Wednesday 19 May 2010


I have great pleasure today in welcoming writer Elizabeth Baines here on her virtual tour for her new novel Too Many Magpies (Salt, 2009). Elizabeth was born in South Wales and lives in Manchester. She is the prizewinning author of prose fiction and plays for radio and stage. Previously Salt published her collection of short stories, Balancing on the Edge of the World (2007) which was  pronounced ‘a stunning debut collection’ (The Short Review). In October 2010 Salt will reissue her first, acclaimed novel The Birth Machine. She is also a performer and has been a teacher.

Firstly, a big welcome to Women Rule Writer, Elizabeth, on your virtual tour 'Flying with Magpies' for your novel Too Many Magpies. I always love to host women writers here and it’s my pleasure to have a fellow Salt author over. Congratulations on writing a fine novel – I found it un-put-downable, to be a big cliché about it.

Thank you, Nuala! It's lovely to be here on your great blog.

Byron called absence the ‘common cure of love’. This is a novel of absences, not least the narrator’s absence from her home because of the affair and also from herself because of her fear, caused probably by PND.  Do you think it’s a condition that affects women’s ability to love their family ‘properly’? What was it like to explore PND in a fictional way?

Well, I wasn't actually setting out to explore PND as such. Certainly the narrator is filled with fears that surface strongly after she has her second baby. But the question the novel circles is, Are these fears real? The term Postnatal Depression, as she notes, implies that the fears are not indeed real (just the effect of hormonal surges), yet in fact she feels that she has always been on the brink of experiencing them and that her current condition and situation have merely brought them to the fore and opened her eyes. (And therefore the actual name itself is a threat, a denial of reality.)  I guess for her and for me as the author the PND was a way into confronting fully that existential dread which otherwise we can manage to suppress.
As for the effect of PND or depression generally on one's ability to love one's family 'properly': well, as I understand it, so many women suffer PND that I hope it doesn't have too much effect on that! Also, I guess it depends what you mean by properly, as I think your inverted commas imply.  I'd say that my narrator's fears for her children are in fact born of her passionate love for them, though of course the effect on her is that she fails on some of the things which are conventionally seen as signs of a mother's love: good housekeeping, for instance. And of course, one of the ironies of the novel is that her fears drive her to seek comfort in a way that is in danger of hurting her children by, as you say, taking her away from them. What was it like, exploring her feelings in fiction? Great, actually! Like most people I have had my own periods of depression or uncertainty, and there was a real cathartic satisfaction, indeed relish, for me in realizing (I hope!) its strange amorphous and generally unspoken quality in words.

You are a writer in love with language and I really relished your powerful descriptions of birds, water, as well as the lyrical way the narrator internally vocalised her feelings for her children etc. Do you enjoy the freedom that writing a novel gives to let loose with these descriptive gifts?

You know, I've never thought of it like that - ie that the novel gives you greater freedom to 'let loose'. I tend to think of it as just as much of a discipline as a short story, but of a different kind: mainly, that it's a bigger thing to scale, with more complex structure and themes, but still requiring economy of description etc. I'm not much of a one for description for description's sake: the main way I use description, I think, is to build up a picture of the characters' psychological states through their perceptions. But then I guess in a bigger piece there's just more room for that to happen more often.

Where are you happiest as a fiction writer – in the long haul of novel writing, or the short, sharp balancing act of the short story?

I really couldn't say - each has its own pleasures! It's lovely to be able to finish a piece quickly and to experience that high for the whole process. On the other hand, there's a sort of comfort-blanket thing about being semi-permanently wrapped in the world of a novel, don't you think?

Oh, I absolutely agree. Each has its joys.
You keep two active blogs and you are a productive, creative writer. (I’m not fond of the word ‘prolific’ – people tend to use it negatively, I find.). Do you write full time? Can you describe your average writing day?

