Wednesday, February 11, 2009

A writer worth cooking muffins for....

Notice something different about this blog today?

Yep, that's right. There's been some cooking going on round here. I've been up early cooking cakes and grinding coffee beans to prepare for this visitor, cos she's a bit special.

Dear reader, Elizabeth Baines is visiting us today as part of her frighteningly impressive and well organised blog tour. Because we all get to ask Elizabeth different questions, the idea is that the tour leaves us with a really useful resource for looking at how a writer writes, why they write, where stories comes from, questions of world beliefs, the purpose of reading and writing ... and because this is the wonderful land of blogland, we also get to know what her relationship with eating dormice, whether or not she knows Simon Cowell and not just her connection with snails but what is the meaning of happiness.

And of course, as with all of Elizabeth's stories in her excellent collection, Balancing On The Edge of The World, it is often the trivial or ordinary that can be the most surprising. Elizabeth writes about the peace-loving parents who bring up a tyrant; the story of a life and death is told through the sound of song, and three teenagers enact a dance of power on city streets, all losing a bit of their identity in the process.

There are individual stories in this book I want to look at later in this blog, not least because Elizabeth has very kindly left me with some writing prompts from them to use over the next few days, but first I want to pay respect to her use of structure.

Because I love structure, and it seems Elizabeth is a writer after my own heart. Too often writers take the idea of a short story as a 'glimpse' a bit too literally for me. I once heard Dilys Rose talk about having to 'wrestle' a short story into shape, and it feels as if Elizabeth has come out victorious in this collection. Although, yes, they are a look at the ordinary and making meaning from it, they are something more - they are their own little worlds from which you have to jump off sometimes reluctantly to the next story. For this reason, the title - Balancing on the Edge of the World - made perfect sense to me.

Take a look, for example, at how a few of her first and last sentences chime ...

'Conundrum': They were children of the 1950s, this girl and boy, they were punished, even beaten, as a matter of course, just for making mistakes, or for simply not knowing, indeed for being their innocent childhood selves .....

Why the cops picked him up for violent, even fascist behaviour, when the social worker pronounced him deeply troubled, well, they couldn't believe it, or imagine where on earth they could have gone wrong.

Oh joys. That last line takes me back to the first and back again - to be beaten for simply not knowing adds poignantly to the last anguished puzzle of 'where on earth they could have gone wrong' with their own child. A lack of knowledge which is beating them all over again.

And then there's the experimental dictionary-style story, 'A Glossary of Bread', for which Elizabeth has been rightly showered with praise. This starts with a definition of bread as meaning a 'morsel, or crumb', and after moving through many different definitions, finishes with BREAD: The means of subsistence (OED 1993). And Elizabeth has the authority to leave us right there. Not with crumbs but with a thunk of recognition in what we've just read.

Anyway, lots to learn and admire in this collection,but let's listen to Elizabeth herself. It's a great honour (as you've probably gathered from my gushes above) to have her here - at the end I've put the link to where you can find out her other stops on her tour, so please do visit and buy her book.

Sarah: Language is obviously very important to you. If you were visited by the word-thief and he stole all your words but five, which ones would you like to keep, and which do you think sum up your work?

Elizabeth: Hope, love, doubt, sight (in the sense of keeping alert), thought.

These are the things I aspire to. I guess the last three best sum up my work, as it’s in my work I want to examine things, pull them apart, demolish assumptions.

Sarah: I recently contributed a piece to the anthology ‘Stolen Stories’, where writers had to confess where they had stolen their story from – something they’d overheard, or read maybe. Those stories were fascinating and, I think, satisfied an itch in the reader. Could you talk about one of the stories in your book, and where the ideas and/or images came from?

