Feeling the burn

Antonia Charlesworth finds the novelist’s love of visual art on display at home – and that her return to the Lake District has helped forge her own resilience after grief and illness

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It’s a steep climb to Sarah Hall’s house in Kendal, and even on a crisp Cumbrian autumn morning it’s impossible not to break a sweat. “It never gets easier,” she admits as she opens the door to the Arts and Crafts-style stone terrace she shares with her young daughter. But the author isn’t one to shy away from difficulty. If something’s hard, it just makes her want it all the more.

Hall has a habit of putting women in physically demanding positions, whether a soldier in 2007’s feminist dystopia The Carhullan Army, a wolf expert in 2015’s The Wolf Border, or a large-scale land artist
in her recent book, Burntcoat.

Visual art is a recurring motif in Hall’s books. Alongside English literature she studied art history at Aberystwyth University in the early 1990s, and her elegantly eclectic home reflects her passion for it. Every time she receives an advance for a new book, she treats herself to a piece – but nothing very expensive.

“I’ve always been interested in putting female characters into the masculine field and taking up space there.”

An imposing installation is hung on her dining room wall – the first she bought following the release of her debut novel, Haweswater, 20 years ago. Valley is by Scottish-Polish artist Mateusz Fahrenholz and it used to hang in a pub she worked in. She went to great lengths to track it down once she could afford to buy it. It features an enamel cup on a chain, not quite able to reach a tap for water, and is surrounded by Soviet-era Polish news clippings. But six novels and four short story collections later and Hall has managed to avert life as a starving artist, although as a writer it can be “feast or famine”.

Burntcoat’s protagonist, Edith, is a practitioner of shou-sugi-ban, the ancient Japanese technique of preserving wood by burning its surface. In the novel, she is commissioned to create a giant sculpture of a burning witch – Hecky – who will rise out of the traffic island at Scotch Corner, known as the gateway to Cumbria, a county with a long artistic history.

“Every time I drive past Scotch Corner I think they need something on that traffic island,” says Hall, between sips of herbal tea at her dining room table. “I like the idea of Edith working large scale and as a land artist because I’ve always been interested in putting female characters into the masculine field and taking up space there.

“I like the idea of her working with wood rather than stone because stone’s got the sense of classical and lasting. Wood’s got more of a sense of it’s old but it’s quite innovative as well and it’s quite flexible. And then burnt wood becomes even stronger. It just occurred to me – centrally what’s going on at the heart of this book? It’s people going through fire and coming out more resilient at the other end.”

As well as the literal fire that Edith uses to create her artwork, the virus in the book is a fire that has spread across the world, causing a high fever in its victims and claiming countless lives. Hall began feverishly writing Burntcoat on the first day of lockdown – a period she homeschooled her daughter through and one she says was “just the next chapter in what is a hard way to live”. The body and its physical capabilities are another Hall motif.

“My mum was a sports coach and I wonder if that’s where it comes from,” she says. But she’s often wondered too if it has something to do with her upbringing in Cumbria, which is mirrored by Edith, who grows up in a remote house isolated from the wider world, with only her brain-damaged mother for companionship.

“Even though I had a brother and two parents it was quite remote – a hamlet near a village, quite a long way away from town. There were moments when it was really secluded – if you got cut off in a snowfall, which was quite regular in my childhood – so it had that feeling of far-flungness.”

It was a practical upbringing, mostly spent outside climbing or swimming, whatever the weather, and one that has perpetually influenced her writing as well as her decision to move back last July, after a nomadic couple of decades that took her to Wales, Scotland, America, Ireland and, latterly, Norfolk.

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“I do think my childhood probably had some sort of effect, but who knows? Genetically you are what you are, aren’t you?

“I’m interested in capacity and capability, particularly in female characters. There’s a big trend for it now in fiction, the return to victimhood for women. I find it really frustrating in literature and in life.

“They don’t always succeed, my characters – they come up against things – but I just think that’s more exciting to read. As a kid, I don’t think I came across many female characters like that.”

Hall remembers finding her first example of one in The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter. “When the mother rides in on a horse to rescue the daughter was the first time I felt pure exhilaration as a reader. Unbelievable! I thought, wow, I want to write those characters.”

Her own mother, originally from Wimbledon, was capable of such extravagance. Her parents followed her father’s sister and moved to Cumbria in search of “a different lifestyle” from the south when her brother was six weeks old. She arrived three years later, in 1974.

