The excellent Susan Tomaselli (ST), editor of Gorse, introduced the two writers as part of what she describes as TBG&S’s ‘unique and exploratory’ programme supporting different kinds of writing. TBG&S’s own blurb for the event says that their New Writing Commission aims to expand ideas around writing about art. Sara Baume (SB) was their first writer-in-residence (2015). Claire-Louise Bennett (CLB) is the second, current, writer-in-residence.
ST started proceedings by remarking on how both writers chose to convey solitude in their novels.
SB said that her entire novel (Spill Simmer Falter Wither) is written as a monologue addressed to a dog. Partly, she said, because she’s bad at dialogue; she decided to use her weakness – and, when you talk to yourself, you’re unself-conscious; when you talk to someone else, you’re self-conscious; but if you talk to an animal or a thing that can’t respond, that becomes something else again.
CLB talked about an editor’s negative response to the manuscript of her book (Pond) – he wanted a book that had more things happening in it plus characters that those events could happen to. In other words, she said, he wanted plot and characters and a story. But her book is about being alone and not knowing what to do. It might not be about very much (she said), but sometimes life is like that. It’s still lived. It’s still life. ( I can’t help wondering how that editor feels now that her book has been such a runaway success).
ST’s next question was about how both novels represent houses, what houses come to mean in each. CLB referred to Bachillard’s The Poetics of Space. She made the interesting point that if you live alone, you come to ask what all these different rooms are for, they are based on a model of domesticity. Animals build nests that are discarded when the young have moved on. She talked about rented houses and the sense of other people moving through the space.
SB also has a thing about rented rooms, that sense of other people there before you. You always worry, she says, about who has the keys. As a child, she used to worry about who might have died there. In SSFW the house is very much a character; it takes on a sinister aspect. She referred to Gregor Shcneider’s Totes Haus u r.
ST invited them to talk about objects in both novels: One of the jobs of literature being to defamiliarise the familiar and open up the possibility of new meanings. She referred to Georges Perec’s An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris (which happens to be a particular interest of mine at the minute, as contributors to the Farmleigh/Pieces of Mind project will know) and asked if that’s what the writers were trying to achieve?
CLB said, No. She likes to introduce poetic language to enhance the reading experience but her aim is not to make the world strange but to make the self strange in the world. She talked about how we vanish inside our heads and things around us recede but e.g. when we travel, nothing is automatic. When you’re on your own things acquire significance, it gives the world an opportunity to reassert itself.
SB said the dog (in SSFW) was a way to get the reader and the character in the novel to look at objects differently; while writing, she herself looked at things as if she didn’t know them. When everyone is gone, she suggested, we sometimes transfer our affections to a worthy object. The character in her novel has only objects at first but when the dog arrives, they recede; he sees them differently.
CLB said you want people to orient you and when they’re not there, things come to the fore. Moving furniture, she said – in the kind of segue you learn to adapt to when listening to her speak – is a lovely thing to do.
Both writers read. SB read from SSFW and from one of her TBG&S essays. One that freaked her out at first, she said (#4 “Stoneymollan Trail”). She worked so hard to get that one, it ended up being her favourite. She said her essays for TBG&S were stories of her experience of the exhibitions. Because they were read on Arena, she had to describe them for people who didn’t see them. CLB read from two TBG&S pieces – the second is a response to the current exhibition My Brilliant Friend (featuring work by Michelle Brown, Avril Corroon, Ella de Búrca, Lisamarie Johnson, Laugh a Defiance. (CLB’s essay is entitled “How We Spend Our Days”). Tantalisingly, she read on – past the end of the printed version, which refers sagely to Annie Dillard’s maxim: ‘How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.’
ST asked if the commissions had changed their writing or their approach to writing.
SB said that she started as a visual artist. She did a very influential internship at the Douglas Hyde Gallery and started to write reviews for Circa magazine and elsewhere but the art world is small and it became problematic to try to make and show art and write about it at the same time so she began to write fiction.
CLB spoke about being at a disadvantage because visual art is not her area of expertise – but writing is her way of coping with not knowing what’s going on (I think this is what she said – it made absolute sense to me, at any rate, so I’ll leave this stand – I’m open to correction by anyone else who was there.) Her essays/stories as current TBG&S writer-in-residence work with her experience of having neither the language, the skills or a background in visual art. She’s sure she’s representative of many people who come into a gallery, wondering What’s this? What’s happening here? She pays attention, and attempts to abolish her state of ignorance without knowing what’s going on around her – like life, she supposes.
CLB’s Essay #2 is available to read here
Sara Baume can be heard reading her essay here