Author Q&A: Sarah Hall
The seven tales in the third collection of short stories from Sarah Hall transport readers from Turkish forests to her native Cumbria. A woman fitted with life-saving technology returns to the site of her strongest memories, a man repatriated to the Near East stalks an old lover, a lawyer takes on work for a women’s shelter and a mythical creature evolves from her anger. Through a broad range of characters Hall returns to familiar themes of female power, motherhood and death.
You’re discussing the short story at Manchester Literature Festival in October. What do you find so compelling about the form?
I love the potency, disquiet and provocation that the form offers. The best versions condense relationships, worlds, cultures and histories into scenarios, episodes and small theatres, so there is a sense of real artfulness to their writing, allusive and interpretive qualities. The form just seems bigger than its components’ parts. A reader might bring all that they know, suppose to be true or believe to the reading experience, and have those assumptions subverted within a few pages, or even within paragraphs. Short stories can feel very challenging as well as entertaining, by which I don’t mean they are literally difficult to read. Economy of phrasing and narrative torque might mean quite the opposite, they’re swift, explosive, and moreish, but the content more often than not disturbs.
Cumbria still figures strongly in Sudden Traveller but Turkey is a recurring location too. What’s your relationship with the country and why has it provided literary inspiration?
My boyfriend is Turkish and I’m learning the language. I’ve travelled to Turkey a few times and have recently read some wonderful literature in translation. The country is obviously a very diverse, historically and politically layered place, but the current government is at odds with that – in some ways this seems a barometer for problems around the world, here too. I took an ancestry DNA test recently and found there was some north Turkish region in the results, and it’s amazing to think how much of a cultural human hub the area has been. I like to think of that, anyway, in this depressing era of wall-building, political othering, and division. I’m finding that travel is a very important influence for my short fiction. Perhaps 50 per cent of the stories I’ve written have come from travels, either within the UK or across the world – Mozambique, Finland, the Pacific Northwest, etc. I’m not sure what the relationship is exactly, but the result is a kind of travel fiction. I’ve always thought of my work as an inquiry, into people, places, politics, identity, and I think that aspect really expresses itself in the short form.
Death stalks the characters in your stories. Is it the ultimate thematic preoccupation in literature?
One of them. If you think about the production of art, as basic as a handprint of the wall, it is about reiterating our existence, countering mortality and meaninglessness; it’s saying, we are here, we were here, we matter. It’s also about companionability with the living. In some ways my characters actively stalk death too – interrogate it, collaborate with it, have a grotesque little dance with it, even breastfeed the baby next to it. In the story Orton, death is dialled on the phone, and it’s a welcome return to a natural human state, rather than a mechanical one – the ultimate choice. In Who Pays? knowledge of death is a sanctioned weapon used by women in order to protect their futures and their freedoms. I suppose I see death, or mortality – that shadow – as a central player in short stories because the form seems to inherently enjoy disrupting all our engineered controls, safeties, civility, and the biggest disruptor of equilibrium is the figure in black driving our bus.
Twelve years on from the release of Carhullan Army and female rage has grown to mythical proportions in the story M. Is there power in our collective anger?
Immense power. Many movements to create change have a vital angry stage. We could think of it as a positive libidinous (by which I mean a life-force) motivator. Think of that moment when rocks were thrown through Parliament’s windows by suffragettes – in which spirit was that act committed? It’s interesting how anger is still regarded in relation to women. I think we’ve often been told and taught not to be angry, even when anger is legitimate and appropriate – it’s simply unbecoming, ladies. It’s a way to divert attention away from the content of complaint, a way to neutralise combat. If you are told and taught that you aren’t entitled to anger, you begin to question the validity of your argument, your protest, your knowledge of wrongdoing, perhaps you begin to let those accountable for creating your anger off the hook. Anger might be a blunt instrument, or it might give focus, but it certainly has its place in resistance, reform, and eventually enlightenment. M moves beyond anger, anger is the emotional womb from which she is born, or self-born, but she grows into an incalculable “human-proof” force, she ceases to be operated by it. I’ve always found those moments in literature very interesting, the moments, as James Salter wrote, when “the knife must be pushed in coldly or the victim triumphs”.
One character reflects on: “People as fundamental as the sky, gone before they can be shared by future generations”. It is a condition of the writer to want to preserve a part of themselves in their prose and has that become more important to you since becoming a mother?
I don’t think it’s necessarily about self-preservation or bequeathment, though I do note my short stories are, in part, more autobiographical than my novels. I’ve always considered existentialism in my work. But I am aware that there are particular literary conversations I wish to have now I am a mother, about roles and identities, real or constructed, and about time. When you have a child and lose a mother in very close succession, as I did a few years ago, you become aware of the continuum, the conveyer we temporarily move along. The collection title (and the story) Sudden Traveller recognises this and tries to come to turns with it. But going back to the self in writing – I’ve always felt more like a conduit in terms of fiction. Something rises up and through. If I’m trying to get anything down on the page it is, I hope, societally inspired and relevant.
When we last spoke you told us you were working on a novel and you said plans for it were pretty odd and you weren’t sure if you’d pull it off. Are you any closer?
A bit closer, and it’s still very odd.
Sarah Hall is in conversation with Manchester Literature Festival, 12 October, International Anthony Burgess Foundation. Big Issue North is a proud media partner (manchesterliteraturefestival.co.uk). Sudden Traveller is out on 7 November