I have the same appreciation for Alien as everyone else, but I view this book as a space pastoral.
Samantha Harvey, a 48-year-old author, was born in Kent but currently resides in Bath. She has written six books, including her debut novel The Wilderness (2009) which was longlisted for the Booker Prize and explores the theme of dementia. Her other works include The Western Wind, a murder mystery set in medieval Somerset, and The Shapeless Unease, a memoir chronicling her struggle with chronic insomnia. Critic Tessa Hadley describes it as “gritty and specific, grounded even in its most philosophical and far-reaching moments.” Gaby Wood considers Harvey to be “the Virginia Woolf of this generation”. Her latest novel, Orbital, follows the lives of six astronauts on the International Space Station over the course of one day.
What inspired you to create Orbital?
For years, I have been viewing images of Earth from space. There is a real-time camera on the ISS where you can observe astronauts conducting spacewalks. After watching multiple orbits of Earth for several months online, I was inspired to try and capture the beauty of our planet in words and express my feelings about its solitary existence. Can words do justice to the same extent as an image? I included astronauts in my novel to add a human element, but they are not the focus of the image.
Did you work on this during a lockdown?
Reworded: Prior to lockdown, I had written 5,000 words but I ended up losing confidence in my work. However, during lockdown, I unintentionally opened the document and felt a spark of inspiration that I didn’t feel with the other novels I had started in the meantime. I decided to take the chance and continue writing. It turned out to be the ideal novel to work on during lockdown, providing a daily escape from being stuck at home. Taking a step back allowed me to escape the worries about our impact on each other and the world.
What caused you to initially become nervous?
We are currently living in a time where personal experiences hold great value. By some strange twist of fate, I will be participating in a radio interview next month with Tim Peake. I am filled with apprehension: why would anyone be interested in what a woman from Wiltshire has to say about the experience of being in space, when they could hear it from Tim Peake himself? Perhaps the reason is that there is a place for our imagination to wander that cannot be reached through personal experience. NASA’s website contains numerous captivating but ordinary journals written by astronauts while in space. It occurred to me that there is a void here – a kind of metaphysical space, a wondrous experience that is not being recorded in the way I envision.
Were you interested in writing about space stories with a focus on plot?
I have a strong fondness for Alien, just like anyone else. I didn’t view the novel as being anti-sci-fi, but I also didn’t see it as having a significant connection to the genre. Instead, I saw it as a portrayal of space as idyllic and serene, similar to nature writing. There was also a hint of nostalgia for what is being lost, not only on Earth but also on the ISS, a somewhat outdated spacecraft that will eventually be deorbited after 23 years of orbiting at 17,500 miles per hour.
Is the book based on your personal experience with insomnia?
Insomnia did seem to feed into writing about how orbiting Earth 16 times a day explodes any sense of time. I’ve always been interested in time as a thing in which we live, and what the elastic form of the novel can do with it. Having insomnia so severely for such a long time has definitely changed how I think and work. Orbital is shorter and more fragmented and restless than my other novels. That’s just how I write now – more quickly, intensely, impressionistically.
Why do you choose such varied settings for your novels?
It seems that I am constantly trying to redefine myself, as I have stated before: “Previously, I wrote a book taking place in 1491; now my only option is to explore space.” However, my focus remains consistent on themes of time and faith. Even when writing Orbital, I intended to avoid discussing religion, but it found its way into my work. I strive to challenge my own thought patterns, but ultimately, my writing reflects my own identity, whether it be in 1490s Somerset or exploring dementia. Perhaps my diverse subjects are a way for me to expand my thinking.
Did your study of philosophy influence your approach to fiction?
When I applied for my degree, I attended my interview at 18 years old. One of the questions asked was about my preferred philosophy readings. I responded with “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” by Milan Kundera. The professor’s response was, “If that’s the best you have…” However, I found the book to be quite philosophical. Even now, I still appreciate the novel and view it as a form of philosophy. Philosophy takes an idea and delves into it in a way that is often overlooked in everyday life. Similarly, novels have the ability to accomplish this as well. They are not simply about storytelling, as one can summarize the plot of a novel in just two minutes.