Sara Baume | 'You don't really call yourself a writer until you have a book published'

Sara Baume | 'You don't really call yourself a writer until you have a book published'

At a bookshop in Kildare recently Sara Baume was talking to an audience about her 2015 début, the Costa First Novel Award-shortlisted Spill Simmer Falter Wither, when someone asked what her next novel was about. She panicked. “I said something like, it’s a girl-going-mad novel, structured around roadkill and interspersed with descriptions of contemporary art” she says, over the phone from Cork in Ireland. “My Irish publisher [from Tramp Press] was in the room and I could see them going ‘Oh no!’”

The writer’s slightly off-putting description was of her second novel A Line Made by Walking (William Heinemann, February) which is, in fact, a powerful meditation on art, loneliness and finding one’s place in the world. It is the story of Frankie, a 25-year-old artist who struggles to cope with life in Dublin, so has retreated to the countryside to stay in her deceased grandmother’s house which has been empty for three years.

It is an autobiographical novel, based on a difficult time in Baume’s own life: in her twenties she graduated from art school in Dublin “into the recession” where there were no jobs. “I think I’m one of lots of educated people who graduated into a society with no opportunity and was completely lost,” she says. Baume also moved into her grandmother’s old house which was struggling to sell as the Irish economy collapsed.

She explains: “[The novel] is true and not true. It’s based in truth but then there was a point at which I realised that Frankie had become her own person.”

In A Line Made by Walking Frankie ponders the series of events that led her to her grandmother’s house; her anxious childhood, the isolation she experienced while at art school, her shaky mental health, and the person she had feelings for who didn’t reciprocate. As Baume says, it is a novel “about the way a mind wanders, and the things that it settles on and fixates upon”.

Also woven through the novel are Frankie’s descriptions of conceptual artworks by artists ranging from Marina Abramovic to Wolf Vostell. An example: “Works about Intelligibity, I test myself: Gillian Wearing, 10–16, 1997. A video piece in which adults lip-sync the voices and affect the mannerisms of children. It’s a work about the loss of childhood, about the pervasiveness of gibberish, about the insuperable difficulty of articulating what we honestly feel. It’s a work about how, even as adults, most of our fears remain so petty. So inadequate.”

The novel takes its title from a 1967 work by Richard Long, an artist who, Frankie tells the reader, “specialises in barely-there art. Pieces which take up as little space in the world as possible. And which do as little damage.”

Baume explains: “She’s an art graduate and she’s trying to be an artist. It begins as an exercise to try and remember the things that she’s learnt in college. She is on her own, formal education is over and she is responsible for her own intellect now.

“Then it becomes a way of trying to find meaning. In the same way as you might play a certain song to make yourself feel a certain way, like energised or sad, she’s testing to see if visual art contains the same power to move [her] or to enlighten [her].”

As Frankie narrates the novel, the reader is inside her head and so it is not completely clear whether she is having a full-on mental breakdown or a less scary quarter-life crisis. Some of her behaviour is very odd and the story flashes back to past attempts by others to diagnose her with depression. Baume is clear: “She believes herself to be lost. That is what I went through myself—there is this period in life when you have to find your feet. It’s not straightforward in the way it was for my parents’ generation, you don’t just get married and have children and a mortgage. So she is lost and I don’t think that is mental illness, it’s just a period in which she struggles to figure things out.”

Frankie finds solace in what Baume calls “the small, overlooked wonders of the natural world”. It starts with a tiny dead robin “toppling from the sky to land at my feet. And because my small world is coming apart in tiny increments, it seems fitting that the creatures should be dying too.” She takes a photograph of the robin, and it becomes the first in a series of pictures of dead animals.

So even as she wonders if she will ever be an artist, she is actually creating a work of art—and it is this connection with the natural world that will save her. The photographs of the animals—that appear within the text—provide the structure of the novel. Perhaps Frankie’s greatest struggle is with loneliness, as Baume says: “It’s the loneliness of failure, or at least perceiving that you’ve failed, even though your life has barely begun”.

Great influences

It was only after she had finished writing A Line Made by Walking that Baume read a “batch” of books which, she says, laughing, “would have been great influences” if she had only read them beforehand. They too fuse elements of autobiography with the natural world: H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald and The Outrun by Amy Liptrot. Also The Lonely City, in which author Olivia Laing explores loneliness in New York through art.

Baume is a visual artist as well as a novelist, although she says “I would like to think that it’s one fluid practice, that I’m an artist-slash-writer or that artist covers everything.” She observes that “you don’t really call yourself a writer until you have a book published but there’s no marker in the art world in the same way”. Her next project will be a visual one, she thinks, rather than a book.

The Guardian’s review of Spill Simmer Falter Wither singled out Baume’s “rare ability to look afresh at muted scenes and ordinary objects”. The review also noted that the book “hums with its own distinctiveness”: an epithet that can equally be applied to her second.