Sara Baume

Wither and Whyfore

Maeve Mulrennan

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Maeve Mulrennan: Hi Sara, thank you for agreeing to meet up while you are in Galway! Hopefully you’re not too jaded talking about the new novel yet! I suppose we should start at the start - What is it like to have a job as a writer?

Sara Baume: You mean not to have a real job?!!!!!

MM: No no no no!!! You have the novel coming out in February and have published several short  stories as well as winning the Davy Byrne Prize. You also review literature and have had essays published.  So when you have to fill out your occupation on a form, does it now feel normal to identify with being a writer?

SB: Actually I do find it hard to put ‘writer’ on things, I always said that I wouldn’t call myself a writer until I had a book published. You don’t like to say it before then, because if you say you’re a writer the first thing people ask is ‘do you have a book published?’ I remember Eimear McBride talking about this in an interview at Listowel Writers’ Week last year. She was writing for years nine years before A girl is a Half-Formed Thing was published, and felt that she couldn’t say she was a writer in all that time, even though that’s what she did. I’m the same, I’m like that about saying I’m an artist, as I don’t feel like that’s where my focus is at the moment. Even though I trained in visual art and writing, I would be very cautious of the terms so I don’t call myself these things. For years I’ve been putting ‘unemployed’ on forms!

MM: You’ve also been reviewing for some years, in the literary journal The Stinging Fly and the review supplement of the Visual Artists’ Newletter (VAN).

SB: Yes, but I haven’t reviewed for the VAN for a while. I’m totally addled this week...The thing at the moment I’m doing is an exhibition text for the Douglas Hyde Gallery in Dublin.

MM: I’d be terrified.... their texts are a really important part of what they do!

SB: I know! I used to work there and I’ve stayed in touch with the Director, John Hutchinson.  It’s for a painter called Rose Wylie, I hadn’t heard anything about her and don’t particularly know anything about painting, and as you know catalogues for The Douglas Hyde Gallery are very particular. I have been gunning for a catalogue essay, in my mind it’s an honour to be asked to do something like that, however I only have two weeks to do it!

MM: It’s hard to critique painting, it can be such a process heavy, time based medium, sometimes it needs the viewer to sit with for a while. You have to invest in it.

SB: Yes and because of Rose Wylie’s style, the paintings are hard to talk about. She works in a naive style but she’s not naive – it’s coming from a rigorous conceptual background. However that might be the thing that makes it tough for the audience.

MM: So your essay will have a couple of functions; it will act as a mediator for the audience – to reassure them nearly - and also be something rigorous and considered for the artist to have.

SB: Yes it has to satisfy the needs of the audience, and also the curator, John, and then the artist. I’ve never written for multiple audiences before.

MM: Do you think it’s strange that people think ‘oh she’s a writer, so she can write anything’, and then they ask you, and it’s almost like you are providing a service with this pliable skill?

SB: Well you probably get that as well, what do you think of the things you write that aren’t short fiction?

MM: I find art writing increasingly difficult, the more I do it the more I realise how much I don’t know! When I started I thought it was easy. But then you become more exposed to different things and read thing far more sophisticated than you could ever imagine being able to write. You also realise the worth and value of words - you are writing about someone else’s artwork, the words you choose and argument you present has alot of value, to the artist sand the audience.

SB: Art writing has the potential to become another little work of art. Writing within the artworld has a certain language attached to it, so I thought why don’t I write fiction? – I find it easier to write about feelings and emotions because I absolutely know these things, where I can’t possibly be that certain about art, and definitely not art history. The more I think about it the harder it is. Lately people are soliciting written pieces from me, mostly short stories because of the Davy Byrnes Award, or if there is an option between a short story or an essay, I tend to pick essays. I have an essay in next Stinging Fly magazine; it’s an essay about dog literature. One thing someone said to me when I was writing spill simmer falter wither is that it might get pigeonholed into ‘dog literature’! I immediately thought of contemporary books like Marley & me,  so I chose to research the history of it further. When I’m asked to either provide a short story or an essay, lately I’ve been picking the essay format, I like that there are facts to fall back on.

MM: Reading an essay by a writer is also interesting for the reader, it makes the writer’s research visible, and it’s an opportunity for you to explore new ideas. The writer Sheila Heti started a lecture series in New York called ‘Trampoline Hall’ – people are invited to talk about anything that interests them, but it must not be anything that they are a professional expert in. The fact that the speaker is approaching a topic as a curious amateur gives it value and a freshness that makes it exciting for the audience. Maybe researching for essays is like that?

SB: Yes you can get sick of talking about your own work, and talking about something and knowing the facts – even on something you care about -  is harder than writing from your imagination. Temple Bar Gallery & Studios have asked me to readdress their gallery texts. Even though I don’t feel like I know enough about art, I might know more than someone without a visual art education, so I am approaching it from the point of view of the amateur. It’s not dumbing anything down: that’s the point -  it’s approaching it afresh from the point of view of not being the professional expert. Sometimes gallery texts can look inwards and refer to trends, or use obscure references, or a type of shorthand that non-professionals may not be interested in. The medium of writing makes it more accessible, as the medium of visual art can be seen as obscure. Most people read, and understand when I say ‘I’m a writer’.

