Samantha Clark is a writer based in Birsay. Her first book, The Clearing: A Memoir of Art, Family and Mental Health, was published by Little, Brown in May this year. (Watch a trailer for the book here.) Orkney residents may also be familiar with her work as a visual artist: she was recently commissioned to create a large-scale artwork for the new Balfour Hospital.
We spoke to Samantha about her favourite books, what she’s been reading in lockdown, and what new releases she’s been looking forward to this season.
Welcome, Samantha. First things first: how often do you visit Stromness Books & Prints – and what’s your favourite thing about it?
Not as often as I’d like to. Although I’m just up the road in Birsay, I’m not often in Stromness during the day. But whenever I am, I love to meander down the street after a look around the Pier Arts Centre and pop into the bookshop. Sheena usually says “Ah!” when she sees me and, from her special shelf behind the desk, pulls down some book I’ve ordered ages ago and then completely forgotten about – a nice surprise every time! My favourite thing about the bookshop is that as soon as I walk in the door I’ll spot at least five books I already had in mind to read, and another ten I hadn’t yet but like the look of. In fact if I could just transport the shop’s entire stock into my house that would be just fine. Or I could just move in, I guess.
What books are on your bedside table right now, and are you enjoying them?
The funny thing is that when I opened the Stromness Books and Prints website to catch up on the blog, there, right slap bang in the centre of the first photo is the book that’s literally been on my bedside table the last couple of weeks, same edition, same cover – Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic from the Penguin Classic Series. I’ve been feeling, like many others at the moment I imagine, in need of some sturdy advice on how to weather misfortune with equanimity, so I’ve been having a bit of a Stoic season. Seneca’s letters are wonderfully fresh and essayistic, sometimes funny and vivid, sometimes teacherly and prim, sometimes irascible, and sometimes wise and, well, stoic. Beneath it in the pile is a book on Keeping Backyard Chickens and Alice Oswald’s long river-poem Dart which I’ve been enjoying re-reading.
Also in the half-read or just started pile, though not literally on the bedside table are: Nobody a long poem by Alice Oswald with watercolours by William Tillyer, Another Water by the artist/writer Roni Horn, and H2O or The Waters of Forgetfulness by Ivan Illich (because I’m obsessed with water at the moment). Also Marcus Aurelius Meditations (for more sturdy Stoic life advice), Humankind: A Hopeful History by Rutger Bregman and Funny Weather: Art in Emergencies by Olivia Laing (because I need a bit of help feeling hopeful or helpful these days). There’s also An Orkney Book of Wildflowers (because Orkney’s so flowery right now and I was looking up a plant I couldn’t identify), and every book ever written about no dig veg growing by Charles Dowding (because nothing feels more hopeful and empowering than growing your own tatties). No novels there, I notice.
Do you read one-book-at-a-time? Or are you a promiscuous reader, leaping from text to text according to whim?
Horribly promiscuous, as you might guess from the list I’ve just given. I usually have several books on the go at any one time, different books for different purposes, locations and times of day. There’s bedside reading, tea-break reading, studio reading, sitting-room evening reading and I-just-need-to-look-something-up-and then-get-engrossed reading. There are little stacks of half-read books here and there about the house and my studio. But if I’m reading a good novel I’ll usually take that at a run, total immersion, or I forget what’s going on.
Do you have strong preferences for fiction or non-fiction? And any particular genres that you favour above all else?
To some extent to label books either fiction or nonfiction is misleading, and ‘non-fiction’ is such a broad term that I wonder how useful it is really. It could cover anything that’s not a novel, from journalism to poetry. Some nonfiction can be as creative and literary as any fiction, and as the list above shows, I do read a lot of more of it than I do fiction: memoir, nature writing, essay, science writing, philosophy, critical writing, poetry, history. But when I find a good novel that really pulls me in, it’s wonderful to let myself be completely absorbed in the world it creates.
What are the new books out this year that you are particularly excited about?
Actually it’s a novel! I was so excited to hear Marilynne Robinson has a new book coming out. I completely fell in love with her suite of novels Gilead, Home and Lila. I haven’t read anything in years that moved me as much as these books did. The new one, Jack returns to the same story from the point of view of the most enigmatic and puzzling of the central characters. I can’t wait to read it when it comes out. I’m also looking forward to Shetland-based poet Jen Hadfield’s new collection The Stone Age.
Are there authors you think deserve more attention and acclaim than they have received? Who are they?
I love American author Lia Purpura’s two collections of lyric essays Rough Likeness and On Looking. She doesn’t seem well known here, though I think she’s better known in her home country. They are epistolary, subtle, lyrical, acute, exploratory essays that slow me right down and make me realise how little attention I am paying to, well, anything really.
What are your favourite books about Orkney?
Where to start? One of the things I love most about Orkney is its incredible richness in literature, music and art. If I stick to writers living here right now that might help narrow the field, but not by much! Mark Edmonds’ Orcadia: Land, Sea and Stone in Neolithic Orkney and Laura Watts Energy at the End of the World: An Orkney Islands Saga are both recent publications that are good to read back-to-back, one looking to the past to understand the present, the other drawing from the past to look towards the future, with some hopefulness I might add. Lydia Harris’s attentive observations of Westray in her pamphlet The Unbolted Door and Duncan McLean’s darkly hilarious short stories in Dark Island would also make my shortlist. There’s lots of others – ask me again tomorrow you’ll get a different list!
Samantha Clark’s wonderful first book The Clearing – out since May – has been one of our biggest sellers in the bookshop this summer. Samantha earned a PhD in creative writing from the University of St Andrews in 2017, and has been the recipient of the Scottish Book Trust New Writers Award (2018) and a Cove Park Emerging Writers Award (2020).
Find out more about The Clearing and Samantha’s other work here.