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Interview: Jo Baker, novelist

14 February 2020

‘My first experience of God has yet to happen’

Jill Jennings

THE BODY LIES is constructed out of different stories and testimonies, written by the characters in the novel. They move in and out of the others’ accounts, and are seen in different ways. Each has an axe to grind. We know something bad has happened — and that something bad is going to happen — but we don’t yet know quite what, or who, or why. Underneath it all, it’s a novel about trying to live, and write, while occupying a female body.

As with all my books, it began as an attempt to scratch an itch. I was bothered by the number of dead naked women I kept encountering in fiction and in drama. I’m not for a moment suggesting we shouldn’t write about violence against women: it’s endemic in our culture, and we need to write about it, although, of course, you can choose not to expose yourself to it in literature.

The problem I wanted to explore was the way in which women’s dead bodies were being fetishised, and used as little more than initiating incidents rather than being considered as characters in their own right, and accorded full personhood. There was a moment in a popular TV show when you saw men standing round the body of a young, beautiful, naked girl, picking up her hands, examining her nails, when I realised that, as a woman, I identified with that body on the slab rather than any of the living characters; and that that’s an awkward place to write or to claim any kind of agency from.

After a reading I gave recently, I was approached by a retired police officer, who told me that I’d really understood that post-trauma way of being. Those of us who haven’t experienced assault live in a safe little bubble, and don’t anticipate danger; but, after an assault, the bubble’s gone, and nothing, nowhere, feels safe any more. I was pleased to hear that I’d done a good job, but it wasn’t that much of a stretch of the imagination. Like so many women, I’ve had my own aftermaths to deal with.

Longbourn was a total joy to write. I love Jane Austen — I’m sure it shows in the book — and it was an unalloyed pleasure to spend so much time in that world. I felt like a bad guest at a party who sneaks off to peek into private rooms and rummage in drawers, because I don’t belong in Austen’s world. My grandma and great-aunts were all in domestic service, and my other grandma worked barefoot in a thread mill. Longbourn was an attempt to negotiate a way to occupy this world I loved so much, knowing that I would never get to go to the ball. While I couldn’t really imagine myself in Elizabeth Bennet’s shoes — and wouldn’t ultimately want to — I discovered I could easily imagine myself cleaning them.

The Body Lies was its own kind of fun, though: trying on all the different voices, telling all those different stories, unpicking the threads of self-interest, bias, and divided loyalties.

I’ll always enjoy writing the current novel most. Always. Until it gets tricky, and then it becomes the biggest disaster ever.

I’ve always loved reading and writing. There were always books and paper at home. Dad would bring computer printout home from work — this was when a computer filled an entire room and spewed out reams of paper, with text and green lines on one side and the other side blank. There was always paper to play with — you could do whatever you liked with it, it didn’t have to be good; so zero pressure, zero jeopardy — it was already waste paper. If the thing went wrong, you could just crumple it up and throw it away.

There does exist a kind of gendered literature for both men and women. Blokes’ books have their own set of cover clichés. It’s limiting, this binary way of gendering things. Books can be looked at like a mirror or a window, and, although there’s some very good writing in the chick-lit form, I think that we could all do with more windows than mirrors in our lives.

But the problems for women writers aren’t actually created by the marketing department putting books into pink jackets. They emerge from the wider cultural and political environment, and the value that women’s words are accorded. After all, there’s nothing inherently wrong with pink.

And it’s also about what people feel ready to buy. Publishers need to sell books, and, if they’ve found a way of doing it, they need to continue it. Our culture is very binary — very pink or blue; and, with a few notable exceptions like Hilary Mantel — without generalising too wildly — there’s a tendency to assume that serious literature is written by men.

I don’t seem to write the same kind of books. I seem to have to write a novel to answer a question that’s bothering me. Longbourn was a female-facing book, and, at readings I gave, the audience would be 80 per cent female, but my work lights in so many different places. The Samuel Beckett book seemed to grab more male readers’ attention, and I’ve had some lovely feedback from male readers. Maybe I need to pick up a different readership with every book, although there are lots of shared themes in them.

I write a lot about class, and about belonging and not belonging. I also often write against or into familiar or dominant narratives: stories that seem ubiquitous, but that don’t quite chime with me. The Picture Book starts before Gallipoli, and follows a working-class family through the 20th century: rather different from Brideshead and stories about the loss of great houses and families.

Whether I’m writing metafiction about a 19th-century servant in the Bennet household in Longbourn, or a war story about Samuel Beckett on the run from the Gestapo in A Country Road, A Tree; or, as in The Body Lies, intertwining narratives about a woman struggling to maintain control of her own story, it’s all a mix of lived experience, reading, thinking, imagining.

At the Bloxham Festival, I’ll be speaking mainly about The Body Lies, and love, obsession, and writing. That all gets tangled up for me, too.

I grew up in a small village in north Lancashire. A childhood of books and open countryside. I went to the local comp., which was wonderful, and then to Oxford, which I hated — it squeezed all the creativity out of me. Thinking I might be an academic, I did an MA and Ph.D. at Queen’s University, Belfast, in Irish writing and the Anglo-Irish writer Elizabeth Bowen.

I didn’t become an academic, but Belfast somehow gave me permission to write again. There was, and still is, an extraordinary creative community in that city. Just being around novelists and poets made it seem like something I could do. I started writing short stories, and then a novel, and I met my husband there, the playwright and screenwriter Daragh Carville.

We currently live in Lancaster, not far from where his current work is filmed (ITV’s The Bay), and we have two children. To write, I have to put blinkers on and ignore everything else. Life’s a puzzle with too many pieces in it, and the kids, family life, and writing are the hungriest birds squeaking loudest in my face; so other things just get put off.

My first experience of God has yet to happen. I can’t pray — it’s not something that is available to me, even in extremis; so I focus instead on living in a way that’s congruent with my beliefs and ethics. That’s some consolation.

Motherhood has been the most demanding experience of my life. It’s terrifying.

I’d still like to do useful things. I’m not yet sure what I can do that’s actually useful. I’m still thinking about it.

Waste makes me angry.

Friends are what makes me happiest.

I really love the snooffly sounds the dog makes when he’s sleeping.

If I could choose anyone to be locked in a church with me for a few hours, I’d choose my mum. She has an extraordinary ability to enjoy stillness, small things, quiet. I can imagine sitting peacefully with her there for a few hours, and, when we were let out, she’d smile and say, “I’ve had a lovely time.”

Jo Baker was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

The Body Lies is published by Doubleday at £12.99 (Church Times Bookshop £11.70).

The Church Times Festival of Faith and Literature takes place on 21 and 22 February at Bloxham School, Oxfordshire. For more information and to buy tickets, visit bloxhamfaithandliterature.hymnsam.co.uk.

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