asked her whether the writing of this book was always in her mind, even before first entering the transcontinental? her recall of events is impressive, and i wondered if she had been taking copious notes each day, prior to falling asleep from exhaustion?

"I can't remember exactly when I decided I wanted to write a book about ultra-distance, but it was around the time that my first book (What Goes Around) came out, after I'd raced in (and dropped out of) the 2015 Transcontinental. So when I first had the idea, I didn't know what the plot would turn out to be. I didn't know I'd end up winning the race. And I didn't know how central my friendship with Mike - and his death - would become to the story.
"I didn't take notes as I went along, but I'm not sure I needed to. I think in sentences and paragraphs anyway, and because you get so much time and headspace on long bike rides, I'll often pedal along for several hours, turning phrases over in my mind, fine-tuning their rhythm and syntax, and dwelling on the descriptions and discussions I'd created.
"I've always done this, and quite often when I sit down to write I find the words are already there to work with, as if I'd noted them down in a journal."

in the pursuit of a career as a graphic designer, i have worked with a wide variety of people, some of whom have hired me for my avowed expertise, prior to telling me just how to do the job they hired me for. many of these commissions, along with the work i've done for islay's local newspaper, involve typesetting, frequently necessitating that i read the text before deciding how best it should look on the page. this has brought to light the knowledge that there are a great number of folks who know a great deal more about stuff than yours truly, knowledge that seems un-allied to any grasp of the english language, or the grammar that would make it readable.

there is monty-python's archetypal post-match interview with a first-division footballer, whose standard reply to each and every question is "well i just kicked the ball, and there it was in the back of the net." soccer players are rarely employed for their literary expertise. emily chappell, however, seems possessed of an envious ability as a cyclist and an impressive skill to write clearly about the experience. her narrative in 'where there's a will' reads incredibly well, but is she comfortable as a writer? do the words flow easily, or is it every bit as hard as riding long distances over difficult terrain?

"It's both, but far more often the latter. My main experience of writing both books has been sitting miserably at my desk, despairing of my lack of talent and apparent inability to get the words to do what I want them to. (Curiously, I'll often go back the following day and find that what I've written is actually pretty good. I'm mystified by my inability to judge this while I'm writing it.) And I do recall some moments during races where I thought 'this is so hard, and has been for ages; maybe I'm not cut out for cycling after all.'
"In hindsight I feel very positively about both experiences, and hindsight lasts far longer than the moment itself. One thing I have learned, time and time again, is that when something looks 'effortless', be it a person's fluent prose or their uphill cadence, it almost certainly does not feel like that from the inside."

but writing is about much more than simply using the right words to describe any given situation. the scattergun approach of jotting things down as the memories occur would undoubtedly result in approbation of the avant-garde, but probably not reflected in copious sales at the book shop counter. in order to grasp the attention of the prospective reader, it's necessary to lure them into your world and keep them there until you've finished talking. in other words: structure.

on reading 'where there's a will' i confess that, through the opening chapters, i was under the misapprehension that i was reading of emily's transcontinental victory. that it was the clever prelude to her second (victorious) attempt was a pleasant surprise. was this deliberate, or a happy happenstance?

"I didn't intend for that to be the effect, though I'm pleased you've found that ambiguity. And the opening of the book (where I wake up on my back in a field, and momentarily have no idea what's going on) was half-consciously designed to represent so many of the moments in long races, where time seems to expand, or elide, and rather than feeling a sense of place, what you're really experiencing is a sense of placelessness.
"So in that sense, it's almost irrelevant where it occurred chronologically. It's all the same experience, the same bubble you enter into after a few days of sleep deprivation."

as i mentioned in my review, not every book has a happy ending. emily won the transcontinental race in 2015 and her book about the event is published today (thursday 7 november). therefore, anyone with an interest in this particular genre of cycling, will already be aware of the book's mid-point happy ending. however, in the spirit of 'one thing leads to another', in the process of aiming for one thing, others have a tendency to intervene.

that point in emily's career was meeting up with endurance cycling legend, mike hall, a gentleman whose inspiration, advice and friendship proved invaluable both prior to and after her transcontinental victory. his tragic death while participating in the premier edition of the indian-pacific wheel race was thus never going to allow the book to end as happily as it might have. had emily begun writing the book prior to hall's death in australia and if so, did that affect the structure of her intended narrative?

