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A new novel explores the poetic and mundane of life in space

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

There's a long tradition of novels that take place in a single day. Authors from James Joyce to Virginia Woolf have used that frame to tell a story. In the new book "Orbital" by Samantha Harvey, a single day has 16 sunrises and sunsets. Her characters are astronauts aboard the International Space Station. Samantha Harvey, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

SAMANTHA HARVEY: Hello. It's lovely to be here.

SHAPIRO: Have you always been interested in space?

HARVEY: I am not what you would probably call a space nerd by any stretch. I've always been interested in the experience of astronauts, I think. And when I was much younger, I collected quotes from astronauts. I would sit in the library and go through books in pre-internet days and collect things that astronauts had said about being in space. And I was always really fascinated by that without really knowing why.

SHAPIRO: Can I just ask if you had one favorite quote from those days?

HARVEY: There were all so kind of moving. But there's one about - it was a Russian cosmonaut whose name I can't remember because they all sort of - all the quotes have run in together a bit. But he said that he had never known the meaning of the word round until he had been in space and looked back at the Earth.

SHAPIRO: Wow.

HARVEY: And that seems to be a really common theme - that there's a sense of one's senses and one's perception being redefined by being in space. It's not just that things have a certain clarity, but our terms of reference are redefined.

And then much later in life, you know, now that we can access images of the Earth from space - there are so many of them on the NASA website and, you know, on YouTube and so on. You can just watch entire Earth orbits from the ISS, and that's what I started doing. And I was so overwhelmed by the extraordinary beauty and strangeness of our planet that that's what prompted this idea to write about it - you know, to think this is sort of an element of nature writing, really, that I don't see happening. So that was the impetus for the book.

SHAPIRO: Early on in the book, you talk about the challenge that one of the astronauts faces trying to describe her experience to people back on Earth. And you write...

(Reading) She finds she often struggles for things to tell people at home because the small things are too mundane and the rest is too astounding, and there seems to be nothing in between.

And when I read that, I wondered if it also described the struggle that you faced as an author writing this book.

HARVEY: It is a sort of weird set of contradictions, from what I can gather, about being in space - that you, on one hand, are traveling, you know, at 17 1/2 thousand miles an hour around the Earth, so that you're in this kind of extraordinary physical situation where you're seeing 16 days and 16 nights in 24-hour period. And you're floating. Your view is of the Earth and of the cosmos, and there's nothing and nobody else around you. At the same time, you have to keep to a very set schedule, and you have to do the dusting and the vacuuming and, you know, make your meals and fix the toilet and, you know, all of these things. And there isn't much between that very routine mundaneness and the kind of gobsmacking, awe-inspiring, description-evading reality of what's going on around you. I really enjoyed that from a writerly point of view - you know, that everything is rich and charged when you write about it because, you know, even dusting in space has its own (laughter) - you know...

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

HARVEY: ...Its own strangeness. So it's - everything has that kind of sheen of strangeness and otherliness (ph). And I found that very rich to write about.

SHAPIRO: As readers and viewers and consumers of media, I think we're so accustomed to stories in space that have high drama, disasters, aliens, murder, explosions - whatever the case may be. In this novel, the only cataclysms take place on Earth - someone's mother dies, a super typhoon approaches Southeast Asia. Tell me about that decision you made as a writer.

HARVEY: Yeah. It was always really clear to me that I wanted to write space realism, I suppose, rather than sci-fi, and that that hadn't really been done. I mean, I hadn't seen that done before. And that's surprising because space - inhabiting space is a reality for humans. You know, we have been continually inhabiting low-Earth orbit for 23 years now. That is a daily experience for a very select group of people. But still, that's very much within the realms of reality and realism. So that's what I wanted to kind of capture in this book - a sense of nature, writing about this wilderness, and to see what it would be like to write about space without the projections that we usually put on it. I think, you know, so much sci-fi comes from the unknownness (ph) of space and our wish to project our fears and our hopes onto it. And I wanted to take all of that away and start with a blank canvas almost and simply see it as a natural environment that humans are inhabiting.

SHAPIRO: The effect is very poetic, especially as these astronauts see the same oceans and continents and seas and mountain ranges pass below them again and again. Did you think about this as writing poetry in a way?

HARVEY: Yes, in a way. Yeah, I think I probably did. And I do write poetry, too. And you have this incredible image that you want to try to put into words, and it's quite difficult. It almost wants to evade any description. And so I had to reach, you know, for poetry, I guess, to try to put into words some of those - you know, the light, the color, the sheer strangeness of what they were seeing. So I think that's always on my mind as a writer. I'm always trying to think - what would be exactly the right word here? I always have a thesaurus open when I'm writing, trying to find exactly the thing I want to say. I wanted it more than anything to be a book about beauty and about joy and about rapture and the rapture of looking at something so beautiful that also happens to be our home.

SHAPIRO: Astronauts have spoken and written a lot about the way returning to Earth changed them - physically, psychologically - after a visit to space. Do you feel changed in similar ways?

HARVEY: I do - I think I feel very moved. And every time I look at those images of the Earth, I feel a renewed sense of care for the planet and - not just care - I mean, that sounds so insincere. But just sort of - isn't it extraordinary that we live here? Isn't that incredible? You just want to show it to people and say, you know, this is what we have. And also, isn't it weird? And aren't we alone? And isn't it freaky and, you know, all of those things? I think every time I look at it, I feel changed by it. Whether overall I do, I don't think that my experience of looking at videos can be profound enough for that real kind of constitutional change, unfortunately.

SHAPIRO: Well, Samantha Harvey, it's been lovely talking with you. Thank you so much.

HARVEY: It's been my pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAN HAMMER'S "DON'T YOU KNOW") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Erika Ryan
Erika Ryan is a producer for All Things Considered. She joined NPR after spending 4 years at CNN, where she worked for various shows and CNN.com in Atlanta and Washington, D.C. Ryan began her career in journalism as a print reporter covering arts and culture. She's a graduate of the University of South Carolina, and currently lives in Washington, D.C., with her dog, Millie.
Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.
Ari Shapiro
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.