“I think she was probably a bit of an eccentric,” Hall laughs, likening her to Binny, the feisty single mother of her protagonist in The Wolf Border, who pushes the boundaries of running the local post office by selling condoms and the Guardian. “That was my mum – this southerner walking around in a big sheepskin coat, smoking cigars and driving this big, classic white Volvo.”

Hall often wonders how her mother adjusted to the move. She didn’t drive at first so would walk to the other side of the valley, two kids in tow, across a moor, past fighting rams and across a river, just to get the bus into town to do the week’s shopping.

“Then she had to come back again. It would have been very hard, but I think that was people’s lives back then. They just got on with it.”

In Hall’s case at least though, life’s not that different now.

“I’ve had a rough, let’s say, decade and I’m used to living in survival mode. Sarah Connor mode, as I call it,” she says, referencing another kick-ass single mother, from The Terminator franchise. “It’s like I need to be rehabilitated, demobbed – like I’ve been in the army.”

Hall is funny. Her humour is dry, charred black but not bitter. She’s a warm and frank conversationalist – which means her intellect and creative insight never intimidate her listener. She speaks like a novelist – lyrical, but not affected. She’s tiny. “A feral child really,” she says, in apology for her crumpled linen shirt and bare feet. But you don’t doubt her ability to lead a resistance in a future war.

Hall’s decade of fire has included ill health, major surgery, traumatic childbirth, divorce and single parenthood, and the death of both parents. Her father had advanced cancer but died officially from Covid in October – “horribly, the week the book came out”. It’s dedicated to him, as well as her daughter, and he managed to read it before he died.

“I do remember feeling not exactly a level of anger at lockdown. It wasn’t that. It was just thinking this is yet another thing that’s going to make it hard for me to maintain my career. I’m not in the position of all these male writers in their sixties who maybe have wives supporting them. That is not what I’ve got at all. It’s all on me so I’m just going to do it. And I think a lot of mothers feel like that, even if they’re not single parents, because there is that political discrepancy, that gender discrepancy still.”

But for her it works in some way.

“It’s like a wind in my sails because you’ve got two choices: you either submit or you fight, maybe because women are often put in a supporting role where you put yourself second. And if you’re putting yourself second, you’re kind of learning how to not have your own needs met. You just haven’t got the luxury of being able to stay in bed.

“I think the natural state of humans might be in some slight sort of panic about something generally, or at least you’ve got to be motivated to survive somehow. To what extent should we expect to feel happy all the time? That is part of being human.”

As well as exploring art and motherhood, Burntcoat is a love story between Edith and Halit, a Turkish chef she has a passionate affair with before the couple are forced into lockdown together. In these close confines the human condition is explored in vivid detail – namely through sex and death (also the title of a 2016 collection of stories Hall edited, with contributors including Ali Smith). Burntcoat is a slim novel that resounds long after you’ve put it down – but put it down you must, to catch your breath after some startlingly visceral scenes.

“There’s a lot of focus on the pinnacle of love in literature being youth and passion and sex and eroticism, whereas I’ve become more interested in the idea of love becoming a more mature thing that includes suffering. One partner might suffer and the other has to care… The two bodies of the lovers I described viscerally, right from the beginning of their relationship to the end. I suppose I saw it all on the same spectrum really. The body in erotic love is the same body during suffering.”

The question is perhaps less why she feels compelled to write about sex this way and more why others don’t.

“That is the question. And I think it’s a bit of a swerve because there’s a lot of ridicule if you don’t write it well,” she says, citing the Literary Review’s annual Bad Sex in Fiction Award – something she says would never happen in any other country. “I do think, descriptively, it’s hard to write, not just because of the physical descriptions and the language used but because the act contains so much else of life – like intimacy or cultural freight, like you see in this book. To exclude it just seems deliberately coy or not ambitious.

“Wherever there’s a hard thing to write about you should push yourself. It’s the same as describing landscape – you move towards it, with respect and ambition and thinking, I’m going to render this accurately with all its mood and meaning and all the rest of it.

“Embodiment is my thing… I’m trying to be a sensualist writer so that people are going to be feeling through those characters and feeling through the book and really having a kind of body and mood and life experience while reading.”