MM: A lot of people don’t read outside of formal education though, I met a really cool IT developer recently who has read four books in his lifetime, books just don’t feature in his world. I don’t know how I could not read – it would be like avoiding puddles. I always think that people are missing out on that excitement of discovering something new, and feeling like they’re the only person who truly understands what it is – it’s like the first time you hear an amazing band that you really connect with – usually when you are a teenager. It’s like your first love; before you heard them it was never in your capacity of understanding of what was possible or known. I really think you can get that with books.

SB: I don’t know what I’d do without reading, that’s my passion. Although there is something mysterious and ineffable about music. It can give you the shivers, and conjure up a specific memory, feeling, place and time. Someone once said that Art is powerful, but that you can’t dance to pictures! I’ve never gotten it from visual art, maybe from books. I think visual art is the hardest to get that from. That was part of my reason for switching to writing – I’ve never cried at a piece of art.

MM: I have! Jackson Pollock’s One when I saw it in real life. I didn’t get Jackson Pollock before that, even though I had one painting lecturer who was really into him. He made us watch a documentary about him and cried at the end when he died. I never got that emotional attachment to artwork that I had only seen in books.

SB: Was it the actual painting or the story – the legend built up around the work and the artist?

MM: It was actually just about the painting – the story was absent. With these strong historical figures you always get so bogged down in their story and it’s almost like you go in to the gallery on autopilot and then you walk around the corner and see a lion. The experience was all about the painting as an autonomous object; its presence, its smell, the aura. In that moment, it didn’t matter to me who painted it.

SB: In conceptual art I can be moved by the strength of a brilliant idea that gets under your skin, like Dutch artist Bas Jan Ader’s 1971 video I’m Too Sad to Tell you. The artist cries in front of the camera. I don’t get that with painting so much.

MM: I seem to connect with video too, a couple of years ago I worked as a gallery attendant for the Irish Pavilion at the Venice biennale, I was with Irish artist Richard Mosse’s video installation and photographs of war torn Congo every day for a month! I never became desensitised to it.

SB: I worked in the Irish Pavilion in Venice before aswell – in 2007! I also reviewed Richard Mosse’s work when it was in the Sirius Arts Centre, it was a really powerful exhibition.

MM: We’ve completely veered off track, so I want to bring it back to talking about your work!! Do you think you will go back to the short story medium, or now that you’ve written a novel, you’re on the path that you see a lot of successful writers on – publishing in journals, short story collections and then a novel, rarely returning to the short story format, although there are obvious exceptions like Kevin Barry & Alice Munro.Is there a value in following this path and reaching these milestones – is the short story a platform to the next step and that publishers prefer novels?

SB: I think the arts in general rely on these kind of structures. For example the Hennessey Award has said that it has launched the careers of a lot of writers. For me it was The Stinging Fly.

MM: ‘Launching careers’ makes the artist sound passive! Trying to get things published is quite an active thing to do!

SB: It also makes you sound very reliant on these structures. So many great writers don’t hit these milestones of being published in certain places or being shortlisted for awards. The Stinging Fly published my first story after I completed my MA. Since then I’ve had some more stories and reviews published with them. They’ve been quite supportive. And of course then there’s the Davy Byrne’s Award that they administer. To go back to the question of publishers’ preferences, I signed a two-book deal with Tramp, and we had the conversation about it being easier to publish a short story collection as I have a lot written already but i kind of know that for me a novel is more challenging and interesting. I’m working on the second book now and it’s definitely going to be a novel. It’s a no brainer that publishers prefer novels. With short story writers signing a book deal, publishers will take a short story collection on the condition that a novel is produced afterwards. I haven’t written any new short stories since winning the Davy Byrne Award; I’ve been concentrating on this novel and now the new one.

MM: to go back to your debut novel: The last time i spoke to you was at Culture Night in Galway last September, and you were telling me that the two main things in spill simmer falter wither are that a dog is a major character and it is written mostly in the second person. Were they hard decisions for you to make?

SB: it was a bit of an Eureka moment, that it is a man speaking to his dog for the main part of the novel. In the prologue and epilogue it shifts in order to contextualise the story and gives an explanation as to who this lonely man is and why he’s the way he is. Then the main body is written in the second person and there is a slow reveal over four seasons. The structure of the seasons provide solace and reason in his unsettled life. It is a slow, quiet book, but one of the rewrites I did made it slightly pacier – Tom Kenny said he found it thrilling towards the end! The first draft was written in the first person, where the main character is essentially talking to no one, and then I realised that he had to be speaking to his dog. I couldn’t  write from point of view of dog, I remember reading Timbuktu by Paul Auster and found that the dog’s point of view was weirdly wise, and not something I thought would work for me. Then I had it in the third person, and then moved to the second person, which is considered to be the most difficult. I remember reading an article by either Jeannette Winterson or Rashel Cusk where they say that in order for the second person narrative to work, the person speaking has to address someone within their own life, within the sphere of the story. The dog is called OneEye, an obvious name that reflects the imagination of this archaic simple man. In the first draft, quite often he would say OneEye this and OneEye that. My mother, who is always my first reader, thought that the name repetition grated a bit and would affect the reading of the story for people.