The book sounds fascinating (who’s the publisher?). The only story in Balancing which came as a ‘complete’ story from someone else was ‘Daniel Smith Disappears off the Face of the Earth’: in fact, I was told the story by the mugged boy himself. I have to confess that all of the factual details came straight from him, and I must say that when I wrote it I wondered if I should be doing so. Many of the stories in ‘Balancing’ are the results of things I’ve overheard or witnessed, but in general, it seems to me, when things in the outside world resonate and act as triggers, the stories they trigger are already inside you, your own obsessions or memories or imaginings. I wrote about this when I did a guest spot about ‘inspiration’ on John Baker’s blog, using as illustration the story ‘Compass and Torch’ . This story was triggered by actually seeing a young boy and his father setting off for a camping trip in the way the father and son in the story do, but I soon realized it was really informed by my own childhood and family experiences. These last probably affected my perception of the real-life pair in the first place: I wasn’t even really seeing them for what they were – maybe in reality they were as happy as Larry and had a wonderful understanding – so the story was not at all about them. In a similar way, you could say – and I have said to myself – ‘Daniel Smith’ is not the story of the real-life mugged boy, but the boy of my imagination: after all, it was only the facts that the real-life boy told me; I had to imagine the subtleties of the emotional experience and of course the thematic significance of the situation in my story had to be created by me. There are many ways to tell a story and as many meanings you could give it; the meaning I had given this one was mine and not the boy’s, and if he ever wrote about the incident himself, then he could come up with a very different story. Still, I did worry about it and wonder if I was stealing. After all, unlike the boy and his dad in ‘Compass and Torch’, I knew this boy well, and maybe I really had put my finger on the emotional pulse of his experience and the thematic significance he would give it himself; maybe if he ever wanted to write it himself he’d find I’d gone and stolen his fire. In a way it might be even worse if he wanted to write about it but his take on it was very different from mine, because the recognizable facts could signal the story as having been already told and make it difficult for him to get an audience for his version of what was after all his own story.

Not so long ago the novelist Sebastian Barry (whose writing bowls me over) said to me: ‘All’s fair in war and writing.’ He’d given a reading at MMU and something he’d said chimed with a real-life story, set in Ireland, which my Irish dad always told me. When I went to get my book signed, my partner John, who was at my side, told me to tell Sebastian this story, and like an idiot with no mind of her own, I did. Straightaway Sebastian said he was going to put it in his next book. I said in horror, ‘You can’t because I’m putting it in mine!’ and that was when he said it: ‘All’s fair in war and writing’. I think he was winding me up, but if not and I find that story of my dad’s in Sebastian’s latest book (which I’m just about to read) or any future book, then – ‘Daniel Smith’ notwithstanding – I will of course want to kill him (well, all’s fair in war and writing). (And goodness knows what my dad would think if he were still alive.)

Sarah: I read ‘Daniel Smith’ with my creative writing class, and we were all very excited by how power shifts between the characters in this story. Could you talk about this?

What I was most interested in for this story was the contingency of power, the fact that what seems like power can slip over to become vulnerability. Daniel Smith’s middle-class background gives him what seem like power, material power and a wise-guy kind of confidence. But it also makes him vulnerable to muggers, both physically because of what he has that can be thieved, and also in that by shielding him from how the other half lives, it gives him a terrible and paradoxical naiveté. And then, as a result of the mugging, his confidence in his place in the universe is permanently affected. The power of the muggers – which paradoxically is prompted by their powerlessness in society – is not just physical: once this happens, they have a psychic power over Daniel. But of course, this too is only a precarious kind of power, and the story follows the shifts in the balance as Daniel struggles against their power over him. I suppose I should say that I never put it to myself like this when I was writing the story: I knew there were issues of power involved, but I wrote it more instinctually.

Sarah: It is such a big theme, and I admire tremendously how you manage to handle it so lightly, so we are allowed to pick up on it ourselves rather than having you hit us over the head with the concept! Do you re-write a lot? (I’m hoping you’ll say yes, Elizabeth, otherwise I’ll despair!!!!)

Sometimes I need to re-write a lot, and sometimes I don’t. I talked about this in some detail on my visit to Barbara Smith's blog where I said that I think it depends very much on one’s prior relationship to the material, how far you’ve already digested it. I didn’t re-write the stories in Balancing very much at all, but the stories I’m working on now need considerable re-writing.

