Ireland's Newest Literary Sensation, Sara Baume, Crosses the Atlantic

by Hans Rollman

21 March 2016

The enchanting story of a one-eyed dog has stolen hearts across Europe. Its author reflects on her success, her first smartphone, and literary distinctions between Europe and America.
 
cover art

Spill Simmer Falter Wither

Sara Baume

(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
US: Mar 2016

An unlikely Irish tale of bonding between an old man and his dog has won hearts across the UK and Europe, and is now preparing to enchant North American audiences, as well.

Spill Simmer Falter Wither is the award-winning debut novel by Irish author Sara Baume. Originally published by a small independent press in Ireland last year, the book’s momentum has been building as surely and steadily as the heartfelt drama depicted between its pages.

It’s a uniquely stylistic book to have attracted such broad appeal. In an age when fast-paced action and complex plot devices dominate indie and bestseller lists alike, Baume’s book is notable for its deeply grounded, simplistic sense of realism. The narrator—a lonely, socially alienated 57-year old man—adopts a one-eyed dog and the two forge a relationship that helps them both transcend the pain and rejection of their respective life-stories.

The book chronicles a year in this budding relationship, first in a tiny rural village on the Irish coast, and then on the road as they flee the authorities who’ve come to impound One Eye after he bites a local boy’s shih tzu.

What stands out about the book is the language. Baume turns the prosaic into poetry, revealing the cruel beauty and fearful complexity of small-town village life through the eyes of a socially outcast and lonesome old man. His father has recently died, and now only the half-feral One Eye remains to offer him a social lifeline; maybe even love.

The picture of rural Ireland depicted in their travels is neither romanticized nor gritty; it’s rendered in language that is both delicately crafted and unapologetically real.

We are driving, driving, driving.

Over hillslopes and humpback bridges, through loose chippings and potholes wide as children’s paddling pools and deep as old people’s graves. Past lavender hedges, betting shops, sports grounds. Past countless closed doors behind which are countless uncaring strangers, their lives going on and on, relentlessly. We are heading inland, keeping to the back roads as much as possible. You are looking out the rear window where the view is best, or perched on the passenger seat with your maggot nose pressed to the air vents. What do you smell? Fox spray and honeysuckle, pine martens and stinkhorns, seven different kinds of sap? Riding in the car is like watching a neverending reel at a wraparound cinema, complete with the surround-sound of engine putter, the piped scent of petrol fumes and passing countryside.

The book was originally published by Tramp Press, a small independent Irish publisher, and it’s their hardworking efforts that Baume credits with getting her work noticed. After receiving widespread acclaim in Ireland, the book was released in England last fall, and launched in the US on 8 March. Meanwhile, rights have been picked up in several other countries, from Germany to Japan, and it’s being prepped for translation. In the meanwhile, it’s won a number of awards—the 2015 Irish Book Award (Newcomer of the Year); the 2015 Rooney Prize for Irish Literature; the 2015 Hennessey New Irish Writer Award; and more—and been nominated and listed for several others. 

It’s a rapid ascent for Baume, who describes the experience as “surreal”. I reached her as she was preparing to head to New York for the launch of the American edition and a brief US book tour, and we discussed the book’s startling success. In an increasingly fast-paced world, what makes such a slow-paced and densely-descriptive book about a dog, such a hit?

While it’s a dog that features on the front cover, Baume points out the story is really about the man who takes it in. This man, the story’s narrator, has provoked a great deal of interest and debate among readers. Baume thinks that perhaps what makes him so resonant for readers is his universality.

“I think it’s this sort of lonely figure that people identify with. Everybody knows this guy in a sense, he’s the strange man that we avoid on the street, and I suppose I was trying to give some kind of insight into him. I think a lot of people have reacted to the dog story as well, and the story really isn’t about the dog. I write about animals a lot but I think I’m always using them as a way to say something about the human condition. I’m trying to tell a story about the people who sit around the animal by the way they interact with the animal. So there’s more emphasis put on the man-dog relationship—the atypical love story—but I think that’s maybe a reason why a lot of people have identified with it.”

