Sarah Hall

Sarah Hall Sarah Hall is the Winner of the Commonwealth Writers' First Book Award for the Eurasia Region for her debut novel Haweswater (Faber & Faber) and her novel Electric Michelangelo has been shortlisted for this year's Man Booker prize. She was born in Cumbria in 1974 and now lives and works in North Carolina. She kindly answers a few of our questions ...

Mark Thwaite  Why Electric Michelangelo? What made you want to write this particular story?

Sarah Hall  "I have always been fascinated by folk art and tattooing and so the first thought of writing Electric Michelangelo came from this interest. It seemed like quite fresh, unbroken ground for literature too, not much has been written primarily about tattooing (tattoos seem to feature as clues in mysteries or as erotica in novels rather than being an art form investigated and celebrated) and I like the idea of travelling out into new territory in my fiction. I knew I wanted to write another historical piece and the link between tattooing and the old seaside industries of Britain and America seemed an obvious and useful one, and this is how I arrived at the settings for the novel - Morecambe Bay and Coney Island, with their carnival fairground character. There are a few other issues directly linked with the craft of tattooing that compelled me too - the human body, the mysterious urge to ornament, identity, symbolism, commemoration of life's experiences through art - hopefully these have been thrown open for the reader during the course of the book."

MT  Electric Michelangelo is obviously a very different story to Haweswater and yet they are linked, noticably, by a very similar sensitivity - for you, in what way are the two books similar, and in what ways different?

Electric Michelangelo

SH  "The main similarity between Haweswater and Electric Michelangelo is probably writing style. I enjoy using a poetic form of prose. In Haweswater the language, narrative and imagery is all quite dense, in Electric Michelangelo I was trying for a lilting, lyrical, rhyming form of communication. I wanted each to compliment the subject of the books. Other similarities include a nostalgia for the old declining industries in this country - Lakeland hill farming in the first and the seaside resort in the second. And of course there is probably a consistancy terms of female politics. I try to create strong, defiant, complex female characters, characters driven by belief and intelligence, active women opperating on their own terms rather than being overly concerned with how big their bums look in their trousers, and while the women walking around in the two books are substantially different due to the nature of the tales, most contain this basic sororal hub of strength. There are themes of belonging and loss that tie the two novels together too, the correlation of good and bad, and troubled but exquisite romances between characters. The differences between Haweswater and EM lie in location, time period, and central perspective, but on a subtler level I think the latter has more of a sense of gentle reconcilliation to it along side the tragedy, where Haweswater ends rawly and uncompromisingly and with unmitigated devastation. Note to self - must improve sales pitch ..."

MT  How do you write? Longhand, straight onto the computer? How much research do you do?

SH  "I take alot of scrawling and unorganised notes during historical research with a frightening black pen which only make it onto the page and into print after travelling through the murky, warping, corrupting, labyrinthine channels of the brain. I jot down little poetic images as I go just as chaotically it seems but there may be method to the madness I'm not conscious of. Mostly, during the drafting process, I now work straight with a laptop rather than like ye olde scribe with ink and paper. I like to think I have a very good relationship with the helpful Microsoft paperclip, but like any partnership I probably don't pay it enough attention really and it's secretly mad with me... I do a reasonable amount of research, historical, geographical and topical, specific sourcing, (for example investigating the engineering on the Haweswater dam and materials used for stencilling in old-fashioned tattooing - I fully confess to being a happy nerd when it comes to finding out about these things). I'm keen to make the work as detailed and authentic as possible for the reader, challenging and rich. Wherever possible I like to interview folk rather than cracking open a dusty history book - people are endlessly fascinating and helful and anecdotal and eccentric. Perhaps it's just the human side of history I like, and this is it at heart."


MT  What is coming next?

SH  "Can't say, my editor and agent will have me tortured and shot at dawn. Something big and then something even bigger. Possibly some poetry somewhere down the line ..."

MT  What is your favourite book/who is your favourite writer? What are you reading now!?

SH  "Difficult questions. I have favourite collections of poetry, poetry being my first love, including Dylan Thomas, Yehuda Amichai, James Tate, and a few others. For prose I'm a big fan of Michael Ondaatje - Coming Through Slaughter is one of my favourite books, it's so originally written and bold and the content amazes me, the repetition of "passing wet chicory that lies in the field like the sky...", great stuff. Peter Carey is another fantastic yarn teller. I am reading The Haunting of L at the moment by Howard Norman, about spirit photography amoung other things, and really enjoying it. I also keep turning to The Brink, a collection of poetry by the Cumbrian writer Jacob Polley, which is increadibly beautiful - for both its construction and content. I keep it in my bag wherever I am like some kind of shining talisman and reminder of the north. "

MT  What book do you wish you had written?

SH  "The bible, I may have altered a few things... No, the one I'm writing now, but that's just the compulsive in me wanting to get things done."

MT  Do you have any advice for the aspiring writer!?

SH  "Get the hell on with it and stop watching television. It's so difficult to give advice about the act of creating itself. I think people who have it in them to write, those who have that strange and delicate mixture of talent, tenacity, discipline, eternal hope, or possibly pessimism, and all the rest, will either just do it anyway, or they'll find encouragement in odd and unexpected things, oblique things, not necessarily tailored professional advice. It could be anything that sets a writer into motion, at any given moment. An observation, a word, an incident, random, rarified, the aesthetic of making dark little letters go onto a white page in some kind of order. Past that I think it's good to bear in mind that the literary industry is as mad as a bowl of frogs."

MT  Anything else you'd like to say?

SH  "Whenever I'm done browsing the online global conspiracy theory websites I always like to click on ReadySteadyBook."

MT  Well, thank you, Sarah!
-- Mark Thwaite (10/08/2005)

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