“I’m Always Writing in Extremity of My Life” — Sara Baume on Her Gorgeous and Poetic New Novel
Sigh and Bell, drawn to each other by their similarly distrustful views of society, are relatively early in their relationship when they decide to ditch their dead-end jobs in Dublin and move to a cottage in the countryside. Over the next seven years, the two lovers, along with the dogs each person brought into the relationship, adapt to the steady rhythm of the natural world, shedding their past relationships and committing to a parsed-down life. The one constant in their life is the mountain that looms over them, a watchful presence that serves as the touchstone of their lives. Sara Baume’s Seven Steeples charts this unique love story—not only between the two lovers but also with each individual and their lush environment—with a graceful force that accumulates as the novel progresses. In spare and evocative prose, Baume pays tribute to living life on one’s own terms and forging a deeper connection to the natural world. Baume spoke with us about writing in extremity of her life and how her background as a visual artist impacts her writing.
Sigh and Bell are such fully formed characters and the setting of the novel seems like the kind of place that isn’t often featured in literature. I wanted to ask about what your starting point was for the novel. Was it the characters or the environment?
Well, it’s funny. Everyone who knows me just knows it’s my life. I shouldn’t say that actually. (laughs) My partner and I are both artists. In 2011, we were working in the arts and living in bedsits in Dublin, which is the big city here, probably a small city by American city standards. Then we moved down to a different part of the countryside, but [the book] was sort of based on that premise. I think it’s something that a lot of creatives do, probably also in the States, so it sort of stemmed from that. But everything I write is sort of based on a version of my life. It tells the story of a chapter in my life, and I don’t mind about that. I’m not a writer who insists that I have a wonderful imagination and it’s all made up. (laughs)
I feel I’m a writer who writes very close to nonfiction—and I’ve written nonfiction in the past—but also I’m always writing in extremity of my life. Mark, my partner, and I moved to the countryside, but we didn’t erase our family’s names from our phonebook. We didn’t isolate ourselves so completely as the two characters do in the book. While a lot of the details are true, the facts aren’t, like the facts of their background. Bell and Sigh are sort of ageless to me, as well. I don’t necessarily think of them as young, although everyone perceives them to be in their mid-twenties, which is what we were when we moved from the city. But I also think it’s a bit of a portrait of middle-aged, settled people, which is what we are now.
The origin point was also this road that we live on, and I walk it every day. I’d probably been walking on it every day for a year. I just thought, because I’m always trying to do something different with my novels, but based on the very spare life I live anyway. I was looking at this road every day, just walking up and down it in the morning with the dogs. I was very attuned to how much, yet how little, it changed. At some point I wondered if I could write a whole novel just based upon this road. I started taking notes. Obviously the novel ended up being about an awful lot more than just that single road, but initially I thought, “How much information can I record over the course of a year?” And then it became a couple of years. The whole book—and I don’t even know whether people will notice this—takes in the seasons of an entire year, even though seven years have passed by the time we get to the end.
Bell and Sigh are consciously leaving no trace on their environment and seem at times to be almost consumed their environment. How did that aspect of the story make its way into the book?
The idea of living your life that leaves no trace is—in a way—in complete total opposition to the life that we live as artists, in which we’re constantly trying to make some mark upon the planet and our existence, and trying to leave something behind and be remembered. It might not even be conscious, but that’s what you’re doing as an artist. It’s kind of ego driven, you know? It’s “I’m special and I make special things and people will remember me,” although you don’t like to articulate it to yourself like that. I have a friend who I very much admire—this was years ago, he’s since actually changed quite a lot—his aim was just that, to leave as little trace as possible. He was very concerned by climate change to the point of saving the water he washed in and using it again. He used to make art, but he had no interest in showing it. He would put it away and he used to say, “When I die someone will find this archive of all of my stuff. Perhaps they will enjoy it and perhaps they won’t.” But he didn’t mind. I just always admired him hugely, that his goal in life was to leave as little trace on the planet as possible, to do as little damage. That stuck in my head so I sort of modeled Bell and Sigh on that. But in a way it’s almost the opposite of how [my partner and I] actually live. We’re in no way extravagant and we do all we can. At the same time, what we do generates material. Even in the sense of if I write a book, it’s printed in the thousands, if I’m lucky, but that’s not really kind to the planet at all, is it?
