Novelist Sarah Hall joins Zibby to discuss her not-quite-pandemic book, Burntcoat, which was just nominated for this year’s National Book Critics Circle Awards. Sarah also shares how her role as a single mother inspired elements of this novel, the ways in which writing has allowed her to truly express herself throughout her life, and what notions of identity and relationships she sought to analyze. Sarah also wants readers to know that despite almost being about the pandemic, this book is actually very funny.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Sarah. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Burntcoat.

Sarah Hall: Thank you for having me.

Zibby: Would you mind telling listeners a little bit about what your book is about?

Sarah: It was a response to the pandemic, but it is not a pandemic book. I wouldn’t categorize it that way. The main character is a sculptor. Her name is Edith. She has reached the end of her life. She’s looking back over it and recalling the incidents and the relationships that were very important and formed her both as a person and as an artist. One of the main incidents is a pandemic, so we do have a bit of that in it. I feel like I need to put a disclaimer out there for those not yet willing to undertake some lockdown fiction. It’s really about how you become resilient through very difficult and trying circumstances, through trauma, the things that make you stronger, wisdoms that you might achieve along the way, if they’re even possible. For me as a writer, it was just a way of responding to and reconciling myself with this very strange thing that we were all going through. Nothing like it has happened in my lifetime, really. I just wanted to tackle it. I assumed the readers were wanting to tackle it somehow. It’s a strange book.

Zibby: I wouldn’t say strange. I found it very powerful. I haven’t stopped thinking about the one scene where Edith’s mom — what is her name again? I’m sorry.

Sarah: Naomi.

Zibby: Naomi, of course, right. Of course, because she has to teach her how to say it. When Naomi ends up having her aneurysm — or what was the…?

Sarah: Yeah, that’s right.

Zibby: How she just got more and more tired over the course of that day and how she sat down saying she has this terrible headache. Of course, I’m a total hypochondriac. I’m like, how would I know if I had that? She’s sitting there and holding her head. Then it just so quickly devolves into what it becomes, and the surgery they have to do to save her and the implications of what it means to be the child of someone whose identity is somehow really, not lost, as somebody tells her in the book, but so changed and how her loyalty persisted nonetheless. She still wants to hitch her ride to that — whatever that expression is. She doesn’t want to leave her mother even if she’s not the mother that she had grown up with.

Sarah: Exactly. It’s a very strange primal thing, isn’t it? I suppose, being a mother myself, that’s one of the main anxieties, that you’re going to go down with something. You’ll be completely incapacitated. How will I look after my child or children? How we will survive those circumstances if they happen to me, if they happen to us? I am a single parent, so those anxieties are writ quite large in life for me. I think I wanted to really test them to kind of an extreme boundary in the novel. Things, they’re really pushed to the furthest ramifications of what it might mean to be in a partnership as a mother and a daughter here, but as a child and a parent. The idea that the relationship is two-way traffic, I think like this about parenting anyway, that it’s not all top-down. Yes, of course, we’re here to look after our children and to teach them and ensure their safety, their upbringing is okay, but also, we learn a lot from them. In some ways, they help us too. That, of course, is the nature of Edith and Naomi’s relationship, fundamentally. They’re codependent, I wouldn’t say in a bad way at all, I would say in just a survivalist way, basically.

Zibby: It’s so true, especially when you showed them similar life stages like when they were reading at the same level. They were kind of going through it together because of Naomi’s impaired cognition after her surgery. One of the lines that really stuck with me most was how Edith wanted to stay by her side because she still smelled the same. Oh, my gosh, it brought tears to my eyes. We could go through so much, and yet fundamentally, you’re the same person. You still feel and touch and smell the same. What does it mean to really be there for your kids and not be there?

Sarah: Identity’s a very strange thing, isn’t it? It’s mutable, so it will change across the course of a lifetime. There are certain things which might accelerate a very difficult and traumatic change like illness or like an accident. It’s at those moments when I suppose love was really tested. Of course, the love that children have for family members, it’s sort of hardwired, really, in some ways. There’s not much that you can do to alter it. I like the idea, too, that even though Naomi might not recognize herself as a mother anymore for a certain period of time and she might not have all the responses in the emotional register that she previously had, there is something down there in her that is activated at certain moments when she needs to defend her daughter or keep the two of them together. I like that idea, that there is something very unshakable and indestructible about the two of them. Of course, Edith, in her artistic career, she’s exploring this idea of destruction and resilience anyway because of the nature of the technique she uses, which is this burnt wood, burning the surface of wood to make it waterproof, more resilient. There is something about her whole life where she’s trying to find her operating keys, I suppose. That’s one of them, the idea that you are damaged in some ways, but that’s not necessarily a layer that leaves you a victim or less strong. It’s something that might actually finally build you up a level and make you harder in a good way.

