23rd Jul 2012
For Books’ Sake Talks To: Samantha Harvey
Samantha Harvey’s first two novels have been the subject of countless glowing reviews, and appeared on a substantial amount of literary award long and shortlists over the last few years.
With a postgraduate degree in Philosophy and Creative Writing behind her, it is no wonder Harvey’s writing has been described as full of “sharp observation and moments of subtly understated pathos.”
Her critically acclaimed début novel, The Wilderness, documents 65-year-old Jake Jameson and his battle with Alzeimer’s. Her second novel, All Is Song, is the story of William Deppling, a modern day Socrates living in London.
Harvey explains that, for her, both novels examine “the point at which a person stops fitting very well into their world and find themselves to be ‘abnormal.’”
She is particularly drawn to the idea of using older or elderly characters to narrate stories. “It seems to me the lack of fit between a person and the world increases the older they get,” says Harvey. “It becomes more difficult physically, mentally and socially to belong.”
The idea behind All Is Song had been with Harvey since studying at undergraduate level, in her words “way before I ever even took seriously the idea of writing novels”.
When asked why Socrates is never mentioned in the text despite the fact that obvious connection between the philosopher and William Deppling, Harvey responds simply; “I never found an elegant way of doing so.” She even went to a writer friend for advice on the matter, who responded, “people in Eastenders don’t watch Eastenders”.
Although the premise of All Is Song is complex and intricate, Harvey made a conscious decision to make the narrative structure “as simple and linear as possible.”
She explains: “The Wilderness, by necessity of its subject matter, was an experiment in structure and how a novel’s narrative can be used to reflect confusion, forgetfulness and fragmentation. By deliberate contrast, All Is Song is traditional, old-fashioned, unexperimental.”
However, she is quick to clarify that this did not make it easier to write. “[There] are no tricks, no flourishes- there’s nowhere to hide,” says Harvey. “I loved the discipline it involved, and the attempt at purity of style. In many ways that is harder to do well than something obviously innovative”.
Harvey’s innovation and attention to detail are obvious, but critics have been particularly vocal in praise of her boldness as a new author, taking on such ambitious premises that often touch on taboo or difficult subjects. Some have even labelled her as a ‘brave’ writer.
“Yes, I have been called that and I find it funny – as if I’m battling through metaphorical jungle, slaying metaphorical beasts, all in the service of a very noble end,” Harvey jokes.
When asked whether the novels ever felt ambitious when she was writing them, Harvey replies, “It feels ambitious because writing novels is inherently ambitious, but it never feels controversial.”
Although both novels are narrated in the third person, the nature of the stories requires a great insight in to the characters’ minds. Did Harvey ever find it difficult to write so complexly from a male point of view?
“If anything I find it easier,” she replies. “For some reason I write more comfortably, more confidently from a male perspective. I have many theories for this – I’m sure Freud would too.”
Harvey is playfully evasive when questioned on her literary influences, arguing, “in order to write from your own centre, with your own voice, you must ultimately shut out everything you’ve ever read.”
In the last few years Harvey’s work has received many accolades, most notably The Wilderness was shortlisted for both the Guardian First Book Award and the Orange Prize, and was also longlisted for the Man Booker. In 2011, she was named one of The Culture Show’s Best New British Novelists.
But how important are literary awards to new writers? “Unfortunately, in the short term at least, they’re crucial,” says Harvey. “It’s very hard for a new literary novel to be noticed otherwise. I say unfortunately because prize lists are so arbitrary, and I’ve never felt that more than when I was on them myself.”
On the significance of female-only awards such as the Orange Prize, Harvey is surprisingly cautious. She makes a compelling argument that “the greatest justice you can do a female writer is to insist she be judged alongside male writers.”
She is particularly wary of the idea that the Orange Prize is judged by an all-female panel. “It seems to imply that this is writing by women for women,” Harvey explains.
“In an ironic and very unintended way, this only strengthens the stereotype that novels by women are somehow separate, different, and have little to do with male readers.”
As for the long term, Harvey expresses a hope that “a truly great novel will prevail, awards or not,” but admits it is entirely possible that the author may be dead before their greatness is recognised.
It looks like no such fate awaits Harvey, though, with so much recognition already from the literary world, and a third novel underway, described coyly as “a love story of sorts”. Readers may also be pleased to hear that this story will feature a long-awaited female narrator.