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"Some internal revolution is needed": an interview with the author Sarah Hall

The award-winning author Sarah Hall on the irresistible wildness at the heat of her latest collection of short stories, being a judge on the Man Booker Prize and how being a single mother can change the course of a woman’s writing. Interview by Sophie Haydock

  • Your intense and luminous second collection, Madame Zero, was published in July. Where did the inspiration for those short stories come from?
    The stories are really quite varied, so the inspirations are quite varied, too. But generally, I think, large things going on in my life – illness, the birth of a child, and the loss of a mother – form the psychological and maybe even the philosophical basis. The idea of human change is very important throughout, redefinition and adaptability, and the drama, conflict and meaning in our lives that comes from all that.

    The lead story, Mrs Fox, won the BBC National Short Story Award in 2013 and was inspired by a 1922 novella by David Garnett called Lady into Fox. When did you read Garnett’s story and what about it first captured your imagination? Why do you think it’s been so well received?
    I read the novella after I had written my version. I simply knew the plot points of the original, some of which sounded so strange and intriguing, but I knew nothing of the style or anything else. The thing that really interested me was the idea of a husband who attempts to adapt to his wife’s new condition after transfiguration, who accepts the fox children, etc. We are so used to women adapting to the lives and experiences of men, and the reversal to me seemed fascinating. But also that interplay between the wild and the civilized worlds for me is irresistible. A woman going feral!

    I’ve never really used an existing framing device before and I used it very loosely for my story, and made certain big changes, but in a way, it perhaps took the pressure off the draft plotting. I don’t think I’ve worked so freely and so focused before – the story just seemed to arrive steadily, sentence by sentence. I hope it works on mythical and metaphoric levels, so there is wide access, as well as being very particular in the description, so the story’s “reality” convinces. A lot of people have written to me to say that in their lives something similar has happened – a loved one has proved to be unknowable, has changed, whether it was down to illness, a disappearance, or some kind of psychological episode. So I think Mrs Fox perhaps just echoes and symbolises the mutability of relationship dynamics and the challenge we all face.

    Do you have a favourite story in this collection or your first one, The Beautiful Indifference – one that means the most to you – and why?
    There are stories in both collections that I think have achieved a level of good balanced short-story-ness, pace and metaphysics – they include Mrs Fox, Evie, Vuotjärvi, The Nightlong River. I also have affection for some of the others, which hasn’t to do with structure, but is more about content or character, more about knowing the emotional hinterland of their production – Case Study 2, Goodnight Nobody, She Murdered Mortal He.

    You were a judge on this year’s Man Booker Prize. What was that experience like? Have there been any unexpected consequences of reading so many novels and delving so deeply and intensely into other worlds?
    It was exhausting, thrilling, virtually impossible, and a complete honour. Unexpected consequences are surprising adoration of my fellow judges, increased pleasure in reading short stories and poetry, fondness for the high-speed tuna sandwich, gratitude that we live in a country where there are organisations who heartily back literature.

    Has being a literary judge changed how you approach your own writing?
    I’ve judged a lot of prizes now. It does make you consider your own writing – it becomes in a way another layer of formulative and editing awareness, too. After a while you begin to recognise common weaknesses, trends, where mediocrity lies and why, as well as noting those works that seem unique, urgent, unusual, powerful. The whole business is a little like trying to figure out alchemy, but certain aspects rise up in a clear way.

    You’ve written about the challenges of being a single mother and a writer. What more could be done to support female writers who have children?
    Crèches at literary festivals, better support for the accommodation of families during writing residencies, lower point scale and more flexibility for teaching positions, increased paternity leave, funding bodies, tax deductions on childcare. This isn’t just about writers, it’s about general hindrances within society, or, if not problems, then problems yet to be solved. Those child-bearing and rearing years can prove tough on careers. Helpful solutions can come within families, but I have seen very many cases where that was not possible and great women writers have fallen back, and sometimes fallen away from writing and publishing. It’s heart-breaking.

    Do you think there’s a level playing field for male and female authors? Is there anything more that can be done in a bid for equality – blind judging, for example?
    The playing field is not level, but it’s not level in ways that go beyond male and female. Looking at the statistics, perhaps a prize for best female protagonist would help – that doesn’t limit the gender of the authors writing, but it certainly begins to present woman characters as universal. Blind judging helps, gender balanced judging panels help, panels with experts help, challenging male readers helps, but things need to go deeper, throughout the publishing industry. Prizes are just the outer layer; I think some internal revolution is needed. What is being written by women? What are publishers publishing by women and what are they not? What ideas do we have about female and male readers, presentation of ideas, and the marketplace? How is the critical sector letting us down? What are the gender expectations and biases?

    Controversial as this sounds, something more liberating needs to travel deeper still, into the minds and hearts, the confidence and egos of female writers (and perhaps male writers, in another way). I have taught writing for a number of years. Very often, I’ve felt women need to feel they have permission to write, and might not be tackling topics that seem “difficult” or “important” or “expert”. But once they are encouraged, once they get going… wow.

    Who have been the most influential short story writers for you? Is there one story that stopped you in your tracks, or that you keep returning to, or do you have a preferred author of short stories that you follow obsessively?
    Here’s a list of some of my favourites, in no particular order – Flannery O’ Connor, Angela Carter, Tessa Hadley, James Salter, Junot Diaz, George Saunders. At the moment I am reading a collection of work in translation, by the Turkish writer Sait Faik Abasıyanık. Amazing. The short story has traditions all over the world and I want to travel in those directions more.

    Sarah Hall’s latest collection of short stories, Madame Zero, is out now (Faber & Faber £8.99)