On the first day of the first lockdown in March 2020, Sarah Hall woke up early and felt that she had to do something; it was either that or stay in bed all day with the covers pulled over her head.
Instead, she got up, took herself off to a tiny box room in her house in Cumbria with one of the exercise books she’d bought her daughter to scribble in. She found herself writing ‘frantically, almost like a war reporter. Of course, I’m not a war reporter at all, by any stretch, but it was just that feeling of right: this is big, and something’s got to go down on the page’.
In the days that followed, as the headlines and TV screens bubbled in what Hall calls a strange brew of fear and uncertainty and speculation – ‘and actually all the things that kind of appeal to my literary sensibilities’ – a daily routine of dawn writing emerged.
The result is Burntcoat, a dazzling, terrifying and utterly gripping story of a woman artist who finds herself living through the disconnections and a paranoia of a pandemic. At its heart, she tells me, is a question that she’s pondered throughout her work: how do we live with our own mortality? How do we prepare for what is unimaginable? ‘We are in a relationship with death,’ she says. ‘Whether or not actively or wholesomely, we are in a relationship. And death isn’t a person, death is a state, whatever you believe.’
Edith, her central protagonist – other key characters include Edith’s mother, a writer who has been navigating, for decades, a serious brain injury, and Edith’s lover Halit – is a sculptor on a grand scale and has been charged with making a memorial to those who have died during the novel’s imaginary but all too recognisable pandemic. For Hall, it was an opportunity to explore the complexities of art’s significance in a time of crisis and how that relates to whether or not it can achieve a kind of permanence. As a writer, she tells me, her motivation is to make a book and give it to her readers, but there remains a question of ‘why and how and does it do any good?’
‘And there is that sense that writers try their hardest to create something that will have meaning, that will connect with you. It won’t give you answers. But I’ll ask the same question that you’re asking, hopefully, that we’re all asking. But that’s the conundrum, isn’t it? We invent meaning, and is it there?’
The meanings and connections that Sarah Hall has been making throughout her impressive body of work range throughout novels including the Booker-shortlisted The Electric Michelangelo, The Carhullan Army and, most recently, The Wolf Border, plus four highly acclaimed collections of short stories. Her subjects have been tantalisingly various and imaginative: a tattoo artist who travels from the isolation of Morecambe Bay to the clamour and light of Coney Island; a dystopian society in which a group of women break free from control to create a new community in the Cumbrian hills; an elaborate experiment to reintroduce wolves to the British countryside. Her characters, whether humans or other animals, are prone to shifts, mutations; and the prose she describes their lives in is similarly sinuous, and studded with lyrical description and sensuous portrayals of desire and appetite.
Nature and sensuality
Landscape is also extremely important to Hall, and when I remark that all her books seem in some way fundamentally elemental – Burntcoat makes frequent use of water, and also features a Japanese art technique in which fire is used to pattern wood – she ponders that it might have something to do with being brought up by a riverbank, and with her deep attachment to the Lake District. But, she adds, ‘I think it’s a sensuality that I’m trying to recreate. It doesn’t matter where a work might be set, whether it’s Coney Island or a Finnish lake. But the creation of a sensual world that the reader can really feel they’re immersed in is very important to me.’
Hall also believes that her development as a novelist has been vitally influenced by her work as a short story writer, with collections including Mrs Fox, Madame Zero and Sudden Traveller. Her early novels, she says, tend more heavily to the lyrical, but Burntcoat – a lean, spare and yet hugely hard-hitting novel – has a different kind of style. ‘In terms of pace, weight to the sentences, sensuality, descriptiveness, character development, all of it – I think it’s better calibrated because I have been writing short stories. And it’s hard exercise, basically!’
‘. . . one of the aspects of creativity that Hall wanted to explore was the way that folk art and craft-based pieces, often made by women and/or the working classes, have been excluded from the world of fine art.’
Craft and creativity
Despite its compactness, Burntcoat manages to pack in an awful lot: there’s a heart-wrenching and brutally physical portrayal of the loss of a loved one, exquisitely balanced descriptions of Edith and her lover’s sexual relationship, and a fascinating look at the gendered way we experience art; one of the aspects of creativity that Hall wanted to explore was the way that folk art and craft-based pieces, often made by women and/or the working classes, have been excluded from the world of fine art. She recalls visiting an exhibition of Gauguin’s work some years ago and becoming entranced by the box in which the artist stored his paintbrushes; made by a Tahitian craftsperson, it had only made its way into the show because of its connection with a famous artist, and yet it was one of the most beautiful objects in evidence. So, Hall concludes, ‘the art world needs a kick in the pants’.
Hall herself, who has studied art history, also makes pieces and, in the middle of our conversation, jumps up to find her latest creation, a collage of old crockery and glassware from the Haweswater reservoir, the setting for her first novel, that is fashioned into a map of the area and finished with the copper wire from the explosive devices used to blow up the reservoir when it was flooded. When I ask about technique, she laughs that she used Gorilla Glue. It is quite beautiful.
Reflecting on the pandemic
Before we say goodbye, I ask her whether she thinks it’s a coincidence that two of the first novels to emerge from the pandemic are hers and Sarah Moss’s The Fell – both of which were written during the lockdown and as a response to it. Is this particularly generative material for women writers? ‘I do think it’s good that through the lens of women’s experiences, this pandemic is being talked about,’ she replies, ‘because sickness and homeschooling and things like that is a sort of territory where still women are expected to kind of do the work . . . It’s very exciting to me that women writers are kind of working over these big topics.’
But with that, Hall must return to the novel that she was supposed to be writing when she was suddenly gripped at five in the morning. She says she’s just beginning to feel her way through the early stages – but it’s clear that her irrepressible imagination and deep commitment to the practice of writing and creating meaning will keep her at her desk.
Sarah Hall’s novel Burntcoat is out now in hardback.