Interview with Sybil Baker

Interview by Ketaki Datta

Sybil Baker’s latest novel is While You Were Gone (IPPY Silver Medal). She is also the author of The Life Plan; Talismans; and Into This World (Eric Hoffer Award honorable mention, Foreword’s Book of the Year Awards finalist). Immigration Essays, was the 2018-2019 Read2Achieve book at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. A UC Foundation Professor at the UTC, Sybil is also a faculty member for VCFA’s international low-residency MFA program and teaches at the Yale Writer’s Workshop.

You are a busy academic as well as a creative writer. How do you balance the demands of the two?

I am a Professor at UT Chattanooga, where I teach creative writing. I have previously taught other courses, such as most recently Western Humanities for the Honors Program. I have found that teaching, no matter the topic, forces me to read more widely than I usually would and in different ways. I believe this has helped my writing. I am mostly expected to publish in the creative writing field, and even my more critical essays are related to creative writing, so there is a lot of overlap. That said, it is always challenging to balance the demands of teaching and committee work with writing.

You are a resident of Chattanooga, Tennessee. How does your life at Chattanooga help you develop as a writer?

I think living abroad in South Korea for twelve years had the biggest effect on my development as a writer and human: I see the world very differently than if I’d only lived in the U.S. my whole life. Moving to Chattanooga from Seoul in 2007 allowed me to reconnect with a lot more writers and develop a stronger writing life. I didn’t write about Chattanooga in my fiction until I’d lived here for five years, as it usually takes me a while to write about a place I live in.

While You Were Gone, your latest novel, takes us on a rollercoaster ride of emotions and beckons the practicalities of the day-to-day world. The characters are mostly from Chattanooga. Do you think that your interaction with your students acted as grist to the mill while writing the novel?

My students come from a different generation than the characters in the novel, especially the three sisters. Also, many of my students are not from Chattanooga. I think my characters were more inspired by older people I know and the stories they told me about growing up in Chattanooga as well as my own experiences navigating adulthood.

I am curious about the history of the development of the plot and characters in your novel. I mean, do you keep notes before writing or do you create them as your thinking process projects them before you? How do you intertwine the plot and the characters?

I knew I wanted to write about three sisters growing up in Chattanooga, but only after reading Chekhov’s Three Sisters did I have an idea of how the plot should develop. Three Sisters is a play, and that is why the “Jeremy’s Car” scenes have more of a play-like quality to them. I decided to divide the parts of the novel in similar ways as Chekhov, as well as some of the sisters’ conflicts. In Three Sisters the sisters dream of going to Moscow, but in my novel they dream of New York. In Three Sisters a fire breaks out and I decided to use the real tornado that came through Chattanooga as a similar device in my novel. That said, I rewrote the novel many times, especially the final part, with many different endings for the characters. Originally I’d also been thinking of Jane Austen’s Persuasion—what if you turn down someone you love, only to meet them years later when they are more successful?

In Wayne C. Booth’s The Rhetoric of Fiction, there is the mention of ‘showing and telling’ a narrative. And I think, you have blended the two perfectly in your novel. Can you discuss how you integrated showing and telling?

Thank you. In this novel, I specifically wanted to try and use more telling and interiority, as I am more comfortable relying on scenes and showing. The novel also had long passages of time, which also necessitated more summarizing, so with those I had to do more telling. I also focused on places that I wanted more what writer Douglas Glover calls “novel thought” from my characters. In contrast to the “Jeremy’s Car” scenes which are almost all showing and are more cinematic, I wanted the other parts to be a bit more introspective and internal, so I consciously tried to use both as counterpoints in the novel.

All your main characters are ‘round’ [to quote E.M. Forster]: they develop, mature and leave a long-lasting impression on the readers’ mind. Did you plan beforehand the journey of each character before you got down to writing the novel?

I had some ideas of each character’s main emotional arc and outward journey, but I went in with a lot of questions. Would Shannon get what she wanted (to be a journalist and to find love) and in what way? How would Paige’s relationship with music change? Would Claire’s marriage survive? Only by writing the novel (and sometimes changing their destinies in the end) with Chekhov in mind, did I discover the ultimate destinations.

So far as the lay-out of the novel is concerned, the style reminds me of Virginia Woolf. You take a character and his/her name serves as the title of your chapter. In Woolf’s To The Lighthouse and The Waves, such style has been followed, the only difference lying in the inner thoughts of the characters being articulated aloud by the characters themselves. Here the omniscient narrator narrates the story of his/her life [except Aimee’s soliloquy at the end of the novel] Any influence of Woolf, in any case?

That is very observant of you and I’m very flattered. I’ve loved Virginia Woolf since I was in my twenties—about 25 years ago. I was stuck in a few places with novel and was teaching To the Lighthouse for the first time in Spring 2015 when I was a visiting professor in Cyprus. I was really struck by how Woolf managed time in that novel and used her “Time Passes” section as a way to move through a lot of time in Part II of the novel. I haven’t read The Waves in years, and so was not directly influenced by that novel for my own, but I love her style. I decided to use an omniscient narrator because I felt it was the only way I could manage all the different stories. I would love to write a novel with more free indirect discourse as Woolf does, but I didn’t feel confident that I had the technical ability to differentiate between the characters enough for this project.

Towards the end of the novel, Aimee’s transformation into a woman from adolescence, at the appearance of the first menstrual blood acts as a symbol of life and its continuity. Any observation on the diction, symbols and images in this novel?

I rarely read novels in which women menstruate—yet it is such a part of our lives for so long, and something that happens once a month! Shannon gets her period in this novel, and I wanted menstruation to not be invisible and a part of women’s experience. Menstruation links one generation to another, as you noted. Other repeated images/motifs are photographs, letters, Jeremy’s convertible over time (symbolizing motion), cemeteries and obituaries, and horizons.

This is a powerful novel of modern times, which puts two generations in tandem, in the matrix of the novel. Would you like to leave a message for the budding writers as well as one-or-two-book authors? And, may we expect another novel from you in the coming years?

I’ve always written about what interests me at the moment—what I’m obsessed about and want to discover. My advice to other writers is to write toward what you want to discover. Write with questions (rather than answers) and your work will have more energy. I’m currently revising a novel which I hope will be out in the next year or two. I’ll keep you posted!

Thank you, Sybil, for being kind enough to open yourself up to me and through me to the readers.

Thank you for your thoughtful questions.

About the interviewer: Dr. Ketaki Datta is an Associate Professor of English, Bidhannagar College [Govt], Kolkata. She is a novelist, short story writer, critic and a translator. Her novels A Bird Alone and One Year for Mourning were well reviewed in India and abroad.