Zibby: Then I was sort of annoyed — maybe annoyed is the wrong word. I was really upset with the dad for abandoning the whole situation and for getting almost irritated himself. I shouldn’t say I understand how he feels. I haven’t been in this situation, but you put us in this situation very effectively, so you could see why it was so hard for him with his wife becoming completely a different person, essentially. He has two dependents all of a sudden. You really capture that in the one moment where he’s like, what are you doing? You are not who I married. You’re not the same woman. Yet he shouldn’t have left.

Sarah: No, I agree. That’s that terrible thing that — I’ve witnessed it quite a few times now, the fact that women seem able to accommodate these changes in a partner and care for them. Perhaps society has brought us up a little bit more that way. I don’t know that we’re naturally gifted with more empathy, but I certainly think everything is stacked towards women caring for men, especially if they go through difficult circumstances. I’ve always been fascinated with the equation when it’s the other way around. I did write a short story called Mrs. Fox where a man’s wife turns into a fox, and he loves her nonetheless. It felt almost subversive writing that story, the fact that he sticks with her as her carer and everything else. In that novel certainly, Edith is put into the position where she has to be a carer. It’s very uncomfortable for her. There is this presiding notion of abandonment and the absent father. Weirdly, lots of it’s written in the second person, so this address to you which begins as Edith addressing her lover Halit and remembering the times they were together. The you address switches to something else in the end. It’s her relationship with mortality and death and having to reconcile herself with the fact that that’s always been in her life. Not only did her mother survive this terrible aneurysm, she was left with another weakened blood vessel which, at any point, might go. To live with the shadow of death is a very big thing for Edith. It’s something that she negotiates her whole life. Of course, we all do to various degrees. It comes forwards sometimes. It retreats at other times. Really, she’s parented by her mother and death. That’s the premise of the novel.

Zibby: Wow.

Sarah: It’s also really cheery and full of sex. It’s not such a grim read.

Zibby: What is it like when you’re writing this? You said you have a daughter. You’re a single mom. You’re working on this during the pandemic. Did it help you to write this? Did you turn off your computer — I’m assuming you’re on a computer. Could you get up from your chair and would you feel lighter and better, or would it bring you down? What was the experience like?

Sarah: It felt good to be writing something. For a number of different reasons I think I was feeling very productive at a time when we were all being halted. That was a real push. I was getting up at five AM to do it because I had to homeschool my daughter afterwards. There was something quite belligerent in me that activated. Also, I keep talking about my upbringing, which was in the rural North at a time when catastrophes would happen. We’d be snowed in quite often, things like that. There was that feeling sometimes that, oh, a big thing is happening, what are we going to do? Everybody, get to work. Pick up a shovel. I felt like that switched on in me again for the first day of the lockdown here in the UK in March 2020, just that trigger of, right, you’ve got to do something. There’s not much you can do. You’re not an emergency worker. You can’t go out there. That’s what I did. It’s funny that you say working on a computer because I was actually writing in these little exercise books, these lined exercise books.

Zibby: See, I shouldn’t have assumed.

Sarah: Ordinarily, I would’ve been working on a computer, but I kind of squirreled myself away into the smallest room in the house. People have likened giving birth at home to this. You go and find the smallest safe space. There you are going through this tremendously — what’s the word? — effortful thing. That’s how it happened initially. I don’t know what it was. It was almost a childlike response. Why was I writing in an exercise book? I type things up straight away to a laptop. That’s how I work. Anyway, so I found myself in this strange position. Perhaps it was about comforting myself as well and trying to find a way through, trying to find a companionship with the reader or who I imagined the reader might be, which is quite hard to imagine in the early stages of writing. There’s always the sense of, okay, this is us, here we are. Even if there’s a set of characters and there’s me writing, it’s, here we are. What are we asking at this point? We might not get any answers, but what are we asking? Are we going to be okay? What’s this pandemic going to mean for us? What’s this illness going to mean if it’s contracted? At that point, there were no vaccines. We didn’t know the financial implications, really. Things were not set up to accommodate what was going on. There was a lot of uncertainty and fear. Strangely, those were maybe circumstances under which I can work. Also, there certainly were really deep-rooted anxieties and questions that were making me want to write and ask them in a book. The book is asking those questions. What use am I? What use is art in this difficult time? How do we see around the edges of this? The pandemic in the novel is not the pandemic that we were going through. Mine was imagined very differently and perhaps amplifies some of the aspects in order to really inquire how we respond to those things. I don’t know, maybe it was just a coping mechanism, very simple.

