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Reading My Mother Back: A Memoir in Childhood Animal Stories | Interview

Interview with Professor Tim Baker about new memoir

By Ava Bratejka Lindberg

If you have never been in Timothy Baker’s small office in the Taylor building, allow me to set the scene. Upon entry, there is the distinct scent of books—the kind you would find in a used book store—and it is immediately evident why. There are shelves of books on either side of the narrow office (just wide enough to fit the professor’s desk in between) and in front of those shelves, there are piles. At first glance, it may seem unorganised, but I quickly realise that not only are the books in alphabetical order, but Baker seems to know exactly where each book he wants to show me is. This is the office of not just an academic whose discipline requires him to read, but of a reader. Baker specialises in environmental literature and animal studies. He has previously published academic writings, making Reading My Mother Back his first non-academic published text.

When I sit down on the chair across from him, it is not with a desk in between us; the desk is propped against the window at the back of the office. We feel like equals. Two academics, two people, just chatting. I may be alone in this, but when I started university in 2019, I had the idea that our lecturers and teachers were all above us in some sense. I am incredibly honoured that professor Baker has proven this wrong. As I ask my prepared questions, he is twisting his hands nervously in a matter I have seen students replicate exactly. He may seem anxious, but once I get him talking about his new book, there is no hesitation in his voice.

Timothy Baker’s memoir Reading My Mother Back: A Memoir in Childhood Animal Stories is an emotional and honest work that takes the reader through the professor’s relationship and life with his mother through the animal stories that defined his childhood. From The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe to Watership Down, Baker manages to connect with the reader, his mother, and himself all at once.

I ask him about his process in writing this book and he tells me that this is a book he has been intending to write for a long time. He also tells me that it all started with the ending and the last book: The Man Who Was Magic. More than anything, it was the texts that were key to telling this story, and making sure that the order of the books made sense with the stories he was telling. That is to say that this book is not a reading journal, Baker clarifies, since he himself put restrictions on which texts were to be referenced: for one, the books could not have been discovered by Baker later than childhood. Childhood classics such as Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle In Time didn’t make the cut simply because it doesn’t feature animals. Others, such as The Velveteen Rabbit, were forgotten and only remembered three weeks before our interview. Finally, some books simply did not tell the story that Baker wanted to tell, and therefore weren’t useful. The books that were chosen were also under quite a big restriction in the sense that Baker grew up what he calls ‘a library kid’—ie., he got his books from the library rather than the bookshops—and that his local library had (with Baker’s maths) last been restocked in the mid 1960s. This meant that the books were a generation out of date.

At the WayWord event, Baker spoke about taking an academic approach to writing, and when I bring this up, the professor iterates that this was the most honest way for him to write the book. It was not a way of him distancing himself from the story, but rather, a way for him to be closer to it. At a basic level, Professor Baker is an academic, and that had to reflect in his book. Thus, he confesses, the academic writing was an autobiographical move for him. Another reason for the academic nature of the book was to encourage non-academics to read literary criticism. To, in a way, prove that this can be accessible and important. Baker humbly mentions that he thinks that what he does, what he writes, is something people should be able to read. It is clear to me that he is incredibly proud of his work and his profession. Baker brings up that people have critiqued him for not talking to other people about the happenings of the book; why he did not ask people like his mother’s family, his father, extended family, and friends about the aspects of the book he does not have a clear memory or knowledge of. To this, the professor says that he simply did not want to do that—that that was not the book he wanted to write. Instead, his research was in what he could do: sit in the office and read a lot of books.

Professor Baker takes quite a personal approach to teaching. He mentions that he’s always thought that if he is not honest with his students about why he reads books, he is not doing his job as an educator. So, when I ask him if he was concerned about students reading this quite personal book, he makes it clear that there is content his students already know more about than anyone else in his life. He trusts his students to understand that this book’s intention is not to make them feel sorry for Tim Baker. The responses to the book have taught Baker a very valuable lesson: everyone reads a different book. Some people read it as a book on trauma, some as a book on children’s books, or something else entirely—and none are wrong. He laughs as he tells me that he likes when people tell him why they didn’t like the book because it means people are reacting to the book personally, which was exactly the aim; Baker wants this book to be about getting to know yourself.

Finally, I ask him what our readers should read next – after they’ve picked up Reading My Mother Back, of course. He thinks for a bit, looking around his tower of books, then says: ‘In Memory of Memory by Maria Stepanova. She does what I do, but she does it better.’

Photo Courtesy of Tim Baker


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