'I thought, what do I do now? Am I just ordinary?'
Author Sara Baume tells our reporter about grappling with a strong sense of failure in her twenties and how she learned to accept being 'a nobody' and to take joy in the little things
Sara Baume is showing me photographs, passing them across the table in the Dublin hotel where we meet. Some are grisly, some beautiful. Some - the best ones, perhaps - are both. All the photos are of dead animals. Now 32, Baume took them during her twenties and has used them in her second novel, A Line Made by Walking. Each of the book's chapters is accompanied by a small black-and-white image, though the ones she shows me are bigger and in colour.
"They're not brilliant photographs," she says. "I don't really think of them as art, which is why I use them in the fiction."
They may be imperfect but the pictures embody the novel's key themes - life and death, creation and destruction - themes that also preoccupy the main character, Frankie.
A highly ambitious young artist, Frankie has a breakdown while living in Dublin. Rescued by her mother, she goes to stay in her dead grandmother's house in the countryside. As she searches for meaning, she photographs dead animals - a rat mangled by a fox, a hare eviscerated by a car. She has both an artist's and a poet's eye, depicting the natural world with stunning freshness. There are immediate and striking parallels between Frankie and Baume.
"It's very much a version of me," she says. "A version of me when I was 25... I couldn't afford rent in Dublin. I was struggling to be an artist and I moved back home."
Home is East Cork, though for the last year, Baume and her boyfriend have been living in a rented farmhouse in West Cork. Since her debut novel Spill Simmer Falter Wither was published to widespread acclaim in 2015, she has come to know success, having spent much her twenties grappling with a strong sense of failure.
"I think I just really wanted to be brilliant at something," she says.
For a long time, her focus was on art. She tried twice to get into NCAD but, when she wasn't accepted, went to IADT (the Institute of Art, Design and Technology) in Dún Laoghaire instead. In the novel, Frankie recalls pushing herself to the limit in college, spending 12 hours a day in the sculpture studio. Baume was similarly disciplined.
"I really believed that if I worked hard, I'd make it," she says. "My boyfriend and I still talk about this because he's an artist - and not a successful artist - and he was the same in college. His phrase was "hard work makes magic". And that's not true. And it took until my mid-twenties for me to realise that, and then I struggled to cope with it. I was like, 'Well what do I do now? Am I just ordinary?'"
In reality, she did what Frankie does. She spent some time in her grandmother's house, a bungalow that was on the market during the recession and wouldn't sell. For five years she was on the dole and had "a couple of crappy jobs" - waitressing, working in an off-licence and in art galleries.
She began writing and realised she was good at it. In IADT, the focus was on conceptual art. She was trained in "ideas-making", she says, so it seems obvious to her she ended up writing.
In 2011, she did an MPhil in Creative Writing in Trinity. Afterwards, living in the harbour village of Whitegate, she wrote Spill Simmer Falter Wither, a story about a man on the margins who rescues a one-eyed dog.
The novel showcases Baume's ability to elevate the insignificant, to remake the world with her prose. While writing it, she was driven by doubt but did not feel the same strangulating pressure as she did in her early 20s.
"I had come to some understanding about being a nobody and taking joy, I suppose, in the little things, in the smaller details," she says. "Because I was living by the sea and I'd always wanted to live by the sea, and I had this rescue dog that I'd rescued, and so my life was meaningful because I had rescued a completely lunatic dog and we were just going for walks and looking at the details - and I became interested in wild flowers and leaves and things that I'd known about as a child and then completely forgotten."
Like the misfit who narrates Spill Simmer Falter Wither, Frankie has an affinity with animals and rouses herself from her extreme depression to look after her sister's guinea pig.
"If I hadn't done something arty, I wanted to be a vet," Baume says. "I realised I would never get the points. But animals are my people in a way. I spend more time with animals than I do with people."
In A Line Made by Walking, Frankie's self-imposed isolation allows her to immerse herself in her despair. It's a courageous book on many levels, partly because of how it eschews conventional plotting and partly because of how willing Baume is to engage with the unpleasant sides of her protagonist.
Frankie is a complicated, contradictory character - arrogant and vulnerable, profound and immature. Obsessed with being an outsider and an artist, she thinks her time is more precious than other people's. She refuses to make small talk with a hairdresser and instead confronts the woman about the banality of her questions. Critical of herself and almost everyone else, she is in the throes of an acute existential crisis that has roots in how Baume felt after qualifying.
"I'm too old to be a millennial, I'm too young to be Generation X, so I don't really know what I am..." she says, "but I went to college in the boom. My parents didn't have loads of money but I got grants, they subsidised my living, rents weren't that bad so I had a good free education for many years and then qualified into a society which had absolutely no use for my masses of education because everyone had masses of education."
A Line Made by Walking began as an essay Baume wrote while doing her MPhil, but though it draws on an actual period in her life it is still, she says, a blend of truths and untruths, a mixture of her own experience, her friends' experiences and pure invention. She is interested in non-fictional forms and in writing that "carefully toes the line between truth and fiction".
And as she talks, laughing easily - often at herself - it's very clear that Baume is not Frankie. They share the same intense intelligence but Baume is more convivial and open than her protagonist. She uses the word "grateful" a lot.
She wrote the bulk of the book after Tramp Press - the independent publishers who have put out both her novels - had accepted Spill Simmer Falter Wither. So at the time she knew that she would be a published author - she had also won the 2014 Davy Byrnes Short Story Award - but not that her first novel would be universally praised and shortlisted for several high-profile awards.
She wasn't paralysed by her own success and, when it did arrive, was "terribly surprised". But even now, she views what's happened to her with equanimity. There have been celebrations over the past few years but more recently there has also been mourning.
She says that 2015 was almost like a dream. She'd achieved what she wanted - albeit as a writer rather than a visual artist. Then, at the beginning of 2016, her dad got ill, and in the summer he died.
"It levelled me a great deal," she says. "You can have all the money and success in the world but it will not stop people you love from dying. It will not stop you from getting ill. So that, I suppose, brought me back to the small details, the acceptance of the everyday, and appreciation of how lucky I am to be able to do this. And not taking it for granted."
In A Line Made by Walking, the character of Frankie's hard-working, reticent father is deftly and vividly drawn. Both he and Frankie's mother emerge as authentic and empathetic, each doing their best in different ways for their challenging, worrisome daughter.
On the surface, not much happens in the novel, though Baume's immersive writing compensates for any plotlessness. She structures the narrative around reflective, thematically linked paragraphs and frequently references conceptual art. Frankie constantly tests herself about the subject, and an author's note at the back urges readers to investigate the works mentioned for themselves.
Art is still a central part of Baume's life. As well as not taking her success for granted, she is determined to remain true to herself and says she will never write a "novely" novel again. She wants to write more essays but her next project will be sculptural.
"I would like to say that it will come to visible fruition but it may never."
Through the years she kept making art, she just stopped thinking of it as art, which she's found liberating.
"It's like fidgeting," she says. "Therapeutic is almost a derogatory term but it is in a way because I don't feel under pressure to succeed as an artist. I can continue to make things in a way that I did when I was a child."