Zibby Owens: Samantha Harvey is the author of four novels, The Wilderness, All Is Song, Dear Thief, and The Western Wind, and she has written a memoir which we’ll talk about today called The Shapeless Unease. Her novels have been shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction, the Guardian First Book Award, the Walter Scott Prize, and the James Tait Black Prize, and longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, the Baileys Prize, the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize, and the HWA Gold Crown Award. The Wilderness was the winner of the AMI Literature Award and the Betty Trask Prize. The Western Wind won the 2019 Staunch Book Prize. She lives in Bath in the UK and is a reader in creative writing at Bath Spa University.

Welcome, Sam. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Samantha Harvey: Thank you for having me here. I’m very honored.

Zibby: You’re in the UK now. Is that right?

Samantha: Yeah. I’m just outside Bath in the southwest of the UK.

Zibby: Interesting. We’re doing this via Skype. For people not watching, I feel like you have such a pretty British wallpaper behind you and this old bookcase. It’s perfect. It’s exactly how I would imagine where you would be outside of Bath.

Samantha: Actually, I have a house that’s in desperate need of renovation, hence the old-fashioned wallpaper. It does have a kind of charm about it.

Zibby: No, I didn’t mean it to suggest it was old-fashioned. It’s super charming. It’s fantastic. I can’t wait to hear about if you’re sleeping any better these days, but I loved your book. Can you please tell listeners, from your perspective, give them the little two-minute wrap up of what your book is about, if you don’t mind, your most recent book?

Samantha: I’ll try. Back in 2016, I quite abruptly stopped sleeping and went from being a really good sleeper to just having very severe insomnia in a matter of weeks, pretty much. I couldn’t write. I’m a novelist. My career has been as a novelist. I couldn’t write another novel. I didn’t really have an idea. The more sleep deprived I got, the less bandwidth I had to put together the architecture of a novel in my mind on the page. I just started writing whatever came to me. I felt a really strong need to write because it’s the thing that I do that anchors me and makes me feel quite grounded and quite peaceful. I started to write without an idea of what I was writing. I certainly had no idea that I would be writing a book. I just wrote whatever came to me. I sometimes wrote at night, but that was quite rare. It was more in the day when I was very sleep deprived. I would write whatever surfaced. I tried not to put too much design on that or influence it too much, just whatever came up.

What came up was all sorts of stuff, fragments of memories and things from my own childhood, thoughts that I was having about the world. There’s a kind of essay in there about a tribal people of the Brazilian Amazon. A short story ended up being in there, sort of reflections on being awake and on insomnia itself, all kinds of things, different types of writing in different registers, different tones. In the end, it amassed to something that was roughly book length. My agent said, “What have you been writing?” I said, “Nothing. I can’t write a novel. I’ve just been writing while sleep deprived.” She said, “Well, let me see it.” So I gave it to her. She gave it to my editor. They decided to publish it as a book. I was more surprised than anyone that that was the outcome because that hadn’t at all been my intention. Actually, I’ve never written autobiographically before.

Zibby: How do you feel now that this is out in the world? Do you feel self-conscious that it’s your innermost stream of consciousness dialogue with yourself, and now there it is? Do you feel comfortable with it being out there?

Samantha: It’s a mix. It depends on the day. Obviously, once I knew it was going to be published and when I agreed to it being published, I had to reconcile myself to this knowledge that it would be exposing for me. I kind of made peace with that. I thought, well, this is what I’ve written. I’m not ashamed of anything I’ve written. Obviously, I needed to write it for some reason. If my publisher thinks there’s a readership for it and that might be interesting to other people, then so be it. I’m going to go with it. Most of the time, that’s how I feel. There are days when I think, what have I done? On the whole, I reconciled myself to it. I feel like it was a very honest, raw expression of where I was in my life. I hope that some of that honesty and that rawness reaches people because it’s honest and because it connects to something in them.

Zibby: I loved that part about it. I loved the stream of consciousness. I loved how you experimented, as you said, with all the different forms, how some of it seemed like you were talking to a doctor having a diagnosis of yourself in a situation. Then the next would be, it’s almost like a script and then a letter. It was so great, and then little snippets of diary entries, almost. For someone who reads a lot of books, it was such a nice change. You are constantly keeping the reader engaged and shifting gears and in the chaos of what it feels like to not get a lot of sleep, which everybody has felt at one time or another. It was almost like the form you used reflected so well the experience you were actually going through, which I’m sure was your intention in some way subconsciously or something.

Samantha: Subconsciously, yeah, I think it was. I think I see it now as a kind of simulation of sleep deprivation. It’s not so much about being sleep deprived, but it is a written simulation of what that’s like. That wasn’t even my intention. I think that was just the inevitable outcome of writing from that place.

