‘To some people it might look like I’ve just popped up really quickly, but it’s been five years since I finished the creative writing master’s in Trinity and, when you’re writing, you’re thinking about it all the time.”
Sara Baume is sipping a coffee on a rare snowy day in Dublin. She has travelled from Cork to talk about her debut novel, Spill Simmer Falter Wither. It's a hugely anticipated book, not least because Baume won the prestigious €15,000 Davy Byrnes Prize.
Most authors have a fairly dogged route towards their first novel, an inextricable bind to words, but Baume had originally set her course for art, not writing. At college, she studied fine art at Dún Laoghaire (after failing to get in to NCAD twice). She focused on sculpture but felt there was a big emphasis on installation and conceptualism and she “left with few practical skills”.
When she was offered an internship in a gallery, she felt that she wouldn’t make art if she took it, so instead applied for the creative writing MA in Trinity. “I was doing a lot of writing about art, but what I loved reading was fiction, but I’d written hardly anything.” The desire to work on art and fiction pulled Baume in conflicting directions, and finally, aged 28, she gave herself an ultimatum: to set aside two years and try to write a book.
She survived on the dole and bunkered down. “My late 20s were an awful phase of my life, one where I felt I wanted to achieve all these things and hadn’t. It was hard to convince myself that writing was what I should be doing. There’s no guarantee that you’ll ever finish a book or that you’ll even get a publisher – and even when you do, you panic about the reviews, or the second novel.”
The right punctuation
Baume was born in Lancashire to an Irish mother and English father, but the family relocated to Ireland when she was very young. As a child, she liked drawing, reading and writing stories, and her mother – a big fiction reader – steered her towards books. "I read a lot of good literary fiction. Things like Louis de Bernière's Latin American trilogy, a lot of Anglo-Indian literature, such as A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry, and Arundhati Roy. Her novel The God of Small Things made me think that you don't have to have the right punctuation in a book."
Slowly, Baume worked on stories, submitting work to literary journals, and had a story published as part of the Hennessy New Irish Writing series. She began sending the manuscript for Spill Simmer Falter Wither to publishers ("who never got back to me") and finally Dublin-based Tramp Press signed her. Its intuition paid off when Baume won the Davy Byrnes prize just months later. Previous winners include Anne Enright and Claire Keegan, which is potentially intimidating for an unknown writer. "I was obviously thrilled, but it's a huge pressure as well as a huge honour; I find stories are much harder to write ever since."
Spill Simmer Falter Wither is the story of a 57-year-old man who is "too young for starting over, too old for giving up". In a nameless seaside town, he lives alone in a junk-filled house, where mould on the walls has "mushroomed into a reverse constellation". He adopts a troubled dog, called One-Eye, and they bond as unwanted outsiders. It's an introspective story of a man coming to terms with his past, and negotiating his way in the present. For all its quietness, there is emotional vigour, and it is written with a strong sense of craft. Language is the book's heart, and Baume's descriptive skills are striking.
“The dog was the starting point . . . the dog in the book is my dog, who is a rescue dog with one eye and he’s a real last-chance-saloon dog. He has caused us a lot of trouble; he’s bitten people and I’ve paid them off to stop him being put down. With the narrator, I wanted him to be an older man, and to be afraid of innocuous things, so he’s frightened of children and he doesn’t have normal social skills. He’s slightly based on a man who I see where I live, who walks up and down the seashore. I wanted to create a character who wasn’t fully me, but partially me, who encapsulated things that I felt.
“My eureka moment came when I realised that he was talking to the dog [the book employs a second-person voice]. My mum, who is an archaeologist, is my first reader and she’s my harshest critic. When I showed it to her originally, she said that the first two sections were slow, so I rewrote it.”
The book is set in a nameless fictional town, which Baume says is pretty much Whitegate in coastal Cork, where she lives with her artist boyfriend and aforementioned troublesome dog. For now, it’s fine as a base, and she is grateful that it’s cheap to live and work there. She says that she couldn’t set a story in the US or Australia: “I have to know it.”
With the Hennessy and Davy Byrnes wins, Baume has been asked to write more short stories, while simultaneously trying to immerse herself in the second novel. Her early writing – largely due to the fortnightly deadlines of the MA – was predominantly short stories, but Baume admits she’s finding it increasingly difficult to write short fiction.
“The novel was almost easier to do. It made me realise how hard it is to write short stories. I also find it really difficult to work on more than one fiction piece at the same time, so every good line I get goes into the one thing. If I’m writing a story and the novel, I’m apportioning the good lines between the two, and it feels like I’m cheating on both.”
The next book will be “stranger” and more autobiographical: it’s about a former art student and conceptual art. She says that it’s a “massive document” that needs work. Despite her success with short stories, and initial positive reviews for this book, Baume’s heart is clearly torn. Once she is established as a writer, it will feel harder to go back to art.
“After the second book, I’d really like to get a studio again and make art again. I actually hate writing; it’s really hard. Because I didn’t start out with the writing, I feel very insecure about it. I’d love to write in the morning and go into the studio in the afternoon, but you can’t do everything.
“I make things all the time but I don’t call them art. It’s doodling. Mental fidgeting. After two books, I might allow myself to make stuff for a while. If I don’t have a book or short stories to write, I won’t write them. I quite like the idea of having a varied life.”
Spill Simmer Falter Wither is published by Tramp Press
NEW IRISH WRITERS: THREE TO WATCH
- LISA McINERNEY After contributing one of the best stories to Kevin Barry's anthology Town and Country, McInerney's debut novel, The Glorious Heresies, finally arrives in April. Her work deals irreverently with contemporary Ireland.
- ANDREW FOX Fox was born in Dublin but lives in New York. His debut collection of short stories, Over Our Heads, examines the life of emigrants and the disaffection of post-boom Celtic Tiger youth. There is binge-drinking, odd neighbours, graffiti and lots of knife-edge humour.
- CLAIRE-LOUISE BENNETT A unique and daring voice who has published experimental fiction (winning the White Review Short Story Prize in 2013) and has contributed thoughtful essays and writing to journals Gorse and the Stinging Fly. Pond, which has been described as "a hybrid novel in story form", will be published by the Stinging Fly in April.