Born in 1973 in the Lake District and brought up in Eskdale, Catherine Hall left Cumbria to study English Literature at Cambridge University when she was 18, and has since worked in journalism and communication in London. Now an award-winning writer who travels around the country to talk about her books, Catherine remembers her life as a teenager during the time of Section 28 and how she was inspired on a school trip to London.
Q: Why did you decide to take part in CELEBRATE project?
Catherine Hall (CH): I was very interested when I heard that this project was happening. When I was young in the Lake District there was, as far as I could see, nothing to support LGBT people. It wasn’t even really a phrase that was used. Any information that I heard about people being gay was very minimal, mostly from literature – mostly novels – which is not always the best way to get it, because that can be quite tragic.
Times have definitely moved on, but I think there is still a lot of scope for documenting people’s experience and how things used to be. Quite a lot of young gay people today might be quite surprised what it was like for a 60 year-old or not even that long ago.
I might also be surprised. And I thought if I could add anything to that then I would.
Q: How and when did you realise that you might be gay?
CH: I was 15 or 16 when I was reading quite a lot of books, Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit came out at that point. It was something that I had thought about here and there. Then Clause 28 was brought in by the Thatcher government. I remember a lot of stuff on the television about it. Often on the news, but also on some cultural programmes that were looking at it and saying ‘what is this? Why are you saying that you can’t promote homosexuality in schools?’
I think it was a devastating law, but strangely for me it was one of the ones that made me think: ‘Hang on, what’s going on here? Maybe I’m gay.’ So it actually had the opposite effect to what it was supposed to do probably.
Q: What was it like when you were at school in Cumbria? And later in University?
CH: I found school difficult – I went to a fairly rough school in West Cumbria, but it started to get really interesting when I was the in Sixth Form.
I think the people who wanted to be there were perhaps more interested in the wider world, so we were reading things and watching things. There was a lot going on politically. Not just in terms of LGBT rights, but also women’s rights and anti-racism.
That led to excitement about the world, certainly for my close network of friends. Actually. out of my friendship group at school, three of us out of, say, five turned out to gay. But we didn’t necessary know it at the time or didn’t identify it as that – that came later. Would have been helpful if we had said it, but it was something that was very difficult to come out with at that point. Although it was always something that I was and in some ways secretly proud of, because I didn’t want to be like everybody else.
When I was at university, it was a much more diverse place. There were different things going on between different people, and sexuality seemed to matter a lot less. People could get their heads around things more. It didn’t feel like ‘coming out’ per se, because definitely it wasn’t obvious. It didn’t seem like a thing that had to be said.
Q: What did you do before you started writing full-time?
CH: When I first came to London, I got a voluntary job watching videos about human rights and writing small reviews of them for a small television production company.
For the next 10 years, I worked my way up to being the production manager for a series about globalisation, social justice, democracy etc.. It was a very useful and interesting thing to do – partly in terms of learning how to tell stories. It opened my eyes to the world, to lots of different issues that I didn’t really know anything about, but kind of grabbed me.
Later I became a communications manager for a peace building organisation called International Alert. Working there had a really profound effect on me. As part of the job I had to go and talk to people in war zones so that we could use their stories to publicise our work and raise funds. I took a trip to Rwanda and Congo with a photographer. I remember we went to a place where a massacre had happened and it’s now a memorial. We just walked in and we saw 25 classrooms and they were just piled with bodies harshly preserved, some of them were skeletons, some were women with babies still tied around their backs – babies were skeletons too.
After that I had nightmares for months. I think it was the first time I understood what war really means. I’ve written two books about war and I think that’s not a coincidence. I never meant to write two books about war.
Q: What made you become a writer?
Luckily, my grandmother said, ‘Look, I can see you’re in a state. I was going to leave you some money when I died. But I think you need it now. So have it now and get on with it.’ So she did and I resigned the next day.
When I finished the first book, I had an agent looked at my book. She liked it, so she took it on. We worked on it, editing it for about six months, really word by word. Then it was turned down, by 17 publisher before Portobello finally bought it.
This was a book called Days of Grace, about an old lady with cancer. When she was evacuated in the Second World War to the Vicarage in Kent, she falls in love with the Vicar’s daughter. I had a really brilliant editor who really chose the ideal person to take me through as a first time writer. It was just very exciting. I said, ‘Oh gosh, wow, the book, it’s me.’ It got decent reviews and it was great. And I’ve been mostly full time writing for about 10 years now.
Q: How do you do your research?
CH: In all sorts of places. So I used to work in the British, well before I had children, I used to work in the British library which is down the road from my house, so it’s easy. It’s anything from history books to diaries to letters, like my recent book, part of it was about Indian soldiers in the First World War. So I read all their letters because they were translated and kept in the India office there.
