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Sarah Hall

BACK TO NATURE

 

 

Alexandra Masters meets the award-winning Cumbrian author with a feeling for the landscape 

 

 

Just ten minutes into my converstaion with Sarah Hall and I’ve already hit a nerve: I make the mistake of reminding her that some people claim she ‘writes like a man’.

‘What does that mean?’ she asks, throwing her hands in the air. ‘I don’t understand. People have tried to qualify that by saying it’s “muscular” writing, it’s “visceral”, it’s “brutal”... Is it confidence? Is it about aggression? Are those things in any case male attributes? But that’s to say women’s writing’s all about flowers and donkeys and buttercups and the kitchen sink and giving birth!’

She continues, her voice quickening. ‘It’s annoying when you do see reviews like Day, for example, by
AL Kennedy. Somebody reviewed the book by saying, “Why would she want to write about a Second

World War bomber pilot?” I just think, well why the fuck wouldn’t she? Why does there have to be this limitation on subject matters that you can choose and the way you express yourself?’ She looks out of the window of the Faber & Faber office, as if hoping to find an answer in the busy Bloomsbury street below.

It turns out that, since the publication of her third novel, The Carhullan Army, Hall has not been immune to this kind of ‘literary sexism’ herself. ‘One reviewer was comparing it to a sort of espionage novel,’ she remembers with an expression almost of bemusement. ‘It was a really strange review and fixated on the kind of gun I’d chosen the main character to carry in her rucksack to the farm. He was stressing that the gun was too big to fit in a rucksack... I’d researched the shortest Second World War rifle to fit into a rucksack! 

It was such a weird thing to fixate on but the reviewer was like, “Oh but never mind she writes about the landscape really well. Stay away from the guns, love, write about the pretty things!” Does that count as sexist? I don’t know. It could just be that one reviewer had an issue with Second World War rifles!’ 

 

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We'd run about the place, build rafts and go down the river and set fire to bushes  on bonfire night on the moors. It was very free... it is a beautiful place.’ 


 

DYSTOPIA   

 

The army rifle to which Hall refers is carried by the narrator of The Carhullan Army, known only as ‘Sister’, as she heads into the Cumbrian moors in search of the eponymous Army, a separatist group of women living on a remote farm. The book is a tough, futuristic fable that drags us into a dystopian Britain which (under terrorist threat) is now governed by the so-called Authority. In the aftermath of ecological disaster and economic collapse, burdened with curfews, censorship and forced contraception, society has reached breaking point. But Sister’s attempts to resist this oppression and create a new life with the commune does not turn out as expected and, faced with a new kind of fanaticism, she is forced, once again, to evaluate the true meaning of freedom. 

With a distinctly more terse and direct (or as some critics have described it, ‘masculine’ and ‘muscular’) language, Carhullan marks a clear departure from the lyrical prose of previous novels like The Electric Michelangelo, the sad, beautifully written tale of a fictional tattoo artist – indeed, it’s not hard to believe Hall began her writing career as a poet. ‘[Carhullan] is first person narrative so there’s only so much frill you can get 

away with if it’s a statement,’ Hall explains matter- of-factly. ‘It had to be taut; you had to be able to imagine her saying most of these sentences out loud.’

Carhullan was written just after the devastating floods of 2005 in Carlisle. ‘I was caught up in it and my house was flooded really badly. That was quite a catastrophic event; I mean the whole city was knocked out.’ She pauses. ‘And then you start to wonder, well, if this is a fifty-year flood can we keep calling all these floods fifty-year floods, are they or are they not? We don’t really know yet do we. I just started to think, well if there is more of this to come, and the predictions seem to be saying that, then what are the implications for society?’

So was the book written as a kind of warning? ‘Maybe not so much a warning but certainly a kind of reservoir of those anxieties. Always the news is fairly terrifying when you turn it on but there was something about those years just before writing Carhullan where everything seemed terrifying: terrorism, climate change, economic problems that were being set up or beginning to bear out... and it all went into the writing of that book.’ 

