Jo Baker

Offcomer

James Meredith

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Jo Baker is the author of five novels. The most recent, the internationally best-selling Longbourn, is translated into 21 languages, and is being adapted as a film by Studio Canal & Random House Films.

Born in Lancashire, England, she was educated at Oxford University and Queen’s University Belfast.

Previous works include Offcomer (2001), The Mermaid's Child (2004), The Telling (2008), The Picture Book (2011). She has also written poetry and short fiction, including for BBC Radio 4. She currently lives in Lancaster, England, with her husband, the playwright Daragh Carville, and their two children.

Baker’s first novel, Offcomer, is about a young woman’s search for her place in the world. Against the backdrop of The Troubles in Northern Ireland, recent Oxford graduate Claire is a mess. She’s trapped in a disastrous relationship with a young academic, working a dead end job, stunned by the emergence of secrets from her mother’s past, and seemingly addicted to self-destructive behaviour. But like the ceasefire that has brought renewed hope to Belfast, Claire too is afforded an opportunity to reflect, gradually learning to accept herself and to discover her sense of self-esteem and self-worth. Unflinching in its depictions of the uncertainties of youth, Offcomer is a novel of real and quiet power.

Q: What brought you to Belfast in 1995?

A: I came to study at Queen’s – I took the MA in Irish Writing.

Q: What was the literary landscape in the city like at that time?

A: Belfast seemed to be teeming with writers: they were just there – part of the city and the community. It wasn’t something I’d anticipated or was used to. Going along to an English Society event at Queen’s at the time would show what a vibrant literary scene it was – not simply because of the visiting speakers, but because of who was the audience – it would be packed out with local writers, along with academics, students, general punters. And then there would be extraordinary events through the Festival too, and new plays from Tinderbox and Mad Cow, written by playwrights you’d meet around the place. So there was loads going on that celebrated and shared the work of professional writers, but there was also an atmosphere of support for emerging writers too. Queen’s Writers Group was central to it all. It was an environment in which you were encouraged to treat writing seriously, to be professional – in approach if not yet in actuality. The peer support of that group was wonderful, and we were fortunate to have a run of brilliant and generous writers-in-residence at Queen’s, who facilitated the sessions; in my time Colin Teevan, Glenn Patterson, Daragh Carville and Sinead Morrissey. It was a transformative experience, belonging to that group. I still miss it.

Q: Where there any local writers you were paying particular attention to who were publishing at the time?

A: In terms of novelists – because that’s the form I’ve always been most interested in – Glenn Patterson and Robert McLiam Wilson. I admired both of them inordinately as writers, and was fangirl-thrilled when they both offered advice and even practical help towards publication. I’m so grateful for their early support. The fact that they took my stuff seriously made everything else seem possible.

Q: Was it in Belfast that you began to write seriously?

A: It was where I began to write seriously again. I’d always written as a child and teenager, and took it very seriously indeed, proper grave little oddball that I was. But then I did an undergraduate degree in English Literature at Oxford, and that battered the creativity out of me. Literature had become this graveyard full of monuments to dead men; there didn’t seem to be anywhere to pitch my little tent. And anyway, why would I want to? By the time I came to Belfast I’d given up all notion of writing myself. And then I started to meet writers, and they were actual living people in the pub, and I had this thought, I’m an actual living person in the pub, so maybe I could be a writer too.

Q: What were your first published works? Was it short stories in anthologies?

A: My first proper publication was a short story in an anthology of new Irish writing. So it was an uneasy position I found myself in from word go. After that, I was lucky to get a short story on Radio 4, through the wonderful BBC Northern Ireland. Tanya Nash was the producer who offered me that first slot: she was a great blessing to emerging writers in Northern Ireland at the time.

Q: How did the idea for Offcomer come about?

A: I found myself in a pickle – that uneasy position I mentioned above. I loved the writing that was coming out of Belfast. The novels and the poetry of the city, and the plays, and the ways in which this merged in my mind with the city around me, buying ice-cream from the shop on the Lisburn road that’s in Michael Longley’s poem, crossing the river on a bridge mentioned in Eureka Street, drinking in the back bar at Lavery’s that’s the setting for Language Roulette… this was the literary and the lived world around me, it was bringing me back to writing myself. But I felt stymied – I felt couldn’t say anything. I had no right to, no authority, no confidence to speak about the place. I didn’t even have the right words for it, speaking English English, as I did. But then I read an article in which Salman Rushdie wrote about the natural position of the writer as outsider. It seems obvious in retrospect, but then so much does, doesn’t it? At the time, it was something of a light bulb moment. A modern light bulb, the energy saving kind that takes a while to warm up. I thought, oh, yes, that’s me, here: an outsider. And perhaps that’s actually okay. Perhaps I don’t have to be of this place to write about this place. Perhaps I can write about the absence of belonging. And it’s from that that Offcomer emerged.

Q: Do you consider Offcomer to be a Northern Irish novel?

A: Yes. I do actually. It goes to other places but its heart is there.

Q: Offcomer brilliantly captures an important period in Northern Irish history when society was on the cusp of change, moving on from the ‘troubles’ toward a tentative, more peaceful, future, and what it was like for 'ordinary' people struggling to live their lives. What are your memories of that time and was it a conscious decision to set the novel during that time?

A: Thank you.

It seemed to me that there was a real ebullience to the city, a kind of bubbling over. I interpreted this as a sense of release; I don’t know if that’s true. I was incredibly naïve, and for a long time unaware of the violence still ticking away there – what I was seeing was relief, perhaps, but not necessarily reconciliation.

I wrote Offcomer shortly after the time it’s set, and it was a conscious decision to situate it at that particular moment in time. Claire’s journey – the harm done, and then tentative steps towards recovery – she’s a small part of that wider change.   

Q: Your next novel, The Mermaid’s Child, was a move away from contemporary fiction and into the (loose) realm of historical fiction, as have been your other novels, The Telling, The Picture Book and the brilliantly successful Longbourn. How do you feel your writing and storytelling developed from Offcomer?

A: Offcomer is this raw, ungainly, honest thing – I had no idea what I was doing when I was writing it, so I was very lucky that there was a novel there at the end of the process. Now, having written five novels, I think I’ve picked up a little bit of craft. For the last few books I have never reached the point where I have felt ‘It doesn’t work and I can’t fix it’ – I’ve got a shade more confidence that I can just get things done. But I don’t assume that this will last.

Q: You’ve recently completed a new novel, can you tell us anything about it?

A: I’d rather not. I’m feeling very shy about it at the moment.

Q: Your earlier work has been republished recently due to the success of Longbourn. How do you feel about Offcomer now?

A: Uncomfortable. But then, that’s not necessarily a bad sign.

Offcomer was published for the first time in the USA in December 2014 by Vintage Originals as part of a re-issue programme set to include The Mermaid’s Child and The Telling. Offcomer and The Mermaid’s Child will be republished in the UK by Transworld, dates to be confirmed.

Photograph courtesy of Johnny Bean