Wednesday, June 09, 2010

The Magpie Has Landed...

... in Dundalk. It's a great pleasure today, to welcome Elizabeth Baines' Flying With Magpies tour to sunny Dundalk on the east coast of Ireland, with her new novel, Too Many Magpies.


I devoured this book in one sitting: I am a quick reader, but when a book grabs one's attention the way that Too Many Magpies does, I find it extremely hard to put it down.This book was amazing for its exploration of that disturbing sense of guilt that women experience as parents and the build-up of worry and tension in the novel just kept on ratchetting up. I thought TMM was very well written and I loved the opacity of the language; everything adding to that sense of heightened awareness. Anyhow, on we go with Elizabeth's visit.

Elizabeth Baines was born in South Wales and lives in Manchester. She is a prizewinning author of prose fiction and plays for radio and stage. Too Many Magpies was published by Salt in 2009. Previously Salt published her collection of short stories, (2007) which was pronounced ‘a stunning debut collection’ (The Short Review). In October 2010 Salt will reissue her first, acclaimed novel Balancing on the Edge of the WorldThe Birth Machine. She is also a performer and has been a teacher.

About the book: How do we safeguard our children in a changing and dangerous world? And what if the greatest danger is from ourselves? A young mother fearful for her children’s safety falls under the spell of a charismatic but sinister stranger. A novel about our hidden desires and the scientific and magical modes of thinking which have got us to where we are now.

  • Elizabeth, you write your main characters very strongly, and the issues and themes that are raised are those that affect women in particular. I enjoyed particularly the voice, that to me was the main strength of the novel; the voice of this woman. How hard is it to articulate a character like the narrator in Too Many Magpies?

Well, to me voice is all-important - to my mind, it's HOW a novel or story is told that is its real essence, and which carries its real meaning. I really can't begin writing until I hear the narrative voice. Sometimes that happens quickly and sometimes it doesn't, I find: you can have the theme and the story and even the characters, but you still can't hear the voice in which the story will be told - whether it's the voice of one of the characters, or of a separate narrator etc, and how precisely that voice sounds. I don't really find that I can do much actively to make this happen: basically I find it's a question of waiting to hear it, and if it doesn't come quickly, you just need to let the novel/story grow in your head. In fact, the voice of Too Many Magpies came to me very quickly right from the start (along with the first sentence that just dropped into my head): that of the main character, a woman trapped in a crisis and fearful for her children. Once the voice comes, I find, you're away, and it feels more like listening than thinking or working anything out. So all in all I found the voice of this particular novel very easy to achieve and as a result I wrote it very quickly. As I say, though, it's not always like that!

  • Although the woman is having an affair, I still found I had good sympathy with her. Again this is a real strength of the character’s complexity – how much thought do you give to the development of a character: their flaws, their foibles, their strengths?

Again, once I heard this woman's voice, I had her whole person, so I didn't put a lot of conscious thought into developing a profile of her. I know some writers draw up character profiles with backstories etc but I think I'd find that process distracting and defocussing from the bit of a character's story I'm writing and indeed distancing from characters themselves. As with acting (which I also do sometimes) I need to inhabit the story and the characters rather than stand back from them in the way that I think (though I may be wrong) 'profiling' or 'developing' them would require. You know the actor's saying that if you get the right shoes on you know exactly how your character will behave? Well, that's how I feel about voice: once I've got the right voice I feel I know as much as I need to about the character(s) for the story I'm telling, and with a first-person voice like this one I'm right inside the character's head. I know that in reality it's the converse of this last that's true: the characters are actually inside my head, they are constructs of my imagination, and merely aspects of the story I've made up! But for me it's more a question of daydreaming them than thinking them out. And once you're in that state of 'being inside a character's head' (and as long as there's no overall authorial irony, which there isn't in this novel) you're no longer judging him or her, and so the reader, one hopes, is less likely to judge him/her and more likely to identify. I suppose I must say that I did identify with this particular character in some of the more objective, non-writerly ways - which must have helped! - as naturally I drew on some of my own experience of having children, and, more specifically, the thing that happens to her elder child also happened to mine.