She admits she often feels a sense of helplessness. ‘If climate change is happening, what do I do as an individual? There is a great sense of foreboding: all this economic collapse, you feel fairly impotent to do anything. [There’s] a sense of feeling powerless and vulnerable in this big, swirling, political cauldron.’ But Hall found Carhullan offered her an arena for her character to dissent. ‘Maybe that was a way of trying to feel like you’re doing something or allowing the reader to feel like they’re doing something; they’re going on a journey with this one character who’s going to remake herself and rebel and say, “I don’t believe things should be this way; I want to do things differently” and actually does something
different... but to a very extreme degree.’ 


 

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BACK TO NATURE    

 

Such deep concerns with climate change and growing ecological threats are perhaps unsurprising considering Hall’s background which is steeped in nature and the wilderness.

Born in 1974, Hall was brought up on the east side of the Lake District at a time, she says, when it was very agricultural and not quite as popular with tourists – ‘it had a sense of being much quieter and not as romantic.’ Her childhood memories are rustic and wild, full of outdoor adventures with her brother as they ran about building rafts to travel down the river and set fire to bushes on the moors on bonfire night. ‘It was very free,’ she says nostalgically. ‘And beautiful, it is a beautiful place.’ 

However, her home was a long way from the village, and that was some ten miles from the nearest town, and she admits it did get very lonely. ‘It did have a feeling of remoteness and you very easily get cut off in the winter because it snows and power lines went down so you’d be relying on paraffin lamps... it sounds like a different era, it was only the 1980s! But the Lake District was such an atmospheric place; you’re not immune from its character... maybe that’s true of wherever you’re brought up.’

Landscape, particularly that of the north, is a recurring theme in Hall’s novels and her evocations of nature, its wilderness, its sights and smells, are powerful. It makes you want to throw on your boots and stride across the winter moors to experience the reawakening Sister feels when she gets her first taste of freedom. ‘All around, the wind stroked the tawny grassland... I could smell gorse blossoming sweetly against its spines. After the confinement and industrial stink of the town [...] this harsh and fragrant expanse was invigorating. It was the smell of nature, untouched and original, exempt from interference. For all my weariness it made me feel a little more alive, both human and feral together, and somehow redeemed from the past.’ 


 

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Sarah hall

Sarah Hall © Graham Jepson/Writer Pictures

LYRICAL

 

In Haweswater, Hall’s debut novel about the collapse of a 1930s’ northern farming community following plans to build a reservoir, evocations of nature take on a more elegiac, lyrical tone from the running
water of the valley that carries ‘the breaking soul of winter’ with its ‘thousands of dying flakes in one long, moving water-coffin’ to the rain that hisses ‘like soft glass coming from the sky’. 

I was surprised to discover that Hall was living in America when she wrote Haweswater. How on earth did she manage to conjure such acute sensations and create such intimacy with the geography of the area whilst being thousands of miles away? ‘The Lake District travels so far into you that I can remember all the fragrances, the bracken and the gorse and the peat of the uplands,’ she explains. ‘And I had a forensic interest as a child in all that stuff, in the details of it. You can bring it back when you need it when you’re writing. It’s so flavoursome a place that you probably couldn’t help but soak it up somehow.’

She admits she was travelling back from the States quite often – ‘so it wasn’t that I was completely cut off; I wasn’t in exile from the Lake District.’ And, while Haweswater is not a book about exile, Hall points out that there is a sense of nostalgia and homesickness because ‘it is about a community that’s losing their homes’. 

