Sarah Hall, born in 1974, divides her time between the north of England and North Carolina. The Electric Michelangelo, her second novel, was a finalist for the Man Booker Prize.
Author biography courtesy of HarperCollins.
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"Well, most of the jobs I have done have galvanized the idea that I want to be doing something completely different, like writing. These include working in a meat factory on a 6 a.m. shift to the 6 p.m. shift, working in a mail-order fly-fishing outlet (I always sent out the wrong size of sedge out, making fishermen and fisherwomen all over the UK irate I'm sure), walking dogs, fitting spectacles, pulling pints of beer, and selling horrible art."
"I occasionally make things out of salvaged material, creepy Victorian shadow-box looking constructs, and am consequently quite partial to glue."
"Drivers who do not acknowledge thanks when I've let their car filter into my traffic lane make me furious. Ah, yes, and if I'm holding the door open for you, and you're a man, please don't take it from me and try to make me go in first."
"To unwind, I'm a bit of a keen fell walker (fells are mountain in the north of England). I also enjoy jumping up and down on the same spot, joyfully, like a kid. Any kind of watery expanse brings me peace and makes me feel like I'm home -- I was born and brought up right by a river and it's very likely that I haven't ever been drained properly. I'm really keen on folk art. I like frogs and peanut butter -- not together though, that wouldn't taste good."
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In the fall of 2005, Sarah Hall took some time out to tell us about some of her favorite books, authors, and interests.
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer -- and why?
There are so many books that are enviable and gorgeous and mind-altering because of their content or context, and because of their style. There are strong tales and fables I remember my mother reading to me when I was a child, and these still resonate. But, independently, I fell in love with the English language through poetry and I could name any number of culprits responsible for the romance.
As for fiction, it was probably In The Skin Of A Lion by Michael Ondaatje that influenced me as a writer. It's such a fine amalgamation of the poetic and the historic, a very deft and lovely balance of the two aspects. I had in mind that I wanted to write fiction, and I knew it meant a move away from the poetry format for me, which I had been writing previously. Of course, I was completely unwilling to go, and I was sort of looking for an earnest and successful example of not having to go -- a hybrid, a poetic novel. In the beginning form was certainly a concern for me. I wasn't worried so much about turning a phrase. So, Ondaatje's novel reads in quite an episodic way, comprised of small sections, building onto each other. It somehow seemed, from the viewpoint of an amateur writer at least, a manageable endeavor, a project of vignettes that still retained overall narrative movement and shape.
In a way this style gave me the courage to try and sustain a novel myself, by concentrating on the individual proportionate bricks of it, and it also reassured me that a prose/poetry hybrid was possible at length. I mean no disrespect to the author here, it's a seamless and beautiful novel, I just went looking for the joints and joists in it. It's possible that writers initially search for, and often find, a manual of some kind -- a manual in the sense that the book in question is a superb example of what they wish to accomplish, rather than a join-the-dots kind of aid. And then I went on to read Ondaatje's Coming Through Slaughter -- wow!
What are your ten favorite books, and what makes them special to you?The Story of Ferdinand by Munro/Leaf -- Because Ferdinand is absolutely damn right to sit there in that bullring and smell the flowers instead of fighting. Because it's a humbling work.
The selected Poems of Dylan Thomas -- Because he's Dylan Thomas.
The Crossing by Cormac McCarthy -- Because it seems to adhere to and simultaneously break the laws of language, and because the wolf walks right off the pages into the room where the reader is sitting.
Our Sunshine by Robert Drewe -- Because of the Impressionistic style, and the actual blood acheived in Ned Kelly's veins.
The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories by Angela Carter -- Because I adore the baroque language, the adultifying of fairytales, and the thrill of her characters.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald -- Because of the symbolism, like unwrapping gifts, and the polish, the brevity, the scope.
To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee -- Because of its heart, and because of the "beholding to nothing" lady.