Sarah: Continuing the idea that the short story allows us to talk about BIG subjects like power, would you tell us a little about the difference between writing short stories and novels?

Dovegreyreader, in her review of Balancing , said that she thought of me as holding a microscope to the minute details of life, and I see what she means, in that I often take a tiny focussed moment or aspect of life and explore its more universal implications, so showing that it is bigger than it may seem. Maybe the analogy of a telescope is even better: writing a short story is a bit like looking through a telescope from earth at the bigger, wider universe. (I’ll be talking about this in more detail on Dovegrey’s blog later this month). (‘Daniel Smith’, I’ve just realized, actually uses a similar astronomical metaphor: Dan’s middle-class perspective, which up until the moment of the mugging is to him the centre of the universe, is contrasted with the idea of the planet hurtling through the cold indifferent universe.) A main and obvious difference from novels is that novels don’t have that singular focus, and although novels are usually thus wider in their sweep (more like those big sweeping telescopes perhaps!), I do think there is something particularly powerful about the way that short stories, like poems, can condense huge themes into something small but highly charged.

Another analogy I’ve used before for short stories is that of dropping a stone into a pond and watching the ripples grow wider and wider in every direction. For this reason short stories seem to me much less linear than novels even if they have a basically linear narrative, whereas however non-linear a novel is structurally, writing it feels much more of a forwards rush, don’t you think?

Sarah: And how important is the character for you? Have you ever had a character that took over the story from you? And if so, what did that feel like?

You know, I don’t think this has ever really happened for me in writing prose. On Barbara’s blog I talked about the fact that the initial stage of writing is more a question of ‘listening’ and ‘watching’ than of feeling in control, but, as I said then, the editing, controlling side of me is never entirely absent even at that stage, and I do always know more or less what a story is about and where it’s going (even if I turn out to be wrong), and the characters always play their part in that. In fact, as I said on my visit to Clare Dudman, I don’t see my characters as separate in any way, but as part of the narrative construct, and therefore of my own consciousness. There was one character once (in a story which isn’t in the book) who seemed to ‘come to me’ rather than to have been actively imagined by me, and it felt like a gift and was very exciting. But although I couldn’t have predicted beforehand some of the things she did, nothing she did moved the story away from the direction I was expecting it to go in, but in fact served my purpose beautifully.

In fact it’s in writing plays that I experience characters as more separate from me and more in charge of their own destinies. I think that this is because if you get the situation and the voices right at the start of a play, dialogue emerges logically and naturally in a way that can seem to happen without you – and that is exciting, yes.

Sarah: I am so impressed by your voice in this collection. Was there a moment in your writing career that you had an ‘aha’ moment and felt you’d found your voice?

Well, Sarah, I’m very pleased that you think I have a voice! Right at the beginning, when I first started writing seriously for publication, what I wanted more than anything was a voice all of my own, and yes, I did have a moment, fairly soon, when I thought I’d found it, though the story which gave me this eureka moment isn’t in the collection. Trouble is, though, I had another one after that: I wrote a story in which the voice was different (or so it seemed to me) and my previous voice now seemed not a true one, but derivative. And then it happened again… And then I started trying out different narrative personae… And the stories in Balancing represent this history. I guess the truth is that from inside my own writing I tend to see only the differences from story to story. Though even I can see that my general tone is one of irony…

Sarah: And lastly, hell is a dinner party. What are you eating and who are your guests?

This is my hell, my nightmare: I have found a way of feeding people words. It’s an amazing recipe, handed down from great word-cooks of the past and to which I have added my own – though I say it myself – brilliant innovations. No words have ever tasted like this before. I lay out the table with painstaking care and artistry. No table has looked more beautiful. My guests arrive. They are a tall and thoughtful-looking middle-aged man in a dark suit, a younger man in a coloured open-necked shirt and with spiky hair, a smart thirtyish woman and three others: a girl in jeans and two older women, one of whom has brought her knitting. I sit them down. The first three look expectant, but one of the older women looks blank while the other rummages in her bag, and the girl in jeans listens to her iPod.

