Carving words is as creative as sculpture for Sara Baume, she tells Eithne Shortall
After Sara Baume’s debut novel was published, the writer had a desire to return to visual art. Spill Simmer Falter Wither (2015), about a reclusive man and his deformed dog, was critically lauded, shortlisted for the Costa first novel prize, and won the Irish Book Awards’ best newcomer. Baume was — and remains — immensely appreciative of her literary success, but as an art school graduate who specialised in sculpture, she missed constructing things with her hands.
Her next project will be sculptural. “Projects” is how she thinks of them; Baume is an artist who sometimes uses words, and sometimes clay and wood. But between Spill Simmer and the forthcoming visual art endeavour is A Line Made by Walking, her second novel, about a 25-year-old former art student who has a breakdown and goes to stay in her late grandmother’s vacant bungalow. It is the perfect bridge: a novel but also an artwork.
A Line Made by Walking is structured, thematically and in layout, around 10 images of dead animals. These, and the protagonist’s ruminations on established artworks, weave their way into the narrative. There is a lot of autobiography too. Interestingly for a fiction writer, making up stories can feel too fake.
“After I finished [writing Spill Simmer] I wrote about 30,000 words of a second novel. There were characters and setting, and things happened that were going to fold back in and tie up in a nice little parcel. I just realised I wasn’t interested in bringing it to an end. It was too made up,” says Baume.
“Spill Simmer came about from scribbled notes here and there, images, and in bits and pieces. When it came to tying it all together I was thinking, ‘This is a nightmare, I’m never going to write another book in this way’, but the linear narrative thing, trying to make up Ann and Barry and make them go to the shop, or whatever, just didn’t interest me in the same way.”
The autobiographical elements of A Line Made by Walking are immediately evident, but they were also in Spill Simmer. As it was about a 57-year-old man, however, people were slower to make the connection. “Ray was very much me,” says the author, now 32. “Frankie [protagonist of the second book] is a version of me, more obviously so because she’s a young arts student and came from the countryside. There’s lots of embellishment too.”
Like her character, Baume went to live alone in her late grandmother’s rural bungalow after a few years as an art student and working in Dublin. Frankie is going through a period of depression; so was Baume. There was a sense of drifting, of feeling she was failing at life and of not knowing what to do next. “Around my mid-twenties — Frankie does it in the book — I remember tipping over 25 and realising you’re closer to 30 than 20 and having to deal with that, but I don’t think I was at any point clinically depressed. I was just lost and sad. I wasn’t medicated and I got through it fine, and then things worked out better and now I feel differently. But there’s no set way to deal with it. Lots of people are just a bit lost and medication isn’t the way to deal with it.”
While characters from more traditional Irish novels drink tea and take to the bed, Frankie drinks copious amounts of coffee and takes to the carpet. She is prescribed antidepressants, but doesn’t take them. “I didn’t set out to raise a conversation around mental illness. I don’t think we have any shortage of such conversations in Ireland. But I did want to perhaps cast a different light on it. I’ve sort of been warned: don’t be doing interviews in which you harp on about not taking medication. Not me personally, but I mean in a general sense.
“Frankie is just lost, and life hasn’t lived up to the expectations she set herself. In the arts, it’s such a fuzzy industry to succeed in and yet one sets out thinking the only way to succeed is to be a superstar artist, selling in the big galleries. It’s the same way with publishing. And anything less is depressing. It’s a book about loneliness, but the loneliness of failure, of having perceived that you’ve failed. A lot of people I know experience this crisis of confidence because they had expected all these things, and that’s not true. We’re most of us average; that’s the meaning of the word ‘average’.”
After the summer sequestered in her grandmother’s house, Baume returned to Dublin to do a creative writing master’s at Trinity College. She wrote a 5,000-word essay about her time living alone, which became the basis for A Line Made by Walking. The book was written before Spill Simmer was released, and both novels were driven by the same despair and desperation. “I didn’t know if I’d succeeded. I think that made it a better novel than the novel I might have written had I known I was a successful writer, if I even am.”
As literary debuts go, Spill Simmer was a success. At the age of 28, and with the dole as financial support, Baume gave herself two years to write it. Tramp Press signed her up for two books, and she won the Davy Byrnes short story award and got an agent who sold the book to the UK and elsewhere. When we meet, Baume is carrying three versions of A Line Made by Walking: the Tramp version for Ireland; the Heinemann one for the UK; and her own generic copy, which she has neutralised with photographs. She is in Dublin for promotional duties, but home is a rented farmhouse by the coast in “the middle of nowhere” in west Cork. She shares it with her boyfriend, an artist who works in one bedroom while Baume uses another to write.
“It has [been] more than six years, and we moved in together within nine months, I’d say,” she says of living and working with her boyfriend. “I’m very used to having him around. I never had a long-term relationship before him and I always expected I never would. I very much resigned myself, and that was fine. The relationship is very much that we still have our own autonomous space, and we have lovely dinners together in the evening.”
Baume misses the art galleries and the ease with which she could meet friends for a pint when living in Dublin, but she enjoys the seclusion of their rural home with its poor internet connection.
“We have email but that’s about as far as it goes. I buy books and DVDs [online], and they arrive. We’ve a really long driveway so there’s a rusted biscuit tin at the end and they arrive in the gateway. I like the object-ness. What’s lovely is when they arrive and I’m like, ‘Oh I don’t even remember ordering that’.”
I don’t do housework because it’s sort of a drain on my soul
Baume doesn’t do social media. There’s a deleted blog and occasional lurking on Twitter, but she has no online presence. “Is anyone actually the version of themselves they show online? I think it’s as much of a mask as a book is. I’m not sticky about sticking myself out there; I know there’s a lot of me in this,” she says, tapping her book. “I’m not into social media, but then I don’t understand protecting the precious self, either.”
She considers everything she does to be work. “I don’t do housework, because to me it’s a sort of drain on my soul. That makes me sound very highbrow. Much of what I do is smelling the roses, so I’m not at all writing nine to five.” As a way of life, she acknowledges it is the dream — and she is not complacent. Her father died last year; a horrible experience that also grounded her.
“No matter how the book is doing, it won’t stop the people you love from dying. I have a nice balance at the moment, but I’m not taking anything for granted, and I’m extremely grateful for the first book having done well.
I’m kind of curious to see what will happen now. If I had done the conventional route and I was married and had a mortgage, probably even had kids by now, then life would be mapped out. But an artist’s life is uncertain.
“[Artist] Agnes Martin said an artist’s life is adventurous, one new thing after another. And mostly it isn’t, it’s just horrible and constraining. And money is in no way important to me, but when you get a gush of it from somewhere, when you get enough, then that continues the adventure. Adventure is really what it’s for.”