Sarah Hall is the author of the new story collection Madame Zero. Her other books include the novels The Wolf Border and How To Paint a Dead Man. She has taught creative writing in various programs in the U.K. and elsewhere, and she lives in Norwich, U.K.
Q: Do you see any themes linking the stories in your new collection?
A: It's always a little hard for me to talk about links between pieces of fiction as each individual story (or novel) to me seems really quite different from the next, the work seems very protean.
But certainly I think there are preoccupations that link the stories in this collection - an interest in human mutability and our "untamed" side; self-deception (and how that relates to survival) and knowledge of another; women's freedom and the female body as a site of conflict, whether that is political, animal, sexual, or mythical; dystopian worlds; alienation and belonging.
Q: How did you select the order in which the stories appeared in the book?
A: I knew "Mrs. Fox" and "Evie" would bookend, but I wasn't sure which way round they would go, and in the end I placed "Evie" last because it seemed to amplify whatever darkness the book is working with - a sense of "take no prisoners" at the end was what I wanted.
"Mrs. Fox" has a wide open space as an ending, and reconciliation of sorts, but Evie closes the door, on fantasy, on escape, and what is left is "normality" but a kind of terrifying version of it, I think, for all three players in the story.
The stories in between those two were shuffled and reshuffled, for variation, and eventually an order seemed to impose itself, so that medical stories and psychology stories act as stepping stones.
Q: How was the book's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?
A: Madame Zero was a psychiatric case study - it is believed she had a nihilistic personality disorder. The sense of the loss of self and a questioning of identity runs through the book, and it is the female figures who seem to reduce and reform, who come close to death or pass through into liminal spaces, so it seemed perfect.
Q: As someone who writes both novels and short stories, do you have a preference?
A: I love short stories. I love writing them, reading them, I love what they are capable of, and I think their strange combination of restriction and flexibility make me a better writer. The qualities they can showcase are qualities that feel very suitable for my work and mindset as a writer. Perhaps the form is my true metier, I don't know.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I have started a new novel! And I'm judging the 2017 Man Booker prize. And I have a 3 year old. These things combined fill up the days.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I remain in the realm of possibilities, as Sartre said.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb