Friday Night Drinks with… Elizabeth Baines

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Tonight I am joined for Friday Night Drinks by a very welcome guest, author… Elizabeth Baines.

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Elizabeth, thank you for joining me for drinks this evening. First things first, what are you drinking?

Thank you for inviting me, Julie! Prosecco for me, please! My favourite! But actually, drinking a fizzy wine still seems like a tremendous luxury to me. When I was a child no one drank wine in our family, and sparkling wine was unheard of – champagne, which of course we had heard of, was for the remote upper classes. When I read about wine in books – it seemed to appear a lot in books! – I used to imagine it must be like ambrosia, the food of the gods, tasting something like honey. So I was pretty shocked when I tried my first sip of wine – it seemed so bitter! Needless to say, I developed a taste for it in the end, and Prosecco now feels a bit like a fulfilment of my childhood imaginings.

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That’s a lovely attitude to have, a real ‘revelling in the moment.’ I will join you in a glass of prosecco, cheers! If we weren’t here in my virtual bar tonight, but were meeting in real life, where would you be taking me for a night out?

I’d probably take you to The Art of Tea in Didsbury where I live. It’s a café bar a bit like the brown bars in Amsterdam, all old and odd furniture, and a totally relaxed atmosphere. It’s where a lot of South Manchester writers go to sit with a coffee or a wine and read or work on their laptops. We could have some of the great home-cooked fusion food and then while away the rest of the evening there talking about our writing and the books we’ve read.

Perfect. If you could invite two famous people, one male and one female, alive or dead, along on our night out, who would we be drinking with?

That’s a difficult one. I’d like to say Emily Bronte, because I so love Wuthering Heights and it’s been such an influence on my own writing, and I’d really love to know what she was like in life, but I suspect that she’d be too introverted and it might be torture for her. Someone else who has been another influence is Kurt Vonnegut. I did once attend a talk he gave, and I’m sure he’d be a wonderful drinks companion – so wise and down-to-earth and approachable, especially about writing. (You can see in which ways these two writers have influenced me in a series of short videos I made about books with connections to my latest, Astral Travel. 

So, now we’re settled, tell me what you are up to at the moment. How and why did you start it and where do you want it to go?

Well, I’ve had a bit of breather from writing, what with lockdown, when I found I just couldn’t write at all, as I think you found to some extent? Everything seemed on hold – including the inside of my head, as well as the very real lockdown postponement of the publication of my novel Astral Travel. That novel has finally come out, though, and I’ve been preoccupied with its publication. Recently, though, I’ve written a couple of short stories, and have enough now for a new collection, so I’m thinking towards getting that together. I’ve always written short stories, but I began this latest series with a particularly urgent sense of the things around us in the world affecting our individual and private lives, so I think they will cohere around this theme.

What has been your proudest moment since you started writing and what has been your biggest challenge?

Oh, nothing can beat that very first acceptance of a short story!! I was so thrilled, I couldn’t wait to tell everyone, my friends and family! I’d wanted to be writer from a very early age. Books were my refuge as a child, and when I was eight, because of an essay I’d written, my teacher stood me up in front of the class and told everyone that I would be a writer when I grew up. Rather mean on the rest of the kids, but after that I did feel basically destined to be a writer. And when that first short story got accepted by a highly respected literary magazine, I suddenly felt that that was what I had become – I felt I’d moved from one state into another. My biggest challenge I think was when my early publisher was bought up by one of the big conglomerates who promptly remaindered the list I was on, causing my editor to leave – an experience for writers that I know has been all too common. I was suddenly out in the wilderness, and it was a long haul back to get to being published again. I began to feel as if I was no longer a writer. I plugged the gap by writing plays for radio and theatre, and ended up with a prizewinning radio career, and for a while was known chiefly as a dramatist, until the wonderful Salt began publishing my fiction again.

What is the one big thing you’d like to achieve in your chosen arena? Be as ambitious as you like, its just us talking after all!

Well, I’ve won prizes for playwriting and for short stories, but it would be nice to win a big novel prize, mainly because that brings you more readers. Lots of readers for my work, that’s what I want – that wonderful communication with others that you can get through the written page.

What are have planned that you are really excited about?

I have a new novel idea brewing, and it’s just the best thing, isn’t it, to have that secret world in your head, like another dimension or parallel world that you keep dipping excitedly back into. I won’t say what it is exactly: it’s the private, secretive daydreaming aspect of it that nurtures it, I find, keeps it simmering…

I love to travel, and I’m currently drawing up a bucket list of things I’d like to do in the future. Where is your favourite place that you’ve been and what do you have at the top of your bucket list?

