Alex Roddie interviews Claire Carter, one of the editors of Waymaking: a new anthology of women’s adventure writing, poetry and art.
By Alex Roddie
At the 2018 Kendal Mountain Festival, I was keen to attend the book launch of Waymaking. This project, made possible thanks to the hard work of a team of women and the publishing prowess of Vertebrate, aims to bring together a range of women’s voices to tell stories about mountains, wilderness, and spending time in the outdoors. I decided to track down Claire Carter, who played a pivotal role in bringing these voices together.
Alex: Hi Claire, thanks for taking the time to talk with me today – I know you’ve been immensely busy with your work at the festival! I’d like to chat about the Waymaking project. How did you come to be involved?
Claire: Heather Dawe wrote a book called Adventures in Mind that I thought was incredible. At the time I was working at Vertebrate Publishing and the book blew my mind. It was incredibly honest and a really interesting evocation of psychology – a sort of uncontextual woman’s voice.
I met her and we became friends. She was at Leeds University with Helen Mort, going running a lot, and we talked a bit about the women that we found inspiring. Heather thought it was important that we connect these voices together. We had so many interesting questions around what it would be like to read a collection of women’s voices – would gender be relevant, and lots of other questions around it. Heather really got the project going; I was brought in later. Heather Dawe, basically, is brilliant.
Alex: What kind of barriers do you think women are currently facing in order to communicate about their experiences in the mountains?
Claire: Very very tricky question! There are a lot of different perspectives on gender barriers, whether they are self inflicted or self perpetuating. I would say that certainly they can be, but I also think that representation inspires. Sometimes I get a bit bored of the conversation, I get frustrated getting asked about my gender, but I now don’t have to think about it. For example, I’ve just started surfing – a complete beginner – and when there are other women in the water, I identify with them and have a different experience. Gender is just one star in the diversity constellation that has to be approached, I feel that strongly, but there is still a fight. There is a disparity, especially when it comes to outdoor and wilderness stories.
“We know men like to read stories of men climbing mountains, but we don’t necessarily know if women like to read stories of women climbing mountains. Until we have women writing about this stuff, maybe some women won’t think they can do it”
There’s a women in adventure session coming here to Kendal. It has something like 18 women doing things that would have put them on the main stage four years ago, when I joined the festival – it’s incredible the stuff that they’re doing. I feel like it is really having a ripple effect. What is really important about the book is that we looked for voices that weren’t necessarily famous.
Alex: I find that quite interesting, because there are various different paths that people take into outdoor writing – and I think there’s a perception that women still face a bigger initial hurdle to get those first publication credits. Is that still the case, or do you think it’s starting to level out a bit?
Claire: I’m not a publisher, but there has to be an audience for a book to be published – it’s a risk to publish a book if you don’t know who the audience is. As an analogy, there was a big furore around a particular brand who weren’t creating waterproof trousers in sizes above 14 because there was a belief that women who were bigger than a size 14 didn’t want waterproof trousers. Until you make the product you don’t know if anyone is going to buy them – but until the product exists, you might not know if these women want to do the activity at all.
So I think it probably is harder, yes. We know men like to read stories of men climbing mountains, but we don’t necessarily know if women like to read stories of women climbing mountains. Until we have women writing about this stuff, maybe some women won’t think they can do it.
Alex: One thing I was quite interested in was a discussion online last year about the ‘This Girl Can’ campaign. Some people remarked that the campaign was unhelpful because it started from the point of view that women think that they can’t do this stuff.
Claire: I agree – some women don’t think they can. Apart from other factors, there’s a huge drop-off in female participation after they have children. I’m sure it’s the same for men as well – paternity will definitely affect participation in the outdoors – but there weren’t very many female role models until recently, so this may help perpetuate the idea that women can’t do it, especially after they have children.
Alex: How do you think women’s outdoor stories tend to differ from the stories that men tell?
Claire: This was what was most interesting about making the book: is there any difference? I was at Banff Mountain Film Festival recently and there was a panel of women talking about memoir. There was a discussion that women’s writing tends to be – and we had a debate over these words – more vulnerable or candid. You could perceive that women find it easier to be more open than male writers, but that’s definitely changing, and reinforcing these ideas around the voice of gender can be dangerous.
“The more we share stories about wilderness and how wonderful it is the more that we’ll encourage people to protect it – and to think about their behaviour”
One of the things I love the most about the book is that there are a number of stories that don’t mention gender, and you would not know the gender of the author just from reading them. One of the most beautiful stories is by a writer called Paula Flach, who writes about the idea that when she goes out into the wilderness she forgets her gender completely. That’s something that I really identify with. It’s not that I don’t have an embodied experience, but I forget about the social construct of gender.
There’s this lovely image of 19th-century female mountaineers who would leave their skirts at a certain altitude. We rise above gender when we’re in wilderness. Yes, it’s wonderful to celebrate and identify women’s qualities and voices, but it’s also great to escape it.
Alex: And finally, I’m interested in the two charities that you’re supporting. How did you pick Rape Crisis and the John Muir Trust?
Claire: Heather chose them. They were really important to her and we really wanted to support her decision as an instigator of the book. We had a panel at Kendal yesterday about how connecting people to wild spaces – whether it’s a positive or negative thing – is one of our responsibilities, but I do think that the more we share stories about wilderness and how wonderful it is the more that we’ll encourage people to protect it – and to think about their behaviour.
Waymaking: An anthology of women’s adventure writing, poetry and art, edited by Helen Mort, Clare Harter, Heather Dawe and Camilla Barnard, is available now (Vertebrate Publishing, £17.99).
Claire Carter is a writer, filmmaker and creative consultant, based between Sheffield and North Wales where she climbs, runs, and swims. She is the Artistic Director of Kendal Mountain Festival and the Engagement Officer for the Outdoor Industry Association. She has juried for Telluride Mountain Festival, Krakow Mountain Festival and SheExtreme Festival among others, and continues to work on the BMC’s Women in Adventure Competition. Her first film, Operation Moffat, codirected with Jen Randall, followed the life of the first female British mountain guide and won twenty-one international festival awards. Claire sits on the Nature Connection Index Academic Group, and is investigating how the arts can contribute to our connection to nature, and allied empathy through her creative and corporate work.
Header image © Alex Roddie