I think my answer lies, rather indelicately, somewhere between the two sentiments. I am very interested in how place shapes people, historically, culturally, for good and ill, the rich specificity of each place and its commonalities, and I try to investigate this in my work. I would not say that this necessarily limits me to the North of England, where I was raised, though much of my work is set there. A tragic damn-building novel set in the Lake District in the 1930s might appeal and chime with societies in contemporary India and China–hopefully it will. And perhaps it is fair to say that the more local, the more intimate a writer becomes with characters and regions, paradoxically the more universal the fiction might become. If one is detailing the experiences and make-up of a character, their emotions, their plight in a changing world, one is likely to create a ‘real’ human being, with a meaningful and complex psychology, motivations, capabilities and incapacities–at best, humanely transferable between cultures. I like to think that readers, and people generally, are wonderfully empathetic. Similarly, the fate of nations, districts, square miles, though varied the world over and individually unique, if catalogued well, might begin to seem shared and understood. We, and our habits, are really only ‘exotic’ and ‘other’ if not entered into, if left at surface level.
Who I write for is perhaps harder to answer. There is no manifest or ideal person–a mother, mentor or devil–sitting on my shoulder, encouraging me or provoking me. The instinct to write is endogenous, much to do with imagination and modes of expression, but there are external vectors too, of course–the desire to play adult make-believe, to be inspired by and to add to the exquisite chorus of writers’ voices, and to move readers. Readers: how tricky it is to know who those people will be. I write for neither men nor women specifically, no type, no age, no political sect. And I am constantly amazed by the great mix of people who approach me to say they have found something worthwhile, exhilarating or off-putting, companionable or challenging, in my fiction. It is far better to try to write persuasively and compassionately, with an open heart and an investigative mind, than try to gauge who might like what kind of story or why.
–Sarah Hall is an English novelist and short story writer who has lived in the UK and US. Her books include The Electric Michelangelo, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, How to Paint a Dead Man, Haweswater, and The Beautiful Indifference: Stories. In October 2013, she won the BBC National Short Story Award for “Mrs Fox.”
2paragraphs gives special thanks to Anderson Tepper for curating our International Writers Interviews. Mr. Tepper is on the staff of Vanity Fair and is a Contributing Editor at Words Without Borders.
(photo: Richard Thwaites)