Award-winning author Samantha Harvey on her love for Somerset

PUBLISHED: 00:00 12 February 2020

Samantha Harvey

Samantha Harvey

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The Somerset-based author explains how her year chasing sleep created her forthcoming memoir: The Shapeless Unease.

A year of not sleeping, sounds unthinkable, right? For many of us, it is extremely hard to understand and visualise what insomnia is like, unless we have experienced it first-hand. What happens when one of the basic human needs goes unmet? For English author Samantha Harvey, extreme sleep deprivation resulted in a raw clarity about life itself. Original and profound, The Shapeless Unease is a startlingly insightful exploration of memory, writing and influence, death and grief, and the will to survive.

"When my back was against the wall and I was really suffering, writing was the only thing I could turn to," Samantha says. "I just started writing because at the time I was unable to write another novel and focus on all things of life- it is the only thing I know how to do. I never envisioned my writings would be turned into a book."

Samantha is the author of The Wilderness, All Is Song, Dear Thief and The Western Wind. She has appeared on the longlists for the Bailey's Prize and the Man Booker, and the shortlists of the James Tait Black Award, the Orange Prize and the Guardian First Book Award. She is also the winner of the AMI Literature Award and the Betty Trask Prize Writing.

"When the chips were down it was writing I turned to and it really helped me. The book is obviously about sleep, but it is about other things too. Anger, frustration, grief, trying to navigate the modern world we face, and short stories."

So, when Samantha's insomnia arrived seemingly from nowhere, she spent her nights chasing sleep that rarely came. She tried everything to appease it, but nothing was helping.

"The only thing that has got me through is the blind trust it will end. I guess it will, but it hasn't yet. However, it is better and that has really given me hope."

"My wish is that what I write communicates with the reader or reaches out to someone to make them feel less alone. A good book just communicates with you on all sort of levels and I hope all of my books do that."

However, even though times were extremely hard, Samantha found peace in her local surroundings of the village of Batheaston. "For a long time, every single morning whenever I slept or not I would walk up Solsbury Hill," she says.

Heading up the small flat-topped hill, a site of an Iron Age hill fort would be somewhere for her to go. "I would still walk, even if I had zero hours sleep, I just dragged myself up there."

"It was a great solstice for me to be able to go up there every day and to get some literal perspective on things. Once I was up there, I didn't feel necessarily better but I felt different. I did have a bit more space between myself and my suffering."

Originally from Kent, Samantha considers our beloved county her home. "I have lived in Somerset for more than 15 years, it is where I feel very anchored and rooted. Anywhere in Somerset is beautiful and, as I cycle I get to experience lovely villages, landscapes and towns."

It is evident this county is her life. The novelist is also a senior lecturer in creative writing on the MA at Bath Spa University, teaching novel and prose writing workshops. "It is an absolute privilege to teach at Bath Spa University. Students who come to study for their MA are fired up, determined to work really hard. The atmosphere is infectious and I like it."

She adds that teaching the students has been a positive aspect of her life too. "I find coming here and teaching reminds me what a powerful thing it is to write and that it is still my dream. It has really restored my belief and faith in writing too."

The Shapeless Unease

"Sleep. Sleep. Like money, you only think about it when you have too little. Then you think about it all the time, and the less you have the more you think about it. It becomes the prism through which you see the world and nothing can exist except in relation to it."

The Shapeless Unease by Samantha Harvey (published by Jonathan Cape in January 2020 £12.99). For more information or to buy the book, visit penguin.co.uk

SAMANTHA'S FAVOURITE 
THING TO DO IN SOMERSET

River swimming is something I do quite often and there are several swimming spots that I have been visiting for years. I would say, this is what got me through insomnia. My favourite place to river swim is the River Avon because it has a beautiful ash tree at the end of the river. I like to swim to that ash tree and lie underneath it in the water, look through the leaf canopy with all the light coming through."

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