Stephen Baker

06/06/2011

James Walker spoke to Stephen Baker about his EMBA nominated novel Hemispheres.


"When I started I had a vague
idea of the Odyssey parallel
– the projectionof those mythic
ideals into a modern context"


Stephen Baker’s debut novel Hemispheres has been nominated for the East Midlands Book Award. It is essentially the retelling of the Odyssey, with Stockton replacing Greece. Yan is the main protagonist, a leader of men - be it in the pub or out in the Falklands, a lovable rogue who is tragically unable to fully connect with the human world and instead finds comfort in observing birds. Let’s just hope they don’t get eaten by Schrodinger's cat...    

Tell us about yourself...
I grew up in Stockton-on-Tees, and I’ve lived in Oxfordshire, Sheffield and now Derbyshire, doing a variety of different jobs to keep the wolf from the door. Hemispheres is the first thing I’ve written - written, I think, to mediate an inner voice that doesn’t get out any other way – I’m not particularly articulate or outspoken face-to-face – people tend to say ‘I didn’t know you had it in you’.

When did you get the idea for the book?
Some books are planned meticulously in advance; some books sort of assemble themselves as they go along. This is definitely one of the latter. When I started I had a vague idea of the Odyssey parallel – the projection of those mythic ideals into a modern context – and another vague idea of a sequence of short-stories loosely connected by birding - think Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table with feathers and no external penis. Somehow the two got fused along the way. Much of the plot emerged in the process of writing – the character of Paul, the fact that he was Danny’s half-brother – these were light-bulb moments during the writing process.

How long did it take to write and how was the editorial process?
In terms of the initial writing process I’m a loner, sitting in front of the laptop - what Richard Mabey  calls ‘the doggedness to be alone in a room .. climbing without a rope’. I’m still learning my trade as a writer. I have the doggedness, at least.

Hemispheres took about six months to finish in first draft form. What I didn’t appreciate as a first-time writer is the amount of hard work that stands between a first draft and publication – the book went through two major redrafts, one before submission to publishers and one after it had finally been signed up, and was finally published more than three years after I’d finished that first draft. In this process I was lucky enough to have a fantastic agent (Sue Armstrong at Conville and Walsh), who has an uncanny nose for what works and doesn’t work, and isn’t afraid to call a turd a turd.

The Britain in the North East you describe is brutal, a real hard drinking culture of failed marriages, violence and abuse. How do the characters/people survive it?
To make a massive generalisation, Teesside is half Viking and half Irish – harsh, masculine and violent, but undercut with massive doses of warmth and humour. This is one of the oppositions I wanted to set up in the book (the many sets of hemispheres, if you like) – that these characters, living on the margins of a post-industrial world, are full-on scary and thoroughly reprehensible, but also undeniably attractive. I wanted you to cringe, and then laugh, and then feel guilty about laughing.

Having written the book I wondered whether I’d over-played this world in terms of violence and harshness – there is a sense in which the violence has to be both ritualistic and shocking, coming from the mythic and alien world of the Odyssey, where it forms part of the social contract. These misgivings were allayed by a real life Danny – the son of a former landlord at the Queen’s Head in Haverton Hill (the model for the Cape of Good Hope) – who read the book and said it was ‘spot on’.

 "I grew up birdwatching with my dad – the Tees estuary locations in the book are the birding hotspots of my childhood, and many of Danny and Yan’s bird encounters are real ones dredged up from the late 70s and early 80s. I should say here that my dad is a lovely man and bears no resemblance to Yan."

Yan is a tough man who brings a lot of trouble on both himself and his family. Yet he has an integrity about him that is quite admirable. How did you think about constructing his personality, what qualities do you think he has?
Yan is Odysseus  – it’s just that in the transition from Bronze Age Greece to late 20th century Stockton he’s lost some of his shine. He is a man of the present, purely and simply alive, endlessly receptive to the world and its beauty and its possibilities. He’s also an arch-bullshitter with the gift of the blarney, and a relentless self-dramatist. His tragic flaw, if you like, is the utterly uncompromising nature of his individualism, which doesn’t allow him to fully connect with the human world.

