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Elizabeth Baines

Website: ElizabethBaines.com

Elizabeth Baines is a prize-winning literary author of two novels and numerous plays for stage and radio. Her reputation is consistent amongst her peers and readers alike, as an innovative and committed writer of distinctly pure talent.

Short story collections

Balancing on the Edge of the World (Salt Modern Fiction, 2007) 

Longlisted for the 2008 Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award

Reviewed by Melissa Lee-Houghton

Interview with Elizabeth Baines

The Short Review: How long did it take you to write all the stories in your collection?

Elizabeth Baines: Years, actually, since a few of these stories date way back. I've had two bouts of story writing, as at one point I more or less gave up as the lit mag outlets were disappearing. Most of the stories in the book are from the more recent time when I started again, but some are from the earlier time.

TSR: Did you have a collection in mind when you were writing them?

EB: Yes, in the sense that I hoped to have a collection one day, but no in that I wasn't consciously linking the stories. Quite the contrary: I prided myself on making each one as true to itself (rather than to any wider imperative) as it needed to be, and each story was a whole new adventure for me. You wonít even find that dialogue is punctuated consistently throughout the collection: each story required its own style.

TSR: How did you choose which stories to include and in what order?

EB: This was when I had to start viewing them differently. I had to start thinking about making a marketable book, so I looked for unifying characteristics. Fortunately, as a former editor of a short-story magazine, Metropolitan, Iíd had lots of practice at this: although Metropolitan issues were themed for marketing purposes, in fact for each issue we just chose the best stories we received, and then decided on a theme to which they all related. It wasnít so hard to do with my own stories as I had written and published so many, and most of them expressed my continuing thematic obsessions of power and viewpoint and storytelling. There was also the need, I felt, to make the book contemporary, so I concentrated on the more recent stories, but was pleasantly surprised to find how well some of the older stories stood up.

As for the order in which the stories appear, I think people rarely read collections from cover to cover like novels Ė I donít anyway Ė but I still think order is important: an overall impression is created, and the opening and closing stories, which I think people are most likely to read first, will be taken as pointers to the whole book. Since irony is on the whole my stock-in-trade, I decided to begin with two of the more comic stories, while beginning and ending with two stories which best summed up a main preoccupation of the collection: that of the unacknowledged or surprising viewpoint. It was interesting to see the different ways in which my stories "talked" to each other according to the order in which I placed the rest of them Ė creating different rhythms of mood or style or situation. In the end I found a journey through situations and subject matter Ė stories about adults to stories about childhood and back again via stories about parenting - which also to some extent followed developments of mood and style.

TSR: What does the word "story" mean to you?

EB:  I think of something jewelled, dense, which will glow in the mind long after you have finished reading it.

TSR: Do you have a "reader" in mind when you write stories?

EB: Yes and no. Thereís a part of me which is just writing for myself, out of myself, in a kind of trance Ė itís the only way to get the rhythms and capture the dream of it all. Then thereís the other, editing part, which comes hard on the tail of my dreaming part and is thinking about readers and constantly on the lookout for unreadability. I suppose I do have a concept of "the ideal reader", ie the one who gets exactly what Iím trying to do, but I also have a realistic consciousness as I write of the fact that people could easily read my words in very different ways from the way Iím intending.

TSR: Is there anything you'd like to ask someone who has read your
collection, anything at all?

EB: I am always so scared to ask people what they think! What if they hated it? Wouldnít that be so embarrassing for them, in which case theyíd only be likely to lie!? But of course I would like to know what they think: which stories they liked and didnít, and why.

TSR: How does it feel knowing that people are buying your books?

EB: Iím kind of used to it by now as Iíve published two novels, one of those has been discussed a fair amount in literary theory books (which is a great lesson in how your work can become a part of a different agenda altogether from the one in which it was conceived!). So I donít think about it much except to hope they are buying them, and enjoying them if they are! I do remember though how strange it felt the first time a book of mine went on sale: the way that something so very personal had become not even just public property but also other peopleís private property, since thatís surely what the books they read become.

TSR: What are you working on now?

EB: Iím writing more stories, and gearing up to write a novel.

TSR: What are the three most recent short story collections you've read?

DH: The Loudest Sound and Nothing by Clare Wigfall, Words from a Glass Bubble by Vanessa Gebbie and The Whole Story and Other Stories by Ali Smith.