Sara Baume’s first novel Spill Simmer Falter Wither was shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award and followed Ray on an unusual journey round Ireland with his dog. In her new book, A Line Made By Walking (William Heinemann, £12.99), the West Cork-based writer’s protagonist is Frankie, a twenty-something artist who leaves Dublin to stay in the rural bungalow left by her dead grandmother. Her new project is based on dead animals she finds, allowing Baume to explore themes of grief, art and nature.
Both Ray and Frankie are struggling with life but you avoid labelling them with particular mental health “issues”. Was this important to you?
Yes, certainly. Spill Simmer is written in Ray’s voice, and he is cripplingly aware that he appears strange, suspicious, even hostile, to those around him, but he never wonders whether or not he might be on the autism spectrum – that would have been utterly at odds with his voice. In Line, Frankie is clearly sad and struggling to cope with adult life, and yet she angrily resists labels and medication, choosing to deal with her sadness and disillusion in atypical ways and in defiance of professional advice. But I’d be keen to emphasise that it’s a novel, not a polemic. I was, more than anything, just interested in the way a troubled mind flits and the things it alights upon.
It’s a cliché to ask a novelist how autobiographical their work is but Frankie and you both spent their early twenties in Dublin studying and working in the arts. Should the reader draw parallels?
Line started several years ago as a short piece of “creative non-fiction” about a period of my life spent living alone in my dead grandmother’s empty bungalow in rural Ireland. This was during an economic depression, about two years after I finished art school; I was unemployed and increasingly disillusioned, and Frankie’s voice draws heavily from those feelings of confusion and despair. But once I knew the short piece was becoming a novel, so the period became elongated; reality distorted. Some details remain true, but many more are invented. Stepping back to look at Frankie now, I find her perplexing, even a little cruel. But then, I suppose I could say much the same of how I feel about my 25-year-old self!
What’s the thinking behind the inclusion of the photos that are part of Frankie’s art project?
Line is structured around a series of photographs I took over the course of a couple of years; each shows a dead creature lying where it fell and as I found it. In June 2009, I travelled to Gorzów Wielkopolski in western Poland to take part in a group exhibition in a disused orphanage, and there I showed the photos alongside little creature figurines which I’d carved out of balsa wood. I wanted them to exist somewhat mysteriously in the novel, as a nod to WG Sebald.
Does Frankie not like cities in general or Dublin in particular?
She has a bad day out in Dublin around about the middle of Line, but I don’t know that she dislikes cities in general, or even Dublin in particular. She has been living there for several years, after all, just before the novel takes place. I think, more than anything, Frankie feels peculiarly let down by the city. She had wanted to thrive there and suddenly she realises she is actually languishing.
You’ve won particular praise for your original prose style. Who are your literary influences?
I’ve always been as influenced by art and artists as literature and writers. Two terrifically important books came into my life in my late teens – Art Since 1960 by Michael Archer, The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy – and have continued to inform how I think and work. The inclusion of imperfect images is a conscious nod to WG Sebald; the pervasive disillusion is a nod to JD Salinger. Just recently I’ve read a handful of books which seem to be treading the ground, beautifully, between novel, essay, artwork and ode to nature – The Outrun by Amy Liptrot, H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald, Things That Are by Amy Leach, perhaps even The Lonely City by Olivia Laing – and I’d love to think that Line has some territory in common.
You’ve won and been shortlisted for a number of literary prizes recently, and other Irish writers have too, such as Donal Ryan. Is it meaningful to talk about an Irish literary movement at the moment or is it just nationality they have in common?
I think the strong tradition here is certainly encouraging to the psyche. And I think the recession created some of the right conditions for it to flourish. But it’s terrifically hard to identify a movement when you’re still in the middle of it; I guess only time can really tell.
As someone born in Lancashire, with an English father, how do you think Brexit will affect Anglo-Irish relations?
I lived in England for only four months after my birth; so I don’t exactly consider myself qualified to comment! It’s worrying, obviously. We live in deeply worrying times.