The Masters Review Volume V with stories selected by Amy Hempel published in October and we are continuing our series of interviews with the authors it features. Today, we chat with Laurie Baker, author of the story “Hippos,” about her writing habits, her own experience in South Africa in the ’90s, and her literary influences. Don’t forget that submissions to The Masters Review Volume VI, judged by Roxane Gay, are open now!
“What happened next was neither inevitable nor random chance. It lay somewhere in the twilight between the two, in the place where memory resides, caught between what we force upon ourselves and what forces itself on us.”
Your story, “Hippos,” is set in South Africa in the ‘90s, and is told from the point of view of an American woman who is there as a teacher, traveling with her two African colleagues during the school’s recess. From our fact-check, I know that you spent some time in South Africa in the ‘90s, yourself. Though the story is of course a work of fiction, this did give you some specific knowledge about renting boats to see hippos (which the characters in this story contemplate, at least, doing themselves).
This leads me to the questions: What inspired the idea for your story? How long was it between the time you thought of the idea and wrote the first draft? How long did it take to develop? Did you outline first, do research, etc.?
I was inspired to write “Hippos” because of an experience I had while living in South Africa in the early nineties, at the end of apartheid. It was a particularly turbulent time, with a lot of political violence. I was a white, twenty-two year old American teaching at a missionary boarding school for black South Africans. In spite of the political tensions that wracked the country, the only violence I experienced was ironically at the hands (or head) of an animal: a hippo, the most dangerous animal on the continent (in terms of the number of human deaths they are responsible for). I was boating with some American friends on an estuary when we were attacked by a hippo. Fortunately, the boat did not flip, although it did partially fill with water. I wanted to write about that particular experience but put it into the context of the relationships between whites and blacks at that time in the country’s history.
I wrote the story more than a decade after I lived in South Africa. It came quite easily and developed purely from the details of my memories.
How many drafts did this story go through? Were there any huge changes from the first draft to the last?
I write very slowly, crafting each sentence carefully before I go on to the next. I don’t outline or dump out a quick first draft. When I am finished with the first draft, I have in effect already written several drafts, as I change things as I go. I already knew the ending of this particular story when I sat down to write it so simply (not that simply!) needed to arrange a story, and a relationship between characters, that would inevitably lead to that conclusion.
What is your writing process like? (Do you write at a specific time of day / in a particular setting / on the computer or by hand, etc.)
My writing process is always the same: I write on my computer, in bed, with an enormous cup of tea. How long I write for depends on the day, but I try to write for at least a couple of hours every day.
In what ways is this story similar to (or different from) your other writing? What are you working on now?
This story is quite reflective of my fiction. I have written a collection of stories about South Africa, stories either from the first person point of view of the same narrator or from the third person point of view of a white missionary working at the same school. Since finishing this collection, I have moved, quite surprisingly to myself, to writing creative nonfiction. I have written a piece about taking my Beatles-obsessed pre-teenage daughter to Abbey Road, as well as a piece about my husband’s butterfly collecting. I have since focused on essays about my lifelong struggle with depression.
Are there any other fun facts you would like us to know about your story?
My fiction is heavily influenced by the short stories of Jim Shepard, Joan Silber, and Joy Williams.