A new collection from the twice Booker-nominated author from Cumbria, Madame Zero’s (Faber, £12.99) haunting, sparely written stories concern themselves with urban and rural landscapes, physical and emotional intimacy, and unsettling worlds. Sarah Hall will be speaking at Edinburgh International Book Festival (18 Aug) and Bookends Carlisle (20 Aug).
Did you set out to write a collection of short stories or were these pieces written as and when they came to you and then collected?
Stories come as individual pieces, either under my own steam or sometimes commissioned, and each has to feel like it’s working autonomously – a little world, and a complete reading experience, in itself. I tend to write across quite a wide range of subjects in short form, as I do with my novels, so both my collections have quite varied stories in them. Having said that, because each was written over about five years, there was a sense that common themes were playing out during that time. In Madame Zero, there are clear preoccupations with the erotic, with dystopia, human mutability and identity.
“The one who loves less is loved more,” you write in one story; “Her boyfriend could be, no, he was, a total twat,” in another. Does fiction need this conflict in relationships or can it be equally compelling without?
I think fiction probably arises in part from drama and disunity. How often or how long is life without conflict really? That seems like an impossible human state. So I suppose fiction tracks and tries to understand this difficult aspect. Because, as civilised as we are and aim to be, we’ve not really found total peaceable accord with ourselves or others.
Characters from the medical world feature strongly in Madame Zero. Is there something they share with writers in getting right up close to the visceral realities of life?
Perhaps that’s it. It’s certainly a good comparison, and in addition the sense of detachment – having to work in a triage situation! While there are stories in the collection that are keen to render exact medical experience – especially Theatre 6, in which an anaesthetist has to keep alive a woman who is undergoing a complicated and illegal septic abortion – it’s more the psychology and the politics surrounding physical states and traumas that I find myself interested in and want to convey. Medical practice is fascinating. It’s an arena of “something gone wrong”, which is obviously a good starting point for the short story form, wherein things often go wrong, so they’re good bedfellows.
Who was Madame Zero?
She was a case study – a woman with an identity disorder who believed she did not exist. She’s still discussed by psychologists and philosophers. But she’s also all of us on some level, perhaps, trying to figure out our identities, trying to reconcile human mutability and transience with definitions and existential meaning. As a title this really worked for me across all the stories.
Even though one of your stories has a woman turn into a fox, is it fair to say the collection is more about hints and smuggled in revelations than metaphors and allusions?
I hope so. Even the more mythical aspects, like transmogrification, I’ve tried to render in an accurate and naturalistic way, so there’s a reality to each change a character undergoes, whether that’s emotional, sexual, domestic, societal. If things operate on too symbolic a level they become less resonant and personal, perhaps less convincing. It’s about giving the reader just enough that disbelief can be suspended, but allowing them room to bring to these strange events, these episodes of identity flux, all their own thoughts, feelings and interpretations. That’s what makes for connection.
Cumbria features less in this book than some of your previous ones. Does this mark a change in your writing?
I’m not sure. Yes, Case Study 2 is the only story really locatable in Cumbria, and even the name of the town in question is abbreviated – to K-town (though if I was thinking of anywhere particularly it was Alston). The north does flash up in stories set elsewhere such as Wilderness, South Africa, in meaningful recollection, so perhaps this collection has a longer lens on the region than previous work. But I don’t know what that means. Me challenging my identity as a writer maybe!
What plans do you have for your next book?
I’m writing a new novel. It IS set partly in the north again. Plans for it are pretty odd, so we’ll have to see if I can pull it off. And the short stories keep coming – I find the form really suitable and comfortable at the moment (as far as short stories can be comfortable!) and my writing life has changed considerably since becoming a mother, so in some ways I’m finding my footing again.