On the surface, Jo Baker’s Longbourn and Evie Wyld’s All the Birds, Singing appear to have little in common: one inspired by Jane Austen and delving into the lives of the household staff in an English manor, the other set in the present day, a story of an isolated young woman coming to terms with her past. The Discover Great New Writers selection committee reads for both novels were across-the-board fabulous, heaping praise on the characters and beguiling narrative voices that we could not get enough of; pages dog-eared and underlined because the writing is just that good; copies pushed into the hands of everyone we could find, with a “you’ve got to read this.”
So here are Jo Baker and Evie Wyld on what readers bring to novels, finding the narrative voice, and how time and research piece together in this wide-ranging conversation for the B&N Review. We started with a question that gets to the heart of a novelist’s method. — Miwa Messer
The Barnes & Noble Review: Which comes first, character or place?
Jo Baker: For me it’s different with different books. The Undertow began with place — Valetta, Malta, and the way in which it was haunted for me. But Longbourn began very much with character. Everything else just coalesced around that.
Well, in fact it began with a lifelong love of Austen – I’ve re-read her novels countless times, and love losing myself in that world. But I’ve also always felt that I don’t quite belong there — my family had been in service, so I always had trouble imagining myself in Austen’s heroines’ shoes. If I’d lived at the time, I wouldn’t have got to go the ball, I’d have been stuck at home with the darning.
And that’s probably as far as it would have gone — a faintly uneasy, slightly compulsive relationship with Austen — if I hadn’t got stuck on one particular line in Pride and Prejudice. I remember staring at it. I’d stepped completely out of the story, and was just looking at the inky print of individual words on the page. I couldn’t get past them. The line comes around the time of the Netherfield ball. The weather’s been awful, it’s been raining for days, the footpaths are deep in mud, there’s no way the Bennet girls are going to venture forth, and so — and this is Austen’s line — ‘the very shoe-roses for Netherfield were got by proxy.’
I thought, ‘Who’s Proxy?’ — and how does she feel (proxy was soon conflated in my imagination with Sarah, the only housemaid to be named in Pride & Prejudice) about having to go out to get decorations for other women’s dancing shoes in the pouring rain, so that they could go to a ball that she herself couldn’t possibly hope to attend? And that’s where the whole novel came from – after a good deal of daydreaming and close reading and historical research — from wondering about ‘Proxy’, and what life was like for her.
Which way did it go for you — Jake/island island/Jake – or is it not necessarily a binary thing for you?
Evie Wyld: That’s so interesting — I love how the novel had this entirely different dimension for you. I think that’s what I love about novels — that depending on your background, who your parents are, what kind of life experience you’ve had, a novel will fire off a totally different set of responses in every person who reads it.
For me character is an elusive thing — it’s everything to me really, and I fret over them quite a lot. It’s hard to tell when you’ve got a handle on them. For me, Jake took on a few different forms. In an earlier draft she was less able to function, much more hermit-like — a real wild woman of the moors. But I think that didn’t work because first person means you’re limited in what you can show the reader, and I found her a very slippery character because of that. I couldn’t grasp her voice.
All these things — place, structure, character, voice — are all the same to me. For instance if you tried to plot the structure of a book, you’d just end up telling the story, if you tried to explain the character, you’d explain her in terms of her predicament and her landscape. They are all things that seem to come together at the same time for me. I think the point at which I feel comfortable with a character is when I’ve heard them speak for the first time, and when I can start to examine what they say against what they do. All the stuff they leave out — it’s a process of asking questions of them for me.
Jo– I wondered what it was like working with such well-known characters lurking in the background? Was there an added pressure that made it tricky?
Jo Baker: I always find that the plot, setting and character are mutually dependent. They shape each other as the story shapes itself. And my first glimpse was of that girl, in that place, at that particular historical moment – all of which make her what she was, and shape what she could hope to be.
Historical moment is so important to my sense of story — which has maybe got something to do with my background and the awareness that my life — as with many people – would have been limited by circumstance, had I been born in a previous generation. For me the ‘when’ of a story (and the ‘when’ of its telling) shape it just as much as the ‘where’.
Austen’s characters were each their own challenge — channelling their voices, echoing Austen’s sense of them whilst finding a new perspective too. But the shift in point of view enables this — Darcy being a case in point.
And that gap between what a character says, and what a character actually does — seems to me that’s where they really come alive.
Evie Wyld: What you were saying about historical moments made me think about how time is so important to me in writing fiction. Giving a character the time and space to develop, and reminding myself that writing is not about completing something, or ‘getting something done, but more about the process, about meditating on one story for a prolonged period. I get nervous if my characters feel too tied to a plot. I love that feeling of potential, that anything could happen, it just hasn’t quite yet. There’s something reassuring about the idea that if you give something enough time, you’ll discover what you need to about it, that if you just sit and write for time what you’re interested in will rise to the top somehow.
I tend to try and be quite practical when I’m writing — make myself do 1000 words in the morning, even if I feel like I’ve got nothing in me — most, if not all, of those words are terrible, but I feel like they have to come out at some point. Jo — I know everyone does it differently – do you work to any kind of schedule? What’s the most comfortable way of producing work for you?
Jo Baker: That all chimes with me — though I maybe would articulate it more in terms of space than time – the sense of a character finding form, and space opening out around them, which I could then explore through their individual understanding of the world. But time’s such an issue in so many different directions — the whole management of time within a novel I think’s a real challenge — when I’m reading it’s one thing I always notice — how that particular writer is managing the passing of moments or months.
I also have so little of it. There’s always been work, and family — it makes me focused though. I never waste a drop. Though it depends on where I’m at with any particular novel, as to how much or what kind of work I make myself do in a day … a thousand words of writing, or ten pages of editing — whatever I’m up to, if I get my work done, I’m happy. If I don’t, nothing else that day will be quite right.
