More than skin deep

Sarah Hall is the only woman shortlisted for this year's Booker prize. She talks to Aida Edemariam about tattoos, violence and her days of being wild

Sarah Hall was in Cumbria when the Booker shortlist was announced, "so my mobile signal was cutting out all the time. Then I finally hit a good spot and picked up my messages. The first one was from my agent, and it was just a string of curses - happy curses," she adds, hastily. Hall got the nod for her second novel, The Electric Michelangelo, the only book by a woman on the six-strong list.

Although she has been around the houses - living in Wales, Ireland, Scotland, Virginia, North Carolina - Hall spends a lot of time in Cumbria. It's where she's from, and she is moving back there the day after we meet, to live by herself in a small rustic cottage. "It's remote. Really really remote." She needs a four-wheel drive even to get to it. "Watch it - in a year's time I won't be washing my hair, I'll be wearing rags, I'll be walking around collecting sticks for the fire, turning into a madwoman."

It's hard to see that happening - Hall is still planning to spend quite a lot of time in London, for starters - but perhaps the red bandanna she's wearing over her hair is practice. During the course of our conversation it comes off, revealing a dark ponytail and a gold hoop halfway up her left ear. Then her hair is down around her shoulders and she looks suddenly less street-wise, more like her first author photo, taken when she was 27 (she is now 30). Then it's back up in a pony tail, and the bandanna is on again by the time we're through. She talks intensely, fluidly, her regular, mobile features endearingly offset by irregular teeth. There's a fierceness to her that's very cheering.

Hall grew up four miles from Haweswater dam in Cumbria. Her father has worked for the local paper mill for 30 years, as a buyer; her mother, now retired, was a teacher who also worked with the learning disabled and the profoundly deaf.

Her first novel, Haweswater, which won the Commonwealth Writers First Book Award, was about the building of the dam and the drowning of the village of Mardale in 1937. While original and powerful, it reads at times like a channelling of DH Lawrence and Thomas Hardy, with splashes of Wordsworth and, very occasionally, Mills&Boon. Hall says that she has never read any Hardy or Lawrence, and only a couple of bits of Wordsworth at college, so perhaps this is just what happens when you have "quite a wild upbringing in a way - we were always outside, always filthy and wet, climbing up trees and stuff like that. We used to roam around on the moors, and set fire to gorse bushes. It's very Huckleberry Finn, isn't it?"

It was an upbringing that "can maybe give you a certain hardiness or - I'm not sure, maybe a feeling of capability. Hopefully all the female characters, in both my novels, have that to them - not necessarily climbing trees, but women who do things, and are passionate about what they do, and are capable in one capacity or another. I put a lot of passion into the female characters."

Hall is often told, she says, that she writes like a man, and we try to work out what this means. Perhaps it's the muscularity of her writing, or, in her second novel particularly, its rawness, its blood and guts and violence and sex. Reviewers have found The Electric Michelangelo, a story about an early 20th-century tattooist from Morecambe who find himself, for a colourful spell, on Coney Island, quite shocking. But I have a sense that Hall's unmistakable ambition might have something to do with it, and I ask who she marks herself against; is there a peer, someone of her age and potential, that she's aware of out of the corner of her eye?

Her answer is indirect. When she was growing up, her great partner in crime was her older brother, and "I like to say that I've got a little sister complex. I wanted to be able to do what [the boys] were doing - if they were out on their bikes, I wanted to be out on my bike with them. Whether that translates into literary ambition, I don't know, but I always wanted a crack at things on that level, being with the big boys. Maybe that's one of the reasons I like being at Faber, the big old gentleman's press. There's something satisfying about ... not challenging it, exactly, and not being included either, but somehow being alongside it in a way."

