The BBC National Short Story Award always highlights some absolute gems. This year there are three womxn on the shortlist: Jan Carson, Sarah Hall and Eley Williams. I had the pleasure of speaking to all three of them about their short stories. You can watch my interview with Jan Carson here. My interview with Eley Williams will be posted on Friday.
Sarah Hall is the author of five novels and three short story collections. Her novels The Electric Michelangelo and How to Paint a Dead Man were both nominated for the Booker Prize and in 2013 she won the BBC National Short Story Award with ‘Mrs Fox’. This year she became the only writer to have been shortlisted four times for the BBC National Short Story Award
I spoke to Sarah Hall via phone. We discussed family units, coercive control and political and societal structures.
There’s so much within ‘The Grotesques’. For you, did it start with the characters or the ideas? Is there an image that sparks things?
Like any short story, it’s a combination. I tend to store these things away in my brain and they accumulate and begin to work with each other. I have a background in art history and the images are obviously there. The story starts with this terrible image of a vagrant man who has been subject to this awful class joke by wealthy students, but the idea of grotesques was always very interesting to me. The idea that there’s a kind of horror and disgust and comedy combined. Wherever there’s cognitive dissonance, I’m very interested. Each of my short stories seems to have something of that in it, so there’s a repellent thing, an empathetic thing and a sympathetic thing as well with these characters. What’s behind the face? And it is a mask; it’s a presentation to the world. If you start with that idea and think about human beings, that’s quite interesting. What’s presented to the world? How are messages conveyed?
There was a lot in the press at the time about the growing gap between rich and poor and a return to the disparity between those with power and entitlement and those without it. That’s the background of the story; the political and social layer. Then it’s always very interesting to examine the psychology of a family unit, or any unit, where there are power structures that mirror what might be going on in the bigger scheme of things. So, you have this inner story of a family unit where there’s covert control; there’s a presentation to the world in one way; there’s something going on behind masks, and the main character is very lost in this world. She’s stunted. There’s a paralysis to her development and you realise later she’s much older than you think she is. Short stories are great for layering in these meanings.
I’m interested in the psychology of it as well. In all the stories I write there is generally a kind of psychology being examined or being questioned. A very good friend of mine is a psychologist, so I always send my stories to him and we talk about how it all works and the character dynamics.
My main family unit is quite small, but I come from quite a big family with loads of cousins, so I’m interested in the idea of controlling a unit. I’ve written about this in novels as well. It’s not just the family, it could be a female army. How do you get individuals to be loyal to a unit? In some ways there’s a bit of mind control going on. When do you give up your individuality for the good of the group? Whether that’s an army or a family or whatever it is that makes you feel like you belong and function best inside it. That theme has always been there in my work; the idea of the individual in the society somehow.
There’s a lot in the story about the narratives we create, whether that’s within a group of people or the individual narrative we present to the group. How does this fit with the class dynamic in ‘The Grotesques’?
I think it’s true that your existence in life is about the story that you tell yourself about your life, or your perception of it. We can see that written quite starkly in politics now. The idea that you can just say, ‘I don’t agree with your version of events’, ‘That’s a false truth’ or ‘That didn’t really happen’, even if it’s a fact. This undermining of the very essence of what has happened is very interesting to me. There’s a lot of that goes on in families, that I’ve noticed. The shifting sands. It is about power. It’s about maintaining a position of authority within a family or getting people to do what you want them to do. Or it’s the sense of keeping a unit together by scapegoating. The scapegoat is a very important image in the story. To cohere any unit – a country, a family, a couple – often there is this notion of the other, the scapegoat. All the dysfunction of that unit is put onto something outside to make the unit cohere. The thing that keeps people together is this story about this is us and how we do it and the goodness of us and our righteous superiority and this is the bad that’s outside that we have to attack and that makes us join together even stronger. When you notice that going on, in politics, in families, it’s fascinating. Even capitalism. A very good friend of mine is a philosopher and he’s just written a book about scapegoating capitalism by saying capitalism is this terrible thing. It is, but it has been created by us and it facilitates our darker commercial motives and operating systems of having and having not, so we can scapegoat these things and say ‘oh, that’s a terrible thing’, but it’s created by us. I quite like these honest examinations in stories of holding onto power. A kind of selfishness. Those observations are always fascinating and they’re everywhere. It’s how we operate now.
There’s a sense that the family are middle class do-gooders. The narrator thinks about what her mother would’ve done if she’d seen Charlie-bo, the vagrant man. The nuance in the characters, which considers the idea of the version of their lives they tell themselves, is interesting.