It feels like a cliché to say it, but the mountain is kind of the third character in the book, and a lot of reviews have pointed out how the mountain functions as an observer. How did you arrive at the character of the mountain?
That’s what I want people to get from it, because in my head it was like the mountain is the one that’s telling the story. It’s the first novel I’ve written that’s in third person past tense, which seems like a real way of writing a novel, whereas the previous two have been in the voice of the character and a more first person present tense. At first I was like, “I can’t just be this omniscient narrator.” It felt like the wrong voice for me. When it seemed like it worked, it was because I felt, “Oh, I’m the mountain.” The mountain is telling the story. It sees everything and it knows everything, but it’s not really privy to their thoughts either. So you’re kept at a certain distance from Bell and Sigh the whole time.
The mountain is incredibly important to me. Obviously there’s the recurring motif, the sentence at the beginning of every chapter: “They mean to climb the mountain but they don’t.” It’s sort of about the unfulfilled intentions in everyone’s relationships and everyone’s life. It’s also this sort of symbolic thing, where it seems more like a hill or a large ridge when they first move, and then by the end of the novel, no one questions if it’s a mountain. Even on the cover of the American edition, which I love, it’s absolutely a mountain. Whereas the mountain that it’s based on is not at all [that big]. It’s a piece of high ground behind the house. (laughs) But I love that it’s sort of grown. I’ve done this to myself. In Ireland I’m published by quite a small indie press. Maybe it’s my gimmick as a writer, but I’ll make little ornaments. In this case, I made 200 little cement and clay mountains and painted them nicely and varnished them. I’ve been giving them out at the launches. To me, it’s kind of a gift. It’s thanking people for their support of the book, but it’s also a little symbol, that you have this portable mountain, this talismanic thing you can carry around with you.
We have this very pulled back view of Bell and Sigh, where we don’t really get into their heads or hear their dialogue. What appealed to you about approaching characters this way?
Well, the answer is I don’t do dialogue. (laughs) I wouldn’t be quite as emphatic as that. I do kind of avoid dialogue where I can, or if I do it, I do it very much in a voice that I know well. Definitely in the case of this book, I felt like the point of there not being much dialogue is that Bell and Sigh get to a point where they feel they don’t need to talk to each other. Same with my partner! I don’t think about what I’m saying when I’m talking to him, it’s kind of like talking to myself. Same with my mother. With everyone else in the world, I have to think about what I’m saying before I say it.
Language is incredibly important because it sort of dissolves as the book goes on. They communicate in almost noises and gestures. Again, an extremity of all relationships, whatever type of relationship it is, not necessarily romantic. If you’d read my other two novels, you’d be like, “Oh she doesn’t write much dialogue.” We could mine this from a psychological point of view. I was raised here, but I wasn’t actually born here. My dad is English, so I don’t feel like I would be able to write Irish accents or idioms very well, but I certainly couldn’t for anywhere else either. I’ve always felt like a slight outsider in the culture that I live in, but I don’t know any other cultures any better. There’s so much Irish literature, especially around my own time, who just write Ireland really well, like Colin Barrett, Lisa McInerney. I just felt that that better than trying to compete with that, I would just do something different altogether, and take the dialogue out of it.
You’re a visual artist as well. I wondered how your work in visual arts affected how you approach writing, and vice versa?
I did a masters in creative writing about eleven years ago now. It was kind of brief, to be honest. We have free education here, so you can do as many degrees as you want. (laughs) Probably the art school was much more formative, because it was a much longer period of my life. For years, I was making artwork. I never write anything unless I absolutely feel that it has to be written. I don’t have a business head when it comes to writing books. I don’t tend to give myself deadlines. I’m very relaxed about it, if that makes sense. I really have to have a strong urge to write something and then it’s almost like magic if it finally gets done and put together. I need to have a strong calling to do it, and if it fits together it fits. I don’t have a strong sense of telling a story. For me it’s more important that a book has a sort of meaning.
