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'Eyes for the Grotesque Things in Life': A Conversation with Sarah Hall
By Rachael Beale

Photo of Sarah Hall

The writer protagonist at the centre of the title story of Sarah Hall's new short story collection, The Beautiful Indifference, does not like to read; 'given the choice, I'd much rather do something else,' she tells an appalled audience member at one of her events. As a child, Hall had some sympathy with her character's point of view. "I just didn't enjoy the physical inactivity of it," she says. "Perhaps I was too restive and energetic, a kid that wanted to actually knock against atoms, and because I was brought up somewhere very remote, it could be that I wanted real company instead of imaginary." Nowadays, she reads for inspiration, but pronounces herself "incredibly fussy", tending to read poetry, or writers she deeply admires, such as James Salter, whose memoir she recently finished and found "tremendous".

Given the tight intimacy that we tend to presume exists between reading and writing, it's hard not to wonder how she ended up becoming a writer. "Writing is a different thing for me," Hall says. "It's companionable and constructive. It's physical, tactile almost. It's about the relationship between the real world and the written word … It's hard to describe all this—the levels are psychological and sensual." Both the writers she name-checks as inspiration and Hall's own work display this intense engagement with the physical world. From her vivid recreation of landscapes, described as 'geo-fiction' by her agent and editor, to her clear-eyed surveying of human bodies—how and why they work (or don't), what they do and what can be done to them—Sarah Hall has 'eyes for the grotesque things in life', as she wrote of her protagonist Cyril in her Booker-shortlisted second novel, The Electric Michelangelo.

"Maybe I am sort of creating characters that are a little bit off the page somehow—or at least they're wandering off the page," she considers. "It seems like more interesting territory … I don't know exactly why I go into those areas." Certainly, she is attracted to the exploration of marginal territory, both physical and psychological; "I'm not interested in a woman on a diet," she says, "going to work—I'm just not. I'm interested in a woman having to eat more butter because she's in a survivalist community up a mountain."

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Yet when I admire this ruthless quality in her writing, she is quick to out herself as "a flincher". "In the work, it's like I'm compelled to do it," she says. "I have to go up to the keyhole and look in, see what's going on behind … I am a bit squeamish in life, I think, definitely afraid of things. So the work is a way of combating that." As well as spending much of her childhood outdoors, Hall was the daughter of a sports coach, so she had, she says, "a very, very physical upbringing, and I think that's probably bled into the work."

One major advantage of this outlook is the honesty and care with which she writes about sex. "Some writers say you just shouldn't try and write about sex because it's just too difficult," she says. "I just think that's entirely the wrong thing to do. It's such an important part of life, and such a powerful and destructive and fortifying thing in life, that to sort of extract it from the writing would be bizarre … The challenge is to write about it well —to sit somewhere between the physical and the emotional … I like the idea of trying to catch some of the quality of those moments between people."

There is a fair amount of sex in the new collection, which includes, amongst other characters, a writer meeting her lover in a York hotel, a frustrated mother making a trip to 'The Agency' for an appointment with a euphemistically-titled 'companion', and a woman endangering herself on an African beach while fleeing from an unexpected holiday break-up. The stories vibrate with an intensely-felt awareness of their own physicality. At one point a character dispassionately palpates the 'gristle' and 'nodes' under her skin—an effective metaphor for Hall's own work.

Yet despite the vividness of the experiences conveyed in the stories, many of the narrators or central characters seem touched, to a greater or lesser extent, with the dissociation of 'la belle indifference', remaining at a certain psychological distance from the events they are experiencing. 'She Murdered Mortal He' begins, 'When the fight was over, she left the salon tent', almost as if the character has witnessed rather than participated in the conflict, and the short, clipped sentences that make up the rest of the paragraph are mimetic of the character's attempts to regain control and 'get her bearings'. The narrator of 'Bees', meanwhile, feels 'vacancy … the scraping out of a past existence'. Several of the characters, as they approach the ends of their respective stories, are described as becoming blurred, losing their boundaries, dissolving: in 'The Beautiful Indifference', the protagonist's 'appearance [becomes] unstructured, a collection of shapes and colours'; returning from 'The Agency', the narrator 'felt loose and hot, as if I were beginning to come apart, as if I was as smooth as the water'; while the central character of 'She Murdered Mortal He' 'felt soft at the edges as she moved, and lesser.'

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Hall has explored this kind of dissociation before, most notably through the character of Susan, the photographer mourning her dead twin in How to Paint a Dead Man, but the cumulative effect in the collection is powerful, at times overwhelming. She argues that this state is endemic to the human condition, and points out that although they may be disturbed at times, her characters mostly "remain functional". "The human brain is such a strange thing—the imagination is such a strange thing, and we've all got one," she says, "so I always suspect that people are slightly wrestling with feeling challenged or having to work something out, or disquieted, or something, even if they just seem absolutely fine and going about their business as normal." Her work probes some very dark places in the human psyche, but her intention, she says, is to retain a sense of optimism; "life is difficult and complicated, and it is dark—but it is also redemptive. And I know that the novels are dark, but they do have light aspects to them."

