In next to no time Sara Baume has won both gushing praise from Joseph O’Connor and the prestigious Davy Byrnes Short Story Award. She tells Totally Dublin about her debut novel Spill Simmer Falter Wither, a dreamy tale of rural isolation and canine companionship, published by Tramp Press.
You were born in Lancashire and came to Cork when you were how old?
I was four years old. I tell people I was born on the road to Wigan Pier on an Animal Farm in 1984, which is true. My dad’s English and my mum’s Irish. They were working on the old gas lines; my father was a foreman. They lived in a caravan and travelled around; after I was born there were too many kids in a caravan so they settled down. People presume I’m from West Cork because there’s loads of West Cork hippies. But I’m from the ugly side of Cork, the east side. I shouldn’t tell people, but where I live is absolutely where the book is based. It’s a town called Whitegate.
How helpful was the Creative Writing Masters you did in Trinity College?
I notice in all my bios that people mention the Masters. I don’t think you need one to write a book at all. It provides some structure, and a little competition, which no one ever mentions. That forces you to do a little better, trying to produce a better story this week than X did two weeks ago. And you learn from other people’s errors and successes. It probably had a bigger influence on me than I’m giving it credit for.
I’m the first in my year to produce a book, which is surprising. When we first finished up I remember looking around myself and thinking, ‘She’ll be the first’ – I remember specifically who – ‘and she’ll be the second’. I certainly didn’t think it would be me. The thing is, I wasn’t the best writer in the class, I’m still not. But I’m the one who knuckled down and go to the end of a book.
Then Tramp Press signed you to a two-book deal.
Being with a smaller publishing house has actually been an advantage, because I’ve gone around with the team myself into bookshops. They’re so personable, and work so hard themselves. As their writer, I feel I’m good friends with Lisa [Coen] and Sarah [Davis-Goff] at this stage. They’re brilliant and I do feel they’ll go far. My book is the first book to be published by Tramp in the UK, which is why there was a London launch.
Tell me about winning the Davy Byrne Short Story Award.
The prize is awarded every five years. The Stinging Fly organise it; they publish the stories in a collection. The story, Solesearcher1, is about a woman called Phil fishing for Dover sole. My boyfriend does a lot of fishing, he has world medals for shore angling, he’s hardcore. It’s a good and bad thing, because he’s really good at it but he doesn’t always catch things that are tasty to eat. I ran that story past him, he had a few technical changes but I think that that’s important. A shore angler’s probably never going to read that story, but I still want for a shore angler to be able to read it and know that it’s right. The authenticity of something is important to me.
Joseph O’Connor has called Spill Simmer Falter Wither ‘the most impressive debut novel [he’s] read in years’.
The first thing I would say is I don’t know him. He liked Solesearcher1 and gave Spill Simmer Falter Wither a heads-up in the ‘Books of the Year’ for the Irish Times. I’d done my own little ‘Books of the Year’ and I was looking for my piece. Then I saw my name under Joseph O’Connor. It’s weird, he’s been so good to it, for no reason other than that he actually likes it. I don’t know Eimear McBride either, but she launched the book in London for us. Anne Enright spoke at the launch in Dublin. Years and years ago I did actually send a note to Anne Enright trying to get her to read something that I had written, and she read this out and completely embarrassed me!
The structure is quite unusual in that it’s mostly narrated in the second-person.
It went through a few different permutations. It was originally from the point of view of the dog, which didn’t work because dogs don’t know enough. Then it was first-person point of view of the man. The eureka moment was when I joined the two up and realised he was speaking to the dog. Before that I’d said, ‘No I can’t risk the tricky second-person.’ That’s the first rule of Creative Writing Masters. But I read some writer, it could have been Rachel Cusk, who said it’s OK to use the second-person if you’re talking to someone, addressing them.
That really worked because I talk to the dog more than I talk to any human. And it’s a different kind of speech. He’s talking to the dog, but he’s not really either, he’s talking to himself and the two meet somewhere in the middle. It’s a free way of speaking and still it’s not so free as it would be inside your head.
Your narrator, while showing signs of being mentally imbalanced, is also very articulate.
Hence his beautiful prose! That’s a funny one. He’s never been to school or interacted with kids, and his dad led people to believe that he was mentally retarded, and wasn’t sent to school for that reason. Which to my mind he’s not. He’s compus mentis, but he’s had such a strange life. He reads a lot, but I didn’t go into mentioning a lot of books. The only book that I mention is Silas Marner by George Eliot.
He has a really strange sense of the world, and I think that was my way of getting across his own voice. Everything he’s learned is from second-hand sources, as opposed to actually being around people and talking to them. He’s a strange man. And we see them all the time. There’s not necessarily anything wrong with their minds other than they’ve just been formed in a certain way.
What’s next for Sara Baume?
At the moment, I’m working on my second novel, but people are also soliciting stories now for the first time, which is amazing. Journals are asking me to contribute stories as opposed to me submitting stories and hoping they’ll get published. I have a few different things, I just did a catalogue essay for an exhibition in the Douglas Hyde Gallery, I did something for the Temple Bar Gallery, a few written pieces, or or essays like one on dogs in literature for The Stinging Fly.
To me this book is old, and I’m a little bit ashamed of parts of it. I’ve been working on bits of it throughout the year, but it was a manuscript submitted over a year ago.
I’m probably more excited about what I’m writing now. It will be a novel, but not a very traditional novel. As soon as Spill Simmer Falter Wither was finished I started writing another one, because I thought, ‘That won’t get published, that’s my practice novel. When I get to the end I’ll write a real one.’ But for the last year I’ve been tapping away at this thing that is now a massive word document. It needs an awful lot of work still. I suppose it’s a first draft; there’s a big hole where the end should be. It’s not the kind of thing that needs an ending I think, there’s no story per se. Ends are hard.
Sara Baume’s debut novel Spill Simmer Falter Wither is available now, published by Tramp Press.
Words: Eoin Tierney