Wednesday, 16 June 2010
Too Many Magpies, among other things – an interview with novelist, dramatist and storyist Elizabeth Baines
Life throws up strange and seemingly unlikely parallels. How can a potentially fatal fall possibly have anything to do with the work of a gifted and versatile writer?
I stayed with Elizabeth recently. The evening before I arrived, she’d caught her heel in the carpet at the top of a steep flight of stairs and she had fallen, somersaulted, tumbled and finally slid on her back, head first, down the whole flight, hitting her head several times on the wall, on the stair edges, the banisters, and finally cracking it on a heavy piece of furniture at the bottom.
I asked her what she recalled of the accident.
“I felt no pain at all,” she said. “It was like being suspended from life. I couldn’t see, didn’t feel anything. I remember thinking ‘Ok, so that’s probably it now.’ And then when I lay at the bottom I couldn’t shout to John, I just thought as I lay there, ‘Oh shit. I never got to finish the novel’”
Elizabeth is and has long been, a very serious writer, totally committed to her craft, and even at that point where her life was meant to be flashing before her eyes, (that’s meant to happen, isn’t it, when you die, or nearly?) her work was uppermost in her mind. So I asked her if she has seen images from her work, past or present, as she fell.
“The world of my current work was uppermost,” she said. “But I don’t really see my work in terms of images.”
“OK, so how do you see it? Do you see it thematically? Do you see the broader picture – what you want to say? What IS the new novel about?” I do not mean what is the plot, what happens, but rather what is it in her own values, beliefs, preoccupations, that is guiding the work…?
There is a pause.
“it is about falling,” she said. “A man is trying to make something of his life, from bad beginnings. He has to cope and react to sometimes bad events in his life, so falling through life is the best way I can describe it. He falls through life but bounces back over and over.”
Elizabeth said she was trying to put herself in the head of this character – but I suspect she didn’t intend to go so far as to physically fall herself. (!)
Elizabeth is at the end of her hospital-imposed ‘Watch yourself in case your head falls off’ 24 hours. She’s aching all over, but OK, thank heavens, and this is meant to be (like most blog tour stops) a few questions about her latest novel out with Salt Publishing, Too Many Magpies. We seem to have strayed off-topic. But have we??
“K, so what would you say Too Many Magpie is about” I ask, again not meaning the plot. Again, she thinks for a moment.
“It is about our relationship with reality. How we think, perceive, interpret. I’m asking the question: ‘Should we see life empirically, or act on intuition?’ I look at how the way we think affects relationships. How our pasts shape our present…”
She stops. “Actually. The new novel could be said to be about those things as well.”
As I said before, Elizabeth is a prolific, serious writer. In addition to Too Many Magpies, which came out from Salt Publishing in 2009, they are soon to publish one of Elizabeth’s most iconic works which is frequently recommended reading for Women’s Studies courses. ‘The Birth Machine’ will come out in its original format later this year. The original publishers insisted on a format change to ‘The Birth Machine’ which drove a coach and horses through her careful crafting of the premise,. And thanks to Salt, the book will be as it was intended. I can’t wait to read it.
In ‘The Birth Machine’, childhood events are woven into a frame in which the wife of a doctor experiences the birth of a child…but again, there are real parallels with the themes of her later work. Exploration of how we think. Our perceptions of reality. The tension between subjectivity and objectivity, broadly speaking. The main character becomes imprisoned in a situation where she is merely an object. The professional’s view of her labour is contrasted with her own, and the two realities, both valid, are very different. ‘The Birth Machine’ was and still is, an important novel – groundbreaking, and subverting the contemporary systems. Have those systems changed that much? Read it to find out!
But back to her fall. Elizabeth’s overriding concern when she really thought she would die, was for her work. “I have nor finished my work”. And the issues that preoccupy her are still fuelling her genius.
I asked her next to what extent she is aware of this. To what extent the consciously plans her work to reflect her passions. I am interested in ‘Too Many Magpies’ in particular here, as it was actually written very differently to the others – very quickly – 8 weeks from start to finish.
“I have a consciousness of the issues when I write,” she said, “but for me, writing has to be done in a daydream state, so as I actually write I am immersed in it and largely unaware of extraneous events.”
However, she also goes on to say that the issues in ‘Too Many Magpies’ have preoccupied her for years, so in effect that novel has been ‘cooking’ for a very long time. I ask what memories she has in particular of relevant preoccupations.
“I remember sitting at the table for meals with my parents, listening to their conversation. My mother was a literary person, and yet was very grounded in reality. My father, an engineer, was her opposite. A scientist who was drawn to intuition, to mystery, instinctive behaviour. There was a real reversal of stereotypes here, and I would ponder all that. I think then, when I was trapped at home with small children, I would ponder the issues again, a lot. I suppose that’s how ones values are set down – and ones patterns of thinking. “Too Many Magpies reflects the contrasts in my parents’ ways of thinking, very much.”
“Did you have a resolution in mind as you wrote it?” I asked.
“Not at all. But when I got to the end of the novel, I found one. And it summed up my own values in this regard very well.”
“And those are?..”
“That one has to be open to potential, to possibility.. Rationality is necessary of course – there is no point in blind belief in magic and so on – but you have to remain open to the possibility that exists in things we have not discovered. Or thought of. That there are more things to consider, beyond the boundaries of our experience. The ‘Unknown Factor’ that the husband in the novel, refers to. He is not a typical scientist. The stranger ‘is’ luck, happenstance, magic… saying all will be well if you ditch your concerns, and believe…”
Suspension of worry. Of suspicion. Just as Elizabeth, as she was falling, was, despite physics, suspended literally, for a short while, and also suspended outside her life, and outside self. As she said, “I felt no pain, could not see, could not speak.”
And this is so similar to how being a writer suspends you, both from life, as you get into the daydream state necessary to create, and also suspends you from society, to s certain extent, unless they understand, empathise, can share what you do and are. In Elizabeth’s case, her daydream state is so almost-total that many times she has not heard the phone or the doorbell, or even her husband John coming into the study – until he puts a hand on her shoulder.
“I have surrendered to something else.” She says. And this resonates the themes of much of her work – our relationship with actuality.
I asked her, finally, about the Baines canon, and whether she sees a progression in her work, a journey.
“I think so,” she said. “I see myself moving towards a fuller examination of the issues that interest me, in ‘Too Many Magpies’. In some of my stories and in ‘The Birth Machine’ I examine oppositions. ‘Too Many Magpies’ is more of a synthesis, a more complex mix.”
I felt that Elizabeth had not looked as closely as this before at the drivers of her creative genius, and I hoped I hadn’t rattled her. But she seemed fine, smiled, got up from the table and put the kettle on to make us a cuppa. And as I watched, she took her hand off the handle of the kettle, and rubbed one of the growing bumps on the back of her head.