April 18, 2017

Sara Baume

Portrait of an artist in retreat
Interview by
Sara Baume follows her stellar debut novel with A Line Made by Walking, a richly nuanced portrait of a young artist who retreats to the Irish home of her late grandmother.
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Sara Baume’s first novel, Spill Simmer Falter Wither, the story of a lonely Irishman who takes to the road with his dog, won several awards, including the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature. She follows that stellar debut with A Line Made by Walking, a richly nuanced portrait of a young artist who suffers a breakdown and withdraws to the Irish country home of her late grandmother.

Baume, like her protagonist, studied art and once lived in her grandmother's vacant house. We contacted the author at her home in Cork to ask about the genesis of her novel, the difficulty of functioning in a fractured world and the similarities between her character's retreat and Thoreau's move to Walden Pond.

Can you tell us a little about how you chose the title of your novel, A Line Made by Walking, and why that phrase is central to the story?
The novel is named after an influential and important artwork by Richard Long. "A Line Made by Walking" was an "action" undertaken in 1967 when Long was still a student in St. Martin’s School of Art in London. He caught a train out of the city, and in a field, walked up and down and up and down in a straight line until his footsteps had worn a visible track through the grass, then he documented the site in photographs. This is one of roughly 70 artworks which are described in the novel. Frankie, the narrator, is a young graduate struggling to establish an art practice. At intervals, she impels herself to recall the works she learned about in college, as an attempt to find meaning, and to continue to learn in spite of the fact that her formal education has come to an end. "A Line Made by Walking"—the artwork—has particular resonance because Frankie understands it to be about searching, about repetition, about what we leave behind.

Did you draw on your own experience as a fine arts student to portray Frankie's state of mind?
Yes, certainly. Line started several years ago as a short piece of creative nonfiction about a period of my life spent living alone in my dead grandmother’s empty bungalow in rural Ireland. This was during Ireland’s most recent economic depression, about two years after I finished art school; I was unemployed and increasingly disillusioned and Frankie’s voice draws heavily from those feelings of confusion and despair.

Throughout the novel, Frankie lists works of art that reflect her situation as a way to test herself as an artist. How did you go about picking these perfectly fitting works?
I’ve always been as influenced by art and artists as literature and writers. In my late teens, my mother gifted me a book called Art Since 1960 by Michael Archer and ever since then I’ve had a strong interest in conceptual and contemporary art. It was important to me, when picking works, that if I couldn’t call them easily and naturally to mind, then they shouldn’t be there. In the final stages of writing the novel, I cut out a lot of works which I felt I’d tried too hard to find.  

Frankie's fascination with animals, dead and alive, is central in the book. What does this obsession say about her state of mind and her way of looking at the world?
The novel begins with Frankie stumbling across a dead robin lying in the ditch outside the bungalow of her dead grandmother, where she is staying. She is—suddenly, deeply, unexpectedly—moved, and decides to take a photograph. As the novel continues, she comes across another dead creature, a rabbit, and then a rat, and so the photos become a series, and each of the 10 chapters are named for the creature discovered, and photographed, therein. Frankie considers them to be both beautiful and strangely prophetic; they make her feel as if she has reached the momentous end of something. "And because my small world is coming apart in tiny increments," she thinks, "it seems fitting that the creatures should be dying too."

Sometimes it’s hard to separate Frankie's disappointment in herself from her disappointment in how the world functions. How did you manage to intertwine the two?
I guess in my mind, the two are necessarily, inextricably intertwined. How do we find a way to function, cheerfully, in a world we believe is intrinsically malfunctioning? Frankie is stultified by both the responsibility of her future and the amorphous guilt which comes attached to privilege. "The world is wrong," she thinks, "and I am too small to fix it, too self-absorbed." 

Does Frankie achieve something akin to what Thoreau experienced at Walden Pond? Or is her retreat something entirely different?
Certainly she sets out to escape conventional society and to live "deliberately," but her motives are no way near so noble. Frankie is essentially afraid and seeking to evade responsibility. The natural world as solace is something I also explored in my first novel: I grew up in rural Ireland, but then spent several years studying and working in Dublin city. Returning to live in the countryside again in my mid-20s, I was disappointed to find how much I’d forgotten—the names of birds and trees and flowers I’d known as a child—so many details which had been squeezed out by all the years of academic study. So I set about learning them again, and this soon became a significant part of my writing process. In Line, Frankie is doing something similar, though she is only barely aware of it.

How has being Irish influenced your writing?
That’s so hard to answer! It’s almost the same as asking how being human has influenced my writing . . . 

Do you think despair comes with the territory of being an artist?
Yes, certainly. But it’s a great motivator. And there can be a decent share of joy, too.

What new projects can your fans expect in the future?
The next projects will be visual, and there’s a very good chance no one will ever see them.

Author photo © Patrick Bolger

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