There is one moment in the book when the power of the landscape takes on a spiritual aspect when the character of Janet Lightburn finds herself ‘pressed between two vast mountains’ but feels, rather than claustrophobia or repression, something more sacred. ‘It is a holy land [...] she would have her ashes scattered to the open face of the scar. She has given herself over to this saturated strip of Westmorland.’
Does Hall find a similar solace in nature, I wonder? She looks thoughtful. ‘I possibly do. Somehow it’s good for thinking and walking around. I feel very comfortable outdoors. I probably feel more comfortable
outdoors, more refreshed and invigorated, than I do indoors... not that I’d want to be sleeping out!’ She laughs. ‘Do I find solace in it? I don’t know, maybe, maybe. I went to church when I was a kid and sang in the choir but I moved away from thinking about religion and God and I suppose I would turn to the natural before I turned to a faith. But then lots of people travel to the Lake District for that reason; because they think it’s going to somehow purify... well not purify, but console them, refresh them.’ 



 

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beautiful indiffernce The Beautiful Indifference

by Sarah Hall

is published in trade paperback

by Faber & Faber, price£12.99.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Sarah Hall

Sarah Hall © Graham Jepson/Writer Pictures

BEAUTIFUL INDIFFERENCE


The power of nature is one of the many themes Hall returns to in her latest book, The Beautiful Indifference, a stunning collection of short stories (published in November 2011). This (albeit very different) notion of solace in nature is echoed in the story, ‘The Nightlong River’, a curious tale about a character, Dolly Carter, who, concerned about her friend’s mysterious illness, sets her mind to ‘the anthology of vermin’ and goes mink-hunting to make a cape. The story’s ending offers a brave view on nature and death: ‘The truth of death is a peculiar thing. For when they leave us the beloved are as they never were. They vanish from this earth and vanish from the air. What remains are moors 

and mountains, the solid world upon which we find ourselves, and in which we reign.’

Another story revisits Carhullan’s theme of female violence. ‘Butcher’s Perfume’ (which Hall in fact wrote as a ‘warm up’ for The Carhullan Army) takes us into the world of the Slessors, a family ‘forged from the old rage of the north’. We meet Manda Slessor, who, with eyes ‘that got set off easily, like

a dog chained up all its life and kicked about’, boasts of beating up two girls at once outside a pub. The violence is brutal, the scenes of suffering unforgettable – after reading the horrific images of a horse’s dying body ‘its ribcage angled up through its flesh like the frame of a boat being dismantled... its hooves twisted into thick discoloured spirals’, it’s not hard to see why Hall’s writing is often described as ‘unflinching’. But she also relishes in the landscape and language of the north, that ‘giversum old country’ with its ‘brobbs’ of fennel and ‘mizzling’ April days and ‘kessen’ moon.

But, refreshingly, this collection also ventures away from the north to new terrains as we travel from various towns in Britain to Finland and Mozambique. ‘I’m interested in place no matter where that is,’ says Hall. ‘I don’t think you necessarily have to have been to a place. I mean, no writer’s been to Mars but we have genre fiction that’s set on Mars. So long as you can persuade the reader that they’re there, somehow, then fine.’ She admits she will probably keep returning to the north in her writing but she does not see place as limiting or confining. ‘You can tell any human story in most places so it doesn’t necessarily dictate what I’m writing, but it enhances it in a way.’ 

 

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sarah hall

Sarah Hall © Graham Jepson/Writer Pictures

SCIENCE


Other stories like ‘The Agency’ and ‘Bees’ return to the darker aspects of sex, while ‘Vuotjarvi’ touches again on the relationship between nature and science. In the latter story, a young couple, attempting to relax by a beautiful lake in Finland, read ‘dreadful sections’ out to each other from a speculative text about humanity’s chances of extinction. ‘All the ways it might happen. Plague. Bioterror. Asteroid impact...’

While Hall is interested in science, she tells me she does not see it as necessarily an enemy of nature. ‘I think it has been portrayed historically that way... even in something like Frankenstein, “I pursued nature to her hiding place.” There’s a move at the moment to try and understand nature in the grandest, most physical, chemical way so there’s this resurgence in the interest in space. And that is landscape and science. I don’t think the two things are necessarily at odds, I mean, if you look at something like the industrial revolution then, yes, you can see that nature’s being given up for something else being destroyed. But that’s an extreme example.’


