Balancing on the Edge of the World

I first came across Elizabeth Baines through Fictionbitch, which struck me immediately as one of the liveliest and most thoughtful literary blogs around. Intrigued, I bought her collection, Balancing on the Edge of the World, and was moved and impressed by its intelligence, emotional acuity and sheer variety. Since then, we’ve met twice, far too briefly, and it was a great pleasure on both occasions, although the second time Elizabeth’s journey home, if I remember correctly, was interrupted by a random sniper outside Manchester. I hope this has no significance. Last year I was lucky enough to be interviewed by Elizabeth on my own Cyclone tour, and I’m delighted to be able to return the gesture of respect and curiosity that this sort of interview represents. I’m only sorry we weren’t able to sit down together and have a glass of wine while we were about it. Although after the sniper incident perhaps this is just as well.

For those of you who don’t already know Elizabeth, this is what she has to say about herself:

Elizabeth Baines is a writer of prose fiction and prize-winning plays for radio and stage. Her short story collection, Balancing on the Edge of the World, was published by Salt in 2007 and was long-listed for the Frank O’Connor International Award for the Short Story 2008. Her novel, Too Many Magpies, will come from Salt in late 2009. Elizabeth was born in South Wales and now lives in Manchester. She has been a teacher and is also an occasional actor. She writes the critical-commentary blog Fictionbitch and also has her own author blog.

I asked Elizabeth three questions about her work. Here they are, with her wonderfully illuminating answers.

Many of the stories in Balancing on the Edge of the World deal with, and illuminate, social issues: homelessness, street violence, divorce, infidelity. There’s a strong sense not just of place but of their being rooted in social and economic circumstance that’s refreshing in a form which sometimes tends towards the airy-fairily universal, while the conflicts the stories enact are powerfully realized at the personal level, but are also, in a large sense, political – issues of power and so on. At the same time, a story like ‘Conundrum’ shows a healthy distrust of political orthodoxies. This obviously isn’t simply the effect of writing about the world ‘as it is’, but the result of decisions about what constitutes reality and how we, as individuals, shape and are shaped by it. To what extent are you aware of thinking ‘politically’ – if this makes sense – as you write? And have you ever found a story leading you into a place you’re at odds with on an ideological level? If you have, what did you do?

Well, I said right at the start of this tour on Barbara Smith’s blog that I’m just writing about the world as I see it, but the fact is that I think I do see the world politically, though in the widest sense, as you say. Since I’ve revealed so much on this tour already, I don’t mind saying that I grew up with a raging sense of injustice. As a teenager I had a very stormy relationship with my parents (so I felt big injustice on my own behalf!) yet I was also naturally deeply affected by the class, race and religious prejudice they had experienced and which informed their attitudes, and also by the non-conformist bent of my Welsh family on my mother’s side. So yes, from early on I was made political in the sense of questioning things and also protesting against authority and whatever seems unfair. But since what both my Irish father and Welsh mother had always struggled against was religious and political orthodoxies, I was always going to be, as you note, suspicious of orthodoxies of any kind – well, not just suspicious, I’d say, but passionately concerned to expose their potential iniquities. Two other more explicit examples of this in Balancing are ‘The Shooting Script’, a satirical story about an arts worker from hell, which shows how the politics of equal opportunity can be paradoxically twisted to wield unfair power, and ‘The Way to Behave’, another ironic story in which a wife uses the unthinking pieties of a certain strand of feminism to take revenge on another woman, her husband’s female lover. Take that issue of feminism: it would be hard, I think, not to be convinced by the humanitarian insights of true feminism, and indeed my first two novels were fiercely motored by them. But by the time I came to write my first radio play I had seen how certain strands of feminism had become problematic, even damaging orthodoxies, and this was what Rhyme or Reason, that first play, was about. (Orwell’s Animal Farm is my yardstick, after all!) Some feminists were very unhappy about that play, especially when it was nominated for Sony Awards and Harriet Walter won Best Actress, as they felt I was very publicly discrediting feminism, but as I say I write the world as I see it, or as far as I can see it, and indeed it’s precisely that kind of blanket thinking (you’re with us or you’re against us; all x are good, all y are bad etc etc) that I have often explored in my writing.

As you note, however, what I’m concerned with is the way all of this operates on the personal, experiential and psychological level, which is why I’m so concerned to portray the sensual aspects of experience (including a concrete sense of place etc). This is the real politics for me: the way those social and economic circumstances affect us on the deep emotional level and consequently affect our sense of ourselves in the world. For this reason – as you also indicate – I’m deeply concerned in my writing with the question of reality, and the contingency of reality, and the psychological matter of viewpoint: What constitutes reality? How does our sense of reality differ according to our circumstances, our place in the balance of power?

