Author Q&A:
Sarah Hall

(Faber, £12.99 hardback, £14.99 ebook, £19.99 audiobook)

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At her studio Burntcoat, celebrated sculptor Edith Harkness is making her final preparations. The symptoms are well known: her life will shortly come to an end. This was where she brought her new lover Halit during the first lockdown. She reflects on desire, her childhood with her troubled mother after her father left, and the art she created. Cumbria-born, twice Booker-nominated Hall puts a marker down for the first literary classic of the Covid era with this dark and brilliant novel.

When we last spoke to you*, you said your next novel was getting a bit closer and was very odd. Burntcoat isn’t it, though, is it? 
That was another odd novel (they’re all odd!) that Burntcoat barged out of the way in the March 2020. I was working away on the contracted book, and it arrived and urgently took over. My publisher is quite used to this sort of naughty queue-cutting book behaviour though!

You started to write a book about a deadly virus on the first day of lockdown. How radical a proposition was that for you, or is it just an accelerated version of what novelists do anyway? 
The situation we were in felt radical; the book just felt right in its arrival. I suppose it was my particular response to what was going on – sort of a literary first responder impulse. The prospects and scenarios in the novel are ultimately different to our Covid pandemic, but the book was grown in that climate and experience, with all its fears, uncertainties and speculations. I think a lot of novels are written in accelerated, possessing modes – so who can say what an appropriate or normal length of time is for composing and editing a book.

Would you have done anything differently if you’d started to write it now? 
I wouldn’t be writing it now. It took a peculiar, febrile, anxious, contained, stirred-up period of time to make the book. A crucible.

Edith makes sculptures using the Japanese technique of burning wood to preserve it and enhance its beauty. Does that which does not kill us make us stronger – or weaker? 
Both, exactly. I think we become stronger and wiser in some ways under duress, under hard experiences and difficulties. But it’s not without penalty, suffering, disability or scarring – we live through and become “altered in nature”, as Edith realises. Like a virus in the body, there is sickness, reprogramming and fight-back, but immunity isn’t always guaranteed. I’ve had a very hard few years. People keep saying “you’re very strong”, but from the inside I don’t notice strength – I just have to cope. I am interested in the particularly hard experiences women face, and what leads to survival, to success even.

Edith’s sculptures are initially dismissed as folk art. Her mother’s novels are criticised for being “gothic”. Is this the sexism of the male art establishment? 
It’s the sexism of the world patriarchal systems, isn’t it, which shows up in art and literature? Women have, in the past, mostly been seen to “craft”, to make temporary or less lauded things, and men made the lasting fine art. Some areas of art have been almost exclusively male. This of course is changing and the barriers between makers are breaking down. I’m just helping that along – or Edith is.

How does the experience of lockdown shape the new relationship between Edith and Halit? 
They pass through a compressed but full version of a lifetime’s relationship. There’s the sexual chemistry, the growing intimacy, trust, union and commitment, shared housing, an imaginary child, argument, carer’s duties, death, grief and memory/memorial. I loved that so much could be explored in their window of time together. I think it’s been true for our own lockdowns too – relationships blossoming or breaking down.

Is that previous “odd” novel still in the works or, if not, what’s your plans for your next book? 
Back to it. Still with the same puzzles to solve and feeling like fact is stranger than fiction…

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