Sara Baume: “The only right way of writing is to follow your interests with conviction”

The Goldsmiths Prize-shortlisted author on conceptual art, mental illness, and the importance of empathy.

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This is the fifth in a series of interviews with the writers shortlisted for the 2017 Goldsmiths Prize, run in association with the New Statesman.

Sara Baume is a writer and author of two novels. Born in Lancashire to an English father and Irish mother, she grew up in County Cork, Ireland, where she still lives. She studied fine art at Dun Laoghaire College of Art and Design and creative writing at Trinity College, and her debut novel, Spill Simmer Falter Wither, was shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award and won the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize. Her latest work, A Line Made By Walking, is shortlisted for the prestigious Goldsmiths Prize, and follows 25-year-old Frankie, an unhappy artist living in rural Ireland. Reviewing it in the New Statesman, Sarah Ditum wrote, “Baume’s mixing of the visual arts and fiction is as satisfying as Ali Smith’s.”

Why do we need the Goldsmiths Prize?

We need the Goldsmiths prize because it shows learner-writers that there’s no set formula to the realisation of a well-received novel – the only right way of writing is to follow your interests with conviction.

The Goldsmiths Prize was set up to reward fiction that “breaks the mould or extends the possibilities of the novel form”. What can an “innovative” approach offer the reader (and writer) that a more conventional novel might not?

It allows the writer to regard the novel as a form which is built as well as written, and it encourages the reader to consider the decisions that went into building it, and to make their own connections. In On Style, Sontag wrote about “the things that cannot be said.” A good mould-breaking, possibility-extending novel should offer the reader these “contradictions between expression and the presence of the inexpressible.”

Tell me about a piece of art, literature or music that was important to you in the writing of this book.

Approximately seventy artworks are described throughout the novel – from Ophelia by John Everett Millais to The Clock by Christian Marclay. My title is stolen from a piece by Richard Long. A Line Made by Walking is the documentation of an action undertaken in 1967, while Long was still a student in St. Martin’s School of Art. One day he took a train out of London to a field in Wiltshire, and walked up and down through the grass until his footsteps had worn a short, straight path, and then he photographed it. When it came to naming the novel, this was the piece that felt most appropriate, because it’s about repetition, and searching, and where we are going, and what we leave behind.

Your last book was narrated by a 57-year-old man. What attracted you this time to Frankie, a depressed 25-year-old artist struggling to cope with the realities of being a living, breathing adult?

Ray, my 57-year-old man, was a version of me, adapted from certain qualities and tendencies, exaggerated. Frankie is just another version, adapted from other qualities and tendencies, exaggerated.

Frankie has an almost compulsive habit of “testing” herself, of trying to recall works of art that share a theme with something she’s thinking about. All 75 artworks are listed in the back. This sounds very dry and exam-like but it seems to be more about relating art to real life situations and experiences. Is that something you think is important?

Yes, terribly, because real life is where art comes from in the first place. But most people have such little patience with conceptual art, and so all of these “tests” were my way of trying to say: Look, however you’re feeling right now, there’s probably an artwork out there which describes it – because an artist has felt like that before, and translated it into actions or materials.

In your editor’s note, you remind us that the works are “described as the narrator remembers and perceives them” and “urge readers to seek out, perceive and interpret these artworks for themselves.” Why did you want to be so specific on that distinction?

Because each work is presented from the narrator’s point of view, filtered through her mind and moment in time, and “all art is open-ended,” Richard Long once said in an interview, “not a closed system.”

Each chapter of A Line Made By Walking is named after a dead animal Frankie finds, and each includes a photograph Frankie takes of the corpses. How important was it to you to include these photographs in this novel, rather than just describe them?

Their inclusion is a nod to how WG Sebald did it – I wanted the photographs to seem “found” or “stray”, and I wanted the reader to stumble across them and think, as Frankie does when she stumbles across the creatures they depict, how it’s a little odd they ended up there.

A Line Made By Walking is set in the Irish countryside. A specific sense of place comes through in dialogue, wildlife and other references, but there’s also at times a kind of geographical vagueness to Frankie’s rural home. How do you approach place in your work?

Place is everything. But it shifts constantly in accordance with people and their values – perhaps that’s where the vagueness comes from. I’m devotedly interested in the idea of rural Ireland – with something John McGahern once said, that “the quality of feeling that’s brought to the landscape is actually more important than the landscape itself…”

Frankie is making a conscious effort to be in conversation with the natural world around her, even when she finds that disquieting or uncomfortable. Why did you want to explore the more difficult aspects of that relationship?

Frankie longs to be redeemed by nature, but her only sincere conversation is with herself. And so, looking closely, death is what she finds – animals and birds falling from the sky. Gradually, she realises that nature is not listening, and this is both the most disquieting aspect of the relationship, as well as her moment of redemption.

Death looms large in this novel, and often Frankie’s difficulty in grappling with the facts of death feels very reasonable. But at other times characters see her depression as “depleted stores of serotonin, plain and simple”. Are you interested in the line between existential anxieties and mental illness?

Yes, terribly. Mental illness, when it’s real, is physical. You feel it in your body; it makes you weak and sick. But most of the people being medicated for depression right now are merely existentially anxious, and I wanted Frankie to be a portrait of this.

You choose a quote from JD Salinger for the novel’s epigraph. “The worst thing that being an artist could do to you would be that it would make you slightly unhappy constantly.” Do you think artists are doomed to be constantly slightly unhappy?

The epigraph comes from a story called De Daumier Smith’s Blue Period, close to the end of which the narrator, who is an artist, experiences a moment of transcendence while gazing into the window of an orthopaedic supplies store. So yes, I think that artists are doomed to be constantly slightly unhappy, but constant slight unhappiness can also be a blessing, in that it makes us alert to haphazard moments of transcendence.

Frankie sometimes struggle with empathy: other characters are sometimes reduced to props for her own navel-gazing. As a novelist, how important is the concept of empathy for you?

Terribly, and yet I find it’s often missing from novels which experiment with form. For me, the best art is psychologically and emotionally engaging. I need to care sincerely about the journey and its outcome. It’s not enough just to recognise that what I’m reading is doing something clever or new or brash – I need to care.

What past British or Irish novel deserves a retrospective Goldsmiths Prize?

Just from casting about my book heaps, The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch by Anne Enright, or How Late It Was, How Late by James Kelman, or The Dirty Dust by Máirtín ó Cadhain…

“A Line Made By Walking” is published by William Heinemann.

Read the New Statesman's reviews of all six novels on the Goldsmiths Prize shortlist here

Will Self Q&A: The nostalgia of the “heritage novel” leaves me reaching for my gun 

Kevin Davey Q&A: “TS Eliot was far more than the sum of his prejudices”​ 

Listen to The Back Half podcast’s special episode on the Goldsmiths Prize nominees, on iTunes here, on Acast here or via the player below:

Anna Leszkiewicz is the New Statesman's deputy culture editor.