The Selected Poems of Yehuda Amichai -- Because so many of the poems are unpacked, open, strange and lovely.
Coming Through Slaughter by Michael Ondaatje -- Because it's unmitigated, constructive, intimate, and has the line ‘Passing wet chicory that lies in the fields like the sky' repeated a lot.
Discovering the Folklore of Plants by Margaret Baker -- Because it's endlessly fascinating, for example – "Fennel: Aromatic, feathery-leafed fennel (Foeniculum vulgare), ingredient of the horse-keeper's titbits and potions, persuaded difficult animals to follow him and be harnessed."
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?
Well, the top ten change often, daily in fact. But there's always Billy Elliot -- I think this is a great film about male relations and gender conditioning tipped out of kilter. More of this stuff is needed. Every time I see Billy's dad's face at the end of the film, when his son leaps onto the stage, I find myself weeping. Not to mention the heart-wrenching breaking-the-picket-line scene.
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
When I'm writing I tend to work in silence, well, to the soundtrack of dripping taps, chirping birds, chuntering neighbors, the usual. Or I listen to classical music, anything without distracting words. To get a bit fired up and inspired, at the moment, I like listening to Nick Cave, and Micah P. Hinson, both brilliant musicians and lyricists.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading -- and why?
Il Libro dell' Arte by Cennini. In a very abstract world, it's just fantastic; it's basic and thorough. Though it's specifically about arts and crafts, I do feel there's a rudimentary journeyman/apprentice in every person of creativity, waiting for instruction and wanting to learn, and I think the sentiments and wisdoms of this book are transferable. I may not be very popular in the club for the choice – sorry, imaginary fellow members!
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
Poetry books. It's money well spent in a sector of the literary industry where money isn't spent. And you feel like someone has given you the riches of the world reduced to a few pages, a pocket-able size.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
I have a special relationship with the assistant Microsoft paperclip, and whichever helpful icon is up on screen -- I always have to wave at it and say thanks and goodbye when I've clicked the box to send it away -- it's only polite. There is also usually a cup of tea on the desk, teetering too close to the computer for safety. But, contrarily, I'm compulsive about saving my work every few sentences. The desk is an arena of risk and security! I can be a little bit nuts about tidying up before writing, too.
What are you working on now?
Two novels and a collection of short stories. My weekly global conspiracy theory. Plus a secret frog-therapy scheme, whereby people who need to feel better for whatever reason get to hold a nice soft pulsing frog in their hand. Frogs really are very therapeutic. They make me think of hearts. But I'm not sure how compliant the frogs would be in the scheme, really.
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
Well, my first little success came in the form of inclusion in a Faber poetry anthology in the late 1990's. I handed a selection of work to a scout from the publishers when he visited St. Andrews University, and he promptly left it, along with his briefcase, in the pub where I was working. So I chased him down on the street, handed him the bag, and gave him a stern talking to about dashing the hopes of young writers. He denies all knowledge of this now. The first novel was bought in 2000 by Faber also, same editor, and things have built from there. I think I've enjoyed quite a close and old-fashioned style of relationship with my British publisher and editor. While mine was not an overnight success story, I do feel I may have been on a slightly blessed road since the beginning -- even if I was chasing down the man who forgot my poems.
If you could choose one new writer to be "discovered," who would it be -- and why?
Her name is Jane Kotapish, and she's a dear friend from Brooklyn. We met in St. Andrews, Scotland, at the university. Her work is absolutely amazing; beautifully crafted, dark, detailed, intelligent, the kind of literature that makes your jaw drop slightly when you are reading it. She is possibly the most gifted contemporary writer I have met.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
Publically repent any past atrocities you've committed. If you want to be a poet it's important that you don't ever pass your driving test. Novelists, writing about mental illness seems pertinent. No. Just follow your fascinations. Be observant. Don't berate the manner in which you work. Turn the energy and enthusiasm for a career in literature in on the work. Good writing is the best way to be discovered.
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