I suppose Seven Steeples is an allegory of sorts. For me, books are kind of an assemblage of places and people and objects. I suppose as opposed to other writers, I always have to see the thing in my head, or I have to put the objects in the room, or I have to know what the weather’s like. I have to be able to see the scene and then I describe it. That’s how I write. I don’t know any other way of writing. I could never just sit down and write a page and invent things. I have to have all the furniture. It’s very more like the theater world in my mind.
And then for the visual art? It’s another kind of storytelling. It’s marking a moment or trying to pull some kind of meaning out of life. The best way of describing the kind of stuff I make and the reasons why I make them is one of the dogs—the dog that’s Pip in this book, who was our lurcher—died last May. She was such a big dog, I had never planned on getting such a big dog. We rent, so you can’t bury dogs in someone else’s rented garden, so we buried her in my mother’s garden. We dug up this big rectangular shape in the lawn and kind of made a mess of it. We buried the dog and then it sunk a bit. I made my mother this blanket that was purely ornamental. It was canvas and cotton, more of an art piece than a big quilt. It was abstract, but all the symbolism sort of represented things from the dog’s life, like her food bowl, the toy that she liked, and the time of the year that she’d come to us at. I gave it to my mother. It was kind of like an apology or a means of repair to stitch up the hole in the lawn almost. But for me it also had this all of this symbolic meaning. It was an art piece, but it was also a gift to my mother. That’s more of the spirit of the stuff I make now.
The text is arranged in a very specific way that directs the reader’s eye to specific words or phrases. Can you talk about how you arrived at that aspect of the book?
It’s a better answer for the last question, in the sense that my training as a visual artist makes me very sensitive to space, I suppose, and how things look on a page. My last book, Handiwork, which was nonfiction, was about making stuff with your hands. There was very little text on each page and a lot of blank space around it. In my head it was like a painting would be on the wall. It’s an important thing, so you give it a lot of space to breathe. I wrote Handiwork and Seven Steeples simultaneously. I guess I had the same sort of sense of slightly dreamy, drifty space with Seven Steeples. Do you know the way you learned in school—or maybe it was just me—when you’re reading aloud, you’re supposed to stop and count to three for every full stop? This was when I was pretty young, I suppose, and learning to read. There were these appropriate pauses given over to punctuation, whereas in fact when I’m writing for myself, those kind of rules don’t serve me well. I want there to be a bit more of a pause than the space allows, or the punctuation allows. That was why I put in the spaces. A lot of times it’s at the very end of a paragraph and at the end of the sentence. I want the reader to breathe. Sometimes there’s an internal rhyme there, or a sort of alliteration that I want to draw attention to. It was actually a headwreck in the end. (laughs) You know when you typeset a novel? The spacing kept shifting so I had to go through it a million times, re-shifting it around. I just hated the spacing by the end. I’ll never do it again! You think that when you write an A4 page, there’s some kind of way to make the A4 page the size of a page in the book. We can put men on the moon, but we can’t make a page in a word document look like the page in a book! (laughs) I was like, surely there’s a tool for this, but there isn’t!
Seven Steeples has been compared to the work of Virginia Woolf. I was curious about who the authors were that were influential to you?
Virginia Woolf would be in there definitely. A good novel for this book was a little book called The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd. Nan Shepherd was a Scottish writer. She wrote The Living Mountain around the time of the Second World War. It was really just an account of her walks through the Cairngorms. That was definitely an influence on me. Definitely nature writing of recent years. Helen MacDonald ‘s quite good. Amy Liptrot. I like Northern European spare novels. I love a Dutch writer called Gerbrand Bakker. Nicola Barker, she’s an English writer won a big prize a year or two ago. Valeria Luiselli. I feel like I have significant novels, perhaps more so than significant writers that I’ve read everything by. I often mention a book called The God of Small Things. That was a book that had a big impact on me, because I was a teenager when I read it. It was the first book that broke the rules. It was driven by the voice of the characters, the punctuation was all over the place, the capital letters were inserted here and there. I loved that! It was totally against all the rules of writing that I had learned in school. That was probably what made me a writer in a way, or what started me along the road. You don’t have to follow the rules. It can be something strange or more interesting.