Cumbrian author Sarah Hall has developed a reputation as one of the most interesting young writers in the country, with a growing number of readers eagerly awaiting new work from her. In part this may be down to the diversity of her work, but it also owes much to her tapping into a socio-historical vein that seems remarkably contemporary even though she sets her novels in the 1900s, 1930s or the near future dystopia of The Carhullan Army.
When Sarah kindly agreed to an email interview last year, one of the first things I asked her was whether her mainstream literary publishers Faber had displayed any negative response to her presenting them with a genre novel.
It has been suggested that in writing The Carhullan Army as Science Fiction you took a radical change of direction in your writing. Did this concern you (or your publishers Faber) at the time?
The book was a departure, in that it’s set in the future rather than being historical fiction, but it deals with ideas I’ve explored before – the disintegration of communities and older industries, inequality, protest – and it uses almost the same territorial setting as Haweswater – the North of England, the Eastern Lake District. I was not concerned. I had faith in the book, and I was excited about it and the elements that felt new to me – the narrative torque, and the projected scenarios.
Nor was there concern at Faber & Faber. There are no restrictions on subject matter for me as a writer: the only requirement is that the books have to be well written and compelling. My publisher doesn’t want or expect the same thing over and over, and I feel lucky to be with a company that values imaginative and intellectual flexibility. I have to meet the literary standard but I’m otherwise free. To be honest, I had no sense of this new exercise being a big deal until the wider book world started talking about it in relation to some existing order.
Your first novel Haweswater has a hint of the fantastic in the story of the Janet Tree, and an element of transcendence in its climax. How much does the fantastic shape your writing? There was mention at one point that you were working on a science fictional novella and possibly some short stories that may be fantastic? Are you a reader of SF and Fantasy much?
The Carhullan Army was the novella: it became a novel. I’m working on a collection of short stories – we’ll have to see which stories make the cut. I really do like the fantastic. It doesn’t govern my work, but there are elements in there. I grew up in an area that has a rich heritage of folk tales, many of which are supernatural. I love this heritage, and the sections in Haweswater are a nod to that. We are essentially creatures of bewilderment and awe. Our brains are not wholly rational and we are very inquisitive. I think we need the unexplained in our lives and we certainly need to tell stories about it.
My main criteria for reading choice is that a book is well written. Past that, I’ll read anything if it looks interesting, or if someone I respect has recommended it. My bookshelves are pretty eclectic. I won’t choose something simply because of genre and I tend to like things that are outside the box, so to speak. So that puts me in a position of having no safe camp when it comes to reading. I don’t mind that. Good books are worth finding, wherever they are shelved in the shops.
Haweswater was compared to Thomas Hardy and DH Lawrence but I see the influence, not just in the Lakeland setting, of Wordsworth above all. It’s a Romantic totemizing of the rural people and the identification of landscape with the imaginative sublime. As a young writer growing up in one of Westmorland’s most remote settlements, was it possible to avoid this tradition?
I have to say there’s no real Wordsworthian influence, and I’m not sure the work is Romantic in that sense. One of my desires is to make the rural characters authentic rather than to represent any notion about the countryside. If anything, the totems are subverted – Janet and Isaac, the traits of women and men, links with earth and water. I don’t think the sublime is an idea I’m working with when it comes to landscape, unless a character has this notion and is being disavowed of it. I think yours may be a reader’s perspective. I’m interested in the working nature of the land as well as its resistance to what we place upon it, metaphysically, and sometimes physically. This is what I’ve grown up with when it comes to Cumbria – farming, sheep, rain, difficulties travelling, self-sufficiency, obduracy, respect. I only came into close contact with any Wordsworth at university, and then I managed, stupidly, not to read him. More interesting to me is someone like Cormac McCarthy, and his ideas about landscape.
Going back to Hardy, however, Eustacia Vye in The Return Of The Native says ‘I was capable of much; but I have been injured and blighted and crushed by things beyond my control.’ That novel may show other direct antecedents of Haweswater but I was struck by that statement as being something Ella Lightburn might have thought, but that she rejects any notion of finality therein. Is it fair to see the roots of your feminism in women like Ella, bloodied by fate but unbowed and defiant? Had you someone in mind?
I write female characters that are strong and complex. If they were male they’d be called strong and complex. Perhaps we aren’t used to very capable women in literature, and so they stand out. The notes they strike, of defiance and stubbornness, of political machinations and intelligence, are, I hope, what make these characters interesting. There are women characters that take feminist stances in the book because the scenario calls for it. Janet and her mother become engaged in disputes that were current during the inter-war period – about the role of women in society and the family. Theirs is an academic fight, but both women exhibit willful and independent qualities. Grace, in The Electric Michelangelo, takes up the fight about the female body, how society thinks it should look, the male gaze etc. But I hope a reader will be careful when it comes to Jackie Nixon in Carhullan. She is perhaps my most complicated ‘feminist’.
Reeda Parks in The Electric Michelangelo is in the same mould as Ella, matter of factly dealing with death and the dying. Jackie Nixon would like to see herself that way, but is she different, damaged by the manner of Vee’s death?
I don’t think damage is what gives Jackie her modus operandi. She is described by other characters in the novel as damaged – as being intemperate because she has lost her moderating partner, but Jackie Nixon uses people to her advantage, knows what to say to them and can press their buttons. If you agree with her passion and ambitions, then lucky you. But she is, as many paramilitary and political leaders are, very clever and very persuasive, and her motives are not transparent. I think in many ways she is a character that is unknowable. Even when I was writing her she felt off the scale. I can’t tell you whether she is heroic – a modern day Boudicca – or whether she is a cold-blooded terrorist who is capable of atrocity on every level. I hope she is portrayed so that the reader is also ambivalent about her.
