Paul Kearney on writing 'The Way to Babylon'

For me, the soundtrack to writing The Way to Babylon is Jethro Tull – not Songs from the Wood, as you might expect, but just the single track, Wondrin’ Aloud, the lyrics of which gave me great pain for all those years (and they weren’t that many, when I look back on them), when I was young, single, and so romantically involved with myself and the idea of writing, and what it took to be a writer, that I might just as well have chucked it all in and become a monk. 

I mean – sharing toast on a bed? (Tull fans here will know exactly what I am talking about.) It was for me the Olympus of personal romantic endeavour. But at the same time I had this inflated idea of what the ideal woman would be, and I was yearning hard to meet her. Real yearning my friends and colleagues – real hard yearning.

(Well, dear reader, I did meet her, but unfortunately for you, that happened outside the scope of this little prurient aside into my past – suffice to say that I’m still meeting her every morning, twenty-three years after that initial, somewhat startled realisation that I had found a beautiful woman who was as in love with toast as I was. So let’s move on.)

Ahem. So back in my sordid, yearning early twenties, I managed to liberate myself from my hormones long enough to go climbing mountains now and again.  I went up to Scotland, where all the real mountains are, (no offence to Snowdonia, every one of whose 3K peaks I once climbed in thirty six hours, and a tip of the hat to Snowdon itself, which I once climbed in the middle of the night, pissed off my skull, and actually scrambled up through a waterfall after going off the path, laughing insanely – ah, youth.) 

Not that impressive, I know. But I upped my ambitions, and trailed north, led by a very humane institution, British Rail, which every February in those years let you book a return ticket from anywhere to anywhere (if you were a student), for the grand total of £10. Now there’s a little foible of Nationalisation I would love to see back. (The rest you can keep.)

So I thought – Skye. They have mountains on Skye, and in all the pictures, they look pretty much like Middle Earth.  (In those days, hard though it is to believe, very few people had heard of Middle-Earth. Those who had met in darkened corners to talk in whispers about Tolkien and Dungeons and Dragons, and generally speaking got ignored and despised by their fellows. But that was all right, because the ignorers and despisers were pretty much a bunch of asshole and failures, as it turned out... I know – sometimes fate rewards the meek, the patient and the nerds.

I had very little experience of winter climbing, but when I got there, the Cuillin Mountains on Skye were buried pretty damn deep in snow. I had taken the precaution of borrowing an ice-axe from the mountaineering society back in bucolic old Oxford, but I had no crampons. I was a lonely bloody-minded Irishman – but so was Shackleton, I told myself as I began climbing.

Actually, I wasn’t climbing, I was walking, and then scrambling. The higher I got, the more I realised what an idiot I was. I was wearing worn army boots, and in the days before mobile phones, nobody knew where I was, and the weather was worsening. 

When I fell, I was barely surprised.  

Ever woken up to find snow settling on your face? It’s rather beautiful. But it scared the hell out of me – from the depths of my adolescent stupidity, a lance had just seared out of the real world and punctured my bloated, youthful self-esteem.  

Back down I came, in showers of snow I like now to fondly look back on as a blizzard. I was very sore, and I carried the bruises for many weeks (and to be fair, they went down a storm once I was back at Oxford – pun intended.)  But I had broken no bones (well, looking back now, I think I probably had a few ribs cracked – the pain plagued me for weeks afterwards), and I was hale and hearty and extremely ready to get on with life.

But I couldn't quite shake the pictures and notions that my time on Skye had invoked in my mind.

And I guess that’s why I wrote the book.

About a guy who falls off a mountain. On Skye.

There’s a lot more to it, of course, but that was the genesis of it, in a nutshell.

Paul Kearney's The Way to Babylon is out now in the US in paperback, for the kindle and of course in eBook format directly from the Rebellion store

Publishing in the UK and Rest of World on June 5th: pre-order it today.

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