Sarah Hall: ‘I used to almost fear opening a book’ | Fiction

Sarah Hall, 48, is the Cumbrian-born author of award-winning short stories and novels, including Mrs Fox and The Electric Michelangelo. His last, burnt coat, is one of the first long-form Covid-era works of fiction to tackle life during — and long after — a pandemic, though the plague it depicts is far deadlier. His searing prose deals with so much more, including themes of art, intimacy and memory.

When did you start writing burnt coat?
On the first day of the first confinement in March 2020, with notebooks and a pen, which I had not done since my first novel, 20 years ago. It seemed like a response to what was going on – that strange scribbling in the smallest room of the house, very early in the morning when it was quiet and strange.

And you kept it even at home school your daughter?
There was a part of me that thought, “This is just one more thing that’s going to make the job hard and I’m going to do it anyway.” I was anxious, but I’m a single parent and I’m going into, as I call it, Sarah Connor mode from The terminator: it’s over there, here is my child, what should I do? Get buff! My hand hurt because I wasn’t used to writing so much.

What did you know of the novel at the start?
I had a sense of form if not plot, and was hoping this would be the powerhouse little novel – these are my favorites to read. I also had a feeling that it would kind of understand what was going on – at least the fear and the uncertainty – and that there would be a relationship and a meeting of cultures.

What about research?
I researched the clog, over the phone with the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. It was really interesting and horrifying – not because of Covid, because of everything just out there in tanks waiting to blow up. I love nourishing myself with discoveries, it makes writing livelier because I am invigorated. My writing is often unresolved; for me, writing is like investigating.

Has the pandemic changed your vision of your role as a writer?
I hadn’t felt this much urgency in a while. I think these big national moments spark a feeling of wanting to do something, and for me the response has been to sit down and work. It’s like when five feet of snow falls overnight in the Lake District – you have to get out and start digging.

Your heroine in burnt coat she is told that she has “a high tolerance for uncertainty”. How is it going ?
Not good, and that’s probably why I’m writing about it. I’m getting better – I think you have to as you get older. I’ve lost both of my parents in the last six or seven years, and that puts everything in a different light.

Are there any creative works that comfort you when you think about mortality?
Lots of paintings by Egon Schiele. You get death by kissing a woman and it’s hard to watch but it pays off a lot – you have to recognize things about the body and being here and now. It’s not comfort they offer, but that’s not what I want to see or read anyway.

What do you want to see or read?
Something that tries to find a human truth. I still really like the work of James Salter, and I keep quoting that line from Solo faces, one of his first novels: “There is a moment when you have to coldly plunge the knife, otherwise the victim triumphs. It’s horrible but psychologically it’s totally fine.

Your backlist includes some great titles.
And some really obscure ones! I love titles. I have a document just for titles – I gave titles to writer friends.

What always brings you back to artists as protagonists?
I have many artists in the family and I studied art history. When people would ask me about influences, I would probably name artists, paintings and music rather than literature. It’s also great to be able to write about art – I like the challenge of moving things from one discipline to another.

Have you ever thought of becoming an artist yourself?
No, I haven’t settled into a technical apprenticeship, but I make shadow boxes. I exhibited one in an exhibition organized by Robert Macfarlane. I am also talking about writing as doing. It feels almost tactile, structural – and musical.

You recently made a program for Radio 4 on Radiohead Ok Computer. How was it?
Really fun and really geeky. There are so many Radiohead fans out there, and this album touched a lot of us in our early twenties and really captivated us.

Tell me about a writer you admire.
Svetlana Alexievich, the Belarusian writer. I absolutely loved it The unfeminine face of war and there’s also the fact that she’s been candid about the current state of affairs with Ukraine and Russia, and encouraged prominent Russians to work against the disinformation campaign.

Did you read a lot in your childhood?
I had a very difficult relationship with books. I grew up in a fairly remote part of the Lake District and wanted more children. I was almost afraid to open a book, as if it were a portal or an oubliette that was going to lead me even further into solitude.

What changed?
I read a few books that really landed with me – Z as Zacharias by Robert C O’Brien was one of them. I’m still a difficult reader. I may be deficient, but I just can’t read something that, as Andrew Miller describes it, is a PNN: a perfectly enjoyable novel. I’m a sensualist, and if you want to get me into a book, you better be damn good at creating a world as good as this world, down to the atom.

Are there any other books that have stuck with you since childhood or reading to your daughter?
I pulled a little story from good night moon by Margaret Wise Brown. There’s a page that’s blank and just says, “Good night nobody.” Every time I read the line, I felt dizzy. It’s so creepy! That’s the thing with children’s literature; sometimes it’s so strange that you can’t analyze it.

What’s on your bedside table?
I read King’s Painter by Amy Sackville, which is great – it’s about Velázquez, so it’s really interesting about the art world and beautifully written. And Regenesis: Feeding the World Without devouring the planet by George Monbiot has just landed. It’s scary, isn’t it, getting into these books that you know are going to be really important and pretty scary?

What’s the last book you left unfinished?
I do it so much I can’t even remember. It’s not just the hustle and bustle with reading, there are so many things I love to do.

Is writing one?
I enjoy writing more than most other things. It’s tough and the pressure is on to pay the bills, but I’m okay with the times when I don’t put words on the page every day. Novels are like marathons – you may only have so many in you before your knees go.

Are there any classics you’re ashamed of not having read?
I feel no shame, especially not for those I was supposed to read for my degree. I haven’t read any Dickens – not a word. I did not read The Wuthering Heights either, but I had it read to me, which was great.

By who ?
I can not tell.

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