We are so delighted to welcome Elizabeth Baines today, author of Balancing on the Edge of the World, a scintillating debut collection of short stories. In honour of this being the first stage of a virtual tour of blogs, I decided to experiment with Roman cookery and have a feast. The menu is… erm, different: but the fish sauce is par excellence (if I do say so myself). I might add that any Latin mistakes are all mine! Welcome Elizabeth, please do pull up a couch and recline away there! Have a heartwarming cup of wine.
Thank you, Barbara! May I say how great it is to be virtually here in Ireland, and most especially to be invited to a Roman feast! Let's just hope I'm not too distracted by my appetite and also manage keep a clear head…
Gustatio: milk fed snails fried in oil, boiled fungi served with pepper and fish sauce…
Milk-fed snails! Madame (or should I say Domina?), you are spoiling us!
You just wouldn't believe how difficult it is to get snails to drink milk...
Anne Enright describes her writing process as 'writing sentences.' I believe what she means is that the writing comes first, the editing and worrying about how/what you're saying come second. How would you describe your writing process: do you have to fight hard from the coalescing of an idea to the final cut?
Hm (hang on while I get my drinking cup and find my best lounging position): Yes, I'd say there's a stage in writing a piece of fiction, usually an initial stage, when it can seem to 'come' without your having to think about it in any very conscious way. It's as if you're 'hearing' the sentences and seeing the images on a screen which somehow miraculously has been presented to you. It just 'happens' to you, as it were. (And when you're 'blocked' it's as if you know there's something there, but you've not yet been shown it and can't yet 'hear' it!) I guess this is why people talk about 'inspiration' and also why people ask writers where they 'get their ideas from', as if the ideas are just out there waiting to be picked up or tuned into. In fact, of course, it's coming from you, but at this stage in a largely subconscious way. It's what I call the 'dreaming' stage of writing, and yes, I do consider it the important and real one, because this, I find, is when I get the rhythms – and in some ways rhythm is the most important thing in prose, in creating a 'voice' – and also the associations and connections which I'd be less likely to come up with were I thinking more logically. So this, I would say, is what always characterizes my first draft. Often when I go back after that less conscious stage, and look at what I've written, I am amazed by meanings I wasn't aware of earlier. Of course, the editing stage can also show up the fact that you haven't made sense, but I do also think you need to allow for the fact that you don't always see straight away, on the logical, editorial level, the things which your subconscious has spied (so always be prepared to put back things you've cut, is my advice)
Usually I will begin a story with an image, or sometimes a phrase, which intrigues me, and a vague situation. I will know that the image/phrase and the situation are connected in some deep thematic way, although not necessarily how – that's the point of writing: to find out how. In 'Daniel Smith Disappears off the Face of the Earth', for instance, I had the idea of a teenage boy walking home alone at night and the image of the cold planet hurtling through the universe; in 'The Way to Behave', I had the scenario of a wronged and vengeful wife and also the image of the elder tree with all its witchy associations (and was therefore dismayed when the image of the tree was dropped in the abridgement for a BBC broadcast of the story – though of course I completely understood the restrictions which broadcast must impose). With these stories, and nearly all of the others in the book, this was enough to trigger me haring off into the 'dream'. I say 'haring off' but then I very often have a couple of false starts – sometimes a few – because the first line or so always has to feel absolutely right for me to carry on without hesitation (although of course, even when I've thought it was absolutely right at this stage, I may go back and change it afterwards).
The more conscious editing stage is, as you imply, more like work. I'd say the level of struggle – ie, how well-formed the story is after the first draft – depends very much on the story, or more accurately on your prior relationship with the material of the story, the amount of time you have already mulled it over and consciously given it a meaning. Most of the stories in Balancing didn't give me much of a struggle, and had only two drafts. I hasten to say it's not always like that, and I should also say that the process isn't quite as simple as I've made it sound. Even when I'm writing a first draft and going with the 'dreaming', that editing faculty is still coming into play to some extent: really, it's as if there are two of me, and the 'dreaming' one is leading the way, but the 'editing' one is there hovering at her shoulder and reining her in to some extent as she goes along (and then pushes her out of the way and takes over for the proper editing phase). (You see, I don't need Roman wine to make me sound bonkers!)
Mensae Primae: Baked dormice, stuffed with pork and pine nuts; roast hare, stuffed with chicken livers and boiled brains…
The dormice are quite a delicacy. But it's very hard to get them to wake up...
Stories like 'A Glossary of Bread,' and 'Leaf Memory,' show that you are willing to experiment with the traditional methods of storytelling: one uses dictionary & etymological definitions; another uses early childhood memories. How useful do you find the process of renewing the short story in this manner?
Erm… sorry, just swallowing. Now the wine is making you flatter me, Barbara: I must say I don't see myself as doing anything so grand as renewing the short story! All I'm doing, I have to say, is telling things the way I see them. And I simply couldn't tell them the way I see them if didn't use the modes I do.