 

 

 

Landscape, particularly that of the north, is a recurring theme in Hall’s novels and her evocations of nature, its wilderness, its sights and smells, are powerful. 


 

Another relationship, that of art and literature, is also explored in Halls’ work, particularly her fourth novel, How to Paint a Dead Man – an ambitious work spanning half a century that interweaves disparate stories from a dying painter in Italy and a Cumbrian landscape artist to a London girl struggling with the loss of her twin brother.

There is a striking moment early in the novel when the Italian artist is saddened by a journalist’s interpretation of his painting. ‘He does not see choice. He does not see beyond the quartet of fruit in the dish [...] he sees only the surface. To him, the painting on the easel is a funeral. It is careful and uncluttered, and it is not loud enough for him to understand.’ Hall says she has always been intrigued by fine art, which is why she wrote the book. ‘I just don’t understand how that thing in a tube can create a trompe l’oeil painting eventually, it’s incredible!’

She believes there are thematic links between art and literature but adds, ‘There are historical influences between any of the arts in any given period, but the alchemy is always different.’ She pauses, and seems to have second thoughts. ‘Maybe there are similarities. I suppose the way things are produced and being a practitioner of what you do – which is a horrible, ugly word – but, you’re

stuck in your space, labouring away, probably not getting paid very much to begin with. You might
get a lucky break; you might fall back into obscurity. There are similarities in terms of the profession rising and falling.’ 

 

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MADNESS


Which leads us to the mysterious process of writing. Is it lonely? Or cathartic maybe? ‘I never felt it to be cathartic really,’ she says. ‘You know lots of writers talk about being lonely but when you’re actually writing I don’t think you are lonely. It could be that you’re not mixing with people in an office and it’s not sociable but the actual writing is companionable.’ However, she admits there is an element of madness to the creative process. ‘[Writing] a novel you know you’re going to be insane for three years. You feel it coming on and you have to embrace it.’

But there is a different method when it comes to writing short stories. ‘They’re cleaner, tighter versions [of novels]. It’s what you leave out, and the way you kind of stride across the page in just a few deft movements. It was much more challenging: there’s a real feeling with a short story that you’ve crafted something well or you’ve failed, like a poem.’ She adds that she is writing more short stories and is currently working on her latest novel, details of which she cannot divulge. 

She sees the act of writing as a kind of ‘impulse’, likening it to how ‘a musician would pick up a guitar’, and as a type of gift. ‘In a way, you’re making something that you hope someone will like and wrapping it up and giving it to them. What you want to achieve is a piece of art that holds many meanings and is beautiful. You can try analysing it and I can come up with suggestions about what the book’s about, what I was interested in, but then a reader could come up with a different batch [of interpretations] and that’s fine and that’s good.’

I am beginning to realise that this is typical of Hall: never comfortable attaching herself to a solid conclusion, preferring to revel in the complexities and paradoxes. Similarly, she dislikes the idea of trying to pigeon-hole books by theme. ‘You know we love to say, “Well, the theme of that book is love or loss” but it’s never that simple. It’s always a kind of knotty mass of things.’ 

She also has an aversion to novels with definitive endings and prefers films that leave you with more questions – ‘the ones that really annoy people!’ But she feels that today’s novels are improving because they are ‘getting more realistic and natural.’ She adds: ‘That’s the beauty of the novel. I don’t think they can be conclusive somehow; I don’t know that you can have a final answer. I really like things that are a bit of an echo of something, a portion of life that you might experience with someone else. That’s what I’m aiming for when I write.’ 



 

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We'd run about the place, build rafts and go down the river and set fire to bushes  on bonfire night on the moors. It was very free... it is a beautiful place.’