Although this is her first published collection, Sarah Hall is not new to short stories—she originally studied poetry and short stories at the University of St Andrew's, where she took an MA in Creative Writing. She has written the occasional story for commissions since, and, she says, "really liked them, and held on to them. My editor read them too and said, 'These are really good! You should think about a collection at some point' — [Over] the last few years, because I've been travelling such a lot, that really seems to lend itself to writing short stories; [it's] nice to feel that you can complete a draft of something over three weeks. If I'm working on a novel, I tend to like to be in the same place—it's too big a thing to be juggling with while travelling abroad. But short stories—you just have these little adventures or episodes, and then you can write them up quite quickly."

Not all of the stories she has written since her first commission ('Bees', which appeared in the 2005 Maia Press anthology Underwords: Hidden Cities) have made it into the collection. "There are themes running through it," Hall says, "so it was about picking the best-quality stories to go in the collection, and which ones went together. I'm not sure how conscious I was of this, but they're all narrated by female characters, or at least the main character is female in each of them, so that's a driver for the collection - female voices. And there are themes of love and the unspeakable, and jeopardy and survival; they are linked up, even though geographically they are quite different."


Although bound together by women's voices, the collection feels less overtly concerned with feminism than Sarah Hall's previous books. Her third novel, The Carhullan Army, tried to, she says, "animate some of the [radical feminist] models that were being talked about [in the sixties and seventies] to see if they really would work, or how they would work, how they would actually be implemented, what would go wrong and what would go well", while The Electric Michelangelo took in the suffrage movement and back-street abortion. The women in these earlier novels, while fully realised as characters, were also a focal point for exploring difficult societal issues. In The Beautiful Indifference, the scope has narrowed; women's issues are still considered, but at a micro level, in how men and women relate to each other, and less so in how that plays out on a wider stage. Hall says she definitely considers herself a feminist: "I think there is work to be done … We don't need necessarily the same sort of feminism as was needed at the turn of century … but there are definitely still issues where feminist questions should be asked, the same as race, and any member of society should freely enter into that debate … Men should be feminists. That's how I see it. Feminism is a set of tools to improve society."

The Beautiful Indifference is also dominated by the contemporary, something that is perhaps surprising given how much of Hall's oeuvre to date has been based in meticulously-researched and stunningly well-realised historical settings; a self-confessed "real geek" about research, she has swapped historical investigation for the topographical and geographical kind. "I'm getting more comfortable writing contemporary fiction," she says. "I used to think: I'm from a rural community in the north, what on earth could I have to say about modern life unless it was about modern farming? You have these ridiculous preconceived notions about who you are as a person and therefore a writer … And then you realise that that's just ludicrous, and it's absolutely fine to have a contemporary setting. If you're trying to push too hard on what it means to be living now, then you're working too hard anyway. These thing are supposed to be milled into the work naturally."

Also coming more easily to Hall now is dialogue, in part thanks to the co-scripting of a radio dramatisation of The Carhullan Army*. Having previously found it a challenge in prose, the demands of scriptwriting were "testing", she says, but it has paid off: she feels more able to use it as a device for momentum and to develop longer conversations, even in the short stories. "I think I used to avoid dialogue," she muses. "If you look at Haweswater, my first novel, there's very little dialogue in there, and what dialogue is in there is spoken by these reticent Northern characters from the 1930s, who live a very practical life. They're saying very intense things or meaningful things or emotional things … but it's coming infrequently—they're not verbose characters."

As well as direct speech, Hall is stretching her range with narrative voice. The stories use first-, third-, and, perhaps most interestingly, second-person narration—although when I describe this last as a "return" to Susan's voice in How to Paint a Dead Man, Hall is quick to point out that the second-person story, 'Bees', actually predates that novel. She says she is finding writing in the second person very useful in the novel on which she's currently working: "sections are kind of coming out that way. I don't think they'll stay that way, but it seems to work well for composing things … maybe it's got a poetic aspect to it, because you do find the second person often in poetry. You don't in prose. I like anything with a poetic quality usually."

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As well as enjoying the directness of the second person, and its potential for unseating the reader from his or her complacent role as a spectator, Hall also likes the extent to which it discourages the reader from identifying a narrator with their creator. "I always feel, not that, when you're writing as 'I', you automatically feel that you're putting some of yourself into a character - I don't think that's true at all - [but] I, the writer, am always saying that I'm not an autobiographical writer," she says. "The short stories are perhaps slightly more autobiographical than anything I've written before, but not really. And I don't really feel like I'm putting myself onto the page ... I don't find myself in the writing, and I'm not interested in writing about myself or my experiences …I'm just the conduit for something else, or it's tapping into a different experience somehow, for a character. The second person really allows that - it allows a sort of distance between you and the work."

