For A Young Irish Artist And Author, Words Are Anchored In Images

Mar 17, 2016
Originally published on March 17, 2016 9:14 am

Before she was a writer, Sara Baume set out to be a visual artist.

"First and foremost I see; I see the world and then I describe it ..." she says. "I don't know another way to write. I always anchor everything in an image."

Baume's process works — a review in The Irish Times called her debut novel a "stunning and wonderful achievement by a writer touched by greatness."

Baume loves words, and she loves fitting words together so they flow like poetry.

"I can hear in my head the way a sentence should sound," she explains. "It even has a number of different beats, so I'll end up adding words that aren't even fully necessary because in my head the rhythm of the sentence has to have an extra ba-dum, ba-dum at the end."

Baume's debut novel, Spill Simmer Falter Wither is divided into four sections, each one a different season, with names she made up to reflect what her main character Ray is going through; spring becomes spill, simmer is summer, falter is fall, and wither, winter.

Ray is a 57-year-old man who Baume describes as "too old for starting over, too young for giving up." He is a misfit who has lived an isolated life in a small Irish village by the sea. Baume wrote the book while living in a village very much like the one in her novel.

"Rural Ireland is a wonderful place if you're at home there or accepted there, and if not, it can be difficult," Baume says. "I mean, Ray is an example of someone who's been in this village his whole life but he's strange, people perceive him to be strange and sort of steer clear of him."

Throughout the book Ray talks to his dog, One Eye, releasing long bottled up feelings and sharing buried secrets. One Eye is a shelter dog with a difficult past, very much like the dog Baume adopted five year ago.

"No one else wanted him ..." Baume says. "He's a troubled soul, he's aggressive. So I ended up adopting him, me and my boyfriend, but he came at a strange phase of life in which I sort of needed to save something. This dog came along and gave purpose to my life. And that was eventually how the book came about."

But Baume says this is not a book about a dog — in fact she never uses the word "dog" in the novel. This, she says, is Ray's story. One Eye adores his owner, but can turn unexpectedly vicious. After a couple of violent encounters, Ray fears the village will turn on them.

To protect the dog he loves, Ray flees the village that has always been his home but has never shown him any affection. The man and his dog wander aimlessly, living in Ray's car and depleting his savings. In the end, Baume says, Ray is both liberated and destroyed by the dog.

"I suppose I wanted him to have chance at a relationship," Baume says. "And so I wanted him to have a relationship with something that just loved him utterly, irrespective, and that's what we all get from animals I think. But I thought he needed this chance to be liberated, and so it is, in that sense, a love story, but a very atypical love story."

Baume is surprised by the success of her first novel. It's gotten wonderful reviews and been nominated for awards in Ireland and England. But such success can be both thrilling and chilling. As she starts in on her second novel, Baume says she feels more touched by fear than greatness. And as for that seaside village where she wrote Spill Simmer Falter Wither? She has moved on ... but she still has her dog.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

OK. It's St. Patrick's Day, when the rivers run green and the beer really should, too. It's worth noting another thing we Irish are famous for, a way with words. So today seems a good moment to introduce you to a young Irish writer, who The Irish Times has said is touched by greatness. Her name is Sara Baume, and she spoke with NPR's Lynn Neary.

LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: Before she was a writer, Sara Baume set out to be a visual artist.

SARA BAUME: I think everything I learned when I was in college - all of the years that I devoted myself to making - I think I learned an awful lot about writing from that. And I still - first and foremost, I see the world. And then I describe it. And that's how I write, I suppose. I don't know another way to write. I always anchor everything in an image.

NEARY: But her talent doesn't stop there. Baume loves words. And she loves fitting words together so they flow like poetry.

BAUME: I think the best prose should be poetic. So I kind of have this sense in my head - or I can hear in my head the way a sentence should sound. Like, it even has a number of different beats, you know? So I'll end up adding words that aren't even fully necessary because in my head the rhythm of the sentence has to have an extra ba-dum, ba-dum (ph) at the end.

NEARY: Baume's debut novel, "Spill Simmer Falter Wither," is divided into four sections, each one a different season with names she made up to reflect what her main character, Ray, is going through. Spring becomes spill. Falter is fall. And wither - winter. Here's her description of summer, which she calls simmer.

BAUME: (Reading) See the signs of summer, of the tepid seasons starting their handover with subtle ceremony. Now, the forest floor is swamped by bluebells. The celandines squeezed from sight.

See how the bells hover above the ground like an earth-hugging lilac mist. Now, the oak, ash, hazel and birch are bulked with newly born leaves, still moist and creased from the crush of their buds. The barley is up to my knee-caps and already it's outgrown you.

NEARY: That you the barley has outgrown refers to One Eye, the dog Ray talks to throughout the book, releasing long bottled up feelings and sharing buried secrets. One Eye is a shelter dog with a difficult past, very much like the dog Baume adopted five years ago.

BAUME: No one else wanted him. He was a bit of a, as I say. last-chance saloon dog 'cause he's troubled. He's a troubled soul. He's aggressive. So yeah, I ended up adopting him. And me and my boyfriend eventually - but he came at a sort of strange days of life in which I sort of needed to save something. This dog came along and sort of gave purpose to my life. And that was eventually how the book came about.

NEARY: But Baume says this is not a book about a dog. In fact, she never uses the word dog in the novel. This, she says, is Ray's story. Ray is a 57-year-old man who she describes as too old for starting over, too young for giving up. He's a misfit who's lived an isolated life in a small Irish village by the sea. Baume wrote the book while living in a village very much like the one in her novel.

BAUME: Rural Ireland is a wonderful if you're at home there or accepted there. And if not, it can be difficult. And, I mean, Ray is an example of someone who's been in this village his whole life. But he's strange. People perceive him to be strange and sort of steer clear of him.

NEARY: Ray's life changes when he brings One Eye home. The dog adores his owner. But he can turn vicious unexpectedly. And after a couple of violent encounters, Ray fears the village will turn on them.

BAUME: (Reading) They long since marked me down as strange - a strange man. I am a strange man. And it's because of my strangeness that they make a special point of knowing where I live.

And they wait and have been waiting all the time I've been in this house, in this village, all my life, for strange things happen for which they can finger me, for which they can have me and my threatening strangeness removed.

NEARY: To protect the dog he loves, Ray flees the village that has always been his home but has never shown him any affection. The man and his dog wander aimlessly, living in Ray's car and depleting his savings. In the end, Baume says, Ray is both liberated and destroyed by the dog.

BAUME: I suppose I wanted him to have some chance at a relationship. And so I wanted him to have a relationship with something that just loved him utterly irrespective. And that's what we all get from animals, I think, well, dogs in particular. But I thought he needed - he needed this sort of chance to be liberated. And so it is in that sense a love story but a very atypical love story.

NEARY: Baume's surprised by the success of her novel in Ireland and England. Such success can be both thrilling and chilling. As she starts on her second novel, Baume says, she feels more touched by fear than greatness. And as for that seaside village where she wrote "Spill Simmer Falter Wither," well, she's moved on. But she still has her dog. Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.