While Sarah Hall's first novel Haweswater dealt with the devestation of a rural English village, her second novel The Electric Michelangelo turns to the rarely broached topic, in literature certainly, of tattooing. Both novels have received huge critical acclaim, Haweswater won the Commonwealth prize for a first novel, while The Electric Michelangelo was one of the six shortlisted titles for this year's Man Booker prize. The judges described The Electric Michelangelo as “rolling from page to page with effortless lyricism”. A fitting description of this ambitious tale of a young man from Morecambe Bay, Cyril Parks, who initiated into the tattooing trade sets off to America where, amidst the carnival decadence of Coney Island in the 30s, he becomes involved in a tale of “love, disaster, violence and return”. Aged 30, and born and raised in Cumbria, Sarah Hall has been described as “one of the most significant and exciting novelists of our younger novelists” by The Guardian. Three Monkeys Online had the pleasure to exchange emails with Ms Hall recently:
Culturespace commenting on The Electric Michelangelo mentioned an interesting fact – you've chosen fringe figures for your novel, and at the same time they're fringe figures in the world of literature. Was it a deliberate move? Why do you think that tattooing in particular is so poorly represented in literature?
I never really thought of the characters as fringe figures – they always felt quite ordinary during the writing, or at least not without the realm of normality, while hopefully still having colourful interesting traits and operating as they do within strange industries. For example, I think Reeda has maternal qualities which are familiar and sympathetic, and Riley exhibits some pretty typical abusive behaviour. And in this way the reader is invited to acknowledge and recognise regular human aspects in the principal players. Having said that the subject of tattooing certainly appealed for its literary freshness and unbroken ground (tattoos seem to crop up as erotica or crime scene clues in fiction), as well as its inherently fascinating folkish history, and its curiosities. In practise and in literature it has possibly been seen as a prohibitive distasteful thing. There doesn't seem to have been a great examination of it as a legitimate art before – it's only recently that it has begun to be taken seriously as such. I think it's still a misunderstood and complicated art form too, difficult to qualify and quantify, for all its rudimentary, overtly symbolic aspects, and its gentrification and popularisation of late. So it remains a vexing subject to grapple with in literature, as well as in life.
Is it really possible to know what vernacular or territorial influences lie buried and come into expression for any artist
There are a number of strong female characters in the book, but for the most part the book centres around Cy. How difficult or easy was it to write a book with a male protagonist?
It was always the natural and comfortable voice. The lines came out that way, as the character developed. I think I briefly considered a female protagonist, thinking that pre-conceptions about professional male roles have to be consciously broken at some point if perceptions are ever to be changed, but that wasn't primarily what this book's agenda was about. Historically there were a few female tattoo artists about in the ’30s, odd-bods in the trade, so there was the authentic option for a female voice. In essence Cy is a conduit of life and experience and the commemoration of both things through art. Gender might not matter in that regard. Also I think I possibly see less gender separation in human and character cognition than some other people do.
Why did you choose the Dylan Thomas quote at the start of the book? To me it set the scene to a certain extent: I heard echoes of Under Milk Wood throughout the opening chapters; was that intentional?
It seemed perfectly fitting. A simple summary of the seaside setting and themes – the idea of good and bad experiences in life, how we assimilate them and live with them, if not comfortably then just functionally and with some reconciliation or celebration. The quote also highlights the truly bi-polar nature of western tattooing, how it boils down to good and bad, negative and positive, represented by hearts and daggers… And I adore Thomas – so the quote is a little homage to him too. And thank you, it's deeply flattering to be compared to him!
What do you think is the biggest change in your writing between Haweswater and The Electric Michelangelo?
Other than an incremental general maturity, all writers hopefully experience novel to novel, probably the biggest change is the enhanced lyricism. Haweswater flirts with poetry. The Electric Michelangelo has actual rhyming passages in it – I unashamedly went all out. The first also seems clipped in sentence structure and the second is a bit more unruly and expansive. And again, perhaps the second novel is tempered by a sense of eventual reconciliation, while the first is quite openly raw.