Hall studied English and art history at Aberystwyth, taking a creative writing module with "Patricia Duncker, who I absolutely adored, she was so passionate, so energetic. She had a real sense that people could write when they were young and it's a very raw, fabulous kind of writing. That was incredibly inspiring." Then it was odd jobs in Dublin for a while, then St Andrews for a master's in creative writing, and then teaching. One day Lee Brackstone, an editor at Faber, came to give a lecture, and on the suggestion of a colleague, had a look at her poetry. He bought a couple for a Faber anthology, and then, when Hall turned to prose - "I had some spare time in America because I wasn't working, and I thought I'd give it a crack" - read drafts of a novel that was never published.

Haweswater came together fairly quickly, in four to five months, but it wasn't until she started work on The Electric Michelangelo that she felt her writing start to settle down. "Haweswater was tough. I was getting to grips with prose at that point." The Electric Michelangelo, on the other hand, "really seemed to flow, and it was an absolute joy to write." It is certainly much more controlled, and you can feel, as she says, that she, "had fun with the language, and the rhyme".

One of her favourite novels is Michael Ondaatje's early work Coming Through Slaughter, because, she says, it occupies a halfway house between poetry and prose, because it's "incredibly bold" - and because it simply tells a yarn. She admires the poet Simon Armitage for the same reason. She is grateful that her parents read to her when she was a child, especially The Story of Ferdinand, and Tractor Max. "That was really what I was going for in The Electric Michelangelo - that old-fashioned, lilting, nursery rhyme old-timey kind of language - with a bit of shocking content, and a bit of blood and guts, and gore, and love and hate. And a bit of symbolism - I love symbolism."

Nothing is more symbolic than the tattoo, and while visiting a friend in New York, Hall got a reasonably large geometric abstract drawn on her back ; "It was exhilarating." She is eloquent on the subject of women and tattoos. "Women have always got tattoos - it's just that it wasn't known, because they always chose hidden places and smaller motifs. You think of it as a very masculine artform, and it wasn't at all. For men it is more about a codified identity - you had naval markings, for example, it was all about belonging and other people - whereas with women it was much more about personal expression." It was also much more of a statement, because "it's visceral, isn't it? There's that kind of eye-level shock to it because we're supposed to have a classically pure form, undamaged perfect skin, blah blah blah."

Hall would rather not talk about the marriage which first took her across the Atlantic - her hands come out of her cardigan sleeves, she cups them over the tape recorder. "I lived in America for six years. Let's just say a personal relationship took me out there." What she will say is that being a woman in the US, specifically in southern and middle America, reminded her of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. She often felt that she had to conform, to hold her tongue -and,unsurprisingly, didn't find it easy.

The Electric Michaelangelo is hung on a tough feminist skein. The tattooist's mother is an abortionist, a would-be suffragette, and the big unresolved love story is between Cyril, the tattooist, and Grace, a Coney Island performer who asks him to cover her with staring eyes. It is in some ways a rudimentary idea - all those mid-century theoretical arguments about returning the male gaze simply made corporeal; surely we're ready for a bit more nuance? But Hall is having none of it. "Why are there more eating disorders than ever? It can't just be that we're now actually cataloguing them. Why are we being told every other week that we have some kind of physical defect that we didn't actually know about, but here's the cure, for £10.99? I think there's more pressure than ever." And, of course, it is a historical novel; Grace's ideas would have been truly radical for the period in which it is set.

Grace is subsequently doused with acid by a man wanting "to burn her back to what she was, unmarked woman". Her revenge, when it comes, has a shocking, simple logic. "I think women are just as violent, just as aggressive, just as capable of atrocity as men," says Hall. "Grace stands her ground, mentally. And occasionally, physically; and yes, there is violence."

The best compliment Hall ever received was that she wrote like Angela Carter, who is "powereful, formidable - she writes no-holds-barred, lit-up prose. It's brilliant. It's political - I love all that stuff." She's not doing such a bad job herself.

· The Electric Michelangelo is published by Faber, priced £8.99. The winner of this year's Booker prize will be announced on October 19.


Aida Edemariam

The GuardianTramp

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