Books In Conversation
SARA BAUME with Torrey Crim
Spill Simmer Falter Wither
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016)
In a tiny village on the Irish coast, a scrappy one-eyed dog, recently recovered from a badger attack, is adopted by a solitary fifty-seven year old man, Ray. So begins Sara Baume’s debut novel Spill Simmer Falter Wither, which follows the pair over the course of the four seasons, echoed and eloquently subverted in the title. Ray, lonely, eccentric, and wary of human contact, narrates the tale to One Eye, and through Ray, Baume’s prose, lyrical and precise, paints a love letter to the world. “I wish I’d been born with your capacity for wonder,” Ray tells One Eye, but Ray doesn’t just have the capacity for wonder—he has an aptitude for it, even if he doesn’t recognize it as such. Ray notices everything, seabirds, plants, kelp and road kill, and his notice grants the beings of the natural world a holy sort of reverence. There is beauty in everything, the novel argues, if you take the time to see it, and at the final page one might look at one’s own surroundings with the sense that, in Baume’s words, “Now everything holds a diaphanous kind of potential.”
Sara Baume was in New York briefly for a reading at the Irish Arts Center before heading to Chicago and Milwaukee, a whirlwind five-day trip that she jokingly referred to as the “quickest U.S. book tour in history.” The book itself has been something of a whirlwind success. Originally published by the tiny Irish independent Tramp Press, the novel is now being translated into Dutch, Spanish, and German. We met outside her hotel on the West Side, and, at a loss for lunch options, ended up at a self-proclaimed Irish pub, flags and everything. While we chatted about our respective graduate programs, travel abroad, and American politics, we circled back again and again to the lives of animals, the aesthetics of nature, and the audacity of poets.
Torrey Crim (Rail): The book begins and ends with One Eye, and in some ways it feels like that was the way it was written, that you wrote your way from One Eye and back to One Eye.
Sara Baume: Yes, that’s really astute, actually, you’re spot on. I was trying to write it from the point of view of the dog, and it did start with the dog as the true character, and the man is a creation. And it was because of my relationship with my own dog, of course, that the book came about; it started after this real dog came into my life. I found that I couldn’t—it was too hard to sustain a narrative from the point of view of a dog. I did this essay, through a journal at home, of literary dogs. I guess I was trying to find strong examples of literary fiction that were driven by a dog. Where those books went wrong, like Timbuktu by Paul Auster, for example, and the dog is the protagonist, and inevitably in those books you kind of go: how would a dog know this, dogs don’t understand in that way. And so it would have been too hard to write it like that. But the prologue and epilogue—the prologue was the first bit that I wrote in the dog’s mind. Everything else changed perspective, but I didn’t change that.
Rail: Well, the two characters do feel like they belong to each other. It does feel like One Eye is the character who finds him, Ray; he doesn’t find One Eye. It’s a really cool way to read into it; it still feels like it belongs to One Eye, even though you’re in this other first person narration. Can you talk a little about the choice to structure it within the four seasons? Because as a writer I see that as a very clear stylistic choice, but it also feels like a natural flow.
Baume: It was also a trick to get myself to write it. Because I decided that if I write it over the four seasons then I can watch the world change, it’s very much about nature; setting is very important. I thought describing their natural world is going to be a big factor, so you might as well write it over the space of a year, which I did with the first draft and then I kind of lost my way with the second. I’d never written anything longer than short stories, so I thought of it as four short stories and then put it together. The title was there from very early on, and I wanted to root it—I wanted to call it spring, summer, fall and winter, and then I thought if I could find a verb that reflected that in some way the tone of the piece, because language is very important to me, then that would be perfect, and I managed to get them to join up. So the seasons were really important for my process, but also for the book.
Rail: I love the title, and I was wondering how you came up with that. Because there’s such consonance, and there’s also a sort of a narrative drive that exists within those four words already and the way they run into each other.
Baume: I was sure that publishers would say, look, this is a real nightmare, no one is going to remember this—it’s such a mouthful. But it’s good and bad because, in spite of it being a mouthful, it’s a talking point as well. And when I can’t think of a way of describing the book, I just start with the title.
Rail: Can you talk a little bit about the natural world and your experience in that place? It’s such a rich world and we feel your knowledge of it so well. Can talk you about your connection to it, your knowledge of the wildlife and your sense of the sea?
Baume: It’s very important to me. I’m from rural Ireland, but I left, as we all do, to go to university. I left to go off to the big city, stayed there for college and a number of years after, just working, and then went back to rural Ireland in my mid-twenties and realized that, in theory, I’d gone off to the big city to be educated. I’d spent all these years book learning—well, I studied visual art. I came back; it was part of walking the dog, so suddenly your pace of life has slowed down. Suddenly I was in the natural world again in a way that I hadn’t been for almost ten years, and I remembered all the names of flowers and leaves and seabirds and insects, that I’d known when I was a child, because I’d been very much brought up that way, I’d even known their names in Gaelic. I’d forgotten that knowledge, that other knowledge, that academic knowledge had replaced it. So the book was kind of a process of—
Rail: Of regaining that natural knowledge, that’s lovely.
