WEST Cork-based writer Sara Baume has indulged herself and her interests in her latest book, Handiwork.
It’s the acclaimed writer’s third book and her first non-fiction work. Sara is also a visual artist and when asked which of the two art forms she would choose if she had to, she says: “Handiwork is, in fact, a convoluted explanation of the reasons why I cannot choose.”
The book is “a love-child of my art and writing practices, or a by-product of novels past and coming”. It charts her daily routine of making objects and writing, exploring what it is to create and live as an artist. It has observations “on the nature of art, grief and a life lived well”.
It’s about the connection between handicraft and bird migration “as well as simply the account of a year spent making hundreds of small, painted objects in an isolated house.”
Sara, who grew up in East Cork, lives with her partner in the countryside just outside Skibbereen.
“While I love the countryside, being close to the sea is the most important thing for us both. All year round, my partner does a lot of fishing and I sea-swim. We walk the same strip of cliff every day and keep an imperfect log of birds and marine mammals. We feel incredibly lucky, at the moment, to be based here.”
Consistently dividing her time between art projects and writing, Handiwork, which includes images, was written quickly over six months in 2018. It came about during a period in which Sara was spending more time working with her hands than writing.
“I felt strangely guilty about all of the hours and effort I was putting into the development of these small sculptural projects and I felt compelled to justify it to myself in writing.
“During the same period, I became very interested in birds and their migration. At a certain point, the two subjects came to seem connected and I started reading around the subjects and accumulating notes in response to their connections. I thought I was writing an essay, but at a certain stage, I realised it was too long and started to wonder whether it might be a little book.”
Sara’s supportive publishers, Sarah Davis-Goff and Lisa Coen at Tramp Press, agreed it would do perfectly well as a little book.
“The photographs came about because Lisa requested some kind of a visual of the book’s most significant bird, the northern wheatear. I can’t draw terribly well, nor would I be capable of taking a well-focused photograph of a living bird, and so I decided I would make models out of plaster, carved and painted.”
Sara’s partner is a visual artist.
“He is very committed to drawing; everything he makes is an extension of that form, and I habitually make sculpture, so our materials differ most of the time and then occasionally overlap in interesting and unexpected ways. In Handiwork, I describe how my interest in birds is complemented by his interest in fish.”
Asked if she is competitive and ambitious, Sara says she is “still ambitious but not terribly competitive”.
“I certainly used to be, but it wanes the older I get. I spent at least a decade trying to be the kind of artist/writer who would succeed in a conventional sense, and repeatedly falling short. The older I get, the more I am inclined to indulge my eccentricity.
“Nowadays, I write and make the things I feel weirdly compelled to write and make, devotedly, unapologetically. They find their own relevance in the wider world. It’s taken me decades to realise that’s how art should work.”
In a Guardian interview a couple of years ago, Sara said that “two books isn’t a career”. Is three books a career or does she feel insecure about the whole business, even now?
“I still feel insecure. But doubt is very important; it’s what keeps you trying. As soon as you think you’ve succeeded, then a light goes out, I believe.”
While Sara is rooted in the home and her daily routine, some of which she documents, she isn’t big on domestic chores.
“I’m rotten at nearly all of the domestic tasks. I can cook just fine but I make the same meals over and over. I have very little interest in experimenting when it comes to food.
“When it comes to cleaning, I just barely keep my head above water. I think of the spiders and moths as pets. A typical day is divided between writing, making, sewing, walking and then a certain portion always gets lost to general administration.”
Handiwork includes some writing about Sara’s late father (of English descent) who died in 2016 from cancer. She “knew I would write about him at some point, thought it took years to manifest and the book is, by no stretch of the imagination, a grief memoir, or any kind of memoir.
“While making notes for the book, I suddenly realised what a quiet, yet forceful influence my father had been on my character and my occupations — in my early life in particular. He was a man who could make anything; who could build gigantic, complicated machines with basic tools and was completely devoted to the work of the hands.”
Sara considers herself to be “thoroughly Irish”.
“I’ve never lived in England nor had any attachment to it,” she say. “My dad was from north Yorkshire, and very proud of his roots, but he made Cork his home for the last 32 years of his life.
“In my author’s bio, I always put: Sara Baume grew up in East Cork and now lives in West Cork. It’s probably the line I’m most proud of!”
There are so many Irish writers that Sara admires that she just names some forthcoming publications. She is looking forward to the publication of Massacre of the Birds, a collection of poetry by Mary O’Donnell. Also, she is excited at the prospect of Doireann Ní Ghriofa’s prose debut, A Ghost in the Throat.
“And I find myself returning, during this period, to the recent collections of essays by Ian Maleney (Minor Monuments) and Sinead Gleeson (Constellations.)
Life in the time of coronavirus means that Sara is doing a lot of virtual promotion of her new book.
“I’m always content to work quietly from home,” she says.
And what an imaginatively fertile place it seems to be for this creative young woman.
Sara Baume is the award-winning author of two novels, Spill, Simmer, Falter, Wither, and A Line Made by Walking.
Her non-fiction debut, Handiwork, is published by Tramp Press.