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'Everyone says you can achieve your dreams and life will be perfect - but it will never be'

Writer Sara Baume tells us what inspired her second novel, about a young woman’s quarter-life crisis.

WHEN WRITER SARA Baume arrives into the TheJournal.ie offices she’s carrying with her a proof of her new book A Line Made By Walking, and a stack of photos of dead animals.

She proffers some for me to examine. Among the images are a dead rabbit, lying prone on a pile of greenery, and a rook, its folded feathers a striking, shimmery blue.

Carrying around photos of roadkill isn’t a habit of Baume’s, but she’s been taking the images as a personal project for a number of years. They’ve been put to good use – the photographs feature prominently in her new book, marking the beginning of every chapter. The rook’s beautiful feathers, scattered with twigs and dew, feature on the front cover.

A Line Made by Walking Cover

A Line Made By Walking is about death, but also life, depression, being a young adult, discovering your place in the world. It’s Baume’s second novel, the follow-up to the award-winning Spill Simmer Falter Wither, about a lonely older man and his dog.

On the face of it, the books aren’t very similar – Frankie, the protagonist in A Line Made By Walking, is 25, finished college and in somewhat of a rut. She moves to her late grandmother’s house to take stock. Spill Simmer Falter Wither’s protagonist is a man called Ray, living in a rural town: the book is about his relationship with his dog, One Eye. But both novels are about isolation and loneliness.

Why the recurring themes? “The simple answer is that I’ve always been solitary,” explains Baume, 32, who was born to an Irish mother and English father and spent some of her early years in the UK before her family moved back to west Cork.

“I think I’ve thought at times of my life that I’ve been lonely when I haven’t really. And well, Ray in Spill Simmer was very much a version of myself, and a version of the situation that I was living in. But I made him an older man because I wanted him to be someone who more desperately needed to be saved, who didn’t have any sort of opportunities in life. Whereas Frankie has so many opportunities in life she buckles under the weight of them.”

The new book, then, is much more obviously autobiographical. Baume draws on her own experience as a young artist trying to find her way in the world, and her own experiences of loneliness; a needing to withdraw to find her inner compass.

“I wanted to talk more about what I feel is my generation and this idea that you grow up with the Disney-fied expectations of life. And then… I went to college, I got free education, I got grants all the way through, and then graduated into a society of no opportunity fully qualified,” she says.

The younger Baume “struggled to know what to do with that”.

Driven by despair and doubt

This book was mostly written in the gap between her first book (which, like this one, is published by Ireland’s Tramp Press) being written and published.

“It was totally driven by the same doubt and despair that the first one was,” says Baume. “But the tricky thing was now I’m probably much more anxious about this one.” That’s because, she explains, a first novel “either gets no attention or good attention, in a way”.

But eyes are already on her thanks to her first success, so she has a reputation to keep. As the two books are a little different, Baume admits she’s “expecting to be shot down a little bit”.

“It doesn’t make sense to me, because to me I’m getting better all the time, I’m improving, it should be a better book, I think it’s a better book,” she says. “But I just go snowblind as in you can’t see the wood for the trees at a certain point. And I don’t necessarily know that it will appeal to the same audience.”

‘I didn’t really like her’

Editing the book necessitated cutting swathes of text, which was when she made an unexpected discovery. “Much of what I desperately wanted to cut was where Frankie was annoying, or cruel or slightly racist… and it came as a revelation to me that I didn’t really like her,” says Baume, still looking a bit taken aback by the revelation.

“Because it’s a version of me and in the same way you want to look back fondly at your younger self. And it was a big step to accept that she’s not you, she’s a version of you at 25.”

The book came together once she accepted that Frankie wasn’t Sara. “She is a little; she’s very flawed, and she’s a little irritating and inappropriate, and hopefully that makes her more authentic.”

Baume isn’t on social media (“I don’t understand how suddenly it was a thing in everyone’s lives because I didn’t grow up with it”), but through her novels, she is exposing herself to the world, albeit in somewhat of a disguised way. How does that feel?