Baume: And writing it down. It is hard to remember the scientific names, so by writing them down and putting them in book, it puts it into my memory, and I do mention somewhere that Ray teaches himself the scientific names.
Rail: I wanted to quote the passage, in the “Falter” section, where Ray is inventorying all the road kill, and there’s this really lovely little bit where he sees that these cars have pulled over to look at the body of a swan, and this woman is crying, and the line: “Why didn’t anyone stop for the jackdaw? Because the swan looks like a wedding dress, that’s why.” There’s this argument against a value system based on aesthetics, and the whole book feels like an argument against anthropocentrism; breaking open how we value life, and how we value animal life versus human life. I was wondering if you could speak to that as a philosophical outlook on your writing.
Baume: That’s a perfect observation. It was something that happened, I was on the carriageway one day and loads of people had stopped, and I realized it was a swan, and everyone was on the side of the road trying to help the swan. And of course you say, oh, poor swan, but then you think: I see wounded road kill all the time, and people don’t attach the same value to it. And in a sense, you know, Ray is the jackdaw; he’s perceived as strange and gnarly around the edges and we brush over these people, they’re not shiny or smart and interesting. There’s a value system with people in the same way that there is with animals, and it may be based on looks a lot of the time, or based on how oneself is presented to the world. Definitely I wanted to say something about that, I wanted to give voice to the overlooked guy, the strange guy on the street, who doesn’t stand for anything visual or tangible but has a soul as well.
Rail: I felt like that connected to the idea of a sky burial that Ray talks about later. There’s something almost stomach-turning from a human perspective about that idea; that when you say all lives are worth the same, it takes away your sense that “my life is worth more than that of a rat.” I think that there’s something very unsentimental about it. Well, it’s both. It’s sentimental in saying, look at the overlooked guy or the overlooked animal that we don’t care about because it doesn’t appeal to our sense of aesthetics, but on the other side, there’s an inverse leveling, that when you die your matter goes back into the world and that’s all there is.
Baume: And it’s the contrast between how animals live much simpler and more sensible lives, and we have these elaborate rituals surrounding death. Like when Aunt, the old woman who looks after him when he’s a kid, when she dies, they paint her face this color that it never was in life. Again, very Catholic: I was raised Catholic and these things sort of naturally come in. So the sky burial was a way of Ray becoming animalized, and it says somewhere as the book goes on that he gets a clear understanding of the humans through the experience of this animal and becomes closer to animals in his own way.
Rail: How do you feel that the Catholic question has shifted in Ireland? Is that the world that you grew up in and do you feel that it has changed now, or are there bigger generational leaps? Because Ray is also of a different generation.
Baume: Precisely. As a kid, his dad told people that he was mentally handicapped in some way and wasn’t able to go to school, so he was just kept in the house. You wouldn’t get away with that in Ireland now; you wouldn’t be able to get away with that anywhere. And then when his father dies, I don’t know if it’s plausible or not, people assume he’s been sent off to a home. I was raised Roman Catholic, but my family’s slightly different in that my dad is Protestant, so religion wasn’t really a big thing in my house the way I think it was in other people’s houses. But I was baptized and did communion and confirmation and all that kind of stuff. Like many people of my generation, I kind of ditched it when I left school. There’s a lot of what we call “à la carte Christianity,” people who don’t go to mass every week but they want to get married in the church and they want their children to be raised in the church. Also, interestingly in the last couple of years we’ve had a massive Eastern European influx of immigrants, and they’re all more Catholic than the Irish are nowadays, so that’s actually bumped the church’s numbers.
Rail: There’s this really interesting distinction that Ray makes between loneliness and solitude—have you gotten this question a lot?
Baume: [Smiling.] No, it’s that earlier I was referring to the quote from Sara Maitland: “Solitude is a description of a fact, loneliness is a negative emotional response to it.”
Rail: Ray’s talking about the shopkeeper he runs into, who is one of those lonely people, not by choice, but because he just keeps losing people until that’s the state that he’s in. Ray doesn’t feel that way because he’s not losing people—it’s almost as if he’s congratulating himself, saying, Oh, I’m just a solitary person, but I’m not lonely. But he does seem in some ways a victim of his circumstances, and I feel this frustration reading it, against his father for giving him this life, and yet he seems to be saying, this is the way I want to be. I was wondering if you can talk about the fact that he does seem lonely and at the same time there is this lovely experience of solitude.
Baume: I think he probably is lonely and he hasn’t fully admitted it to himself. It’s one of those questions that’s hard to answer because I think I didn’t realize he was so lonely at the time of writing, but I put in pieces like that because I wanted Ray to be stronger. There’s so much of me in Ray. I think there’s a balance as well. He manages to make his time pass. He’s so used to spending time alone that he doesn’t find it difficult. But at the same time he knows there’s something missing from his life. And in the end the dog fills it, in a better way perhaps than a person could.