I suppose I’ve become interested in liberalism and what that means now. Whether it’s authentic. Because liberalism can dismiss a lot of stuff and forgive a lot of stuff in some ways. True liberalism is not what we think it is, so I think this questioning of what that means politically, and in our lives, is very interesting. I would consider myself, hopefully, a true liberal. But that means holding people to account, not excusing them. I’m horrified of the loss of a liberal party in Britain – not because I’d necessarily vote for them, or I think they should be voted into office – but just the idea that we’re no longer really questioning – or maybe we are again – what liberalism really is and what it should do. So, you’ve got this family who are, outwardly facing, very left-wing, in some ways, but actually are as power hungry or controlling as the very right-wing structures that seem to control things; because of money, because of having, because of entitlement, because of the wheels behind the wheels. It’s interesting to me that you can be outwardly facing one thing but operationally very different. I do see that in politics as well; the sense of the loss of authenticity in politics. It’s back to this shifting sands of what things mean and what they don’t mean and what you say you are and what you’re actually doing. That dissonance and discrepancy. That notion of things seeming to work together, and we allow it to work together in our brains, but the meaning is lost. Things cancel each other out in some ways. That’s what I was hoping for with this particular family unit. There’s obviously a very strong matriarch and an absent father figure. He’s left the family, or he’s been kicked out of the family. You only really hear about the dad at the end; is he going to come and say happy birthday? He’s passed that message on through someone else. What has happened to this girl so her father’s passing on happy birthday messages through somebody else? It’s horrific.
Once you become a parent, it’s not unlimited power, but you have to be very careful in thinking this child is my child but actually this child isn’t. This child is a borrowed person, who I’m looking after for a while, and they are their own person. How do you helpfully create individuation rather than enmeshment for your own purposes? You need to really question yourself as a parent. We maybe do it too much now and certainly my mum’s generation didn’t do it; they spent less time with their kids, and they worried less about it. Now we spend more time with our kids, and we worry more about it. What’s going on there? Once you get into the bracket of having children rather than not, you have to take these things on, I think. You really have to work through the minefield of being a benefactor or an influence on that small, vulnerable person.
The woman in the story appears to be a girl, but she’s thirty. You meet her and you think she might be a teenager; she’s out doing chores for her mum. And in the end, the sad thing is, her choice is almost to stay in the safe unit where she’s defined as somebody else. This is the damage of a certain kind of family unit and perhaps it’s being the youngest one in that family unit as well and being vulnerable. Again, I’ve seen it in large families and extended families; you can see the pecking order. You can see where somebody’s influence has become dangerous. And the results of that are tragic.
There’s ambiguity to the story as well. Dilly’s collecting things from town and she’s sitting by the river and she zones out. Towards the end you hear this news of the body that’s been dragged out of the river and, in one scenario, has she killed herself to escape because she knows that the face underneath all the faces is hers? And that’s awful, but at the same time, she’s given herself up to this way of being. She has access to a psychiatrist down the road but doesn’t actually say anything. She gets no help; not that any help was really intended. There are choices we make about our identity, in realising that we’re a product of certain upbringings or certain expectations, and what do we do about it once we’re aware of it? Becoming aware of it is the key, isn’t it? You can be a product, or you can become aware of the things that have made you and start to question them. Or decide that questioning them is too difficult. So that’s the real interplay for her. And that’s where we are, I suppose, now, isn’t it? We have access to psychiatry and psychology, but to what extent are people aware of who they are and who they want to be and what mistakes they’re making and what repetitions they’re making? That’s really interesting. That’s always fascinating. Progress. How do you progress in your life?
I really felt that sense of Dilly being trapped at the end. That she felt as though she had to give herself up to it. There was a sense that everyone knew everything about her. The psychiatrist knows her mum and Dilly’s family are setting up a job for her with an acquaintance. There’s a sense of it being nepotistic. She can get the help because she’s part of the structure, but also being part of that structure traps her in it.
That’s is. It’s about those mechanisms. I did it in The Carhullan Army as well. If you’re training someone to resist interrogation and torture, you do certain techniques on them to make sure they can withstand it. Some of these things are to do with food restriction and again, it’s like Dilly who’s really restricted from eating. You see this a lot, don’t you? In ‘Case Story 2’, the story that I wrote for Madame Zero, there’s a kid who’s being raised in a commune and he’s anorexic. He’s only eating three snails a day. It’s a system of control. In the story it broke my heart to write the part where Dilly gets an extra scone and the relief she feels. That level of control is through very simple, but fundamental means. Her position is terrible.
It’s really supposed to be a psychological minefield and that’s the great thing about short stories; you can present these scenarios that are psychologically mined and people walk through and they’re setting stuff off in themselves. That’s the ideal for a short story. I think it’s supposed to take you into a zone that’s full of conflict, and you bring to it your own morality or disquiet or scenario or understanding of things or questioning of things. Hopefully the two things meet. It’s dark territory really.