As for the question of whether a story has ever led me to a place with which I’m at ideological odds… Well, I think it must be clear now that if by ideology we mean a pre-packaged system of thought then I’d prefer to be free of authorial ideology, although I know I have slipped up once or twice: nowadays I’d be far less hard on the men in my first novel The Birth Machine than I was. I’d say that writing well is a process of looking for the truth, rather than imposing a set of preconceived notions. It’s true that as I’ve indicated there are certain overriding and indeed passionately-held attitudes I always bring to my writing, chiefly my concern with all forms of unfairness, cruelty or domination – social and personal, intended or unintended. But what I want to do above all in my writing, nowadays at any rate, is understand the psychological basis of these and other human impulses, and so for this reason nothing is out of bounds in terms of subject matter, nor the viewpoint of any protagonist – I’d get inside the mind of Hitler were I capable of it. In ‘The Way to Behave’, for instance, the behaviour of the wife is pretty underhand and, according to my own personal principles, inexcusable on moral terms, but entirely understandable. By getting inside her head and her pain and at the same time showing the devastation for the woman on whom she takes revenge, I hope I’ve come to some kind of deeper understanding of the tragedy of the whole situation. It’s in the treatment rather than the subject matter, I think, where the politics of a piece of writing lie, and I never write without a strong political consciousness (in the widest sense!), so no, I have to say I haven’t ever found a story leading me away from my politics at the time of writing. (Needless to say, as I’ve also indicated, my politics/insights have changed and developed as I’ve gone on living and writing.)

You also write for radio. I don’t know if you’d agree with this but, for me, writing short stories is a solitary business but also one that gives the writer enormous freedom, given that the activity, for most of us, has practically no economic return (alas!) and doesn’t require– or even presuppose – a particular reader or group of readers. I imagine that writing radio drama is a much more collegial affair, both explicitly – working with producers, actors, etc. – but also implicitly, in terms of internalizing the needs of the medium. How far are you aware of writing for a specific audience when you write for the radio and do you see this as a hampering constriction or a challenge?

Well, there’s an obvious difference in the sense of audience for the two forms, but I have to say that my sense of an audience has changed for both short stories and radio. I wouldn’t say that I felt exactly as if I was writing for myself or in isolation when I first started writing short stories, since I was writing into a literary magazine culture which inevitably influenced me, and which gave me a sense of a literary community and constituency – but yes, that also gave me great freedom because of course literary magazines are the places for innovation and individuality. Funnily enough, when I wrote my first radio play, Rhyme or Reason, I did so with even greater freedom, and with even less sense of having to please an audience, as, frankly, I simply wrote what I wanted to hear and didn’t do what you’re always advised to do (nowadays at any rate) and listen to lots of radio plays to see how it’s done and what’s wanted. And that’s how it was for my first few radio plays. Indeed, I was told by one producer that anything I wanted to write she would produce, and although I had an exhilarating sense of the huge audience out there for radio (compared with that for short stories, at any rate!) I had no sense of needing to please it beyond doing what came naturally to me. But as everyone knows, in the end BBC Radio finally caught up with the other media and became market-conscious, and the sense of audience became everything – and pleasing it the holy grail. And the audience that the commissioning editors had in mind was not the one I had previously envisaged: above all, it wanted ‘heart-warming’ stuff, apparently, and the last thing it wanted was irony or satire – my main stock in trade, especially when it comes to drama. As I mentioned on Scott Pack’s blog, I took this as a challenge (well, there wasn’t much else I could do other than give up!) and it was an interesting battle, with losses and gains. I don’t think I ever internalized the strictures (personally, I didn’t agree with the BBC assessment of their radio audience!), but consciously looked for ways of pushing at the boundaries, and I slipped in a few satirical plays that way. But of course, as you say, a great deal depends on others in drama, and one play I wrote as satire wasn’t produced as such. On the whole, therefore, I’d say I felt hampered rather than extended by the restrictions, and when my producer gave up radio I stopped doing radio too for the present. (It’s possible that things have become different again in radio since.)

However, I’d say that the whole experience of writing for a well-defined audience, and for actors and directors who challenge the lines they have to speak and the motivation of characters, affected my sense of the audience for prose: I think it sharpened my sense of the need for clarity and accessibility. This was reinforced by the fact that (as I explained on Scott’s blog) magazines prepared to publish experimental work disappeared for a time, making me feel the need to write for a more conventional short story market. But I think my experience as a dramatist has made me strive harder for accessibility even – and perhaps especially – when I’m trying to do something unusual in a story. Whether my prose has actually changed as a result is probably for others to decide.

Other interviewers have spoken about your voice, and I’d agree that there’s a strong sense that these stories are coming from the same place, a lot of which I think is to do with your language choices, which strike me as both spare and surprising, and the acuteness of your observation. But it’s also true that the stories demonstrate an enormous range of moods, and styles. I’m not talking so much about the experimental/traditional opposition, which you’ve already discussed, as I am about the nitty-gritty of tense, punctuation, viewpoint. Is this range, which I admire very much by the way, a result of letting the story dictate its form or of your desire, as a writer, to avoid the equivalent of type-casting? And do you think it strengthens or weakens the collection as a whole? (I should say here that I think the collection is greatly strengthened by it!)