I bring in the words, steaming on a platter. The scent is unbelievable: aromatic, pungent, conjuring up lost worlds and worlds to come. My heart is bursting with happiness. The dark-suited man, who is a literary editor, sniffs appreciatively. The spiky-haired young man, his marketing director, says, ‘Cool!’ The smart young woman, an agent, says, ‘These smell like Richard and Judy words!’

I lay the platter down. The agent takes a spoonful, slips one of my glistening, luscious words into her mouth. ‘Oh no!!’ she says in dismay. ‘It’s lovely, but…’ The girl in jeans says, ‘Is it yuk?’ ‘Well, you wouldn’t like it,’ the agent tells her ruefully. ‘Oh yuk, I’m not eating yuk,’ says the girl, standing. ‘Or you, I’m afraid,’ says the agent to the older women, who wrinkle their noses. ‘Oh well, if they wouldn’t like it,’ says the marketing director, and pushes the platter right away from him and out of the reach of the editor who has been waiting his turn. ‘I’m off for an ice-cream!’ says the girl, pushing her chair in. ‘We’re off for cakes,’ say the older women, standing also and yanking their bags over their arms. The agent and the marketing director are going too, the marketing director already punching into his Blackberry. The editor gives me a wry smile of apology, and then he too is gone. And my words, my once-magical words, are left on the platter, congealed and growing cold.

(I don't want to spoil that last lingering horrific image by rabbiting on so this is a quiet but genuinely meant THANK YOU TO ELIZABETH from the sidelines. More of her tour-dates and appearances here.)


Kathryn's Daily Writing Workout said...

I loved it, particularly the bit about stealing stories and all's fair etc. She's right though; the whole story is already inside waiting to be rescued from the abyss. If someone comes along and offers you a rope, why not use it?

Elizabeth Baines said...

Well, thank you for having me, Sarah!

Life and the Literal Verse said...

A lovely story and I'm looking forward to more from Elizabeth Baines.

Sarah Salway said...

A real pleasure, Elizabeth. Thank you!

And yes, rescuing stories rather than stealing them. I like it!

She's great, CollB, well wroth reading.

Unknown said...

That is revealing, E about Sebastian Barry, and you know what, he's right too. It depends on who tells it best, though ;)

Great fun to read this, even if I am late to the gathering. And that last answer about hell - agh! Too, too vivid!

Charles Lambert said...

This is a fascinating interview, Elizabeth, and the whole tour really is going from strength to strength. I can see I'm going to have to cook up something special when you drop in next month!

Elizabeth Baines said...

Thanks for dropping in, everyone.

Barbara, yes but it wouldn't stop me wanting to kill Sebastian!! :)

Looking forward to coming to Italy, Charles - that will be special enough in itself!

Sarah Salway said...

Yes, Barbara - a real picture that won't leave me either!
And Charles, you really need to do something special because what Elizabeth hasn't told you is that I'm going to hide in her suitcase and come too. I need some Italy right now.

Tania Hershman said...

I'm a bit late to this party, just catching up on it all. Fabulous interview, Sarah and Elizabeth. It's so interesting to hear about other writers and where inspiration comes from, as well as characters and structure. Looking forward to getting the chance to delve more into Elizabeth's brain when it's my turn on the tour!
PS Your nightmare dinner party gave me the shivers...

Debi said...

Horribly late. So sorry ...

But this is an amazing interview.

That hellish dinner party ... Though the image is lingering and is hideously evocative, I can't regret reading it. That answer alone should convince anyone who could possibly doubt that your writing skills are impressive to say the least, Elizabeth.

And your own wondrous skills shine through also, Sarah. Proud to know you both!

Elizabeth Baines said...

Tania and Debi, Thanks for dropping in. Yes, sorry about the nightmare dinner party, but I'm afraid it's rather horribly close to reality...

Elizabeth Baines said...

Sorry, everyone I've just realized that I have told a lie! Sebastian Barry was not reading at MMU that that time, but Manchester University! Apologies to the university.

Clare Dudman said...

Ha, later than anyone! Great interview - really thought-provoking questions and answers. Really enjoyed it! Thanks both.