“I look at Twitter and I find it fascinating because people create a picture of themselves, and then that’s what they follow through with in the things that they like and the things they are interested in, and in a way writing a novel is a little bit like that, only I’m not creating a flattering version of myself at all,” laughs Baume.

It is using things that I know, that I’m interested in, things that I feel, and then building fictions around them. And so I’m exposed to a degree but at the same time I’m very clear that it’s not true. It’s true and not true and no one knows precisely what is and what isn’t and I don’t think that there’s anything there that I wouldn’t be happy to fess up to.

The quarter-life crisis

The book looks at treatments for depression, with the protagonist choosing not to take medication. Baume says she was slightly worried about tackling this angle of the ‘quarter-life crisis’.

“People are for the first time saying maybe the use of medication isn’t the first way to treat 25-year-olds who are depressed, who haven’t really experienced much of life,” she says of discussions she tapped into while writing the book.

“I think Frankie is very much a version of that, she’s lost and confused and disappointed in life, and bereaved in a way, not by the loss of her grandmother quite so much as the loss of her own potential, the grief of failure or perceived failure, even though her life has barely begun,” says Baume.

And so she’s suffering from that, and I think it’s a common condition and I’m not condemning the use of anti-depressants or anything like that, I think some people do need them, but lots of people don’t and are being steered in that direction to the detriment of their future.

“Life is a series of small compromises,” adds Baume, after underlining that she’s not anti-medication, but very much pro being realistic about life.

Eventually you get to a place where you are content. But no one tells you that, everyone tells you that you can do anything, you can achieve all of your dreams and everything is going to be perfect. And it never will be.

‘I will make certain sacrifices in my life’

Baume lives somewhat of an isolated life herself. She and her partner live frugally on an old farm in west Cork, “drive a shit car”, don’t plan to have children, and eke out an existence on not much money.

“The way we are at the moment, the priority is for neither of us to have to work a day job,” she explains. “And not that I’m not so naive as to think anyone would give us day jobs. So it’s all just about like making the money go as far as possible. We don’t go on holidays, we don’t go out for fancy meals, or buy clothes.”

“As far as I’m concerned I will make certain sacrifices in my life,” she says. Sacrifices that she’s willing to make in order to live a life that’s about ”just following your nose, living an adventurous life and not travelling much necessarily”.

SSFW-cover-322x505 Source: Tramp Press

“Agnes Martin, the painter, said an artist’s life is adventurous, one new thing after another. And she pretty much lived in the same place in the desert in New Mexico for much of her life, but adventure for her was through what she thought and the details and how her mind worked… So that’s the only objective.”

Baume’s written in the past about the cost of being a writer, and how for most novelists it is far from a lucrative job. She’s also on record saying that writing itself is a painful process. It’s not like art for her: “With writing it’s idea, idea, idea – there’s no point where you stop and your hands take over. And that’s harder.”

“I’d like not to be a one-book wonder,” she says. “But as I say I’m not going to continue writing.”

That’s the interesting thing about Baume – she defies convention in many ways, and her next move is not to hole herself away to sweat blood while writing a third novel, but to return to her first love, art. Sculpture, to be more precise.

She will continue essay writing, and writing about art. It’s an interesting move, but, then, Baume is an entirely singular person, and her approach – where her art, be it literary or visual, takes precedence over a need to do what it is a writer ‘should’ be doing – is wholly her own.

This entire thing, the two novels, the success, the literary kudos, came as a surprise to her. But it also showed her what’s achievable when you put your shoulder to the wheel.

“I always had this vague notion of ‘oh I’ll write a book and then I’ll get published and then other opportunities will grow’. And lo it did, it’s working out OK so far,” she says.

And if I had at some point gone ‘nah it’s ridiculous, I’ll just work in the bank’, I’d still be working in the bank. You just have to assume that things will grow.

A Line Made By Walking, by Sara Baume, published by Tramp Press, is out now.

Read: ”Irish readers are like no others in the world”: How these homegrown publishers are making waves>

Read: This author’s one-sentence novel is the best Irish book of 2016>

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