Evie Wyld: Ah, yes time. I feel like I have no time at all — and I don’t have a family, so I can’t imagine! At the moment I catch time whenever I can, but because I’m in the very early stages of something new, I feel like I need to go and lock myself away for a fortnight with no distractions, just to get going. That will never happen, so I’m going to have to find another solution.
I remember when I was working on my first book and a friend asked me why I was writing about 1950s Sydney when I grew up in London in 1990s. In a couple of reviews and articles, journalists have said that I grew up in Australia on a sugarcane farm — I’ve noticed that people seem to want you to have had as close to the experience of your protagonist as possible, as if truth can only exist through direct experience. The idea that you’d only write about direct experience seems very limiting, and (if you’re living my life) quite dull. I think part of a novelist’s job is to imagine stuff — and what is imagination if it’s not putting yourself into the shoes of a different person with different experiences from you? I have no desire to write a novel about a writer living in South London – that’s a life I’m already living. I’m not saying I don’t have any connection with my characters, but I think the phrase ‘write what you know’ leaves out the learning that you experience in writing a novel. Again, back to that idea of time and space, and meditating on one subject for a long time.
Jo- you mentioned your ancestors being in the service industry — did you research them in particular when you were writing the novel?
Jo Baker: ‘Write what you know’ — cripes, I completely agree. It’s so limiting if taken literally. I used to teach Creative Writing and it’s one of those old chestnuts that gets lobbed around the room from time to time. It’s stymying for young writers in particular. I’d really hope, for their own sakes, that in a seminar room full of 19 year olds there aren’t many who have that much life experience — so if they write what they know it’s all the same material — hangovers and grotty flats and heartbreak. I’m not averse to that as material, or any other material for that matter, but unless they manage to do something spectacularly transformative with it, it’s just so familiar and unchallenging.
‘Write what you know’ only works if you take it on an emotional level — you can know something by putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, putting yourself through their experiences. I’m with you on the notion that truth doesn’t come out of direct experience. It’s about empathy. I used to write in a cafe, and I’d realise sometimes as I was writing that I’d be ‘doing’ my characters – expressions, gestures, even muttering to myself. Putting myself through their experiences. And getting quite a lot of funny looks from other customers along the way. I have a study now. It’s probably for the best.
It was partly the emotional connection, through family, that gave me the impulse to write Longbourn, but the individual stories had nothing to do with my family’s own experiences. People often want them to, but it’s just not the case. I find that some little thing makes an emotional or intellectual connection, makes something meaningful for me, and it sets me thinking, but the thinking and imagining and writing takes me a long way from where I’d started.
I was at an event recently where an historical novelist and I we were both asked about our research — how we got the degree of detail as well as broad scope in our books. We came to the conclusion that we were both nerds for our subjects. Just a wee bit obsessed. Does that chime with you?
And, since we’re on ‘write what you know’, I was wondering what your thoughts were on writers as protagonists?
Evie Wyld: Ha! Yes, I’ve had a few awkward moments in cafes, speaking the odd line of dialogue too loudly.
I think I probably am obsessed with my subject, although I feel like I’m a little unclear still on what my subject is — I want it to be sharks and ghosts, but I think more likely it’s about outsiders and how the landscape interacts with them when they are alone.
It does make me feel strange the idea of writers as protagonists. In fact I think in most of what I write the idea that writers or artists exist anywhere in the world is totally ignored. I think if I were to write an author as a protagonist, it would bore me senseless. I’m interested in people who work with their hands — the intelligence that it takes to understand how to fix something or how to heal something is fascinating, and far more useful than anything I do. I make up stories for a living and that is a laughable way to live. I just don’t think I could take a writing character seriously. When other authors do it, I worry that they write this very talented, fiercely smart and under-appreciated character as a way to trumpet their own feelings about the world and life and all that. It makes my skin crawl a bit. Of course some authors will have done it exceptionally well and without writing a stinker at all, but personally I like to have distance from my character in as much as I can categorically say – that is not me – she is doing a totally different job, she lives in a totally different place. I think I know my own limitations, and in protagonists, I want to go far beyond those — I want to think about other things.
I really hope this is not the point, Jo, when you tell me your next book is about a writer! Just to iterate, I think that like everything else it can be done very well, but just that in the main I think the results are crappy.
Jo Baker: Actually it is! That made me laugh out loud — I hadn’t even realised when I asked that question, it was only when you mentioned it. Because it’s very far from a thinly veiled self-portrait. It’s a kind of imagined biography (can you tell I’m still finding my way through it!) of a writer who had some extraordinary non-writerly experiences. So it’s not about the writing – or if it is, only very peripherally, for people who already know the work and can make the connections. Myself, I’m normally cringey about writers-as-protagonists, but in this book is about moral courage, really, and the choices people make, and what that reveals about them. And again, it’s someone I’m obsessed about…
Writing about writers is fraught with risk — it’s potentially very self indulgent, and potentially very dull. Exceptions that leap to mind are where ‘what you know’ gets transformed by something entirely other…All work and no play, after all, makes Jack a dull boy…
But it’s always the ‘how’ not the ‘what’, isn’t it?
Back to my imagined biography now, smiling to myself.
Evie Wyld: Ha! Yours will be excellent and not at all self indulgent, because you’re an excellent writer, and you’re totally right — there are glaring exceptions.
I think one of the best things a creative writing tutor ever said to me was ‘ there are no hard and fast rules in fiction, other than do it well.’
Miwa Messer is the Director of the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers program, which was established in 1990 to highlight works of exceptional literary quality that might otherwise be overlooked in a crowded book marketplace. Titles chosen for the program are handpicked by a select group of our booksellers four times a year. Click here for submission guidelines.