Zibby: I think that’s what my outbox looks like. All my emails are an example of sleep deprivation writing at work. Except mine’s not going to be a book. It’s just how I get through life. One of the things you mentioned in your book that sort of set off, perhaps, you thought, this year of not sleeping very well was the death, suddenly, of your cousin, which I’m so sorry about, and the fact that not only did he die suddenly, but it took some time for him to be discovered as such. Can you talk a little about that and if you think looking back that that did have a fair bit to do with what ended up happening to you as a response?

Samantha: I started to get insomnia in the autumn of 2016. At the same time, it coincided with that, that my cousin died very suddenly. He was epileptic. He died of an epileptic fit. As you say, he wasn’t discovered until a few days later. I don’t know how much of a causal relation there is between the two things, my insomnia and that death. That was one of quite a few things that were going on at the time in my own life that were quite problematic, not huge things, but things that were troubling. I don’t know if the relationship between the two is causal or if it was more just a correlation that they kind of happened at the same time so they became very much bound up in one another. Because I was awake a lot, I began to think a lot about my cousin. I was very troubled by the fact that he had died and that he was a contemporary. I wasn’t that close to him. We’d been close as children, but not as adults. There was just something about the loss of someone who was my own age and from my own childhood and the fact that he had died so suddenly. I just became very troubled by it because I was awake so much. I was thinking about things too much. One of the real problems with insomnia is that not only are you awake, it gives you so many more hours in the day to think about things and to brood over things and to worry. I think the two things just became very bound up in one another more than it being a causal thing.

Zibby: You also started going back to an incident that happened way back in your past when you were randomly attacked. It came pretty far into the book where you started thinking about this again. Perhaps that’s where it was in your consciousness of coming back to it. Tell me about that. That sounded horrific to me. You were somewhat, I wouldn’t say blasé, but you were somewhat matter of fact about it and just sort of presented it as if it was another thing that had happened as opposed to something that was a central thing in your life. Can you just talk a little about the effect it had and how you handled it then versus how you handle it now?

Samantha: It’s a really interesting thing because I have not had a terrible life by any stretch. It’s had its troubles, but it’s been a blessed life as well. When I started writing, inevitably, all of this stuff came up that was part of the trouble of life. That was one of the things that came up. It came up, really, because I was digging around searching for things that might be the cause of my insomnia. The relationship I have now to that attack is a really strange one because I don’t feel that I have any trauma from it. At the time, it was quite a distressing and brutal thing. I ended up in hospital for a few days. I have a metal skeleton in my hand where it was broken. It obviously made an impact on my life. One of the things that has always been strange to me is that it hasn’t had as much of an impact as I would’ve thought. I’ve always wondered, is that because I really did, at the time, sort of face it and go through what I had to go through in it? Or is it because I’ve suppressed something? Am I failing to deal with it? Could that sort of residual trauma be something that is feeding my insomnia now?

That’s why it made its way into the book. It was one of those things that I was digging out of the suitcase thinking, could this be it? Could this be the thing that’s stopping me sleeping? I’ve never felt that it was. I don’t know why I feel so little trauma around it. I haven’t really worked that out. I had to identify the man who did it. He went to prison. I think maybe because there was that sort of closure on it — but even then, I felt quite ambivalent about that process, about him going to prison. There was something about it that I really just could never quite get to grips with. It’s left me this big question mark in my life of, how affected am I by this? Am I really as unaffected as I feel I am? It probably sounds like a strange answer. It’s always had this very strange place in my life.

Zibby: Interesting. I feel like that would be a good book in and of itself. Maybe you should turn that into fiction.

Samantha: I did. It’s actually what started my writing career, funnily enough. I had been living in Japan for a couple of years. I started writing while I was there. Then I went to Australia when I left Japan before I went home. I just went for three weeks. That’s where it happened. When I got home, I couldn’t go find work because I had two broken hands and head injuries, so I started writing a novel. That novel was never published, but I did finish it. Once I’d written that novel, I realized that’s what I wanted to do with my life. It was a very clear thing. That novel was a fictionalized version of that attack and a sort of fictionalized account of all the things that had led up to it. This actually had an incredibly impactful place in my life. Maybe that’s because I worked it out through fiction, that it now doesn’t have these traumatic reverberations, maybe. I don’t know.

Zibby: I think you should dig that one out of the closet and go back to that one in your spare time in the middle of the night next time. I just wanted to read a couple of the sentences in the way you wrote about writing because I loved how you wrote about it. You said, “I look at what I write, and it’s like being introduced to my soul, every time for the first time, not always liking what I see. Writing is dreaming. Not all dreams can be interpreted. And anyway, not all interpretations are right. And anyway, not all interpretations are interesting. And anyway, the dream is the thing unto itself. Writing is dreaming. I only discovered that a couple of years ago. It is lucid dreaming, the work of the subconscious, that has a toe in the conscious, just enough.” Then finally you said, “Writing has saved my life. In the last year, writing has been the next best thing to sleep. Sometimes a better thing than sleep. I am sane when I write. My nerves settle. I am sane. Sane. I become happy. Nothing else matters when I write even if what I write turns out to bad.” That’s it. That’s most of what I wanted to read, which is beautiful and such a great reflection on how writing can help and how writing interacts with the brain. It’s such a unique thing, really, how writing even works. Can you talk about that just for a minute?