Distance has been key, too, in Hall's vibrant recreation of landscapes. Considering the relationship between composition and subject, she realises that all of her books have been written in locations other than those in which they are set. "Carhullan was written while I was in Cambridge, which is sort of the antithesis of the uplands, in a way," she offers. "It just allows you an imagined quality of place that sort of amplifies that place in your mind ... Maybe I need that kind of distance … a remove, so I can see it in focus somehow." She draws parallels, too, between the reconstruction of a historical period from research and the evocation of a physical place. "Any landscape in a novel is a reconstitution of the landscape that already exists ... You're not painting en plein air, or whatever it's called, when you have your canvas literally on the mountain, painting the mountain ... Wordsworth was big on that - go out into the landscape, and then come back and bring the landscape back in with you. I think that's what all writers try and do."

I comment on her enviable ability to seemingly reinvent herself with each book—swapping straight historical fiction for dystopian literature between her second and third books, then pulling back into the 20th century for the intertwined narratives of How to Paint a Dead Man. Given the publishing industry's insatiable desire to pigeonhole writers and assign them their own little corner in the bookshop, there to remain forever, has she encountered any resistance from her publisher in this? No, she says, "I'm very lucky. I think Faber are very good that way—so long as the work is of a quality, they're interested in you displaying a versatility, or at least that's always the sense I've had from them … I don't know that I could write a kind of—a book that was less difficult … I think my publisher knows that I'm that kind of writer, and it would be hopeless to try and write a kitchen-sink drama; it would end up being a kind of gothic kitchen-sink drama."

Although a writer who also happens to be a woman, she feels she has evaded incarceration in the 'women's fiction' ghetto; "if anything," she says, "I get called 'unwomanly' as a writer; lots of people say, you don't write like a woman, you write like a man. And I don't know what that means, exactly. It's hard for them to explain—there's a muscular quality to the work, or a visceral quality to the work—so women aren't supposed to write about strength and strong characters, or about blood and guts—I mean, really?" She recalls the (male) reviewer who complained of The Carhullan Army that she didn't know her guns well enough, implying that the fault lay in Hall's being a woman, which enraged her—as well as being insulted by the sexism of the remark, she takes her research very seriously. "I'm not a writer that really believes in gender models, or definitive traits and characteristics in men and women," she says. "Certainly, there are different marketing techniques - that's very clear. Partly because women are supposed to be the big buyers of books … I have a problem with that!"

Along with the packaging problems come increased expectations that the author can somehow stand as representative of their work, which she finds difficult. "I don't necessarily have that level of articulacy - a sort of analytical articulacy - about my own work," she says. "I think it's a sort of alchemical process... Often there are multiple interpretations, often I'm feeding something in that is not entirely well-defined; there may be a question that's left open in work. That's often the case, because I like the idea that people have different interpretations of an event … I'm a producer of creative work, which possibly means being fuzzy around the edges." Nonetheless, she has enjoyed the increase in promotional activity expected of an author, and the participation in literary festivals and events: "there are more opportunities to go and meet the public, but I like that, because the public are endlessly surprising, and you never really know who you're going to meet—there's no kind of staple or type of reader of the work. You're always surprised by who's liking it—or disliking it, for that matter."

She says she really enjoyed working on the stories, and compares it to working on poetry: "there's a formality to it that's quite similar, and a discipline to it, and I've really enjoyed going back to that—so I can see myself not leaving it too long before working on another collection … I think it's cyclical. Poetry's cyclical as well—you hear lots of poets say, they haven't been writing anything for a while, and all of a sudden there's a burst of poems that come for some reason, whatever it is—a kind of change in climate, or something happens, or they get into that kind of mode again. And I think short stories might be a little bit similar, or at least for me." Does she still feel that the novel is the form in which she is most comfortable, I ask? She is working on another novel at present, although feels it's too early to talk about it. She considers. "I would have said that until a year ago, but I've been feeling that the quality of the stories has been really improving. Once you figure out what you're doing within the form, that's really satisfying ... Obviously I've written four novels … so if you look at it objectively from the outside, probably yes, I'm a novelist. But it's not a flirtation with short stories, that's for sure."

* The Carthullan Army was published in the United States under the title Daughters of the North.

For more information on Sarah Hall and her work, visit the author's website.

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Rachael Beale has spent much of her career to date experimenting with combinations of words and technology, either writing for technical companies, or doing technical things for literary ones. She graduated from the University of Cambridge's Trinity College with an M.A. allegedly in "English Literature;" actual English writers account for quite a small proportion of her reading, which tends to sprawl luxuriously across genre boundaries. She makes time to read and talk about books by not doing things that normal people consider essential (sleeping, cleaning, ironing...)

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