Yan suffers from PTSD. What are your feelings about this condition, particularly in relation to masculinity?
It’s a well known statistic that more Falklands veterans have committed suicide since the end of the conflict than were killed during it. Modern industrialised warfare has a mental health casualty rate that persists long after a conflict has faded from the media and the national consciousness. Rather than preaching or making generalisations in the book I wanted to explore the mental consequences of this kind of extremity on one individual, Yan, who finds his innate individualism walled in by his experiences at Mount Longdon, his capacity for human empathy cut off. In addition, I wanted to explore some deeper questions about males and masculine behaviour – is violence ‘wired in’ to the male brain, or is it acquired through societal patterning, through childhood and adult experiences in the family and beyond? Is PTSD just something acquired ‘out there’, or is it a more insidious consequence of a dislocated and disenfranchised society? Does violence cause PTSD or does PTSD cause violence? (Ed: If you want to read more about PTSD, please see our interview with Villayat 'Wolf' Sunkmanitu)

You’ve mentioned the Odyssey was an influence on the book but the bleak descriptions of landscape also reminded me a little of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road... 
I love Cormac McCarthy – for my money the best writer working in English today, by a country mile, in terms of his effortless marrying of form and purpose, and the mythic, biblical power of his prose. Tim Winton, too, deserves a mention as an incandescent writer about damaged people, damaged landscapes.  Both of these guys directly influence the way I write.
 

The episodic structure of the book is influenced by the likes of The Periodic Table and Gould’s Book of Fish (Richard Flanagan) – where encounters with the external world mirror the internal, emotional world of the characters. The most direct influence on Hemispheres is of course Homer’s Odyssey – which guided the structure and language of the book as I tried to recast that mythic force into a modern setting. The Odyssey is well worth a read in its entirety – a  violent,  visceral and starkly powerful book from a distant and alien past, with a real sense of the power of story-telling for its own sake.

The on/off metaphor of Schrodinger's Cat appears throughout the novel. 

The Schrodinger's Cat metaphor is essential to the book, be it in Danny’s attempts at parenthood (pregnant/not) or his relationship with his father Yan (on/off). At what stage in writing the book did this idea come to you?
The idea of using Schrödinger’s cat to animate the central existential puzzle of the book came pretty early – probably during the course of drafting out chapter 2, where it first appears. I grew up on Pynchon, Eco, Kundera, all of them writers unafraid of infusing their novels with metaphysics. The hardest thing to do, perhaps, is to make the metaphysics work as a lymph system for character and plot, linking, animating, quenching without becoming unwieldy.

I take it you love birds?
Yup, as unassuming representatives of the wild, and wildness, and, as small feathered dinosaurs, of deep time. I grew up birdwatching with my dad – the Tees estuary locations in the book are the birding hotspots of my childhood, and many of Danny and Yan’s bird encounters are real ones dredged up from the late 70s and early 80s. I should say here that my dad is a lovely man and bears no resemblance to Yan.

You use a different species of bird to introduce each chapter. Could you tell us why?
I just like the idea that the internal and external are linked – we exist both inside our own heads and out there in the world, in an ecosystem. In each chapter the external encounter with a bird chimes with the internal emotional landscapes of the characters. Sometimes this is obvious and sometimes a little more occluded. When Yan watches jackdaws from the top of Cologne cathedral and gets absorbed for a moment, into their collective consciousness, we sense his own disconnectedness, his unfulfilled yearning for connection. In one sense this way of structuring the book is just a metaphysical conceit, but in a deeper way I think it advances the purpose of the book – the ‘hemispheres’ of inside and outside, wild and tame.

How does it feel to be nominated for the EMBA? Any books that stand out?
It’s great to be nominated for anything. The British literary scene is more than ever dominated by London – and it’s good to see awards like this working against that gravitational pull and mining the interesting literary tradition of this area, a tradition which seems to me to be peopled by mavericks and outsiders – from Byron through Lawrence and Sillitoe right up to Hilary Mantel. The shortlist is incredibly diverse with a real spread of genre and form - Mark Goodwin’s poetry is right up my street so if the award was in my gift I’d drop it on him.

How important are awards to writers?
As a new writer these days it’s nearly impossible to get published and even harder to actually get read. Awards and shortlistings certainly help – by getting your work in the public gaze, by encouraging readers to give it a go who might not otherwise have picked it up.

What do you hope to have achieved by Hemispheres?      
As a species we’ve become incredibly insulated and inward-looking and navel-gazing – but the world out there still has the power to slice through the cotton wool and the calluses – the jaggedness of it, its rawness and sharpness, the way it is luminous, the way it cuts you and hurts. If anybody reads Hemispheres and feels a bit of this, or just enjoys the story, then it’s served its purpose.

The winner of the East Midlands Book Award will be announced at the Lowdham Book Festival on 20 June. For more information on other events, please see the Lowdham website. 

Stephen Baker's website

James Walker's website

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