The sensual world of Sarah Hall


Sarah Hall is the author of four novels – Haweswater (2002), The Electric Michelangelo (2004), The Carhullan Army (2007) and the Man Booker-longlisted How to Paint a Dead Man (2009) – and a collection of short stories, The Beautiful Indifference (2011). She is the recipient of numerous awards and prizes, and was selected for Granta’s Best of Young Novelists 2013. Most recently, her story “Mrs Fox” won the 2013 BBC National Short Story Award. Here, she talks to Anne Garvey about the way landscape influences and colours her writing

Sarah Hall author

Sarah Hall by Richard Thwaites

Every writer has a tic, a first port of call and for me it’s the landscape. Every environment an author creates means a reader has to believe in it. I want to convince the reader that they are really there with the action. I try with any setting, be it Finland, Mozambique or America, to render it with detail.

I was born and brought up in the Lake District, a region of upland water and farming. There, landscape has to be obeyed and you grow up knowing that the contours of the land matter. My homeland can be a dangerous place. It’s true that the Lakes have a brutish edge: it challenges people. Winter arrives; snow comes in; people fall off the mountain. It’s not a place that’s been wholly tamed.

It has a certain reputation for beauty – and as a seat of romanticism. Before you do anything more modern with it, you have to know the origins of the Lake District. You can’t grow up there without knowing that it was also a place of radical ideas and those radical ideas are important.

AG: Have these difficult landscapes introduced a psychological space too?

Yes, I create survivalist strategies where people are tested, where the urge to keep going comes to the fore. That’s what I’m interested in. People are endlessly capable and surprising, and the drama of these stories moves them to the margins of their personality. They were at a comfortable three; now, in the story, they’re at nine. I like to see what someone’s mettle is – or not.

We live with our quixotic natures. Put in another landscape, characters show their special – horrific sometimes – side. In my story about Finland, “Vuotjärvi”, the woman is suddenly under pressure. Her lover goes for a swim and she imagines him drowning in the strange lake before them. She gets out the boat to look for him – but as so often when the aftermath of an accident is more dangerous than the central action, this woman is creating her own destruction. Does she survive? Do they both perish? We don’t know.

Does your upbringing in Cumbria link you to the people of the past in that world? Or put you in touch with the doughty side of womankind?

I hope to engage in the debate about bringing back big predators to our countryside. It’s happening all over Europe

I would love to think so. I call myself a feminist without reservation. People often say, “I am a feminist, but…” Not me. I believe feminism is a set of intellectual skills for both men and women to use to think about things from certain refractions. The landscape and countryside of my home works strongly here. You look around in the valley and it’s fascinating how many colossally strong women there are – farmers’ wives, women who get up at 4am to go and deliver lambs in the snow on a hillside. Forces of nature, these women can be quite frightening. People think the Lake District is a traditional place, but the women have to work hard there, they pick up and carry with astonishing strength. Farming has always been hard and in some ways it’s getting harder.

What is your relationship to animals? They often appear in your work.

I have always had animals in my life. In the Lakes, they are there, the dogs kept outside but always around. I couldn’t de-populate them in my fiction. I am fascinated by the totemic concept of animals. The stag means something in Britain, alongside the horse, certain birds and once even the wolf. In my work feral characteristics link to humans, they are there in tandem with the character There is a tapestry on the wall in the life of a writer. In mine there are paintings of animals and they all have symbolic reference points – and I update all these.

You don’t become them in an Angela Carter way?

No, but the animals are linked inexorably to the characters. In the story “Bees”, a farmer’s wife leaves her husband and disappears to London. Once there, she loses her verve, her brio, the red sauce of her self, the heart and all that represents. She feels this power is on the loose and roaming about the countryside setting fire to things. When the fox arrives, the spirit of the wild, she recaptures it and you know she’s going to be fine again. I like those crises. Strange incidents pull you out of your comfort zone, so my characters are often freefalling, falling in love, facing difficulty. The heart of a relationship is where people meet and set aside peripheries, they go for what is happening between them.

The short story is a really good way of exploring a personality. My story “She Murdered Mortal He” opens with a jilted woman walking down a beach. A dog befriends her; she’s fearful of it at first but then takes it along with her. She has had a row with her lover and feels hurt and vengeful. She goes into town and drinks beer with some men. You feel concerned and worried for her. Then she sees the dog again, bloodied. Her lover has gone back, quite naturally, to look for her, and the dog has injured or killed him. The dog has a supernatural kind of role; it’s a familiar to the woman, an agent of her furious thoughts. So at the beginning we feel anxious for her safety but the emphasis changes and by the end she has switched from victim to reckless mental murderess. It shows the trick of a short story scheme. You can flip from one character to another change allegiances and sympathies all in the one form. I like that.

At certain stages of life, experience is heightened. At adolescence, for instance, you are physically changing and trying to work out – especially as a woman – the male framework of the world. You find your own systems: they might be an adaptation of your parents’ ways of doing things, but it is all new – you haven’t been through this or seen it before. In one story, “Butcher’s Perfume”, a young girl becomes enamoured with a rough farming family. Their brutal ways of approaching the world fascinate her – yet she doesn’t have the refinement of thought to understand what will happen next.

And speaking of what happens next…

Back to the Lakes or a version of them. A Modern Lake District, outside London anyway, where a landowner exploits a change in the law (and this could happen: it only takes a small change) to open a re-wilding project on his fictional estate, with wolves roaming across the land. What is the countryside all about and what do we do with it? I hope to engage in the debate about bringing back big predators to our countryside. It’s happening all over Europe, and actually Britain lags a long way behind these projects. Of course farmers would not like wolf packs, but if you ask people in towns they say yes to a project like this – where people in the countryside say decidedly “Nay”. Wolves are on the margins. This is all connected to ecology, to the paradox of what we do with the countryside and with wild animals. Bring them back – and then what? C