Also today I’m chatting with author Elizabeth Baines on Meet the Author. We’re discussing learning the power of words at age 4, achieving childhood dreams, lies, her most recent book, Astral Travel, and more……
Tell us a bit about yourself:
I was born in the countryside in south Wales but now live in a busy suburb of Manchester, where I brought up my two now grown sons. I’m now a full-time writer, as is my husband John, and we spend every day at our desks in separate parts of our terraced house, meeting up in the kitchen for lunch and in the late afternoons. I write novels and short stories, and I’ve written many plays for radio and fringe theatre.
What inspired you to start writing and where do you get your ideas?
I was only four years old when I first realised the power of writing. My father had been away for the day, and he wasn’t going to be home before my bedtime so I wasn’t going to be able to tell him about my day. So I wrote him a letter about it that he could read when he got home (my own versions of spelling: ‘Dyu Dady’; and with illustrations of course!). In fact, although I was in bed I was still awake when he got home, and I remember vividly to this day the sun slanting in through my bedroom window and falling on my father with the letter in his hand, and his expression of amazement and pride. So right at that early age I understood how you can move and delight people with the power of the written word. I fell in love with books at an early age too, so for the whole of my growing up, being a writer seemed the best thing in the world to do. Sometimes my writing, as in that early incident, is prompted by my own experience, but it can be a situation I’ve observed or that I’ve been told about. It has to be something that moves me and stays with me, like an itch on my brain that just has to be scratched. After that, of course, my imagination takes over and elaborates or changes the story entirely. Now and then an idea can be triggered by something I’ve read, some piece of new science research, for instance, but I always need to link it in with some human situation that’s already preoccupying me.
How many books have you written and published?
I’ve published six books. Five are still in print and available from Salt Publishing https://www.saltpublishing.com/collections/author-elizabeth-baines , including my first novel The Birth Machine about a woman whose past, in which a childhood friend was murdered, is resurrected when she’s undergoing artificially induced labour. Too Many Magpies is about a woman torn between her scientist husband and his comfortingly rationalist mindset on the one hand, and on the other a mysterious and charismatic stranger who seems to offer the escape of miracles and magic. My latest novel, Astral Travel, is a kind of family saga cum mystery, in which a daughter tries to uncover the truth about her dead father, a complicated man, charming but also secretive and broody and sometimes violent.
There are also two collections of short stories, Balancing on the Edge of the World and Used to Be. I have two more books in progress – a novella and a new collection of stories.
How long does it take you to write a book?
It very much varies, depending to some extent, I think, on how well I’ve already digested the material beforehand. I wrote Too Many Magpies in six weeks from start to finish – handwritten draft, typewritten draft and edit. The Birth Machine took longer, about nine months, partly because I needed to do medical research, and partly I think because I needed to think harder about the issues involved, I hadn’t resolved them so well in my head beforehand. Astral Travel, my latest novel, took much longer than either, several years in fact. It’s a much longer book, and the story is much more complex and many-layered, and I tried two or three different ways of arranging the material before I found the one that I felt worked. Each draft didn’t take me very long, just a couple of months, as I tend to write quickly once I get going, but then other things would intervene and I would have to put the novel aside for a while, sometimes up to a year, before I could tackle it again. The short story collections come together over a few years – I tend to publish stories individually in magazines and anthologies and then collect them together for a book.
Which book, out of all the books you have written, is your favourite and why?
My latest is always my favourite (so of course recently it’s been Astral Travel, which was only published in November). This is partly, I suppose, because I hope I’m going on improving as a writer, and I guess Astral Travel is also my most ambitious book to date – dealing as it does with a complicated mystery and with two generations of a family, and moving back in history even as far as the nineteenth century.
As a child, what did you want to do when you grew up?
I did actually always want to be a writer. When I was eight my class had to write that perennial essay, ‘A Day in the Life of a Penny’, and after she read mine the teacher stood me up in front of the class and told them to take note of me because one day I would be a great writer. Looking back, this was dreadful favouritism, and really unfair on the other children. But it did give me a core of confidence that I really could be a writer one day. I did of course have periods of wanting to be other things – a ballet dancer, obviously! – and in my teens I contemplated the idea of nursing, and also wondered about becoming a librarian. But there was always that underlying sense of myself as potentally a writer.
What other jobs have you done other than being an author?
I’ve been a filing clerk (in the pre-digital days when such a job existed – there were walls of cabinets with long drawers filled with cards!), a waitress, a hotel chambermaid, and have worked in a print room. I trained as a schoolteacher and taught English in secondary schools, and I’ve taught part-time in universities. I have also acted in a short film and in my own plays for fringe theatre. I published a short-story magazine (with the writer Ailsa Cox), and ended up doing all the jobs involved: editing, typesetting and design, photography, sales, and marketing and publicity.
If you could give your younger writing self any advice what would it be?
I would tell myself to take no notice of some advice I did get when I was young. I was told that if I wanted to write novels I should practise by writing short stories first. It was absolute rubbish! Short stories and novels are entirely different forms that take different skills, as I found when I came to write my first novel The Birth Machine after publishing several short stories.
Do you believe in love at first sight?
I do believe that people can make intense connections just by exchanging a first look. I’m not sure I would actually call it love – sometimes it’s simply lust – and it doesn’t always turn out well, which of course is what makes for a good story! In the novella I’m working on this happens: a man and a woman exchange a first look and see something in each other that connects them deeply but binds them together in a way that will eventually be destructive.
What is something you can’t live without?
A quiet place dedicted specifically to writing, even if it’s only a corner of my bedroom, which it was for several years.
What is your favourite time to write, and why?
Definitely the morning – it’s when you’re closest to your dreams, and to that dreaming, non-rational part of your mind from which I find the best stories come.
Would you say your books have an overall theme?
I think they’re all concerned with power struggles between people. In my later work I’ve got interested in the way we can wield power through lies, and in the way we can tell stories either as lies or as a way of getting at the truth.
And finally, tell us about your most recent book and where we can find it?
Part mystery, part family saga, Astral Travel is the story of Patrick Jackson and his effect on his family. There are two versions of the now-dead Patrick, the charming talkative man he was in the outside world, and the uncommunicative and sometimes violent man he was at home. After his death, his daughter Jo tries to unravel the mystery of his contradictions, only to uncover a secret she could never have guessed. It’s available from major book stores and direct from Salt Publishing
Thanks so much to Elizabeth for coming to chat to us!
If you have any questions or comments, make sure you get in touch