Some critics have dismissed The Carhullan Army as a step back to 1970’s strident separatist feminism and dystopian SF, but didn’t I read that you describe it as ‘optimistic’? Midway through you explicitly state that Carhullan is not a utopia, but does the framing device of ‘transcripts found in the ruins of a former holding dock’ imply the eventual overthrow of the ‘Authority’?
I think Carhullan is a novel about fanaticism – mental and military. We are unable to get our heads around fanaticism even now, though we are far from unfamiliar with it. Again, because the characters are women, it seems, sadly, they are unable to stand for the universal. The argument presented to Sister – the offence – is one of female subjugation as well as stupid government. But replace this with any other grievance, any other religious or political extremism, and the path to becoming a soldier, a rebel, is, if not the same, then similar. Yes, the book asks a lot of difficult questions about women and how we perceive them. But it also lifts a reader out of our current sense of what fanaticism is, and how it looks, and places them in a whole new scenario, and asks – so how do you feel about it now?
It’s dangerous to tie a book in too closely with an author’s personal beliefs, and people have been doing this quite a lot with The Carhullan Army – perhaps because I’m young, perhaps because it’s a book that stirs people up. But this is a work of fiction, an artifice. I personally believe that the tools feminism provide us with, to investigate society and change it, are still relevant today and will continue to be relevant. Yes, the book might be a warning about climate change, but it is not a manifesto, feminist or otherwise.
I’m glad you asked about the framing device. It doesn’t necessarily imply the overthrow of the Authority, the files have simply been found in the Authority archives, and I think this gives the book a sinister, distanced quality. The files are a record – artifacts – and I did want the reader to speculate about this. Why have the violent sections been cut or censored? Is it about military sensitivity? How is the document being presented? Is it inspirational? Etcetera.
Obviously people focus on the hard, aggressive side of Carhullan but there are counterpoints, less developed characters such as Shruti the former killer who finds peace at the farm. It’s a very short novel, did you consider expanding some of these side-stories at all?
No. I think the length of the novel is right. I feel it would have been too baggy with other developments. Less is more in much fiction.
The Sister at the start of the novel is a very different person to Sister at the end after the revolt. Obviously she changes through her experiences but I wonder if she is literally a different person in the final scene, having gone so rapidly from an ‘ordinary’ member of the community but not in Jackie’s main cadre to second-in-command? Is she an unreliable narrator or were you playing with our assumptions as part of the challenge to the reader?
She is, in a way, unreliable. She is presenting something – her story – that Jackie has ultimately asked her to present. She does change during the course of the book, to become more the soldier and the loyalist, and her narrative is coloured by this, it becomes harder, less sentimental, but she always had a fire in her belly about the situation and this is what Jackie got hold of. Sister does choose her fate, she wants to fight, but she’s also shaped and in service. I suppose the idea is that she is an ordinary woman, an Everywoman, and people who become very radicalized are not outside the realm of ordinary society.
The Carlisle floods were a part of your motivation with The Carhullan Army but there is an echo too of the flooding of Mardale to create Haweswater. Do you feel that when Mardale is revealed in drought years its destruction is romanticised and the essential tragedy of a rural community destroyed to benefit the urban masses is forgotten? Similarly the damage wrought on Carlisle is forgotten whilst pretty little Boscastle is the centre of attention.
I think people find and remember the stories they want to, those that mean something to them.
So whilst the political extrapolation of The Carhullan Army which combines Carlisle with Iraq and 42 day Detention may be exaggerated for fictional purposes there is a genuine rage behind it? Were you wary of trivialising these issues by fictionalising them?
If anything fiction aggrandizes and enlivens issues rather than trivializing them. There’s far more room to explore them in a novel than in the 5 minute slot on the news, no? At least good literature does this. People are very upset about the current wars, and there is a lot of debate about detention, rendition, conventions and treaties: if the book contains these issues it’s not surprising. If readers end up thinking about such issues more, that’s great. But there are no political certainties or proposed answers in the book
A sense of place is clearly important, and in both Haweswater and The Carhullan Army a place dear and close to you, yet you make certain subtle changes. Penrith to Rith, Carlisle to Solway City, the real Carhullan is certainly not 40 miles from Penrith as one character would have it. What was the reasoning behind these changes?
Poetic license. The world of the novel is not the exact world we know now. In the future, everything in the world changes slightly, but is still recognizable. Nor should this world necessarily have the same measurements, distances, square inches, or fabrics. I wanted a sense of the modern, and a sense of everything knocked out of kilter. In terms of the 40 miles – I was thinking about elite training, and it’s referred to later in the novel. In my case, imagination trumps topography. But I know there are people are there who are strident about correct information.
You’ve now written three Tragedies, ever fancied Comedy?
I can’t rule it out.
What next? Amazon is still listing The Bottles for this month. You mentioned short stories. Are they being saved for a collection or have any appeared to be tracked down? Each of your novels is stylistically different (Electric Michelangelo even appears to rhyme in places) do you, as some writers do, use short stories as experiments? Or do you tend towards your poet’s background?
Amazon is behind the times. I’ve a new novel, How To Paint A Dead Man, which is due out in June 2009. I’m editing it now. I’m working slowly on the short stories. The short story is a difficult medium and each one requires discipline…
As Sarah says, her new novel is due this summer, and personally, I can’t wait. She will be reading from it at The Brewery in Kendal in June, and possibly elsewhere in the area too.
Thanks to Sarah and to Anna Pallia/Rebecca Pearson at Faber for facilitating this interview.