Well, thank you, Charles! I shall return the compliment, as I in turn find your collection impressive and engrossing for its breadth of style and mode. For me, as I know it is for you, it most definitely is to do with the requirements of each individual story. Take the two stories I talk about above, ‘The Shooting Script’ and ‘The Way to Behave’. As stories examining overtly social issues and featuring wicked plotting on the part of their characters, they lent themselves naturally to a conventional satirical format where, along with a satirical voice, plot is uppermost. There is however a difference in the way their narrative voices operate (and thus in style), and this is a result of the different focus in each of the two stories. In ‘The Shooting Script’, the plot that the devious arts worker weaves is pretty complicated (comically complicated, I hope!), and complicated enough to be the focus of the story. The story was therefore best served by a first-person narrator with whom the reader could identify, as she tries to work out what he’s up to and forestall him. And because the story has a basically social focus (the corruption to which arts organizations are vulnerable), the appropriate voice was a detached, ironic one, and since this is best achieved via hindsight, the story is inevitably cast in the past tense. ‘The Way to Behave’ has a more complex narrative voice, which it can afford because the plot hatched by the woman in this story is simpler, and which indeed is inevitable because the subject matter is more personal, concerned with relationships and emotions, and because (following on from that) the focus is the psychology of the plotting character. Therefore the narrative voice is that of the plotter – first-person narration and present tense giving immediacy (I hope) to the portrayal of her psychology – but the irony here resides outside that voice: the reader is intended ultimately to take her in an ironic light. Right at the other end of the spectrum is a story like ‘Going Back’ which is about a new mother breaking down emotionally, and the potential consequent breakdown of the family. The only way to render this truthfully was to get right inside her psychology, and the way to do that was to make the prose follow her obsessive and broken thought patterns with repetitions and lines broken on the page, and a complete lack of speech marks, illustrating that what is being represented is not an objective ‘record’ of what other characters say, but the way the protagonist hears it, part and parcel of what’s going on in her head. However, much as this story works to replicate the mother’s psychology, it is told in the third person rather than the first, as a way of setting her psychological trauma in the unnerving, vast and impassive context of geological and biological history, and setting the seal on her alienation. Although it’s a very different kind of story, I use some similar techniques in ‘Daniel Smith Disappears off the Face of the Earth’. I don’t employ conventional speech marks here either, since as the victim of a mugging Daniel can’t experience what is said between him and his muggers in any objective way, but at the same time it is also frighteningly alien to him, so I render it in italics.

I must add, as usual, that I don’t think these things out in this intellectual way while I’m writing, but do it all more instinctually, and the format/style will come to me right at the start, integral to the story.

Like you, I think such variations strengthen a collection, and I’m not a great fan of the recent trend for publishing collections of short stories unified in style, mood and very often linked in subject-matter – basically mimicking novels in order to sell to a novel-reading public which has got out of the habit of short stories. I think I’ll be talking about this in more detail on Tania Hershman’s blog, so I won’t say too much here, apart from this: anyone who comes to a short story collection looking for the satisfactions of a novel – the ability to be swept along from cover to cover – is bound to be disappointed. A good short story collection, as a collection of poems, is like a box of chocolates to be dipped into, each item savoured.

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9 Responses to Balancing on the Edge of the World

  1. Nik's Blog says:

    Brilliant, brilliant interview. Thanks both. Spookily (or not) both of your collections arrived today. So, which one first?All the very best to both of you.Nik

  2. Whichever you choose, you can’t go wrong!

  3. Nik, thanks for visiting – and for buying our books! I do hope you enjoy mine, and if your tastes are anything like mine you’ll love Charles’s.

  4. Nik's Blog says:

    Well I’ve only had chance to read one from each and so far it’s all square. Not that it’s a competition; I just very much enjoyed both.Nik

  5. Another wonderful interview, thank you to you both! Elizabeth, I look forward to your visit to me, and letting you put your feet up and reflect about how all this has been, as well as about how we read short stories.

  6. I look forward to it as well, Tania! I’m just going to put my feet up and enjoy the rest of the tour…Glad you like them, Nik!

  7. Thank you for dropping in, Tania. I look forward to that too.And thank you, Charles, for your astute questions (and making me think so hard!) and for having me here!

  8. john baker says:

    Great questions and equally great answers.So nice to start the weekend with an intelligent and thought out interview/blog.Keep it coming, guys. I can take a whole lot more of this kind of quality.

  9. Thank you, John. I’m glad you enjoyed the interview. You can find more interviews by Elizabeth, me, Tania and other fine writers on the Cyclone page of the Salt website. (Link in interview.)

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