Seven Steeples is the third novel by Sara Baume, an artist and writer who was raised in County Cork, Ireland, where she still lives. It concerns a couple named Bell and Sigh, who have moved from the city to a dilapidated cottage near the sea in the south-west of Ireland, where they live off “social welfare payments and dwindling savings”. The novel spans seven years, as Bell and Sigh gradually lose touch with friends and family, grow “poor and shabby without noticing”, and stop interacting with other people almost entirely. Instead, their primary relationships are with each other, their dogs Pip and Voss, a local farmer, the cattle in their garden, a pair of donkeys on the route of their evening walk, and the local landscape – including the mountain, “full of miniature eyes”, which looms over them, but which they never seem able to climb.
Baume has now twice been shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize – her second novel, A Line Made by Walking, made the list in 2017. Natasha Brown, one of this year’s judges, said of Seven Steeples: “The bleak, beautiful prose resonates like a ghost story: haunting and unforgettable.”
Anna Leszkiewicz: Seven Steeples sometimes seems to hover between poetry and prose. How did you arrive at this particular literary form?
Sara Baume: At the outset I wanted to see if I could take a fixed landscape and squeeze a universe of detail out of it – to begin with very little and transform it into as much as possible with language. I wanted the language to be spare, a bit scriptural, and to invoke vivid pictures. There were times, very often at the end of a paragraph, where I felt like a single space didn’t create enough of a pause between words and so I would add several extra spaces or jump to the next line. Then throughout the novel there are certain sentences, and certain patterns, that repeat. It makes sense to me that the form of a novel should also play a part in telling the story.
This is a novel about isolation. To what extent did your experience of the Covid-19 pandemic inform the writing of this book?
Hardly at all, which seems strange even to me. I suspect that in years to come I will think of Seven Steeples as my pandemic novel, but in fact it was almost complete by the start of 2020. Publication was delayed by a year and during a light redraft I added a few sentences that alluded to some kind of a breakdown of society occurring, quietly, in the background. The novel is essentially about a couple who choose to withdraw from the world of people, and at a certain point I thought it might be interesting to imply that this world had changed irrevocably in their absence and they had barely even noticed.
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Bell and Sigh’s retreat from the world often feels less intentional, and more the result of paralysing anxiety. Are you interested in the experience of feeling “stuck”? Is it a feeling you ever recognise in your own creative process?
This observation is very true for the novel, and a bit chilling for me on a personal level. I’ve never felt disastrously stuck from a creative point of view; instead I feel like I mostly have too many projects on the go and never enough time to keep up with them. But I’ve always been reluctant to embrace adult responsibilities in my life and this results in a constant, low-level anxiety about the future and its stability, and my ability to cope with instability. I’ve somewhat failed to build the scaffold of a normal life outside of my surplus of creative projects.
Bell and Sigh are in some senses deeply connected to the natural world, and in other senses they are very isolated from their surroundings, as they have so little connection with other human beings. What drew you to that tension?
Every novel I’ve written has, in some form, been about just this. There is a central character who feels at odds with other humans and finds solace in the natural world. Each novel has drawn from my own experiences of living in rural Ireland. I was born in a place I am not from and raised in a place I am not from and now I choose to live in a different place I am not from, and so in my writing I keep circling around this idea of how to be at home in a landscape as opposed to a community or, for that matter, a society or a nation.
In Seven Steeples, your writing is particularly attentive to physical objects and how they become precious to people. What interests you about material things? Did any objects observed in your own life spark descriptions in the novel?
I started writing Seven Steeples in 2017. It came together very slowly and during that time I also wrote a short non-fiction book called handiwork. handiwork is about various things, from the death of my dad to bird migration to railway modelling, but mainly it’s about the insistence I have always felt to work with my hands. I went to art school and specialised in sculpture and then for a formative period worked in a gallery where I developed an interest in folk art and ethnographic artefacts and so physical objects are often of quasi-spiritual importance to my writing. After my dad died my mother made a collage of small photographs in a big frame as a kind of memorial. The photographs were of many of the things he had built over the years – machinery mostly, sheds, gates, the garden path. All together they made a picture of the material trail left behind by his life. This memorial – its sacred ordinariness – was the genesis of handiwork and it haunts Seven Steeples too.
As in some of your earlier fiction, Seven Steeples contains dogs who are major characters of the novel, with distinct personalities. What attracts you to depicting canine psychology?
I honestly don’t think too deeply about it; I just put the dogs in, irresistibly. In my real life as in my novel, they form a kind of a sideshow to the banal.
Alone in their house, Bell and Sigh find that “tunes – intros, themes, chorus” from TV and the radio get stuck in their brains, and then “infect” each other. What earworms plague you?
The most poignant one is from a blackbird that was hanging around our garden back in the springtime. It had this heart-wrenchingly tender song that ended in two, long, hollow notes, so soulful it would make my eyes water. The blackbird disappeared after a couple of weeks but the song still goes around in my head.
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Tell me about a piece of art, literature or music that was important to you when writing this book.
The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd was important. Also Fair Play by Tove Jansson and Light Years by James Salter. While I was writing I often found myself thinking about painters who had painted the same scene over and over again throughout their life, Monet being the obvious example. I also agree with Celia Paul’s idea that it is near impossible to authentically depict people and places that you don’t genuinely care about or are not on intimate terms with. I’m very attracted to artists who find new ways to constantly tread the same ground.
Read more about the Goldsmiths Prize shortlist here. The winner of this year’s prize will be announced on 10 November. The winning author will appear at the Cambridge Literary Festival on 19 November.