Johanna Garton: The Intersection of Mountaineering and Crossed Paths and Lives

Author Johanna Garton shares her experience of taking and finishing a story her journalist mother started a decade before her about mountaineer Christine Boskoff, who disappeared while climbing in China in 2006.
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Johanna Garton is a mother, proud Wisconsin girl, writer, and cross country coach. In writing Edge of the Map: The Mountain Life of Christine Boskoff, she interviewed more than 75 friends and family of Christine Boskoff and Charlie Fowler, including notable climbers such as Peter Habeler, Nazir Sabir, Willie Benegas, Phil Powers, Mark Gunlogson (current owner of Mountain Madness), Hector Ponce de Leon, Steve Swenson, and Conrad Anker. Coversant in Mandarin, Garton conducted several weeks of research and interviews near the site of Boskoff's death in China.

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(Lee Gutkind: The Godfather Behind Creative Nonfiction Takes on Memoir.)

Not a mountaineer herself, Garton was drawn to Boskoff's story for deeply personal reasons: hailing from the same small Midwestern hometown, and in fact, attending high school together, though they never met. Their paths seemed destined to intersect.

When Boskoff went missing in 2006, Garton's mother, also a journalist, began a 10-year deep dive into Boskoff's story as well as a close friendship with Boskoff's mother. She devoted herself to this project until a diagnosis of Parkinson's disease made it clear that Garton was meant to pick up where she left off and ensure Boskoff's story was told.

Before the publication of her book, she dabbled in nonprofit consulting, college teaching, and a brief, but quickly extinguished, career as a lawyer. She's moved her family to China, been charged by an elephant, and has completed over 20 marathons. She and her husband share their home in Denver with two bright children who are much wiser than she is and the inspiration of her storytelling.

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Name: Johanna Garton
Book title: Edge of the Map: The Mountain Life of Christine Boskoff
Publisher: Mountaineers Books
Release date: April 1, 2020
Genre: Adventure/Creative Nonfiction

Elevator pitch for the book: A dramatic and inspiring work of creative nonfiction based on the life of trail-blazing mountaineer Christine Boskoff.

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What prompted you to write this book?

I began my journey with the story in 2017 after my journalist mother was unable to continue work on it herself after a diagnosis of Parkinson's Disease. My mother had begun putting together the book in 2006 following the disappearance of Christine Boskoff, an accomplished mountaineer who was from our hometown of Appleton, Wisconsin. 

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Boskoff and her climbing partner Charlie Fowler were eventually found to have been killed by an avalanche in a remote part of western China. As my mother dug further into Boskoff's story, she realized the depth of her achievements, both personally and professionally. This led to her work on the book and, after turning the project over to me, the continued hopes that one day the book would be published.

Did the idea change during the writing and publishing process? 

As I mentioned, my mother began working on the book in 2006 and it was published in 2020. The idea changed from her initial concept of a traditional biography to the vision I had when she passed the torch to me, which was for a book that would have broader appeal. Ultimately, it's now much more than a biography and instead what I call an "adventure story" in the spirit of Into Thin Air.

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Were there any surprises or learning moments in the publishing process for this title? 

It was a surprise for me to learn how many people needed to have their hands on the story before it was published. Having published just once before with a very small publisher, I was amazed this time at how many editors, graphic designers, and marketing pros needed to be involved. Ultimately, this made for a much better book!

Were there any surprises in the writing process for this book? 

I came to the project very determined and certain that I wouldn't become emotionally involved in the story or the characters. Indeed, as many of the main players had passed away, I thought it silly to even think I'd be capable of forming those connections. 

Predictably, I was wrong and found myself falling very deeply into the story, and into the lives of those I interviewed, as well as the characters themselves. Again, my hope is that these lasting friendships and connections I developed along the way can be felt as readers walk through the story.

What do you hope readers will get out of your book?

My hope is that readers will find the story to be both an escape from troubled times as well as a source of inspiration. It's also a book that is causing many readers to wander off in search of more information on such things as Sherpa life, acclimatization, the environmental impact of mountaineering in the Himalayan range, etc. A little something for everyone, it seems!

If you could share one piece of advice with other authors, what would it be?

I'll share the piece of advice that I'm trying to follow myself, which of course isn't always easy! My current goal is to focus more on my own path as a writer, which is slow and measured, often times writing very few words in a day. 

(21 Authors Share One Piece of Writing Advice for Writers.)

I find it can be incredibly distracting to be bombarded with messages about how many words I need to produce each day or how fast I should churn out books. Instead, seeking my own timeline is something I'm trying to improve upon!

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