I love Greece and the Greek islands. I’ll never forget the first time I saw the Mediterranean from the top of a Greek cliff. I was a student and I’d been reading Greek literature in translation and Homer’s constant references to the ‘wine-dark sea’, but I could never have been prepared for the density of blue. I thought when I saw it that I understood why Homer called it that, but I read recently that it may have been because the Ancient Greeks didn’t actually have a word for blue and possibly therefore couldn’t actually see it as such! But I’m also completely attached to Wales where I was born and where I spend some part of every year, and actually do a lot of writing, because for me it’s the best place to write. I have that hireath, the Welsh word that means not just homesickness, but a kind of deep longing for the place you have left. In recent years I’ve been visiting cities I’d read about in books but could only envisage – Berlin, Prague, Belgrade, Amsterdam and Vienna – and being surprised or moved by the differences or sameness in comparison to my previous ideas of them.  One place I haven’t been to yet but really want to go to is Budapest.

Hopefully you will get there soon. I loved it when I visited, although was many years ago when I was a student. Tell me one interesting/surprising/secret fact about yourself.

I have big feet! Every other woman in my family has the daintiest of feet, but mine are whoppers by comparison. At least they keep me standing steady on the ground!

Books are my big passion and central to my blog and I’m always looking for recommendations. What one book would you give me and recommend as a ‘must-read’?

It’s hard to pick one out, but one of my favourites is Austerlitz by W G Sebald which deals with the emotional effect on protagonist Austerlitz of the terrible upheavals in Europe in the early-mid twentieth century. It’s particularly important to me because my own latest, Astral Travel, shares its preoccupation with what happens when you try to wipe the past, but because of its wide historical reach I think Austerlitz would be significant for everyone. 

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In 1939, five-year-old Jacques Austerlitz is sent to England on a Kindertransport and placed with foster parents. This childless couple promptly erase from the boy all knowledge of his identity and he grows up ignorant of his past.

Later in life, after a career as an architectural historian, Austerlitz – having avoided all clues that might point to his origin – finds the past returning to haunt him and he is forced to explore what happened fifty years before. 

So, we’ve been drinking all evening. What is your failsafe plan to avoid a hangover and your go-to cure if you do end up with one?

The best way to make sure I pace myself is to keep remembering that a hangover means losing a day’s writing. Wish I knew a cure, but I don’t, so I try to avoid it!

After our fabulous night out, what would be your ideal way to spend the rest of a perfect weekend?

Writing, reading, and a walk in the country or travelling to visit my relatives for a day – the most wonderful thing after lockdown and a whole eighteen months or so of not being able to see them.

Elizabeth, thank you so much for chatting with me this evening, I have enjoyed myself very much.

Astral Travel, Elizabeth’s latest novel, is the story of Jo Jackson’s search to uncover the truth about her late father, a complicated man, broody and sometimes violent but also capable of great charm. He is surrounded by mystery: he doesn’t talk about his Irish past, and Jo’s mother’s romantic stories about her early life with him contrast strongly with Jo’s difficult experience of him. It is when Jo finally uncovers a huge buried secret that she can begin piecing it all together and understand her father and why he treated her so harshly. Astral Travel is a novel about the way that the sexual, cultural and religious prejudices of the past can seep to affect lives in the present. It is also about the slippery nature of storytelling, but also its redemptive power. Amy Ridell, writing for Bookmunch called it ‘one of the most memorable and brilliant books I’ve read this year’, and Ailsa Cox said in Litro, ‘By the time I’d finished this wonderful novel I was hoping for a sequel, or even a series.’ You can buy a copy here.

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Astral Travel, about a charismatic but troubled Irishman and his effect on his family, explores the way that the secrets forged by cultural, religious and sexual prejudice can reverberate down the generations. It’s also about telling stories, and the fact that the tales we tell about ourselves can profoundly affect the lives of others.

In a framing narration that exposes the slippery and contingent nature of story, an adult daughter, brought up on romantic lore about her now dead father but having experienced him very differently, tells how she tried to write about him, only to come up against too many mysteries and clashing versions of the family’s past. Yet when a buried truth emerges, the mysteries can be solved, and, via storytelling’s power of empathy, she finally makes sense of it all.

Elizabeth discusses its influences on her YouTube channel here. 

Elizabeth Baines is the author of two previous novels, The Birth Machine and Too Many Magpies, and two collections of short stories, Balancing on the Edge of the World and Used to Be, all available from Salt. She has written prizewinning drama for radio and has written, produced and acted in her own plays for fringe theatre. She has also been a secondary school teacher. She lives with her husband in Manchester where she brought up her two now grown sons.

You can connect with Elizabeth further on her website, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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