WHEN Sara Baume was in her mid-twenties, she felt that her life had become stuck.
A former art student who had shown her work in a few group shows, she didn’t seem to be making any headway.
Trying to recover from her crisis of confidence, she lived alone in her late grandmother’s cottage in rural Ireland while she tried to work out how to get her life back on track.
Torn between writing and art — on an internship with the Douglas Hyde Gallery, she had, successfully, written about and critiqued art — she decided to apply for the MPhil in creative writing at Trinity College Dublin.
And while there, she took a workshop in creative non-fiction.
“The writer Molly McCluskey took us for that, and I really loved it,” says Sara, on a visit to Dublin from her home in West Cork.
“I wrote a treatise about the time I spent in my grandmother’s house. I structured the 5,000 words round pictures of dead animals.”
She also penned short stories, which were published in various literary journals, and in 2014, won the prestigious Davy Byrne short story prize.
By that time, living in rural East Cork with her artist boyfriend, she had written her first novel and secured a two-book publishing deal with Tramp Press.
“That was a weird year. The deal and prize meant that I had a reason to go on writing, and to hope. I felt like a writer, but I didn’t have an agent.
“I wrote 30,000 words of what to me felt like a very traditional novel with a beginning, middle, and end, and a cast of characters, but I realised, one day, that I had no interest in finishing it.”
That’s when she remembered the essay. Deciding it could form the genesis of a novel, she worked on A Line Made by Walking all year, and had a draft before her debut came out.
And that’s perhaps just as well, because when Spill Simmer Falter Wither debuted in February 2015, the literary world went wild.
Having already added a Hennessey Award to the stack, she won the Rooney Prize.
Her shortlists include the Costa Award; she was longlisted for the Guardian first book award and the Dublin Literary Prize (formerly the Impac); and last September, she won the Geoffrey Faber Prize for prose.
“That was wonderful,” she says. “Particularly because it makes three Irish wins in a row. Eimear McBride won it before me, and Belinda McKeon before her.”
The money has enabled the couple to move from East Cork to West Cork, renting a four-bedroomed farmhouse near Skibbereen.
“It’s really lovely. It’s in the middle of nowhere, with bachelor farmers the only people we see. My boyfriend and I have a work room each, and we’re living the dream.
"I don’t know how long we can sustain living there, but we’re frugal, and will keep it for as long as we can.”
I often bump into Sara at Dublin book launches and other literary events, and she seems gregarious, and at ease. But she says she never feels part of the Dublin scene.
“I know Lisa McInerney, Rob Doyle, and Colin Barrett. We meet at festivals and we have a good time, but we’re not exchanging drafts or asking for advice. We just meet at things and gossip.
"When I’m in Dublin I talk like a mad thing, but for me, it’s useful to go away and have a completely separate life.”
A Line Made by Walking features Frankie, a former art student now living in a Dublin bedsit while working in a gallery. The novel’s opening finds her in a bad place.
Shutting down emotionally, she asks her mother to come and rescue her. But to recover her health, she feels it’s imperative to live alone. So like the author, it’s off to her late grandmother’s cottage.
Living in apathy, Frankie starts to find and photograph dead animals. She feels that everything is being slowly killed, as if the world is dying. Is it grief for her grandmother that prompted her mood, or is it depression?
“She’s more depressed than bereaved, although she is, perhaps, bereaved by her own failure. It’s the loss of the life that she always expected for herself, and didn’t quite get.
“I think in the book she is in medium grief,” she says.
“As a grandchild you don’t own grief; it’s not your grief. Parents co-own grief, and only as a spouse do you own it.
"Little did I know that by the time this book was published I would have experienced that fuller forced grief of the death of a parent. But my dad died last year. He was diagnosed with cancer in January and died in June. I felt that acutely.”
Less plotted than its predecessor, this novel is nevertheless utterly engrossing. Frankie’s character unfolds as the novel progresses, and we see some of her former thoughts and actions in a new light.
Frankie’s mood can make her obdurate, rude, and often self-indulgent, but I loved living inside her head — and there were many moments that brought back flashes of my own early life, thoughts, and obsessions.
“It’s like dealing with your own average sense in a way,” says Sara.
“I found that very difficult. I am of that generation that grew up being told, ‘Follow your dreams and you can achieve anything.’
“I graduated from art school wanting to be what Jenny Offill, in the Dept. Of Speculation calls an Art Monster. Then you realise there are hundreds of art graduates and next year there will be hundreds more.
"I struggled to cope in my mid-twenties and that was my state when I first drafted the book. It was another five years before anything happened and I had to deal with that. I grew up a lot in those years.
“It seemed funny doing the final draft. There was a lot of cutting to do and it got to the stage that I didn’t know what to cut. I kept thinking, ‘I wouldn’t say that, it’s so immature’, and then I’d think, ‘Well I wouldn’t say it now, but I would have at 25’.”
We’re talking in a Dublin bar before publication, and although there’s some excitement in the book industry, Sara is nervous of how the novel will be received.
“My first book could have been ignored, but with this there’s a much greater weight of expectation. Tying it together was more difficult because I was so busy promoting the first one.”
In the text Frankie lists art works that describe her various thoughts, and this is because Sara is still conflicted between the writing and the art world.
“I know more about art than about books, and my next project is sculpture,” she says, explaining that she’s had a project under way for the past two years.
“It’s a response to how my life has changed. I want to see that through to the end. But if I was in the art world full-time, I feel I would not be pushing myself hard enough, so I think I will always write.
"At the moment I’m writing a short story here, an essay there, and I’m under pressure.”
What about that third novel?
“I’m not going to write a book because it’s a career path, and I’m not going to write one because it might make money.
"I have an idea but it’s not manifest yet. And I don’t want to trot it out until I see how this one does.
“The third would be in a similar vein, so if nobody likes A Line Made by Walking, there would be no point in writing it.”