Zibby: It’s pretty awesome to have it be a whole novel. A lot of people just baked banana bread, and here you go. I know you said it was — what’d you say? Weird or something. Although parts of it were dark, it’s hopeful in a way, really. It’s inspiring, the bonds of love and relationships and that we can get through anything, which is true. The time passed. Here we all are, whatever comes next.

Sarah: That’s right. I enjoy writing, I wouldn’t really categorize them as strong women. I would just see lots of my female characters as capable and working and doing the things that women do. I like that Edith was a successful artist and she was working in an area where there was a kind of national obligation. She’s a sculptor. In the novel, she’s been charged with creating this memorial for the dead in the pandemic, which is a really big deal. We’re in times when we’re really thinking about memorials and how we reflect these big events and what art can do to help commemorate, if not console. She’s a pretty tough character, but on the one hand, she’s very vulnerable as well. I think in some ways she is just an everywoman, if such a thing exists.

Zibby: How did you begin writing? How did you know this is something that you loved to do?

Sarah: I think it’s always just been a way for me to express myself in the best way that I can. I’ve become more verbally able over the years, but that’s not where I feel like my strengths lie. When I have a pen in my hand or I’m clicking away, then something happens. I’ve always likened it to music. I feel like more like a composer in some way, or a maker. The language is very important. The sound of the words is very important. It’s possibly having started out as a poet. There’s a sense of essence that I’m trying to get at with which words are being used as well as the operating keys of fiction where you’re thinking about movement of the story and characters and everything else, worldbuilding. There is just something about laying down words that feels bigger somehow and like an expression that I could find nowhere else. It was always quite natural in some ways. Then I think it was just degrees of it being formalized, a bit of recognition, enjoying doing it, honing my craft, spending that time studying works, and also working with an editor. Eventually, you get to where you get to as a writer. Hopefully, I’m still changing and improving, I would like to think.

This book did come out of nowhere, but I suspect there are things in it that have been waiting for quite a long time in me. It was a response to a particular set of circumstances, but also, there are proclivities in this book which I’ve had for a long time. This might, in some way, be a kind of crowning of those aspects that I’ve always been working towards, thinking about a disruption of identity, thinking about landscape, thinking about political power, all those things, feminism. They all kind of come together in this book, art, sexuality, sensuality. The one thing I’ve always been interested in is a kind of sensuality on the page and a sensuality in the world. It’s a short novel. It’s of its time. There’s something about it. It’s just been waiting in the wings for twenty years, especially that first line. It arrived on the day almost, the idea that those who tell stories survive. As a first sentence, it sort of set up the whole novel. I think that’s something that has been being constructed in me for quite some time.

Zibby: Interesting. There is something to that forever legacy of leaving behind your words on the page in a way that nothing else, no photograph, no nothing, no memory can encapsulate.

Sarah: Right, and the act of storytelling and how important it is for humans. Why do we do it? Why is it important? What does it give us?

Zibby: I think about this stuff a lot too. I spend too much time thinking about storytelling. What types of books do you like to read? Do you like to read while you’re writing, or do you kind of put it on hold?

Sarah: I do. I put it on hold to a degree. Just this novel, for example, and perhaps it was the state of the nation, the state of the globe, I was reading a lot of poetry. That might have been because the work itself was coming in quite an intense way. Handling prose kind of put me off reading prose just while it was being written. That’s not always the case. I can still read fiction. Sorry, I was reading a lot of poetry partly because a friend of mine was really struggling in lockdown, so I was trying to send her a poem a day just as a little talismanic thing for the day. It was great because it meant that I could go back through all these collections that I love, my favorite poets, and just pull out the best-of kind of thing. It was really nice. That, in some ways, helped me too. Then when the drafting of this novel was done, I turned back to fiction that, in some ways, doesn’t console me, but again, gives me company, books that feel to me to be extraordinary and extraordinarily well-written and dealing with extraordinary events, so things like The Vintner’s Luck by Elizabeth Knox, a winemaker being visited by an angel once a year. It’s outlandish. Shouldn’t really work, but it does. It’s extraordinary. It’s brilliantly written. I reread that. I reread some James Salter. I was rereading poetry, just all the things that I knew to be very solid, brilliant pieces of art that I could lean on and think, oh, yeah, okay, well, people did that, and that’s great. If it all goes to shit and hell now, which it probably will, at least we have these brilliant things here. I’ll enjoy them. That was how I tackled it.

