Last December, in the depths of lockdown, Sarah Moss picked up a copy of Winter Papers, an annual anthology of new Irish writing. The 46-year-old and her family had recently moved from Coventry to Dublin, and although Irish lockdown was less restrictive than the Britain version, Moss was feeling, she says, “completely frozen”. For nine months, the pandemic had been impossible to absorb, not only personally, but as a writer – until it showed up in Winter Papers. “It was only a glimpse of it in essays and stories,” Moss says, but for the first time she thought: “This is a thing we can write about. And it was such a relief.”
The permission given in that moment triggered an extraordinary burst of activity. Moss’s eighth novel, The Fell, was written in a frenzied few months and centres on the story of two neighbours in a remote village in the Peak District. At the beginning of the novel, Kate, a single mother of a teenage son, and her elderly neighbour, Alice, are both struggling with lockdown, not just the logistics but the guilt of complaining when they are supposed to be grateful simply for being alive. It’s perfect material for Moss, who in previous novels has examined the interplay between human systems and the natural world – specifically, how seemingly small domestic manoeuvres can throw one up against the vast planes of history, in ways tragic and absurd. In The Fell, Alice wonders if “maybe she’ll die without ever touching another human”, but also whether it’s OK to put frivolous items such as Hula Hoops on the list when Kate offers to do her shopping for her. Kate, meanwhile, asks, “When did we become a species whose default state is shut up indoors?” and, in an action that triggers the drama of the novel, sneaks out of the house for a rule-breaking walk. The Fell is a funny, savage novel about the very recent past, and seems to do the impossible: hold a story that is still unfolding immobile enough to integrate into fiction.
The tone of The Fell, as in so much of Moss’s work, is a pervasive creepiness that builds as the story develops. Her characters, in various states of claustrophobia, are saturated with helplessness and shame, but the existential questions raised by their difficulties are firmly rooted in politics. In Ghost Wall (2018), the power dynamics within an abusive family drill down into larger systems of oppression; in Summerwater (2020), the individual dread of families on a rainy holiday in Scotland reflects the deeper threat of environmental damage. The Fell asks the primary question of lockdown: what, exactly, is “essential”? “The idea of what is and isn’t essential is so political,” she says, and uses the example of children’s shoe shops, which were initially considered “non-essential” and prohibited from opening.
The question of blame-shifting is at the heart of this dynamic, and Moss is very canny at nailing the rightwing impetus behind government’s urging people to be grateful merely to have breath in their bodies. In the novel, Alice, going to bed one night, sheepishly berates herself for feeling lonely and scared. “‘There’s a reason they don’t write protest anthems about well-off retired people feeling a bit sad,’ she thinks, and tries to rally herself with the thought that “a person can doubtless live like this indefinitely, the background murmur of dread only a little louder week by week, month by month”. The fact is, she concludes, that ‘people don’t die of dread’”.
As Moss is at pains to point out, people do, actually, die of dread; it just takes a bit longer than other ways and is almost impossible to isolate as a cause. “But that was so much of the rhetoric during lockdown. When anybody said, ‘How are you doing?’ you had to say: ‘Oh, well, I’m so grateful that I’m not in intensive care.’ And you’d think, OK, but of course, always; but really?” It misunderstands what human beings are. “It’s also terrifyingly apolitical. If you have to go around being grateful to be alive, then you’re not allowed to demand equal pay, or safety on the streets, or just policing, or anything else. Because you should just be so glad you’re not dead.”
One of the aspects of lockdown that made Moss most furious was its sunken class biases and assumptions. Before leaving England, she would take her bike out into rural Warwickshire, “past some of the most deprived parts of Coventry. I’d volunteered in the local food bank and I knew what conditions in some of the council and ex-council blocks were like: people living with damp and mould that hospitalised babies, people who needed food parcels when they had no access to cookers or fridges, children who would come in to the food bank and ask how many of the biscuits on the plate they could eat because they were hungry. And then I was cycling along the lanes past enormous old houses that had their own tennis courts, with signs in the windows saying ‘Stay home, save lives’ and the smugness of it was enraging.”