'A Glossary of Bread' is the story of a girI coping with an itinerant childhood and a mysterious but strict and bad-tempered father. The story takes the structure of a dictionary and is built around definitions, drawn from different editions of dictionaries, of the different kinds of bread she encounters as they move around the country. To me this structure is indispensable, essential, and indeed came to me right at the start – it is the story – because it carries in a very concrete way the meaning, ie the idea that situations and indeed meanings which can seem rigid, laid down in stone, are in fact questionable and subject to change. 'Leaf Memory' consists of the splicing of two narratives, the protagonist's first-person memory of being pushed in a pram by her grandmother interwoven with the starker (and italicized) authorized family version of her grandmother's life. As far as I was concerned, this was the only way to tell this story: it was both the way that 'came to me' and it was the way that, when I thought about it editorially, best conveyed the impact of the difference between two dynamic but clashing realities or versions of the truth. In fact, this story – and much of my work generally – is about the fact that the ways in which we tell stories, the modes we use to tell them, can very much affect their meanings.
And of course not all of the stories in the book stretch the conventional short story form. I'm more than happy to use conventional forms if they suit the purpose. 'The Shooting Script', for instance: as the story of a conman and the plot twists he engineers to keep ahead of those he's conning, it fell naturally for me into a traditional satirical and linear-narrative mode. I must say I rarely use the omniscient mode, which generally seems to me to carry outdated authorial certainties about the characters, but I found it was just right for 'Compass and Torch', for watching from an objective vantage point the emotional struggle between a camping father and son who hardly know each other and are failing to acknowledge their own emotions, who have less grip on their situation than any casual observer, and less instinctual understanding than the wild ponies watching them prepare to camp.
Mensae secundae: dates with almonds and honey; yoghurt flavoured with pepper and fish sauce (must use it up somehow!)…What a perfectly unusual and inspired combination, Barbara…
Erm, yes... err, thanks! ( I knew two gallons of fish sauce was far too much.)
How do you know when a story is 'finished': how long might you typically work on one?
As I've said, most of the stories in Balancing gelled very quickly and were written in a week at the most, some of them in just a couple of days or so. But as I've also said, it's not always like that, and 'A Glossary of Bread' caused me a deal more trouble. As I say, what I had this time was the structure (including the idea of bread), which I knew was all-important, and the notion of a family setup, but only the vaguest, and so little sense of how the two fitted together that I couldn't even make a start. Each attempt I made to write the story failed. I must have had two or three tries over a period of two years, and each time I put it away, thinking maybe it was a dud, until it pressed on my consciousness again. Looking back, though, I'm not sure if, for this particular story, it was to do with my relationship to the material or simply a matter of focus and concentration. I do have other, abandoned stories from that particular period, which was a time of quite mad busy-ness; I was doing a lot of teaching, I was editing, producing and marketing a print short-story magazine, metropolitan, and it was the start of my most prolific period as a radio playwright – I kept getting radio commissions, and how do you turn that down, especially when your kids need new trainers? It's interesting perhaps that the story finally gelled when at last I had the chance to give up other things and concentrate on prose once more. So I guess for me it's a case of needing lots of time and few distractions, because the main essential ingredient for the process of bringing a story to fruition, I'd say, is focus. I do really envy people who manage to do other things (and earn decent livings!) while somehow focusing on their writing and doing it successfully.
I do now have more time to focus, yet, interestingly, some of the stories in the new series I'm writing are requiring far more drafts than previous ones, and sometimes I'll return to a story after setting it aside for weeks. I'm finding the process even more of an exploration than ever before, and it truly is a question of my relationship to the material.
And that moment when I know a story is 'finished'? Well, on the deep level it's definitely the moment that I suddenly spy the final connection which brings the story together, lights up all the rest. With some of the stories in Balancing it could be as early as when I was haring towards the end of the first draft, in which case the editing stage felt more like mere titivating, putting a coat on the thing and brushing it down. However, I can sometimes get to the end and know that I haven't really found it – not the real ending – even when the whole thing is already brushed down and looking spotless. What I do then is put the story aside and wait for the real ending to come to me, sideways, which it usually does over the next day or so.
And talking of finishing: really, Barbara, I couldn't manage another thing – not even another date! Thank you so much for having me; what a generous host you have been, and what a great time I've had on this feast of a blog!
Not as much as I've enjoyed your thoughtful answers: it's always a great pleasure to get a sneak peek behind the writer's practice and it is clear you've thought deeply about your own methods – it gives great hope to those who aspire. Elizabeth, the pleasure was truly all mine!
The next stage of Elizabeth's tour takes place at Me and My Big Mouth Scott Pack's blog on the 21st of January 2009. Each week Elizabeth will visit all through the blogosphere on her Cyclone Tour until the 18th of March.