The writer and doctor Gavin Francis – author of True North, Empire Antarctica, Adventures in Human Being, Shapeshifters, and the forthcoming Island Dreams – talks to The Book Blog about his time as a GP in Stromness, and the new books he’s looking forward to reading this year.
Hi Gavin, thanks for joining us on Stromness Books & Prints blog. How often do you visit the bookshop in Stromness – and what’s your favourite thing about it?
Every time I’m in Orkney, which is two or three times a year – and if I’m staying in Stromness, every day. I love its range, the eclectic poetry shelves, the erudition of the nonfiction shelves, and dipping into the canonical fiction there on the central stack. I love chatting with Sheena about what’s good and new and, of course, following trails of the cryptic messages sellotaped to the shelves.
What books are on your bedside table right now, and are you enjoying them?
It’s tempting to lie to a question like that, but I promise to tell the truth! In various stages of reading or rereading: Sally Rooney’s Normal People, which I found astonishing – her prose is so transparent, it’s like seeing her characters move around behind a glass pane of words; I’m enjoying the way she can summon a scene with such a paucity of description. Mark Doty’s What is the Grass is a kind of hymn of praise to Walt Whitman, a memoir of Doty’s own journey of understanding his sexuality as a gay man, and an investigation of the homoeroticism in Leaves of Grass. I’m only halfway through, but so far it’s been a treat to read. I was in Orkney in June to do a GP locum and I listened to the audiobook of Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March on my way up and down the A9 – it’s a book I first read in my early twenties, and love, so I’m revisiting some of my favourite passages with the Chicago accent of the voice actor fresh in my mind. There’s also Antlers of Water: the new anthology of ‘Writing on Nature and the Environment in Scotland’ that Kathleen Jamie has put together with Canongate, to be released next month. It’s a very elegant book, with all the balance and beauty you’d expect, and I have enjoyed vicariously visiting so much of Scotland that’s unknown to me, through the minds and words of the contributors. On the top of the pile is Kapka Kassabova’s To The Lake, her memoir and exploration of her family and of Balkan history, which feels very intimate – like being invited to share glorious secrets. And Speak For Yourself, the booklet of new writing from Orkney and New Zealand put together by Duncan McLean, which I’m rereading: Morag MacInnes, Alison Miller, Simon Hall – brilliant and evocative stories, each a distillation of Orcadian life.
Do you have strong preferences for fiction or non-fiction? Any particular genres that you favour above all else?
I don’t make too much of a distinction, though I’ve tended to read more nonfiction than fiction; each book deserves to be taken on its own merits… It’s my impression that there are plenty of nonfiction memoirs that are free with the truth, and plenty novels that have been transcribed verbatim from life.
What are the new books out this year that you are particularly excited about?
I’m excited to see Antlers of Water make its way out into the world. The new Elena Ferrante novel which will be translated as something like The Lying Life of Adults is appearing in English this summer, though it came out in Italian early this year or late last year – those four Neapolitan novels were fabulous, weren’t they? I was sent an early copy of a book called Signs of Life, an account of a six-year round-the-world cycling trip by Stephen Fabes, a London A&E doctor, which managed to be both funny and make the world seem wider and more wonderful – I think it’s out next month.
Are there authors you think deserve more attention and acclaim than they have received? Who are they?
That would be a curse of a blessing, to be singled out as being unrecognised and overlooked! So I’ll stick with dead ones: anything at all by Sven Lindqvist; Granta have published some of his astounding books in English, masterpieces of the essayistic non-fiction – books like A History of Bombing, The Myth of Wu Tao-tzu, Bench Press and Desert Divers are incomparable. And in the world of polar literature there’s a book by Christiane Ritter called A Woman in the Polar Night which has just been republished, and deserves to be held as a classic.
What are your favourite books about Orkney?
Amy Liprot’s memoir of course. Gunnie Moberg’s books of photography. I love the booklets Duncan McLean is putting together, and hope a hardback anthology of Orcardian writers is coming soon. I’d drive up the A9 in a flash, just for the chance of being at the launch of a book like that…
Do you keep your books pristine, or do you write on them, fold down pages and otherwise deface them?
I’m all for defacing them. It’s a bittersweet pleasure to reread a book I’ve abused and scrawled all over, and think to myself, mystified: why on earth did I fold over that page? Or marvel at just how pretentious or idiotic my marginal scrawls seem from a distance of a decade or two.
If you could burn one book, what would it be?
Kindling: Igniting a Life by WC Clyde. Just kidding – I don’t go in for burning books, though I think I did douse a babycare manual in petrol when my own kids were small, then throw a match, given that its main purpose seemed to be making my wife and I feel inadequate as parents. I’ve blocked the title from my memory.
What book or books do you press into other people’s hands at any opportunity?
I’d thrust them an illustrated guide to locating Stromness Books & Prints on Graham Place. As well as whatever I happen to be reading at the time – a terrible habit I know, but that’s part of the beauty of books, isn’t it? Bound little packets of ideas, which transform themselves into deeply personal experiences. It’s a great joy to be able to share them.
Interview by Cal Flyn
Gavin’s book Island Dreams: Mapping an Obsession will be released on 1 October, 2020. The anthology Antlers of Water (ed. Kathleen Jamie) will be published 6 August, 2020. Drop into the bookshop to pre-order your copies now.
For more information about Gavin’s work and links to his journalism, visit gavinfrancis.com