Rail: He says of himself that he is not a person who does things. He has these brushes with human interactions that he backs away from fearfully, and I think as a writer often the impulse is to rush into those kinds of things, like if you’re going to write about a solitary person you’re going to not have him back away from other people. You exercise tremendous control over him caring about his own solitude so much. In the farmers’ market and then the guy who stops to push the car; there are these moments where people are actually not rejecting him, they’re trying to be friendly to him and he’s backing away as hard as he can.
Baume: Well I think he’s crippled by the fear of what people think of him, which stops him even when they seem receptive and friendly and fine, he’s just so aware of himself and his own ability to do something inappropriate or abnormal.
Rail: You have a degree in visual arts as well as creative writing. Obviously they inform one another, but do you work on both simultaneously or do you feel you poured your whole self entirely into the writing project?
Baume: The thing that I’m working on kind of takes up everything. But I did make a number of visual art works in parallel to writing the book. They were a way of continuing the work of the novel without having to put sentences together, which is taxing on the brain. Making stuff is much more therapeutic because it’s a way of switching off my mind and engaging my hands.
Rail: So do you come at a story from a visual lens first?
Baume: Yes. I think in images. I don’t think of myself as very strong in dialogue. There’s very little dialogue in the book, mostly because that facilitates the story, but it’s definitely not my strong point. My writing is driven by description and in my mind it starts with an image and then I’m building details around it. I find it hard to do any other way. But the poetry of it is very important to me as well, sentence by sentence. But I think that training comes from my visual background, making stuff that every aspect of it has to be well-crafted. I love anything since 1960—I love the artist Joseph Beuys, he does installation, land art—anything that breaks the rules a little bit, in the same way that experimental writing is more interesting. I think reading is very important for writers, but I think writers should go and look at art as well, go to theater, watch films, because you learn as much about writing from the other things as you do from reading other books.
Rail: Do you work quickly? The way that you talk about sentence construction sounds like you spend a lot of time on each sentence before you move on, and it reads like that, too.
Baume: I don’t think I do work quickly, no. I work incessantly, so I think I’m reasonably prolific. But that’s what’s wonderful about living (where I live), it’s really quiet and when I’m home I get lots done. I’m really lucky. I don’t have to have a day job at the moment, writing is everything, so once I get a run at it I feel like I get a lot done. I’m not so interested in what’s happening with the plot at all as I am with sentence by sentence. It’s good and bad. To me, it’s like a poem, (there should be) a poem running through it.
Rail: What kind of writers do you admire?
Baume: There are so many different types of Irish writing, and I’m definitely more of the rural tradition, the John McGahern, William Trevor; not that I’m terribly well read. I read a lot of American when I was growing up, I read of a lot of European now, a lot of stuff in translation. I always avoided Irish, because you read to escape. I read a lot of Irish now, because they’re my peers. But before it was to escape.
Rail: We were talking about country size. For American authors, if you’re living in the West and you’re reading about Mississippi, it does feel like an escape. Do you feel that Ireland is small enough that if you’re reading about Ireland, you’re too close to it?
Baume: I mean, I see that now. When I was a teenager, when I started reading literary fiction, I loved Anglo-Indian literature, Rohinton Mistry and Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things, wonderful books like that, because it was so different from what I was experiencing. I still love those books but I read more now because I’m interested in language and not just story and atmosphere. I’ve changed why I read.
Rail: Do you read a lot of poetry?
Baume: No. None. Barely. But people often ask me if I write it, because I believe that prose should be poetic, and I work hard to put poetry into my sentences. But I find it a hard genre. Do you read a lot of poetry?
Rail: No! I know so many poets, and I try because I care about their art. But it’s hard for me to read, it’s hard for most people to read.
Baume: I do the same, I read the poetry of people I know. My very best friend is a poet, and I absolutely love her poetry. Poetry is kind of audacious, I think, you know, they have the audacity to put one line, and then another line, and a space and then one more line, and that’s the whole poem. And I think, I have to write a whole book that’s hundreds of pages long and I still fret over every sentence and every space. But I would never dare to put only three or four lines on the page.
Rail: There’s something freeing about it, I think. I have a lot of jealousy of that kind of gutsiness—
Baume: That authority.
Rail: Yes. I was going to ask briefly about the short story form and the novel form. You won the Davy Byrnes story prize. How do you feel about the transition between short stories and a novel?
Baume: I said already I was trying to think of Spill Simmer Falter Wither as four short stories. I started out writing short stories, so at the time when I said, think of it as four short stories, that made it easier. Now I’d rather think of it as a novel. That way you can waffle. In a novel there usually is quite a bit of waffling. You can drift off. There’s a lot of sightseeing. Now that I’ve written a novel it’s easier. When the second novel is completed I’d like to go back (to short stories) because it feels like the harder thing to do. But maybe easier than poetry.