Launch: Mark Baker’s The Wistful and the Good
INTERVIEW BY M.N. STROH
After a career in high tech, Mark Baker moved to Bridgewater, Nova Scotia to be close to the sea. His nonfiction books and stories are published in a number of journals including Dappled Things, The Rockford Review, Storyteller, Solander, Our Family, New England’s Coastal Journal, and Fantasy Book. The Wistful and the Good is his first novel.
How would you describe your book’s premise in two sentences?
In the wake of the great Viking raid on the rich monastery of Lindisfarne, Elswyth tries to keep peace between Drefan, the Saxon lord she is engaged to marry, and Leif, the Norse trader she is falling in love with. But when Elswyth fails to keep the promises she made for the sake of peace, it is she who must accept the blood guilt for what follows, and she who must find a way to avert far greater bloodshed.
You are currently undertaking unique promotional efforts with The Wistful and the Good by serializing it on Substack. What led to the decision to serialize your novel?
It came about largely by accident. I had a publishing deal fall through. The publisher had insisted I create a newsletter. I created one on Substack because it was free. About the time the publisher and I parted ways (artistic differences), Substack’s own newsletter arrived with an article about Elle Griffin who was publishing her novel on Substack. And it turns out to be a trend, with big names like Salman Rushdie, Chuck Palahniuk, and George Saunders all signing on. So it seemed like the perfect moment to jump on the bandwagon, and to build a more direct connection with readers. But it also allowed me to do something different. Rather than a single historical note at the end of the book, I publish a commentary on the historical background and literary issues involved in each chapter. It’s an added value you could never provide in a traditional book.
It’s quite a leap to go from a career in high tech to writing historical fiction. What drew you to the genre?
I think the key thing for an author is to pick a setting that allows them to highlight their theme. Whatever aspect of life you’re trying to explore, history provides a place and time that can bring it to the fore. In the case of The Wistful and the Good, the book is about personal affections versus familial and cultural obligations. The Anglo-Saxon period is perfect for highlighting the drama of that conflict, because there are multiple forms of obligation and each of them can be represented by a single character.
How did you come to write about the 8th century and events centered around the Viking raid on Lindisfarne?
Lindisfarne is one of the great edge places of the world, switching from peninsula to island with every turn of the tide. Physical edge places always feel like spiritual edge places as well, and they are imbued with an inherent drama. But it was 9-11 that planted the specific seed of this long-germinating book. It’s those same questions of connection and obligation. Every person in the West who even looked Arabic had someone lay 9-11 at their feet—guilt by association. Sometimes they were asked to disavow not only the act, but their entire culture. How do you navigate that?
Historical fiction lets you relocate an issue in time and place so that you can examine it in a more clear-eyed and dispassionate way. So I thought, what would it be like for an innocent Norse trader to land on a Northumbrian beach a month after Lindisfarne?
Have you had the opportunity to conduct research on location or connect with experts who offered you unique insight into the period?
The story takes place in the village of Twyford (Alnmouth today). I visited the village, the beach, and the cliff that are the main settings. I played with the topography a bit, for dramatic purposes. Tide and the river reshape that coastline over time, so it could have been as I describe it in 793. And I read a lot of books.
What interesting historical fact did you come across while writing your book?
One of the roles ascribed to Anglo-Saxon women was “peaceweaver.” Stephen Pollington’s book, The Meadhall, portrays the lady of the hall as having specific responsibilities in welcoming guests, conducting the formalities, and keeping the peace between boastful men. That gave me the key feature of Elswyth, her peaceweaving skills, and her great challenge of keeping the peace between Drefan and Leif. That placed her right in the middle of that conflict, and allowed me to examine the difficulties of navigating it.
Was there a particular scene in your novel that proved challenging to write?
I found the fight scene particularly challenging. It’s not like a movie where it becomes a kind of violent ballet. I think it’s the emotional and moral struggle that makes a written fight scene interesting. But if you lose the physicality of the fight you lose everything. It’s hard to get all those elements in there in the right balance.
What life experiences would you say have shaped your writing the most?
One of my fondest possessions is an anthology published by Doubleday in 1968 called The Best of Both Worlds: An Anthology of Stories for All Ages, compiled by Georgess McHargue. It has stories and novel excerpts from every genre and the list of authors includes F. Scott Fitzgerald, E. B. White, Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, O Henry, Ernest Hemingway, Truman Capote, Mary Renault, Dylan Thomas, John Steinbeck, Ray Bradbury, Joan Aiken, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Harper Lee. And that is far from a complete list. It is wonderful and beautiful and terrifying and inspiring and hugely broadening. It shaped my reading for years afterwards. It is probably the single most significant influence on me as a writer.
What is the last great book you read?
In This House of Brede by Rumer Godden.
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