With my recent book, it’s partly set in Afghanistan and I couldn’t go because I just had my second child. So I put out a message on Facebook saying, ‘Can anybody tell me what Kabul airport is like?’ Immediately I’ll get replies. I did a lot of talking on Skype to people. I met one woman who works there and she was really helpful. She would take me through, I would say, ‘What would be a café where expats would go to in Kabul? What’s it look like? ‘ Then once I had written that bit, show it to her.
I read novels from the period that I’m writing about to get a flavour of the time. I listen to music from the period. With the Proof of Love, I also used quite a lot of Cumbrian websites with Cumbrian dialect in them.
So once you get going, it’s great and I love the research process, because it is far easier than writing. The problem is always when to stop and start writing!
Q: Tell us more about Proof of Love
CH: After Days of Grace, Portobello commissioned a second book from me – I jotted down a few ideas, and they liked this one.
Why it was based in the Lake District was a complete mystery to me – I always said I wasn’t going to write a book about Lake District. When I was at school I had to read too much Wordsworth and Coleridge, I was fed up with those nature stuff. I realised that they weren’t just writing about nature later on, they were writing actually about big ideas and the thoughts. I think the setting in Lake District was almost a subconscious mistake but on purpose. There’s something about the lakes that seeps into you. I didn’t know it was there, but it came back out.
The main character, Spencer, was based on a real person – a guy who used to work next door to us and he said he was a university lecturer. He had come in the summer holidays, to this sheep farm next to ours and he would dress like a local, he would speak in dialect but he said, he was a mathematics lecturer at a university. Nobody ever knew whether it was true or not. My dad used to go to the pub with him and talk about maths. My dad was never quite sure whether he was so brilliant that he couldn’t understand him, or he was a bit bonkers and was talking rubbish!
Then he died, and there was an obituary in The Independent. He was exactly what he said, he was a mathematics professor. He died at a maths conference in Thailand.
I just thought: what made him want to come to sit on a tractor for six weeks every summer, just talking in Cumbrian dialect? And the book just started from there.
Q: Will you always have LGBT characters in your books?
CH: I think it’s a really interesting question and I’m sort of battling with it in this next book: about whether I always want to write about different sexualities or not; Would I, for example, always want to have lesbian or gay or bi heroine or hero; or would I not; does it matter; Is that a political thing that I want to do or do I just want to tell stories and that comes into it; or do I want to tell stories where doesn’t come into it at all.
Having said that, I think it is important, and it certainly was important for me and probably for lots of LGBT people, to recognise yourself in literature. That was a big way to find out about things and to find out about people in the world. Maybe that has changed with the internet, there is definitely a lot more ways to find out what it is to be LGBT, but I think literature still is important for that.
I think as my career goes on I’ll write about different things and it’ll depend. It is not necessary that every time I write a book that my protagonist will be gay, but there is probably always going to be elements or there will be other characters that just happen to be. It’s what I was saying I think before about if you can write about somebody and the sexuality isn’t necessarily the main thing that’s when we know we’ve really come a long way.
Q: What is coming up next?
CH: I’m researching for a possible new novel set in the mid-19th century. That’s a whole new period for me and much more historically. Which in some ways is good because nobody’s alive can remember it. But there are a lot of people who know about that period very well. So it feels a little bit daunting. I’m just at the beginning.
Q: What was your proudest moment as a writer?
CH: I remember going on a school trip down to London and I sort of sneaked off, I went down to Gay’s the Word bookshop and I’m in there buying a copy of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit.
About a year ago we did a reading of my latest book there, and it was really nice to think, 25 years on, after that first time I went into a gay bookshop, being really terrified, on a school trip and then 25 years later standing up in the bookshop and reading from my book. It was such an amazing experience. It was like, ‘Okay you’ve come a long way.’
Q: Does being a Cumbrian influence you?
CH: I think my family does, because they’re very practical. It’s like ‘Right, we’ll just get on with it’. ‘Stop fanning about’, as my dad would say. I think I have a very strong worker ethic which I’ve definitely got from them. My parents farmed together and if you’ve got a farm, if it’s raining, you still have to do it. That’s the way I put my writing. I don’t sit there waiting for inspirational at the beginning of the morning. I usually stop halfway through a sentence the night before. So I can just pick it up the next day. Because once you start doing something, then go for it.
Q: What would you say to today’s young LGBT people in Cumbria?
CH: I would say don’t hide it. One of my underlying themes, is not letting shame limit you and not letting it limit your potential, because once you start doing that, that’s a really limiting downhill slope. Whereas if you can celebrate yourself, actually you can really do anything. You really can make yourself into anybody you want. Everything is actually possible.
Interviewed by Tonia Lu / Cover image: Book cover of Oranges are not the Only Fruit