The journalist and podcaster Caroline Crampton, author of The Way to the Sea: The Forgotten Histories of the Thames Estuary, talks to The Book Blog about her regular visits to the Orkney Islands and why she loves the detective fiction of the 20th century.
Welcome, Caroline. I know you’re a big fan of Stromness Books & Prints. How often do you make it to Orkney, and what’s your favourite thing about the bookshop?
For the last couple of years, I’ve been every six months or so. I live in north west England, on the Wirral, but my husband and I like to take most of our holidays in the north of Scotland—we’re big fans of Caithness—so we normally visit Stromness then too. I like both the variety and specificity of what the bookshop stocks: you can get most recently published books, but also encounter something about Orkney that you’ve never heard of before.
What books are on your bedside table right now, and are you enjoying them?
I make a podcast about detective fiction, Shedunnit, so there’s always a precarious stack of whodunnits or whodunnit-adjacent tomes by the bed. At the moment, there’s Square Haunting by Francesca Wade, Have His Carcase by Dorothy L. Sayers, the Murder in Midsummer anthology from Profile Books, Murder by Matchlight by E.C.R. Lorac and A Morbid Taste for Bones by Ellis Peters. I am enjoying all of these greatly as I evolve an idea for a new episode, dipping into different chapters on different nights as the mood takes me.
Do you read one book at a time, or are you a promiscuous reader, leaping from text to text according to whim?
I’m always reading about half a dozen books at a time. Part of that is because the line between “work” and “fun” when it comes to reading is very blurred for me; I’ll often be reading a particular title for research or review because a deadline is coming up and then want to take a break for an evening with something completely different. The result is lots of books littered everywhere in various stages of completion. I like it, though—I’m a firm believer that different books suit different moods.
Do you have strong preferences for fiction or non-fiction? And any particular genres that you favour above all else?
I read more nonfiction than fiction, I think, although I can’t tell if that’s truly a preference or a consequence of what I do for a living. Obviously I’m very deeply invested in crime fiction, mostly from the 1900s to about 1955—I very rarely read modern crime novels. I also really enjoy well written books about places, both fiction and not, and memoirs that read like someone sat opposite on a train telling you their life story.
What are the new books out this year that you are particularly excited about?
A new David Mitchell is always exciting to me, as I’ve loved his work since I first read The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. There’s also a new Rose Tremain novel out later this year that I will devour. Nikesh Shukla’s upcoming memoir (which may actually be next year now, publication dates keep changing in the wake of the pandemic!). I’m also very much looking forward to the new Penguin Classics edition of Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy, which has sadly been bumped to December.
Are there authors you think deserve more attention and acclaim than they have received? Who are they?
I’m a recent but zealous convert to the fiction of Eva Ibbotsen and I wish I had known about her when I was 15. I know Sarah Moss has gained more of a following in the last couple of years, but I think she should be winning major prizes for her non fiction as well (Names for the Sea is one of my all time favourite travel books). Porochista Khakpour doesn’t get much attention in the UK, but her book Sick is outstanding.
What are your favourite books about Orkney?
They’re two extremes, both historical, and both picked up in the same secondhand bookshop: Beside the Ocean of Time by George Mackay Brown and A Strange Scottish Shore by Juliana Gray.
Do you keep your books pristine, or do you write on them, fold down pages and otherwise deface them?
I definitely dog-ear the pages a lot and occasionally scribble in pencil.
If you could burn one book, what would it be?
Anna Karenina — but burning’s too good for a book that stole months of my life as I tried to read it when I was younger because I thought I ought to be trying to wade through “the classics”. I think it should moulder in the back of a cupboard, forgotten.
What book or books do you press into other people’s hands at any opportunity?
The aforementioned Sarah Moss book about Iceland, Names for the Sea. Something from the Chalet School series. Crime novels by Kwei Quartey and Steph Cha.
Caroline Crampton’s highly acclaimed debut, The Way to the Sea: The Forgotten Histories of the Thames Estuary, is out in paperback now. The Sunday Times described it as “rich and fascinating.” Drop by the bookshop to order your copy.
Find out more about Caroline, her writing and her podcast at carolinecrampton.com