"I'd written bits and pieces, and I had a plan, and a proposal more-or-less ready to go. Everything fell apart a bit when Mike died, and it took me quite a while to put it back together (in some senses, of course, I never will). Eventually I realised that he - and his death - would be part of the narrative, and then struggled all the way through writing it, with whether or not that was actually a good idea.
"I wanted to tell his story, I wanted to tell my own (of which he was inextricably a part), and I wanted to take him down from his pedestal and restore him to the human being I'd known and loved. But I also wrestled with the idea that I might be exploiting my friend's death for creative capital, with the paradox that in telling new stories about him, I was adding to his legend, rather than undermining it, and the doleful realisation that no matter how I tried, I couldn't quite bring him back."

it will surprise remarkably few of those who read thewashingmachinepost on even an irregular basis, that what i end up writing about is not necessarily that about which i intended to write. sometimes that's a good thing, sometimes it's an infuriating thing, but almost always, it's a confusing thing. i have been advised that this is frequently due to a consciousness intent on expressing itself, in spite of my best efforts to do otherwise. so, in retrospect, mike hall's untimely death provided (for me at least) new meaning for the book. was that emily's hope? ultimately, was 'where there's a will' intended to be a tribute to his life?"

"I think there are enough tributes to Mike's life. (And although I struggled with the flood of obituaries and memorials that followed his death, I recognise that people have different ways of dealing with their grief, and that grief itself varies from person to person.) 'Where There's A Will' was supposed to be about long-distance cycling, my fascination with it, my love of it, and all that it's given me. Had Mike still been alive, he would have been alongside me while I wrote it. We would have discussed my progress on our rides, and I would have complained to him when it was going badly, and celebrated with him when it went well.
"As things have turned out the way they have, what I've produced is probably my best attempt to write the book without him. My grief was still quite raw during parts of the writing process, and I sometimes thought it might have been better to wait a year or two, until I could see how things turned out, and find a more detached perspective.
"The book (at least to me) contains a lot of anger and indignation at the way things turned out, and this enduring (though flawed) belief that if I try hard enough, I can find a way of using words to make sense of it all. That's impossible, of course, but it may have made it a better book. And I suppose, although it wasn't intended that way, the book will come to be read as a tribute. Once something's published, you lose control of what people can read into it, after all. And I knew that all along. Maybe it was my own complicated way of saying goodbye to him."

if you'll pardon the pun, everything has a natural cycle; a beginning, a middle and an end. obviously enough the period over which that lasts can vary widely, depending on the subject under discussion. when the end arrives, depending on your experience of the preceding process, you'll either try to hang on to that which has passed, or calmly tick the box and move onto the next stage. emily chappell rode two transcontinental events, taking victory at the second attempt. additionally, she took part in the strathpuffer 24 hour mountain-bike race and ireland's transatlanticway. will she continue to participate in similar endurance cycling events, or has that itch been scratched? is she now happier featuring on the organisational side?

"I think my racing days are over. Once I'd won a couple of races, and knew what it felt like, I lost the incentive to do so again. I'd proved I could do it, and that seemed to be enough for me. But I retain a very strong love of riding long distances. If I only had one day left on earth, I would cycle 100 miles or so, preferably through a mountain range, with a couple of good café stops. There's a certain tranquillity I can only touch when I'm a couple of hundred kilometres in. So these days, I'm doing a lot more audax, which seems to give me everything I want, with no competition, no remote scrutiny from dot-watchers, and exactly as much company and solitude as I want."

my sincere appreciation to emily chappell and james spackman of pursuit books for their invaluable assistance with this interview.

pursuit books | emily chappell

thursday 07 november 2019

twmp ..........................................................................................................................................................................................................