That said, it was the dog that initially inspired the novel.

“The damn dog is real!” she exclaims, laughing. “I picked up this dog with one eye, he was a rescue dog—badger-baiting—he would have been mistreated in his past, and I suppose I wanted to tell a story about how someone can be saved by their relationship with an animal. When you’re lonely and desperate and you have a companion—sometimes an animal companion is better because it expects very little of you and never questions you or judges you—and I wanted to articulate that but I felt it would be better articulated through a lonely man, through an older man, rather than through my voice.”

Baume notes that it’s the dog, which is real, while the man who narrates the story is fictional. But she put a lot of herself into that character’s development.

“In many ways the character is me. The odd things that he collects, the strange ideas he has, they are all sort of drawn from me or from people I know or from ideas [I had]… Lots of people have said ‘how can you write an older man when you’re a younger woman?’ I wouldn’t dare do it again now because so many people have questioned it,” she laughs, “but at the time it just made sense for the character. I wanted him to be ostracized by the community, and in a way that you wouldn’t be if you were a thirty-year-old woman.”

Shifting Perspectives on the Creative Life

The literary world has been an unexpected landing-pad for Baume, who started off as a visual artist. She studied sculpture and had her own studio for a period of time. Working in art galleries to supplement her income, she found opportunities to write exhibition reviews and art criticism.

“Then I realized that I much preferred reading fiction to criticisms, so I started writing fiction instead of criticisms. And I guess it kind of took off from there,” she recalls. “Ireland’s been going through a recession for a long time, and all through that period I didn’t have a real job, I had crummy part-time jobs, and I was writing this book and submitting stories to magazines and journals and slowly things were getting published… but there was lots of years of despairing in between.”

But time and travel have offered her perspective, especially on the challenges of living as a writer.

“When I was in the US last year I was kind of overwhelmed by how difficult it was for young writers because there’s so much competition,” she reflected. “There’s so many MFAs in creative writing.”

Baume herself has a graduate degree in creative writing, but she notes that it’s a discipline which is fairly new to Europe, although long-established in the US. She also notes that having been published in Ireland and the UK probably made her work appealing to American publishers because it had already been tried and tested in two other countries; an advantage aspiring American writers don’t usually have.

While doing a residency in Iowa last year she was joined by dozens of other writers from around the world. Comparing her struggles as an aspiring writer to those of writers from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and elsewhere also helped put things in perspective for her.

“I was inclined to complain a little, you know—‘it’s so hard to get an arts council grant in Ireland, and very few writers are able to make a living’—but I live on this tiny island in western Europe with a first world economy. I really don’t have anything to complain about. There are grants available here. As difficult as it gets, it is possible… It’s hard, but it’s possible. And in most countries it isn’t even possible.”

As she struggled to produce her first novel, Baume said the hardest thing she found was figuring out how to structure her time, especially with no guarantee of literary success.

“It’s so much easier now because I know that my second book will be published, and because people are saying to me ‘oh you’re great’, and they’re encouraging. There’s some kind of reassurance that I’m actually good at writing. With the first book it was incredibly hard to get through because every day is sitting down with this thing and there’s no reassurance that it’ll ever get published or not, and no reason for doing that over any millions of other things you could be doing. So it was just really hard. I’d have to force myself to sit down at the desk with no reassurance.” 

Her advice to other aspiring writers, she says, is to force themselves to keep at it, reassurance or no.

“Just keep doing it. Because I think if you’re good, eventually someone will find you. It’s so much about the right time, right place, you know. The right manuscript into the right person’s hands at the right moment. At the moment there’s a bit of a buzz about Irish literature so I’ve been lucky. And you know, you might be really brilliant but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll get published unless you keep going. Keep going, and eventually things will work out. So just keep going.”

Baume’s background is in fine arts, and sculpture in particular. Writing has taken her away from sculpting, and grateful though she is for her success she also misses the more tangible process of producing visual art.