I write full-time when I can, because I'm so one-track, and luckily I can at the moment because someone else is paying the household bills! I don't know about you, Nuala - and I know many writers manage it - but multi-tasking is just not something I can do when it comes to writing. I can only write well to my own satisfaction, I find, when I can become truly obsessed with what I'm working on and entirely adrift on its dream world. Once I'm like that (in the 'zone'), I find it really hard to concentrate on anything else - housework, shopping, paying bills, blogging! and especially anything that requires a different kind of thinking, such as management, organisation or intellectual analysis. If I have to break off to do something more analytically intellectual, then the spell is broken - pouf! - and I find it hard to get back into the world of whatever I'm writing - which can be lethal for something as long-term as a novel. It's as if I have to actually wrench a different head onto my shoulders - it really honestly feels like that: my brain feels kind of wrenched, and then I have to try to wrench it back again to the world of the story or novel, and I often don't succeed.
Sorry if that sounds overdramatic! Maybe it sounds self-indulgent too, and people could think that if I had to work I'd find a way to manage, but in fact I've had substantial periods when I have had to do other things, such as teaching or, at one time, editing and publishing a magazine, and have found then that I've not been able to write much successfully, although I've tried really hard - or not without a lot of stress.
So my ideal writing day, which I have at times in the past been able to put into practice, is to write from nine in the morning until about half-one, after which time I'm pretty done in and need to stretch and get some exercise and really need to GET OUT - as well as, most importantly, have some pondering time for the next day's writing bout. Well, I wish! Now I so often spend the rest of the day into the evening on the web doing all the things we writers need to do nowadays to market our books - and end up with nothing else done and the next day's writing unpondered, and feeling really frazzled! Blogging is a wonderful tool for writers, isn't it, but I don't think I'm the only writer to find that it can take up writing time and focus. My FictionBitch blog is the harder of my two blogs to maintain when I'm writing intensively, because it requires that different, analytical way of thinking. So I'm still working on finding a balance...!

Who are your favourite women writers and why?

I love Margaret Atwood for her political consciousness and her brilliance with creating vivid worlds. She's so versatile, too, and her points of view, voices and structures are nearly always flawless. And she moves me - the most important thing! Fay Weldon is a long-term influence: when I first read her I was simply blown away by her mischievous, subversive voice and her muscular can-do way of taking a story by the scruff of the neck and telling it in whole new ways. I love Anne Enright for her lyricism and irony, and Ali Smith for her rhythmic prose and her narrative innovation. Oh, I could go on...

Elizabeth, thanks so much for being here today and best of luck on the next leg of your virtual tour for Too Many Magpies which is at Tania Writes - Tania Hershman's blog. The full schedule for the tour is here.

Thanks so much for having me, Nuala. And I look forward with great pleasure to reading your own new novel, You, and hosting your visit with it to my own blog in July.

Thanks Elizabeth - I'm looking forward to stopping by.
Readers of WRW can claim a free copy of Elizabeth's novel, from me, by leaving a comment and saying they would like to be included in the draw.


Kar said...

Before reading this interview I had heard of the book but had no idea what it is about. It sounds fascinating! And I love that you found it ‘un-put-downable’, I’m salivating just thinking about reading it. Please include me in the draw, either way though I will get myself a copy.
Great interview, I love its raw honesty on writing and a writer’s life.

Insinbad said...

Hi babe,

Really interesting interview. I wish ekizabeth every success with Too Many Magpies.

Thank you.

Unknown said...

I'd like to win a copy! :)

Elisabeth said...

Thanks for the interview, Nuala. I've met Elizabeth Baines a few times now via her blog and Jim Murdoch's review of Too Many Magpies. I'd love to put my name down in the draw for a copy.

Group 8 said...

Kar, Elisabeth and Rita - thanks for commenting - you are all in the draw.

FD - thanks for the comment.

johnbakeronline said...

Thanks for the interview, both of you. Very interesting stuff, especially the influences; I could have guessed Margaret Atwood, but wouldn't have thought Fay Weldon. With hindsight, however . . .
I don't need to be in the draw because I've had two copies of Too Many Magpies; one of them was stolen, which is the ultimate compliment.

Group 8 said...

Welcome, John. A light-fingered literary type, eh? :) I'm sure s/he has enjoyed the novel, anyway!

Elizabeth Baines said...

Thanks all for dropping by, and thanks, FD, for your good wishes.

And thank you Nuala, for having me here and posing such interesting questions.


I would also appreciate being put in the draw for her book. I'm always up for an un-put-downable book! :D

Group 8 said...

Great Susan - done!

Anonymous said...

This is a fabulous insightful interview and I appreciate the topic of the book. I found the part about the exploration of existential dismay through PND, motherhood and disinclination particularly fascinating. I would love to read this and am delighted that Elizabeth mentioned some of my favourite authors too, bodes well for my enjoyment of her book. Good luck and Congrats to Elizabeth on 'Too Many Magpies'.

Totalfeckineejit said...

PUt my fat self in the hat.I'll be back later to read d'interview.I've a world to rule. Thankly.

Group 8 said...

Alison & Total - you are both in the hat!

Elizabeth Baines said...

Thanks, Alison - and good luck with the draw, and to Total and Susan, too!

Group 8 said...

And the winner is...Total!! Congrats, your highness.

Totalfeckineejit said...


Totalfeckineejit said...

Un-putdownable is good enough for me.
It's probably a book I wouldn't have come across only for this blogland tour, so they do serve a purpose.And now I've won a copy.Yipee!

Ps. I enjoyed reading Elizabeth's short story in Horizon Review about the girl in the phone box.

Group 8 said...

TFE - Elizabeht's Horizon storyis also an excellent read, yes.
Hope yuo enjoy the novel! N x