Haweswater tells a fictionalised story of the inhabitants of the hamlet Mardale, which was flooded in the 1930s by Manchester Corporation to create the reservoir of the title, supplying water to to the “midland” cities. True to form it featured a plucky female protagonist, Janet Lightburn, whose name gives clues to the sacrifice she ultimately makes in the name of justice and love. It’s an elemental and powerful novel that Hall wrote aged just 26. But it took a move across the Atlantic, living in the southern state of Virginia with her American now ex-husband, to write a story that she grew up with in Bampton, the neighbouring Westmorland village that many Mardale residents landed in.

“I didn’t yet have all the proper documents so couldn’t work in America and I had time on my hands. At that point Faber had already published around four of my poems in an anthology and I thought I’ll just have a go at writing a novel.”

She believes ambition, determination and talent are enough to ensure success but admits she has had “a bit of luck along the way”. The editor who had published her poems moved over to fiction and she didn’t need a literary agent to get a publishing deal.

“I started out from nowhere really, in an era, especially at Faber, that was dominated by these big, famous men and an old poetry list. And then there’s this young girl from the North, and I was living in America so I wasn’t hobnobbing in the scene, whatever that might be.

“I was an unknown and then the book began to roll and it’s been a snowball effect for me, for which I am really grateful, because I think to get the big hit early is terrifying.”

Hall has enjoyed literary acclaim and awards, including Booker shortlisting and longlisting, but a relatively quiet form of success. She doesn’t buy into her own PR campaign, has never been on social media and doesn’t “play any identity politics”.

“What I would like known about me is my work. It’s meant that it’s been a slower build for my career, but I feel like I’ve got to a better place and I’m stronger for that. You end up free as a writer. I’m not this, that or the other that people are expecting me to be. My books are allowed to be about anything and I absolutely love that.”

The North has proved fertile ground for the novelist, although her approach to writing about it has evolved over the years.

“I’ve gone from Haweswater, which is completely topographically accurate, every single signpost pretty much cross-checked, to Burntcoat, which is dislocated in some ways, even though it’s got the essence of the North in it, I hope.

“I’ve always maintained that the North is not a limitation when writing. Absolutely any story can be told using the North as a springboard and I think opening things up and taking away place names, changing the dimensions [as in The Wolf Border], putting it into the future [The Carhullan Army], just allows you to preserve something of it but then really expand on it.”

It feels like a liberation, she says, because writing about the Lake District in particular comes with a certain amount of expectation from readers.

“People are very precious about it sometimes. They have this idea of what it is, weirdly, even though it was an invention of the Romantics who were all about mutability and change. Now people try and define it in a way that’s nostalgic and nothing to do with change.

“I’m very interested in those conversations about how this becomes a progressive county but there are factions in Cumbria so it’s a very difficult conversation to have – because of farming, because of money, because of the discrepancy of wealth.”

She points to the fact that, outside London, Cumbria has the highest number of Michelin-starred restaurants but still one of the lowest average wages in the country.

“If it’s really going to be a national park, then that’s supposed to be for everyone, including the people that live here and work here. But how do you accomplish that if you’re pricing people out?”

The touristification of the Lake District is in some ways an extension of what she was addressing 20 years ago in Haweswater.

“When things become an industry, where there’s profit to be made, then there’s a loss of control on the ground,” she says.

The Wolf Border questioned the idea of land ownership. In it a large fictional estate owned by one rich man becomes the site of a big ecological experiment to rewild wolves – something she says is not actually possible in the Lake District, unlike in Scotland, due to deforestation. But there are other nature recovery projects underway here, such as the Wild Ennerdale project, where natural processes are being allowed to shape the valley’s landscape and ecology.

“Of course it needs doing more but the question is how,” says Hall. “In The Wolf Border Scotland has declared independence and land has been renationalised so they can. It takes a big political change to get something done like that. Otherwise it’s just a little experiment on a bit of private land.”

More devolution for areas like Cumbria would be a good place to start, she believes, pointing to the movement for Scottish independence as a positive campaign that has recalibrated the idea of nationalism there.

“I’ve always been interested in political systems that really seismically break with what we’ve got, because I feel like if you can’t even imagine it then how do we make any alterations for the better?”

On a personal level, however, Hall has already experienced positive change – and it started with her move back to the Lake District.

“The level of stress and antagonism that I was under – trauma, loss, grief and all the rest of it – does have an effect on you bodily. So one of the things about moving back up here is I know it’s going to help me get well.

“Just being in nature – being able to walk and swim and just trying to take a little bit of time in the day to do that. It’s been like a really lovely homecoming.”

The novelist’s love of visual art is on display at home – and that her return to the Lake District has helped forge her own resilience after grief and illness

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