Zibby: Just as a mom, when you go down that rabbit hole of worry — I do this quite often myself. When you worry about what would happen — what happens to my kids if something happens to me? How do you handle that? What do you tell yourself? How do you get through those moments?

Sarah: It’s tough, isn’t it? I used to try and think — again, I was brought up in a very rural environment. I would always think, what would be happening if we were living in the wild, if we were animals? By the age of six, could she get into tins if she needed to? Could she open a can and survive if I was lying prostrate in the corner somewhere? I used to try and think, at what point are little human beings able to pick berries and drink stream water and be okay? That doesn’t help. That doesn’t really help. I’m not sure. I think it’s just living with the knowledge that you love a being so much that were something awful to happen, it would be the end of you too. That’s what I think. Hopefully, there are enough people around in a community of love that humans get looked after. I’ve just recently relocated to a very, very warm, beautiful, lovely town in the north of England. My daughter and I have been very well-looked after since we’ve moved. That’s nice to think, you know what, so many decent people, so much love, they will be reaching in and they will be taking care of. To me, it’s almost inconceivable. I can’t get my head around the idea of not looking after this little person that I’m charged with looking after. I don’t know if there’s any rational way out of that. I think in some ways that’s okay because those instincts are good. They’ll really get you up off the floor. If you’ve both got norovirus, you’re going to have to get up and deal with it because you just do. I think I read it as positive as well. I try and turn the anxiety into something positive and think that’s what makes women really tough, especially. Just get up and do it and help each other.

Zibby: I love that. Just two last questions. Are you working on anything else now? What advice would you have for aspiring authors?

Sarah: I’m always generally thinking over something. I have started a little book. Not sure what it’s going to be. I was working on a novel before Burntcoat came along. Burntcoat really just shoved the other book out of the way and went, no, no, no, my turn. I might go back to that. I have been thinking about it, but I’ve always started something new. I’ve always got short stories kind of hovering around, ideas for them and note-making on them. What would I advise to aspiring writers? Part of me wants to say read a lot and read a lot of good stuff, but then I also think, in the end, I don’t know how necessary that is. I’ve seen writers come through who were brilliant and not well-read. I would consider that to be a perfectly legitimate road as well. I think sometimes people just have something in them and they can do it. They can communicate that way. While it’s helpful for learning about craft and technique, especially with short stories, to read around — I wouldn’t say don’t read. I would also say just have faith in the kind of voices of you and that you’re being a conduit for and of.

I don’t know, throw the rulebook out. I’ve never really held to the notion that by ten, something has to happen. I know there are writers that work very successfully that way, but I don’t see things that way at all. I think being idiosyncratic is good, better in some ways than trying to follow anything else. Be authentic. Being authentic doesn’t mean just writing about you. I really do believe that the imagination is, it’s not an organ, but I often talk about it like an organ in the human body. It’s the most powerful one. You might have a good heart for running marathons, but your imagination is something else completely. The more you use it, the more it works and gets stronger. Just think of it that way. You’ve got your heart. You’ve got your liver. You’ve got lungs. You’ve got an imagination. That’s all you need.

Zibby: I love that. That’s amazing. Thank you. Sarah, this has been so nice. Thank you for taking the time today. You’re very special. I feel like you’re from another time.

Sarah: Well, England is. We’re going back to the 1950s with this government.

Zibby: I’m so pleased our paths have crossed. Wishing you all the best.

Sarah: Thank you very much for having me on. It’s been a pleasure.

Zibby: Thank you. Have a great day. Buh-bye.

Sarah: Thank you. You too.


BURNTCOAT by Sarah Hall

Purchase your copy on Amazon and Bookshop!

Subscribe to Zibby’s weekly newsletter here.

You can also listen to this episode on:

Apple Podcasts