One of the great pleasures of this writing life of mine is that I get to know other writers and follow their work. Elizabeth Baines is one of these. I first became aware of her work via her excellent short story collection, Balancing on the Edge of the World, published by Salt in 2007. Salt has now published her beautiful novel, Too Many Magpies, and I am thrilled to be able to host Elizabeth as the first stop on her blog tour and engage in a bit of to and fro about her work and her life as a writer.
*The theme of the magpie is haunting and runs throughout the narrative of “Too Many Magpies.” I was wondering if you had the idea for the theme of the book first and then found the metaphor to illustrate it? Or, as sometimes happens, did you have the image of the magpie in your head first and have the story somehow grow out of that image?
Hmm. Do you know, it’s very hard to say! I must say that once, when I was newly pregnant with my first child, I was going through the park on my way to the shops and saw several magpies and thought of the rhyme, One for Sorrow etc, and that incident did stay with me. But I had no idea that it would end up in a novel, as it does in Too Many Magpies, or that the magpie would provide a fundamental symbol – I wasn’t consciously storing it up as material for a novel. When I sat down to write the novel what I was consciously concerned with were the story of the charismatic but sinister stranger and the themes of fear and uncertainty, but when I began to write, the magpie image came flying out of the past and roosted right in there! So it’s kind of hard to say which came first in the process, the magpie image or the egg theme/story. I guess it’s best when it works like this, a sort of alchemical fusion which transcends the components of a novel – it certainly feels best, to me, anyway, when I’m writing, and I hope it works in the finished result here!
*I believe I heard you say that you wrote this novel quite quickly, as if it came out all of one piece. Is that true? Does it often work that way with you?
Well, yes, I did write it very quickly, and yes it did come out all of one piece. Each day for two months (October and November) I went into my room at nine in the morning and wrote solidly until the evening, printing out and revising each evening after we’d eaten. During that time everybody in the house was very fed up with me, and the way the writing of the novel took over our lives – they would come home to a darkened house and me still shut away upstairs, and have to call me down for the evening meal, and then I’d be off up again to the landing where we kept the printer! But at the end of that two months it was done. But no, it’s not always that way: the novel I’m working on at the moment will have been the work of several years, on and off – I’ve left it, sometimes actually abandoned it, and then gone back to it – and it will have gone through several drafts. I think it depends very much on your prior relationship with the material: how familiar you are with it, how far you have worked it all out emotionally and intellectually, on either a conscious or unconscious level (or both). And also on things like how quickly, for each novel, you hit on a novelistic device that seems to work – in the case of Too Many Magpies the magpie image which just pulled the whole thing together for me and made the novel appear to write itself.
*You write in different genres, as do I. When writers do this, I’m always curious about how they decide what genre to work in at any one time. Does the idea choose it’s own genre? Do you decide you want to write a story/play/novel and then sit down to find an idea that suits that genre?
I find that ideas do arrive with their own forms, don’t you? A short story usually comes to me primarily as an image or sometimes a phrase (with ideas attached), a play as primarily an issue (with characters and a situation attached), and a novel as a much more complex package of themes and images and situations. Clearly, though, there are occasions when you’re commissioned to write something and it is the form and not the story that will be the given, and you’ll have to think up a story that suits that form. This process always feels to me far less organic – and the real hard work of a commission for me is thinking up a subject that MAKES the process organic. I have twice adapted my prose for radio drama as well, which I know appears rather to go against the idea of a story having is own form: Power, one of the stories in my collection Balancing on the Edge of the World and my novel The Birth Machine, which is being reissued by Salt in October. However, to change them from prose to drama I found it necessary to turn them into entirely different creatures, and ‘Power’ I think was actually turned by the different form into something of a different story. You can read about that in more detail in the stop I made at Debi Alper’s blog on my last tour.
*Like any good novel, “Too Many Magpies” is full of complex characters and interesting themes. What was the impetus for writing this? A character? A theme you wanted to explore? Both or neither?
There were several triggers. Scientific versus magical thinking is one of my long-term themes (it’s a theme in The Birth Machine, too). Also as a parent I’d already thought long and hard about the implications of this theme for one’s hopes and fears for one’s children and for one’s strengths and vulnerabilities as a parent, and knew I wanted to write about that. There was one particular experience concerning one of my children which I wanted to write about, too, and which is central to the novel, but I won’t say what it was, because it’s a plot-spoiler! Separately, I had also been toying for some time with the idea of a charismatic, anarchic stranger who comes along and challenges and disrupts the conventional middle-class life. Then one day I was in Didsbury library – I find the library just about the best place in the world for getting inspiration for a novel – and for some reason I remembered how once when I made a birthday cake for my kids the Smarties I put on top went all frilly round the edges, and that was it: the first line of the novel, ‘On the baby’s first birthday, the Smarties on the cake went frilly round the edges’ just dropped into my head with all of those other things attached, and I started to see the whole thing (if a bit mistily)! And of course as soon as I rushed back to the house and started to write, the magpies came zooming in and cinched it all.
Fascinating stuff. I do love getting to drill people about their work and processes. Elizabeth is very forthcoming about her writing, and is at the forefront of the sort of marketing that small presses and their writers now do so well. For more information about Elizabeth and her books do check out her podcast readings on the Salt blog. You can also watch a film of Elizabeth talking about the novel. I also urge you to follow the rest of her tour. You can find the schedule here.