It's time to plump up the cushions and focus the brilliant glare of the standard lamp on a writer once more, make a pot of tea, lashings of scones and clotted cream and today it is my pleasure to flip out a napkin onto the knee of Elizabeth Baines whose book of short stories, Balancing On The Edge of the World quite swept me off my feet.
Elizabeth Baines is a writer of prose fiction and prize-winning plays for radio and stage. Her short story collection, Balancing on the Edge of the World, was published by Salt in 2007 and was long-listed for the Frank O'Connor International Award for the Short Story 2008. Her novel, Too Many Magpies, will come from Salt in late 2009. Elizabeth was born in South Wales and now lives in Manchester. She has been a teacher and is also an occasional actor. She writes the critical-commentary blog Fictionbitch and also has her own author blog
When I first wrote about Balancing
On the Edge of the World I envisaged you hunched over a magnifying glass,
the finest, most delicate of brushes in your hand, painting exquisite
little miniatures, which all suggests observation of the minute details
in life, is this how you envisage what you are doing?
This notion of a lens is a good one,
but as I said on Sarah Salway’s blog , I don’t think of what I’m doing as
focusing ON tiny details so much as hoping in each story to use some
detail – an image or object, some small aspect of life or a tiny incident
– as a lens itself, a telescopic one in fact, to look outwards at
some bigger picture.
Take for instance one of the stories in the book, ‘A Glossary of Bread’. This tells the story of a girl’s itinerant childhood, and it does it by structuring the story around a list of dictionary definitions of the different kinds of bread the family encountered as they moved from place to place. On the surface, therefore, the story may seem to be focused on bread or definitions of bread, but what it’s REALLY about is the bigger, more important things that are revealed in the process: a history of existential unhappiness and domestic violence and in the end a deeper history behind that, one of racial/religious persecution. The same notions, racial prejudice and domestic violence, along with class prejudice, are the real substance of ‘Star Things’, but they are revealed only gradually through the unknowing perspective of a small child who is focused on closer, more concrete details as she follows her friend into the wood in search of flowers, the ‘star things’. ‘Who’s Singing?’, the story of two neighbours, an opera singer and a Professor of Medicine, appears to concentrate on suburban and domestic things, the gardens of the two neighbours and the domestic routine of the hospital where the Professor works and where the opera singer must go for an operation. But it does so ironically, to show in the end the very uncosy, even fatal effects of fame and vanity and academic self-absorption. In ‘Going Back’, which features a family walk in the dunes, the details of the environment conjure up the deep unease at the heart of this apparently idyllic scenario and the potential savage unraveling of the family, all with hints of environmental disaster and a vaster history of changing climates and seas.
This technique, looking at the big things behind the little things and concentrating some huge idea into something concrete and vivid, is something which I think the short story as a form can do brilliantly (and which it shares with poetry), and indeed is its great strength. For me it’s especially useful, as one of the things I’m constantly trying to do in my writing is to explore the way we can gloss over terrible truths, and to expose the unacknowledged undercurrents in our lives.
Novel v Short Story? Is there a defining moment in the process when you know you have one or the other in front of you or do you set out with only one format in mind? In other words could you tell us a bit about the writing process and we do always like to know if it's a fountain pen (make, ink colour etc!) raven quills or a laptop involved, special slippers, Balzacian white robe and lots of coffee, must have been for a ten mile walk before can sit down to write, etc etc.
I always know immediately whether an idea is going to be a short story or a novel. A short story usually comes as a single image or phrase, very intense and vivid (the lens!), and with the sense of a single clear idea behind it (the bigger picture) (though I won’t always know yet what that idea is). With a novel, I’ll have a more conscious knowledge of the overall unifying idea, but it will also be an altogether more complex package of images and ideas, with the sense of lots of other sub-ideas and extra-ideas and story paths to be discovered along the way.
As for what I wear to write the things! Well, it would be nice to be able to paint a glamorous picture, but I have to admit that mostly I wear my grandmother’s old homemade jumper in mustard and navy-blue stripes. In fact, Lynne, as an expert knitter you may be interested to know that my grandmother was a keen knitter, but also an absolutely terrible one. When she died I inherited a pile of her stripy jumpers, and every single one had dropped stitches which I had to sew up, except this mustard and navy-blue one. This jumper was her triumph. I really love it. It’s short and wide, as she was, but it’s very cosy; it makes me feel like a busy bee, and of course it reminds me of her and keeps me in touch with my childhood self, which as I was saying last week on my visit to Vanessa Gebbie’s blog is a really important thing for a writer. I also have my grandmother’s beige-and-russet patterned carpet on the floor of my study, with a bare patch on one edge where the moths got it under her piano, and I can never look at that patch without thinking of her house in the village near Bridgend where I come from. My grandmother was a Hopkin, and she claimed to be descended from the family of the plasterer-bard Will Hopkin. I don’t know the truth of this – though possibly every Hopkin around Bridgend is descended from the same family! – but in any case she was both rather proud of this and yet somehow at the same time took it for granted, so I grew up with the idea that writing was both a wonderful and a natural thing for an ordinary person to do.
I have to sit at the window: for some reason I need to gaze out while I’m thinking. I have never, ever written fiction straight onto the computer – although I write everything else that way nowadays. I write fiction in longhand on Pukka Pads with a Silver Cross fountain pen and Lamy ink, and if I run out of Pukka Pads or mislay my pen I go berserk and think I can’t write. Which is of course really stupid, because before there were Pukka Pads and before my partner John bought me the pen one Christmas I wrote on ordinary pads with any old biros to hand. But Pukka Pads are really beautifully smooth, and I am now so used to the particular feel of that pen in my hand, and the flow of ink from the nib, and they are now so bound up with that psychological process of sinking into a story… Mad, I know, and if all the pens and paper disappeared from the world, clearly I’d just adapt.
As if you haven't guessed we
are indeed very nosey here at dovegreyreader scribbles so we would love
to know which writers inspire you and who MUST we read?
WG Sebald’s Austerlitz is probably
the book I’d say I recently found most inspiring, but my long-term
inspirations include Nabokov, F Scott Fitzgerald and Margaret Atwood.
Your inspirations tend to change, I find: when I first started writing
I found Graham Greene very inspiring, but I don’t any longer, perhaps
because I’ve so long ago digested the narrative techniques I found
in him. I find Will Self very inspiring: he’s so fizzing with ideas
and verbal energy I can’t help but be infected and want to rush off
and write something of my own, however different, every time I read
him. I haven’t read Tom McCarthy’s The Remainder; it’s beside
my bed waiting, but I have already found just glancing at it inspiring.
Sebald is one I’d urge everyone to read. Also Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader and Richard Yates – not because of the recent films, these last two: we read The Reader and Yates’s Revolutionary Road a couple of years ago in the reading group I belong to, and they were unanimously voted our best reads so far in five years of monthly meetings.
My thanks to Elizabeth for polishing off all those scones and the cream and also for calling me an expert knitter (some may question that) and my thanks also to Salt Books who have offered three copies of Balancing on the Edge of the World to three lucky winners here, names in comments and the cat who didn't get the cream will oblige with the prize draw.