“I’d love to have a balance, because using your hands is very therapeutic. Whereas when you sit down at the desk it’s much more taxing on your brain. It’s just idea-idea-idea, whereas when I was making art you just have one idea and then you use your hands for a long, long time. So I miss that.”

The Power of Writing Rural

Baume lives along the rural west coast of Ireland, “the windy Atlantic side”, and has become used to the solace it offers. Internet access is limited—too limited to even watch YouTube regularly, she remarks. Even cellphone service is unreliable in her village; when I called for an interview I had to wait until she was on the bus to the city to reach her. She had only just gotten her first smartphone, she confesses. 

“And I’m deeply ashamed of the fact,” she laughs. She justifies it with the fact that she’ll be doing a lot of traveling and book tours over the next few months, and excitedly points out she’s already used it to help one bystander check their bus schedule. “It depresses me that I can’t just make a statement and just stay away from all of these things. But it’s becoming increasingly difficult. If I’m to make a living from my writing in some way then I have to interact. I think you have to earn the privilege of doing a JD Salinger and you need a Catcher in the Rye before you can just live off your royalties and decline all requests for interviews.”

Her new smartphone aside, it’s the rural environment that has shaped and inspired her writing, she says. She’s lived all her life in rural Ireland, with the exception of a few years of college and work in her early and mid-20s.

“And then it just sort of kicked in that I wanted to get back to the countryside. But I think there’s definitely a strong tradition of writing in rural Ireland… I’d definitely rather be associated with the rural tradition.”

Baume is a young writer herself, in her early 30s, yet as she learns to use her new smartphone she wonders how it’ll change her as a writer and as a person—not to mention the society she grew up in.

“You know I grew up before the Internet existed, I mean it may have existed somewhere, but I remember computers being a big deal and they had little green screens and one person in the village had one and you went to their house to use it. So it’s changed so rapidly… I feel like I’m okay because I wasn’t raised that way and so it’s still strange to me and I can use it sensibly, but kids nowadays laugh at the idea that there was once no Internet. And I think that’s kind of scary. I see how it even rewires how I think! Even this bus journey, you know normally I’d just read my book solidly, but I kept fiddling with the phone, I was looking at websites… so already against my will it’s changing how my mind works, how I occupy my time. And I’m aware of that, but I think most people aren’t.”

Crossing Borders

Baume is a fan of literature in translation. She follows several of the literary presses that concentrate on translated works—Dalkey Archive, Paravion Press, Pushkin Press—and feels it’s important as a writer to broaden one’s literary perspectives.

“When you speak English it’s very easy to just read in English. For many years I would have read a lot of American writers… I still do, but it’s only as I’ve developed more of a specific interest in literature that I’ve realized that I must read from all over the world, and not just European. And not just necessarily in translation, but from Korea, South America or anywhere, you know, not just European. I think it’s incredibly important.”

That said, she’s excited about a lot of the work currently coming out of Ireland. She cites some of these writers; Eimear McBride, Colin Barrett, Gavin Corbett. Irish literature, she says, “is full of life and just doing exciting things and thinking outside of the norm.”

In fact, it’s that willingness to experiment outside the norm which she feels American literature could benefit from, as she reflected on the some of the differences across the Atlantic divide.

“I think European literature, and Irish literature, is stranger. It’s a little bit weirder, sometimes. I think American literature has sort of bigger novels, cooler novels… But I do like the little weird, spare, poetic European novels. And in Ireland at the moment there’s some brilliant writers… maybe not hugely known overseas but just really interesting writers experimenting with form. I think maybe America needs to experiment with form more.”

Press photo

Press photo

That said, she’s extremely grateful for the welcoming reception her work has received on both sides of the Atlantic and beyond. In addition to her New York book launch and US tour, she’s lined up for upcoming literary events in Canada and South Africa. She’s a bit worried about the impact this’ll have on finding time for her upcoming writing projects, essays, short stories, and a next novel, but she emphasizes how grateful she is to readers and critics for their enthusiastic response to her work.

“It’s sort of surreal,” she laughs, and then apologizes since she has to leave.

Her bus has just pulled into town.

Spill Simmer Falter Wither

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