Sara, You are very welcome to my WRITERS CHAT series. Congratulations on seven steeples (Tramp Press: Dublin, 2022). I loved the cumulative effect of this novel which felt – to me – like being swept away in a fugue of calm.
SG: Let’s start with the reading experience as I said above, reading seven steeples felt like being swept away into Bell and Sigh’s world and returning to my own world with new eyes, and a little less harried, even transformed. Since finishing the novel I’ve found myself paying more attention to the things that surround me, the purpose they serve, and considering how the space of our world can be as small or as broad as we need them to be. Can you talk a little about your intention with this novel – and what impact and effect you thought or hoped it might have on the reader?
SB: My intention, when I set out to write this novel, was the same as with every other book I’ve written – to catalogue a place and time and set of experiences that will not last forever. At the very beginning there was just a single road – the same one I walk every morning. Over the course of a year I took down notes every time I arrived home from my walk, little observations relating to how much – and how little – the road changed with the seasons. The novel finally grew out of those notes. I honestly didn’t think too much about what the reading experience might be. I was hoping people would find points of contact, details that struck a chord.
SG: And indeed there are many points of contacts and details that resonate. The prose – as all your writing (I really savoured handiwork ) is exquisite – I love the rhythm and pacing of seven steeples and in some way as I came to the end of the novel the symmetry of chapter lengths, the use of the number seven and the two dogs all felt soothing. It was as if you’d brought me through Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.
“September was carried out on a week of bad weather”
“October mornings peeled the night cloud back to its subcutaneous lilac tissue.”
In composing the novel – and given you’re an artist – was symmetry and balance important to you, more, let us say, than plot or characterisation might be in a more traditional novel?
SB: Yes, certainly. It is, by my definition, an allegorical novel – driven by symbols and patterns as opposed to characters or plot. It is about the ritualisation of ordinary, secular life but there is also something very ritualistic about how it was written and is structured. Having said that, I never wanted it to be obscure. I always hoped that people would find some kind of kinship with Bell and Sigh (the protagonists) and their world, and be compelled to keep reading.
SG: One of the themes that stuck with me – as I was compelled to keep reading – was that of the ritual of journey. We have the donkey, crows, cows, bullocks, seals, the journeys that Bell and Sigh make both within the house and in the surrounds; journeys that decrease in length and number with time.
“All four together…they arrived at the same places they always went.”
“They walked the way they always walked.”
Often narratives are about journey but with seven steeples you break the mould of a traditional novel that perhaps relies on a journey from one point to another and here the journey the people and animals make is for and of itself, attached to the landscape, following the seasons – and bound by time and overseen by the mountain, unclimbed.
“The years that it remained unclimbed piled up around them like their old clothes.”
Eventually, it seemed to me that their journeys contracted (“they made their long journeys on the internet”) in tandem with the growth in appreciation of the space around them. Have you any thoughts on this?
SB: That made me think again of bird migration – something I wrote about in handiwork. We all know what it means in relation to, say, swallows – who travel a long, long way from western Europe to sub-Saharan Africa and back again, but something I learned when I was researching for my last book was that some birds make very small migrations – moving just to a different part of the country – and many resident species, such as the skylark, have different spots for wintering and then for breeding. I guess what I’m saying is that we all make these tiny migrations all the time and they have always interested me infinitely more that the epic ones.
SG: The notion that we all make tiny migrations is fascinating, Sara. It seems to me that seven steeples is an exploration in mindful and harmonious living – in (literal) being – human, animal, land with the all-seeing mountain. It holds something of the pandemic entrapment but in a very positive and esoteric way. I know you’ve said in previous interviews (for example, The Irish Times) that much of your life goes into your writing. Does this reader’s experience echo your own experience of life writing the novel?
SB: It’s really interesting that you think it is so positive, and so soothing. Some people have read it as ominous and, in fact, I wanted the end to be dark, and everything else is more or less building toward the dark end. Lots of the descriptions come directly from my own life, but there’s also a lot in there that has been invented. It has been sometimes unsettling, to be honest, to hear people responding to it, though at other times enlightening. Apparently I am eccentric.
SG: Well, the different reactions maybe are about what we as readers bring to the novel, though there was an underlying darkness, I found comfort in being reminded to open my eyes! I really enjoyed the portrayal of the relationship between Bell and Sigh, their abbreviated names, for me, was the start of uncovering how they shake off the external world and begin to discover themselves, each other, what matters, what is left when the superfluous is discarded. I particularly liked your exploration of their speech – how they
“had been thoroughly infected by each others way of speaking…by their seventh year, they spoke in a dialect of their own unconscious creation. They sighed in synchronicity.”
It struck me that this a novel which explores the growth and expansion of a relationship over seven years, in a way that echoes what Marion Milner is doing in A Life of Ones Own when she explores – through introspective journaling – what happiness means to her over a period of seven years. Are you familiar with her work or do you have any thoughts on this?
SB: No! I’ll look it up. It sounds like a fascinating experiment. Though I think it would probably only drive me insane if I had to write it myself. I need the escape of fiction. The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd was on my mind while I was writing Seven Steeples, and Fair Play by Tove Jansson.
SG: I need to look up those two books now! Lastly, Sara, similarly to handiwork, seven steeples is also an examination of the artistic process of living – a living artist – growth shown through every day routines that transform into rituals. I particularly loved how Bell and Sigh decided to have ‘house time’ whereby they didn’t change the clocks – this was also echoed in their experience of time marked by religious festivals whereby when they go to the village or to towns they see markers of these festivals – e.g. palms at Easter and they are almost strangers in this world. In a way, this is what seven steeples does – makes what is familiar in the world seem strange (or new) to the reader – to paraphrase Shklovsky, this novel showed me the sensation of life, made me feel and see the stone as stony again. Do you think it is an important role of art in society, to help people see the world with fresh eyes?
SB: Yes, certainly. You know that detail about ‘house time’ I actually stole from something I heard on the radio. They were taking about the possibility of scrapping daylight savings time and somebody texted in to say that she and her husband scrapped it years ago and function on ‘inside time’ and ‘outside time’ and I thought, of course, ‘that’s gold!’ and put it in the novel. But in a broader sense it’s something that’s been on my mind my whole adult life. I was raised Roman Catholic and abandoned it as a teenager and nowadays – the older I get – the more I miss all of those observances and ceremonies and the sense of belonging that came from being a part of a religious community. More than anything else the novel is about how to recreate that in the absence of organised religion.
SG: It goes back to the importance of ritual again. So, to finish our chat, Sara, some fun questions
- Tea or Coffee? Coffee absolutely. I hardly ever drink tea tea. Most of all I soak mint leaves in boiling water and drink that – a lazy person’s mint tea.
- Beach or Mountains? That’s such an appropriate question for this novel! Preferably both, as in the novel, but if I absolutely had to pick it would always be the sea.
- Yes! First draft handwritten or typed? Handwritten. Then I type it up without looking back at the handwritten draft. Completely bonkers but it works for me.
- What’s next on your reading pile? I Never Promised You a Rose Garden by Joanne Greenberg, originally published in 1964 but reissued just recently.
Thanks, Sara, for such insight into your process and some intentions on writing this novel.
With thanks to Tramp Press and Peter O’Connell Media for the advance copy of seven steeples.