  • I found a magical realism element to the novel: sometimes I felt that the setting was real, sometimes I felt that there was a slippage between a created reality and a second created universe (that may be because I was ill whilst reading, admittedly). This added a real sense of urgency to the novel's progress; I wondered how this atmosphere came about?

I'd say this comes from the narrator's psychology and situation. Her problem is precisely how to view the world and how to work out which is the reality, the empirical world of facts her husband works in, or a world of charms and spells and luck and intuition represented by her lover. And she is indeed slipping from one to the other world as she turns emotionally from one to the other of the two men. And there's another level she slips towards, away from them both: the uncertainty which neither world view properly acknowledges.

Thank you Elizabeth for such an interesting insight into this intriguing novel. For those who want to follow this interview up, you can read about Too Many Magpies on the Salt website; you can watch Elizabeth talking about her novel; and you can hear Elizabeth's podcasts too.

Next week, the Flying With Magpies tour lands at Vanessa Gebbie's Blog, and the last date of the tour is at Eco Libris. All thanks to Elizabeth and the Salt publishing crew.

20 comments:

Totalfeckineejit said...

A really very good read,I'm not a voracious reader so for me to have read this book quickly is the best compliment I can pay. Elizabeth makes a convincing rope from the fears of modern life from an original perspective but as a side note the interweaving strands of gardening references and particularly the authenticity of the joy of driving and descriptions of open roads and freedom hooked me in.
It's interesting to know that the first sentence just dropped in as in some ways the whole rope swings on it.
Good interview, great book.TFE recommends!

Rachel Fenton said...

Lovely interview, ladies. Your enthusiasm, Barbara, is catching!

BarbaraS said...

Lovely words TFE, glad you enjoyed it as much as I did!

Rachel, thanks. Enthusiasm is the name of the game - lets hope it's infectious!

BarbaraS said...

Oops, last time I looked, TFE was a man, Rachel ;)

SueG said...

A fascinating interview. Thanks, both.

Rachel Fenton said...

Hehe! Sos TFE, wasn't intended at you, sir :)

Elizabeth Baines said...

Hey, glad you liked it so much, TFE!

BarbaraS said...

Doh! Of course Rachel - sure I woz forgetting meself... they don't call me Trigger round here for nothing!

Sue, you are most welcome, thanks for reading.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Rachel and Sue, thanks for dropping in.

WOMEN RULE WRITER said...

Very enjoyable, girls.
I'm with you on the voice thing, Elizabeth - if I don't hear it, the thing can't get written.

TFE - so glad you liked the book! (He won it on the draw at my blog.)

BarbaraS said...

Cheers N, I know you're dead busy so thanks for dropping in to us :)

Clare Dudman said...

Very interesting to hear the thought-processes involved. It sounds a little like a surrender. Thanks both.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Thanks for dropping in, Nuala and Clare. Yes, it is a kind of surrender isn't it - but a weird one, because you have to be in control as well...

Debi said...

Insightful as ever. Especially the part re voice. And the book is indeed a gem.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Hi Debi, thanks for reading, and looking forward to my visit to you later on!

BarbaraS said...

Hi Clare and Debi, good to see you both here - it's a cracker of a book, no doubt!

Thanks one and all - it's been great having Elizabeth visit with Too Many Magpies!

Elizabeth Baines said...

And thank you so much Barbara for having me here, and for your insightful questions!

L'Aussie said...

I'm glad I dropped by. Love the way you looked at voice. So true. But it goes to show that everyone has their way of writing. Profiling characters works for some..:) Barbara, thanks for hosting Elizabeth.

BarbaraS said...

L'Aussie, thanks for your warm feedback and your visit here.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Yes, L'Aussie, I know it works for some. As you say, each of us had our own way...

Thanks for dropping by.