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Sarah Hall
There are a lot of dystopian novels being published at the moment. Is there a particular reason you chose to write The Carhullan Army now?
I was already working on an idea about women-on-women violence in the north when there was catastrophic flooding in Cumbria, in the winter of 2005, which devastated the city of Carlisle. This really event kick-started the novel. While I was writing, I wasn’t aware of the other dystopian fictions in production. The first of these I read was Cormac McCarthy’s The Road – but Carhullan was already well under way by then. In the news at the time there seemed to be a lot of terrible scenarios being rehearsed – the mutation of viruses and new strains of diseases, such a TB; fanaticism, economic downturns, deterioration in British farming, limited gas and oils supplies (‘energy security’ as it is now being called). I was also interested in this idea of post-feminism, or new feminism, which was, and still is, being talked about. All these things were absorbed into the writing, and were combined to create the degraded backdrop of the novel. It is I suppose a projection of the possible future jeopardy we face. And the time seemed right to tell the story I wanted to tell. But I’m not surprised other writers had their fingers on this pulse too: these are intense times. Sometimes you hear a writer say the story chose to be written by them, rather than the reverse. This novel feels like that. It’s in a different style to my previous two novels, and there is a real sense of singularity to the book I think.
Cumbria is the perfect setting for this book - suitably tough and untamed like the band of women that inhabit it. Did the place inspire you to write the book or did the emotional landscape of the novel demand that setting?
I’m from the Lake District, and I seem to have a good working relationship with it. I feel endlessly inspired by Cumbria. I feel all too often we, as readers, expect ideas about civilization to be played out, artistically, in an urban setting. We forget that wherever there are human beings there will be every kind of human drama. I wanted to examine in Carhullan how we live, and by which philosophies, which behaviours are acceptable and what are our power structures. That I chose to set this examination in a ‘wilderness’ (The Lake District in the book has become an unofficial territory) I think adds focus, stripping everything back. There are extraordinary levels of discipline at the farm, but it’s also the scene of bitter disputes. I’m interested in the impact we have on the environment, and how the landscape affects us, not just in a ‘green’ sense, but how character might be shaped by surroundings. The tough, durable qualities of the uplands are reproduced in the women who live among them. Mountain communities are often tenacious and formidable. But I was also interested in the relationship between uplands and uprisings. Cumbria has a turbulent history, not least because it lies on the border with Scotland, but it is also the place the Roman Empire ceased its expansion. It seemed like exactly the right setting for a book about rebellion and resistance.
Jackie Nixon is an amazingly strong character. She reminded me (as did Sister in her transformed warrior state) of Ellen Ripley, the Sigourney Weaver character, in the film Alien. Where did the inspiration for her character come from?
That’s a great and insightful comparison. I’ve always loved the character of Ripley. When Sister is first being tortured in the Dog Box, and she is slowly going mad and needing to call upon all her strength, she imagines herself to be inside the mouth of a huge metal woman. This is quite possibly a nod to that scene in Aliens where Sigourney Weaver gets into the hydraulic body-frame loader and takes on the queen alien, hand to hand. It’s one of the most exhilarating and powerful cinematic scenes – and there aren’t so many of these for women. We’re so used to seeing our sex being pursued by monsters or rescued. I really try to provide this feature in my work - a sense of exhilaration for my readers through the female characters, a feeling that someone has blown on your inner coals and made them white hot. In each of my novels there is at least one passage I feel has been particularly charged in the way of Ripley versus the Alien – the description of Reeda breaking the windows in the houses of parliament, as told to her son by one of the other suffragettes in The Electric Michelangelo; the passage where Janet Lightburn bombs the dam in Haweswater. But Jackie Nixon is my favourite character. She was terrifying and thrilling to write. She arrived while I was running, towards the end of the last mile – which should give an indication of the kind of personality she has. Here’s how I pitch Jackie Nixon to people: imagine civilization as you understand it is gone, imagine the law of a brutal government, which is entirely unacceptable to you, imagine you are filled with unholy rage and have reached your tipping point – now, who are you, and what do you do about it all?
Why do we never find out “Sister’s” real name?
Because she is no longer that person, with a ‘real name’, at the time of recounting the story of Carhullan. She has remade herself into a foot soldier. She is an everywoman, part of a sorority. She is perhaps you, perhaps me.
Your books are very well-received, with The Electric Michelangelo short listed for the Booker Prize and The Carhullan Army winner of the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize. Does this affect your approach to your writing?
This is a question I’ve never entirely understood. It’s wonderful to be well-received, but my approach to writing is that I enjoy it, I like to sit down and do it; I always have, I hope I always will. Every novel contains my best efforts, and I consider myself to have been, since the age of 26 when I was an unknown quantity, professionally engaged. I want every novel to be different, original, effective, better than the last. The treaty between writer and reader is something I have always considered, not in a commercial sense but in a sympathetic, meaningful sense. Writing is an intensely private discipline, it is done for the limited audience of the self initially, and a writer has to believe that no matter what the cast of the dice, Man Booker nomination or warehouse remaindering, a piece of work should and will be written. There is no key to writing prize-winning fiction; judging is a subjective business, and quality is defined by vastly differing control systems. There are simply no assurances. History is littered with novels that were slated or overlooked, then reappraised. Literary history is also defined by a mostly male canon. If in 100 years time my books are well received, I would be – theoretically because I won’t ever see it – very happy indeed.
Which writers do you read and who do you admire in particular?
Cormac McCarthy I think is an extraordinary literary force, as is Daniel Woodrell, Marilynne Robinson, Rose Tremain, Hilary Mantel, Andrew Miller, Kathleen Jamie, Simon Armitage, Howard Norman, Carol Shields, Tim Winton, Neil Rollinson, and Ali Smith, to name just a few. I admire writers who are able to hack out their organs, stick them in a dirty old bucket, and make a beautifully wrapped gift of it.
Sarah Hall

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