Apparitions: A Conversation with Sybil Baker – curated by Kristina Marie Darling

Sybil Baker’s latest novel is Apparitionspublished by Signal 8 Press. Her short novella The Picture Vanishes is available as a free ebook from Signal 8 Press and on Amazon. She is also the author of five books of fiction, including While You Were Gone, which won an IPPY Silver Medal. Her book of nonfiction Immigration Essays was the 2018-2019 Read2Achieve selection for the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. She was awarded two MakeWork Artist Grants and an Individual Artist’s Fellowship from the Tennessee Arts Commission. She is a Professor of creative writing at the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga, is the DIrector of the Meacham Writers’ Workshop, and is on faculty at the Yale Writers’ Workshop.

Kristina Marie Darling:  Tell me about your new book, Apparitions, which just launched from Signal 8 Press. 

In Turkish-occupied Cyprus, Simone battles grief and ghosts as she plans to disrupt her ex-husband’s Celebration of Life ceremony. More broadly, Apparitions is a mystery novel about long-term friendship, loss, American arrogance, aging, border, erasures, and becoming unstuck.

I first learned of North (occupied) Cyprus from my brother and his Turkish wife who had frequently visited there from Turkey, where they have lived for more than twenty years. I was able to spend a semester as a visiting professor at a university in North Cyprus. I fell in love with the area, which I knew little about, and wondered what it might be like to live in a region (because it is occupied by Turkey) that is invisible to much of the world. I was going through menopause and feeling invisible myself at the time, and decided to write a novel about what it might be like for someone who is stuck in her life to visit a place that forces her to confront her past.

KMD:  What role do ghosts and haunting play in this gorgeously crafted book?   

In this novel, the ghosts who visit Simone are trying to communicate something that she doesn’t want to hear or understand. Simone is haunted by her past and, in particular, the death of her brother in Vietnam when she was five years old. Simone has to decide if the ghosts are trying to help or hurt her.

KMD:  Relatedly, in what ways is the style of the writing haunted — whether by contemporaries, influences, or shadow narratives?  

This is a great question. I was haunted by Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels because I had found so few examples of novels about long-term friendships between two women. Apparitions also joins writers such as Dana Spiotta and Deborah Levy who explore a woman’s life as she enters menopause. Contemporary novels that deal with a wife traveling to a different country in search of her ghost husband like Laura Van Den Berg’s The Third Hotel and Katie Kitamura’s A Separation are similar to Apparitions.

This novel is also haunted by the many different versions of this book I wrote—those erased texts are a type of palimpsest that hint at different choices, possibilities, and endings for the characters. The coming-of-age story of Simone and Agnes’s friendship which is alluded to but not developed haunts this novel; however, that story is available as a separate free eBook at the publisher’s website. 

KMD:  In addition to your achievements as a writer, you are a generous teacher and literary citizen.  In what ways has community empowered your writing?

Community empowers me in so many ways. The Chattanooga writing community is vibrant and thriving, and I’m always learning from my friends and colleagues who commit to working with the underserved populations here. I have recently become the Director of the Meacham Writers’ Workshop whose mission is to provide free workshops and readings to our students at UT Chattanooga and the surrounding community. My writing community of friends I’ve met around the world also nourish and inspire me to broaden my perspective and challenge conceptions.

KMD:  Will you share a writing prompt with us?  

I love writing prompts especially for when I’m with a group of writers who are stuck in their work. One basic prompt for those rewriting is imitation. For those struggling with sentence rhythm and variety, I encourage them to take a paragraph of a work they admire and imitate the structure of the sentences with their own content. For those struggling with pacing, they could also imitation the structure of a scene from a work they enjoy.

My friend poet Christian Collier has a great exercise for writing a cento poem. Students find the lyrics to two songs and then write a poem using only the words/phrases from those two songs.

KMD: What are you currently working on? What can our readers look forward to?    

I’m working on a novel set in Georgia about a woman returning home after 30 years living in South Africa to confront and make peace with her past. On the nonfiction front, I’m working on a collection that uses nostalgia as a way to trouble and reconstruct our stories of the past.