Sarah Hall is my favourite writer but I’ve never seen her talk about her work until I arrive at her event at this year’s Manchester Literature Festival. It’s partly the old never meet your heroes adage and partly that I know I’ll make an idiot of myself if I do get to meet her. Now, on the verge of turning 40, my mantra is ‘What’s the worst that can happen?’. Provided I don’t do anything that would necessitate a restraining order, the worst I can come up with is embarrassing myself and, well, it wouldn’t be the first time.
The brilliant Katie Popperwell is on interviewing duties. Her first question to Hall is about how she approached the writing of her BBC National Short Story Award Winning ‘Mrs Fox’, considering the literary tradition of metamorphous/fox stories? Hall says that the story’s based on David Garnett’s novella Lady into Fox but that she hadn’t read the book before she began writing the story. She was fascinated with the idea that a husband would continue to live with a wife who’d turned into a fox. It was liberating to have the bare bones of the story but try not to think too mythically and do something different with it. ‘How can I absolutely convince the reader that this woman’s turned into a fox?’ was Hall’s driving question. She read Garnett’s story after she finished writing but didn’t change any aspect of her own story.
Popperwell asks if there’s a link between the story and Hall’s last novel The Wolf Border? Hall says it was a literal challenge to describe the wolves as you very rarely see them. She says the short story allows you to get a flashpoint of someone’s psychology and ‘Mrs Fox’ was a response to the question, how do you cope with radical change? That’s what underpins the metaphorical change into the fox.
The discussion moves more broadly onto Hall’s latest short story collection Madame Zero, of which ‘Mrs Fox’ is the opening story. Popperwell comments on the theme of desire which runs throughout the collection. ‘Desire that’s possibly not even known to the wives themselves’, says Hall. She describes Sofia in ‘Mrs Fox’ as ‘other’; she’s only seen from her husband’s point of view so is essentially unknowable. Evie, the character who the final story in the collection is named after, includes an explanation for her altered behaviour. What’s happened to her plays into the main sexual fantasy of her husband. Hall describes relationships as a complicated give and take with power struggles.
Popperwell asks about the influence of Cumbria on Hall’s work. Hall says she writes about living with the landscape and losing it. Sofia in ‘Mrs Fox’ sells property on new developments. She wants to get closer to the land she’s helping to destroy. ‘Is there a complicity you have with your downfalls?’ Hall asks. She says we distance ourselves from the things we really need.
How has literature served mothers? asks Popperwell. In her shortest response of the evening, Hall says, ‘It’s an open field for anyone who wants to write about it in more interesting and complex ways than it has been’.
Hall talks about how she often partners a story with a novel. She wrote The Carhullan Army alongside the story ‘Butcher’s Perfume’. She says the stories draw something off/away from the novel. In this case, it led her to think about the capabilities of women: how can they be radicalised? Can they fight on the front line? She describes the short story in this instance as ‘a starter’.
‘On a technical level, they make me better as a writer’, she says of the short story form. Everything – character, plot, description – needs to balance, ‘A slick, small machine.’ Content wise, she says she likes the episodic nature and the disquiet. The reader has to bring their own experience of life to them. ‘Your expectations are often confounded.’ She describes the qualities of short stories as ‘dizzily exciting’; they allow you to look at the psychology and the pathology of a person.
Popperwell mentions the idea that women’s writing is always autobiographical. Hall says, ‘You do look to yourself when you’re writing, that dark calibration of yourself that seems normal.’ She also says, however, that fiction allows you to get outside of yourself. Stories are transportive, you’re experiencing someone else’s experience.
The conversation returns to Cumbria and landscape and literature. ‘There have been some writers, I believe, from the Lake District, who’ve considered these things,’ says Hall. She says the sensuality she tries to create is somehow linked to the Lake District. She also has an awareness of particular words that are different in Cumbria because her parents were from the south. Don Patterson is very good on the relationship between words and content and meaning, she tells us.
What about the tenses that Hall writes stories in? It’s about finding the right voice for the thing you want to write. It’s intuitive, something in you knows already what you are doing. Popperwell asks about ‘Theatre 6’ which is written in second person. There’s a presentational distance required in using second person which allows you to do interesting things, says Hall. It draws the reader in and is discomforting. ‘I love writing in the second person.’
Do you have to know your characters well? ‘God, no.’ You have to create them well on the page, she says. If you profile the characters you’ll do it in the plot of the book. It’s fine for the writer not to know the characters well. She refers to Jackie from The Carhullan Army, calling her ‘magnetic and convincing, heroic but dreadful. Why would I want to know her when she’s going to be an unguided missile?’ We don’t know people, we get to know people’s habits. ‘You might know someone for forty years and never know them. They might fuck off.’
Does she categorise her writing as speculative fiction? ‘I think all fiction is speculative. All fiction is science fiction. You have to convince the reader of a different version of something. It’s marvellous reality.’ Returning to The Carhullan Army, she says it was written with a forty-year plan. Carlisle was down for three days in floods. There was no power, people were airlifted. You couldn’t drive out, the roads were blocked. We live mostly comfortable lives, this was an extraordinary thing. ‘It’s all coming,’ says Hall. ‘Those stories feel other but I don’t go in thinking they’re going to be science fiction, I just think I have to pull it off.’
Popperwell’s final question is about writing sex scenes. You seem to be very good at them, she says to Hall. ‘Are you asking if I’m a pervert?’ When ‘Evie’ was shortlisted for The Sunday Times Short Story Award, it was read by an actor, ‘It’s like someone’s gone in my underwear drawer’. She says, ‘The physical description is a challenge’. It’s territory that brings in society, upbringing and the state of a relationship. It’s not poetry, it’s not pornography, it’s something in between. Because she’s ‘erred towards a more stylised form of writing’ she enjoys searching for the right language. ‘It’s very hard but very rewarding.’ She ends by saying that writing about sex ‘is not a thing to shy away from as a writer’.
It’s a fantastic event. At the end, I join the signing queue, clutching my copy of The Electric Michelangelo, my favourite book. I tell Hall that I’ve brought it with me because it inspired my PhD topic but when she asks which other books I’m using I can’t remember any besides Rosie Garland’s The Palace of Curiosities. As embarrassing encounters go, I’ve had worse.