Writer Sarah Hall has been shortlisted for the Edge Hill Prize three times. She won in 2012 for The Beautiful Indifference and won the Readers’ Prize in 2018 for Madame Zero. Her story The Grotesques has just won this year’s BBC National Short Story award and is one of the stories in her collection Sudden Traveller, which is shortlisted for this year’s Edge Hill Prize. We caught up with Sarah and asked her a few questions about her work and writing.
What is the relationship between your identity and your writing? Do they affect each other?
What a difficult question! I have been a writer for 20 years and more – it’s my main profession, so I squarely think of myself as a writer, and not just in those moments of undertaking the act itself, because the overall practice is far more complex than putting words on the page. But I think the traffic must be heavier from identity to writing. Of course, identity is mutable and progressive, involving all the influences, roles and states of being, all the places and experiences that life brings. I like the prospect that this makes fiction inherently mutable and progressive too. The epigraph in How To Paint A Dead Man is a quote by Gaston Bachelard: ‘Things are not what they are, they are what they become.’ Surely it’s true of writers and their writing too?
How have you found writing over lockdown? Did any particular book/s or writer/s help you get through it?
It helped me get through it. I wrote a short novel. It was written in the early hours of each day, in a fugue but urgent state. Not much reading was done alongside, though I was sending a poem a day to a friend, selected from my favourite writers.
What are your feelings when you sit down to the blank page?
I’m going to have to ruin you beautifully.
Syd Field says that before a scriptwriter writes a single word of dialogue, they should know four things about their screenplay. The beginning, the end and Plot points 1 & 2. Do you need to know anything before starting a story? And if so, what?
I have a sense of its spirit or essence. That’s not exactly or exact content, style or plot, but an intuition of voice and occurrence and mood within a form. It might be the meeting of several key things. I suspect I’m a very different kettle of fish to Syd Field.
Finish these statements in no more than six words:
Stories are… Stories should… Stories don’t…
This is a far worse proposition than a blank page. In fact, it’s nightmarish for me to attempt, so I shall pass.
Here is the first sentence of the first story readers encounter in your collection, “A warm, damp, starless night in the city.” Seeing it now, isolated like this, if you could rewrite it, would you and how would you change it?
I would not change it. The stories are crafted, each line is crafted; so much time is spent on them. And, luckily for me, I have a series of scrutinizing editors, who would and do pull me up, line by line, if they think it’s necessary. I did think long and hard about the order of stories in this particular collection. ‘M’ was either going to open or close it. The decision to place it first was right – for starters it pulls no punches, sorry to use a boxing analogy but it probably lets the reader know exactly which ring they’ve stepped into. It’s a story that feels, counter-intuitively, like a culmination of power and ascendency, suggesting an ending, but it actually asks quite difficult questions about what comes after a reckoning, what we choose to be and our human progress. The other stories then take up that question in various ways.