I wanted to talk about the setting because it’s set in Cambridge –
Well, it’s not, it’s an amalgamation. The Corpus Clock is in there, so people think it’s Cambridge and that’s obviously lifted from Cambridge. But as many people have read it and said it’s Oxford, it’s Norwich, and it’s an amalgamation of those places. The setting is a very rich and entitled university town, so that limits it to a few places, but the bridges are renamed and mixed up and there are places in Norwich, where I live, that are in there. St. Giles, places like that. Some people though it was Oxford too because there’s a patisserie and the landscape, but those two towns have similarities, obviously.
Were you thinking about how the setting ties to political ideas, for example the Bullingdon Club, that class of political leaders?
Definitely there are those. Like in The Wolf Border there are the political class that I don’t know much about really. I’ve seen it a bit. That is of interest to me, the wheels that operate and the immense wealth and the immense power; the snowball wealth in this country. We cannot think this is a true liberal democracy because it isn’t. We might be doing a good impression of it at certain times, we might hope that’s what we are, and we want to become more that way, but that isn’t how this country functions really. It’s quite hard to get at that in literature. Again, a short story can touch on it in one layer and ask questions about it.
The family in the story have got no association with the colleges really. The mother might have come from a working class town somewhere in the country, so there’s a sense of pulling up to the middle class. I suppose that has interested me, because my mum’s generation came out of that Thatcher zone of thinking. It split people; there was a kind of violence to thinking ‘I have to pull away from my working class roots; I don’t want to be that, I must be middle class. I have to disavow everything that’s gone before and recreate myself into this’. Or the digging in of pride; ‘there’s nothing wrong with being working class’. There’s a violent split that was performed in that period and since then. I have been thinking about what’s going on now. How do we define ourselves in terms of class and self-perceive what that means? The story is in some ways asking questions about that too. About what you leave behind. What you recreate yourself as and why? And the violence that performs on you and on others, in some ways. None of these questions are in any way really answered in the story, but then a short story doesn’t have to answer questions, I don’t think. It just has to ask them. It’s a hard thing to write about and there are no rights and wrongs. Why wouldn’t you aspire? That’s a good thing, but if some self-loathing is brought in then that’s an extremely damaging thing. But at the same time, again with liberalism, what’s it trying to excuse? At what point is there agency – individual agency or community agency. I’m just interested in these stories that swirl around. I’m from Cumbria, which is a region which probably should be independent. Lots of counties or regions should devolve, I think, because they’ve got very little to do with London or other parts of the country.
This is your fourth shortlisting for the BBC National Short Story Award. What’s your secret? Did you celebrate and, if you did, how?
It’s a surprise. It was a surprise the three other times as well!
I’ve been really bad at celebrating. It’s been a really rough ride over the last few months. These things happen and I should take the time, but with who? And how? Also, I’m a bit of a workhorse. I think you’ve got to get on with it and ignore the good and the bad. I am actually delighted, I really am. Short stories feel harder. It’s not my métier. There’s something about the structure, there’s something about the content of short stories that seems to suit my preoccupations and make me a better writer in some ways. I really like the form. I hope they’re working and it’s really nice to think they are working.
I’ve judged that prize. It’s very hard. You don’t get hundreds of brilliant short stories written. On the other hand, people that have somehow caught hold of something about the form are able to accomplish things that are in some ways more exciting and satisfying than novels. When you’re judging a short story prize and you get those ones in and think ‘oh my god, this is like a gymnast’, other short story writers are able to perform these amazing literary feats that you can’t really do in a poem or in a novel, and it’s really exciting. I don’t know what the key is really; I’m still trying to work it out. I do love doing it; I love short stories. I wanted to be a poet when I first started; I’ve written novels, but something about me and short stories come together, hopefully.
Who are your favourite short story writers? Who do you read and take inspiration from?
It’s always difficult to mention other writers. In Britain, Jon McGregor and Tessa Hadley are doing brilliant things. Helen Oyeyemi is a brilliant short story writer. And they’re all doing different things. They’re able to innovate or seem like a classicist but actually be really subversive underneath, which is great. The form allows for that.
There are writers that I like and think are really brilliant, but in some ways it’s the individual stories. Again, having judged something, you might only ever write ten brilliant short stories in your lifetime and the rest are pretty good, but ten were brilliant. There are brilliant novelists who’ve written a couple of brilliant short stories and you think okay, something arrives at some point that has to be a short story and it’s brilliant. You’re waiting for that oddity to come along.
The winner of the BBC National Short Story Award with Cambridge University will be announced on 6th October on BBC Radio 4’s Front Row. The shortlist anthology is out now from Comma Press and the stories are available to listen to on BBC Sounds.