MM: So putting a novel together has been quite an open process, with a lot of  back and forth – between the publisher, your Mum and Tom Morris in The Stinging Fly. That shared process is at odds with some peoples’ view of the lonely artist locking themselves away in a garret.

SB: Well for the first year it was just me. I didn’t write fast, I had to research a lot of hefty details like migrating birds and wildflowers, plus I was constantly questioning the process – what am I writing this for? There was also the self-imposed pressure. I began writing this at 28, I felt the need to do something, and felt that maybe it was too late. I desperately wanted to create something great.  Edna O’Brien claimed that it takes a minimum of 2 years to write a decent novel, so the pressure was on. The hardest part was getting it out there. My Mum is my first reader and my main critic – she’s an archaeologist, an avid reader and incredibly smart. We are really close so she is my most honest, harshest critic. So for 6 months I worked in her suggestions and also new suggestions made by Tom Morris. At the end of following year I secured a publisher. I don’t think the process needs to be that long or ponderous. And I was lucky that it got picked up by Tramp pretty quickly, we signed the deal in January 2014. Tramp had less editorial input than Tom Morris or my mother. The following year involved rewrites and different stages of proofing. I find it fascinating how a book is born and the lapse of time between the final draft and the finished book.

MM: The visual art world is so different in comparison; some people make work right up to the last minute before an exhibition. I once had an artist who locked herself  into the gallery bathroom in order to try and do some last minute editing of a film that she had already spent months on.  

SB: I think that’s the mark of a good artist, to always be pushing. You always think what you’re working on right now is the better than what you’ve done previously, it’s funny to encounter it again when it comes out a year later, you feel like it’s not your best work or it’s not where you are now artistically. There were 381 days between the publishing deal the publication date. So I set myself the task of making a clay dog for every one of those days. It was something to keep my hands busy, and a way of keeping the creative process of the book alive. So the plan is that the dogs are given out with the books – if I manage to sell that many! – It’s like a token or a talisman, and I like the idea of gifting.

<<Sarah puts two small clay dogs on the table>>

MM: Is that for me????

SB: Yes!

MM: Thank you! So I have another question but I don’t know if you have an answer.  How do you see the relationship between you, the text and the audience – is there a relationship?

SB: As this is a very personal book, my publicist warned me that the first question everyone would ask is why have I written about an elderly man, and is it a version of me. And it is I suppose. It’s also very much my dog that’s depicted, we have a fractious relationship, but he means an awful lot to me for all the trouble he’s caused me. It’s slightly strange having details of my life out in the world. I’ve written about pretty much where I live, and extrapolated so many details. I do feel like I’ve put myself out on a limb, and it’s hard to imagine how people will take it – to them it’s a fictional world.

MM: So maybe having a year between the final draft and the publication date is good, the time gives you a distance from being entrenched in the details.

SB: Exactly. But I am frightened about the reviews – I can’t see it objectively. I feel that it’s been hyped a lot,  and that puts you out there to be put down by critics.  It’s an odd little book and it’s  not for everyone. There are alot expectations not just from me, as it’s not just my book . I see it as pages  5 to 215 are mine and everything else is Tramp. It’s been a co-production. So the relationship between me, the text and the audience also includes the publishers as well – they are what makes us all connect.

MM: On the subject of connecting, do you find it strange giving readings?

SB: I haven’t done that many yet – I did readings as part of winning the Davy Byrne’s Award. The visual art world doesn’t  prime you for it, there’s not much of you personally on show!!! I don’t like being the one in the spotlight but at the end of the day I want people to read the work and I really wanted to have this work published. I prefer taking part in discussion events. The next one I’m doing is with Rob Doyle and Colin Barrett for the Mountains to the Sea festival, which is completely nerve wracking, they are great writers!

MM: I think everyone thinks that they’re going to be found out as impostors  and that everyone else is great. It’s hard to see yourself at their level.

SB: Yes I feel that coming from a visual art background, I’m not extremely well read, my reading  has always been guided by my own taste, I haven’t read  War & Peace or Ulysses!!

MM: I doubt many writers have!!! So wrapping up, i have to ask the generic question of what’s next for you?

SB: Well I’ve been signed for 2 books, and as soon as I finished the first one, i began the next. I didn’t think the first one would go anywhere.  The 2nd novel is in train, it’s currently a massive document – I’m afraid for the year coming!! – but give it 2 years and it will be a novel.  Although I would love to take a year in a studio, to make art again. I don’t feel like a serious artist unless I’m in the studio full-time, I’d love to have that chance – but you can’t sign a book deal and get an agent and then tell them that!!!


Watch Sara read from spill simmer falter wither in Kenny’s Bookshop, Galway:

 Sara’s next reading will be at the Mountains to the Sea dlr Book Festival, 18 – 22 March 2015