The Fell is not by any means anti-lockdown; it just fills in a lot of pieces missing from a conversation that has to date been so scripted from the top. Much of the impetus for the story comes simply from recognising how humans need to be outside. Moss was raised in Manchester, where her dad was a computer scientist and her mum worked in arts and healthcare. When she was growing up, the family were frequent visitors to the Peak District and spent all their holidays out of doors. Moss’s landscapes aren’t soothing in the traditional sense; people in her novels are for ever on the brink of being snuffed out by bad weather. But something happens outside, psychologically, that the novelist finds particularly trenchant in this screen-addled era when, for long periods of time, many of us seem to function more as hard drives than people.
Moss is a “compulsive runner”, she says, “and it’s not about fitness or weight or sport or any of that. It’s just about being out in a body, feet on the stones and rain in the hair.” In terms of her fiction, she says, “I think the reason I’m interested in ‘bad’ weather is because that is when you’re most aware of your own embodiment in the world; when your skin is being rained on and your hair is being blown around. You really know you’re alive when you’re most physically present to the world and the elements.”
The flip side of this is her cerebral and more sedentary life as a teacher and academic. She graduated from Oxford in 1997, and stayed on to do a PhD on the influence of travel writing on Wordsworth, Coleridge and Mary Shelley.(“So landscape, travel and mostly Arctic and Antarctic travel writing, in the end.”) Occasionally, she wonders if becoming an academic was the right choice. It allowed her to travel; when her children were still very young, she took up a post in Reykjavik and the family moved to Iceland for a few years. It also enabled her writing career, something she’d aspired to “from very young, five or six. But I didn’t know anyone who did it and I couldn’t see how anyone would get from writing a thing in a notebook to publishing a book. A life in academia bought her time, structure and comfort. But “in some ways I wish I’d thought of an alternative career early on, because the world is wide and there are many interesting things I might’ve done.”
This desire to explore has perhaps been channelled into her fiction. Moss’s first novel, Cold Earth (2009), followed the fate of six archaeologists trapped in Greenland for an apocalyptic winter, a setup that “breathed authenticity,” wrote Jane Smiley in the Guardian. The book led to four further novels, three of which – Bodies of Light, Signs for Lost Children, and The Tidal Zone – were shortlisted for the Wellcome prize.
Ghost Wall is the story of a teenage girl who goes on a historical re-enactment weekend with her family. It focuses on her relationship with her dad, an angry, violent man obsessed with the iron age”. In spite of his brutishness, he’s not a character without sympathy, which, says Moss, “wasn’t even a literary move; it’s just how I think about people. A literary defence would be that it’s boring to write a monster, and actually people are more complicated than that. But also I just don’t believe in monsters.
Moss is very good on the English, particularly their behaviour during lockdown. In the new novel, the business of spying on one’s neighbours and the fear of being reported to the authorities is used to great effect. The dynamic is slightly different in Ireland, she says, where “there is a very long history of not telling on people” – so that while neighbours breaking the rules of lockdown might be observed, they would in all likelihood not be turned in. “Irish friends said that a lot of people were compliant because they would be ashamed in front of the neighbours if they weren’t. I mean, it’s Foucault in the background here: it wasn’t that you’d tell the police on your neighbours, but you would think less of them.” Which of course turns out to be the greater policeman.
Unusually, Moss is not writing at the moment. She has learned to be fine with that, or at least, after years of being anxious and controlling about her output, to weather the discomfort between books with more grace. Now, she says, “I’m more inclined to trust the process and see what happens.” She takes issue with a popular tenet of creative writing teaching – that you should write every day and keep writing. “Something I say to students is hold back for as long as you can, because if you’re writing the wrong thing – putting words on a screen is not an act of virtue. Leave it until you’ve got something that you want to say.”