Samantha: How writing works.

Zibby: Writing as dreaming because I hear that quite a bit sometimes. How do you come up with ideas? I don’t know. Some writers say it’s like a dream. How do you come up with a dream? It just happens.

Samantha: Right, yeah. It feels that it’s the same. When you can let go and start writing instinctively — I think that happens when you get past the phase of wanting to understand what the rules are for writing and what the agreement is and what you’re allowed to do, what you’re not, what works, what doesn’t. You have to kind of go through that phase as a writer, I think, as a part of the learning. When you come through that, and that’s not to say you have nothing left to learn, but you’ve absorbed and internalized enough, you can start getting to something really instinctive. That’s where I think writing becomes more like dreaming than like a technical craft because it’s always calling on the subconscious and coming from the subconscious. The less you get in the way of it, the more you find that to be true. The things that end up on the page, you may have gone to great lengths to create a fictional world and a character who is adamantly not yourself, but in the end, what you have on the page is your own life, your own preoccupations, your own self in all sorts of guises and disguises in the way that you do in a dream.

If you remember a dream and you look at it, you see it’s just all of your desires and fears all dressed up in different costumes. It’s just the same as writing. I find that really fascinating. I think that maybe one reason that writing has been such a salvation to me through insomnia is because when you’re not sleeping, you’re not dreaming, so all of the working out that you do through dreams isn’t happening. I think I did that working out through writing. It was sort of a surrogate way of dreaming. I hadn’t really realized at the time. It only occurred to me a few months ago. I thought, I can see why that was such a necessary thing for me to do because I didn’t have any other way of processing my subconscious. It was an incredibly powerful realization. This book, if nothing else, has absolutely restored my faith in writing, which was flagging a little bit. There must have been thoughts of, what’s the point of writing novels? The world is going to hell. What’s the point? I now think that sort of answered that question for me.

Zibby: Good. How are you sleeping now?

Samantha: Better than I was when I wrote the book. I’m still definitely an insomniac. I don’t know how to resolve that. I think that whatever the triggers were that instigated it have gone to an extent, but it’s now being fueled by its internal processes. As insomnia is, the triggers might go away, but you’re left with this really intractable habit of body and mind. I’m struggling to break that. It’s still an ongoing struggle, but it’s not anything like as severe as it was.

Zibby: Oh, good. I’m glad at least it’s getting better. Although, I don’t know, another book like this would be great too. Are you working on another book now?

Samantha: I am just beginning to research a new novel. It’s been three years, nearly, since I finished my last novel. I’ve never had a gap of anything like that length between novels before. It’s been a really big absence in my life. I wrote The Shapeless Unease in between. In terms of a novel and that kind of world-building of a novel and the research and the entirely absorbing, lengthy process of it, that’s been absent. That’s a really strange thing for me. I am now beginning to research. I haven’t started writing it, but I’m researching something new. I feel kind of excited by it at the moment, so that’s good.

Zibby: That’s good.

Samantha: I feel like I do have, most days, the capacity to write it. It’s been a very long process to get here, very strange. I’ve always had an idea for a novel queued up before I finish the last. To have had no idea for three years has been really unnerving.

Zibby: It’s nice to know they came back.

Samantha: Yeah. Maybe it’s just a necessary part of the process.

Zibby: I feel like you’ve given so much advice through your vantage point on writing. If you had to give one piece of advice to somebody who is trying to struggle through writing or attack a new book or anything, what advice would you give?

Samantha: This is such a difficult question.

Zibby: You don’t have to answer it.

Samantha: I’ll do my best. This is going to sound like an incredibly nebulous, abstract answer. I think that writing is a sort of expression of love in a way. It’s a very expansive thing to do. It asks a lot of you. It asks you to open your heart. I think if you’re going to write a novel or anything, write it from that kind of expanded, generous place in yourself. You can sort of feel for that. Write for no other reason. I think this for myself. It’s why my faith was flagging a bit. The world doesn’t need another novel. There is so many novels in the world. That’s not to say that if you write something that’s absolutely from the heart and feels like it needs to be written, there will be a place for it in the world. I think that’s the only reason to write. It’s the only place to write from. In any case, that’s how it is for me.

Zibby: That’s great advice. See, you did great. I’m glad I asked.

Samantha: It doesn’t feel that practical somehow.

Zibby: It still helps. It all helps. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” Thank you for sharing your experience, not just with me today, but also through your book. I’m glad it didn’t just stay in a journal on your desk or whatever and that it became something that the world could share because I found it very helpful and interesting and thought-provoking and different and a joy to read, so thank you.

Samantha: Thank you, Zibby.

Zibby: Take care. Buh-bye.

Samantha: You too. Buh-bye.