Author Spotlight: Jo Baker

8th May, 2017

We asked Jo Baker, author of 2017 Walter Scott Prize shortlisted  A Country Road, A Tree, some questions.  Here is her fascinating insight into the writer’s craft and the role of research.

Q: What do you think about being shortlisted for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction?  Do you see yourself as a historical novelist?

A:  I’m utterly delighted! I’m a big admirer of the other shortlisted writers, as well as those of previous years – it’s a real honour to find myself placed alongside them.

Although I’ve written historical novels, I don’t see myself as an exclusively historical novelist. I just wouldn’t want to rule anything out. I tend to follow a story, whatever the story happens to be, wherever it takes me. I don’t mind if it takes me somewhere I have never been before. In fact, I rather like that.

Q:    How did the people and times you write about in this novel first lodge in your imagination?

A:  I’d been fascinated by Beckett ever since I first encountered his work during my MA in Irish Writing at Queen’s University, Belfast, in the mid-90s. I found the late work compelling – those strange battered landscapes, those transient, marginal figures, the paring away of language to bare bones and to silence. By contrast, his early work was so linguistically rich and exuberant and Joycean.  I became obsessed by the gap between these two phases, and what lay in this gap. And what lay in this gap was the strange hallucinatory novel Watt, and the Second World War.

A Country Road, A Tree began to take shape in my imagination when noticed the series of extraordinary decisions Beckett made in response to the war. He chose to return to France when he could have sat the conflict out in neutral Eire; he chose to hand over his starvation-level rations to save a friend; he chose to resist; he chose, reluctantly, to take up arms; he chose to keep on living when living was a daily challenge, when prevailing influences wanted him dead. As a younger man, he had considered suicide, and so the fact that he decided to keep on living, whatever the struggle, to spite the Nazis, seems to me to be itself wonderfully cussed and principled and very moving.

He was tempered by the war, he grew as a writer and as a man, and I wanted to explore this, and to follow its traces through into his work.

As a writer, I’m drawn to untold stories – to gaps and absences. This compelling gap in Beckett’s oeuvre, for example, or, in Longbourn, the silent ghostly servant figures inhabiting Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. I’m fascinated by who gets to speak, who gets to tell their story, whose version persists.

Q: What role does research have in your writing?  When does the fiction take over from the facts?

A:  Research is a continuous process for me. I do a lot of background work before I start to write, alongside a narrower focus on the specifics of the story and characters. I’ll also do practical or field work – go to places, try things out. I’ll start to write once I feel that there’s a story taking shape, but research continues alongside the writing, and it refines itself as the writing refines itself. I might sketch out a scene and realize that I need further information in order to get it right: how to place a phone call in 1942, or what colour the bus livery was, or what style of coat a person might be wearing. So I’ll go away and find out that kind of thing as it’s required.

But for me, the fiction doesn’t take over from the facts. Fiction weaves itself through and round the facts – they’re the warp and weft, I guess, and the novel is what emerges from that process.