Samuel Johnson Q & A: Robert MacFarlane
The winner of the Samuel Johnson Award 2015 will soon be announced - in the meantime, the shortlisters have answered seven quick questions.
Describe your book in one sentence?
Landmarks is a celebration, exploration and defence of the language of landscape, and the landscape of language: a wonder-voyage from the moors of the Outer Hebrides to the zawns of Cornwall in search of place-words and place-visions.
What drew you to this topic in the first place – was it your own desire to know more or that you wanted to shine a light on the issue for other people?
In 2007 I was given a 'Peat Glossary' on the Isle of Lewis; a beautiful word-list of the hundreds of Gaelic terms for aspects of the Hebridean moorlands (e.g. rionnach maoim: 'the shadows cast by clouds on the moor on a sunny, windy day'). The same year, a new edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary was published, in which basic nature words including acorn, buttercup, bluebell, conker, catkin, heron, and willow had been culled to make way for words such as attachment, blog, chatroom, and voice-mail. The contrast of these two documents I found utterly compelling in its implications for our contemporary relationship with the living world. And so I began to write about - and to gather - a lexicon of place and nature, from the dozens of dialects, languages and sub-dialects, with the aim of creating a glossary of enchantment, a counter-desecration phrasebook. I've always been fascinated by place-words, and by the relationships of language, thought and perception -- so Landmarks has its roots in my childhood reading of poets like Hopkins, Hughes, Heaney, MacDiarmid or John Clare, for whom language possesses a materiality, a palp and heft -- as well as in my years spent walking and climbing in the landscapes of Britain and Ireland.
How do you go about your research?
Walking, talking, reading. A good deal of all three. Hundreds of miles, hundreds of hours, thousands of pages. Quite a few blisters. Pints of coffee. When I'm stuck on a sentence or a chapter or a concept, I run -- and that usually shakes thought free again. I am also fortunate to be a teacher in my day job, as it were - and I learn so much from my students.
What book do you wish that you had written?
The Peregrine, by JA Baker (though I wouldn't have wanted to live the life that made its writing possible). That, or Jerome K. Jerome's Three Men In A Boat (because I wish I were far funnier than I am), or (I'm aware this is three choices and not one) Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian (because no one else's sentences re-wire the brain and the eyeball the way McCarthy's do).
Do you read your reviews? How do you respond to them, good or bad? Any advice on how to deal with the bad?
I don't read them any more, unless they force their ways into my consciousness (which the very good and the very bad usually somehow manage to do...). I'm much more interested these days in the letters I receive from readers, getting on for a thousand a year now; it still thrills me beyond easy expression that my books find their ways into the lives and minds of readers, and it is a privilege to get these letters. I try (but increasingly fail) to reply to them all, and include where I can a stone or leaf or other found object. It can be easy to forget during the long, private years of writing a book that it will, if you are lucky, possess a social life. When I'm old(er), and the books I've written are forgotten by most people except by my children, I'll still have these letters - and that feels like a form of gift.
If you were trapped on a desert island, which two books would you want to have with you and why?
The SAS Survival Manual, of course, to teach me how to open coconuts with my forehead, and how to light signal-fires by striking my toenails against a jellyfish. And PG Wodehouse, to keep me from despair.
What was the last book you read?
Richard Mabey's magnificent new The Cabaret of Plants, an astonishing study of (among a hundred other things) how plants challenge and change our thinking.