How We Met: Sarah Hall & Owen Sheers
'We swim in the Cam, but only for 30 seconds, otherwise we'd go blue'
Sarah Hall, 38
Rural themes regularly weave their way into the English novelist's work, including her Commonwealth Prize-winning debut 'Haweswater' and the Man Booker-shortlisted 'The Electric Michelangelo'. She lives in Norwich with her partner.
We first met in 2004 at the Edinburgh Festival, when I broke in to the Welsh Arts Council party by climbing over a tall fence to get to the bar. He was part of the Welsh contingent there and we got chatting, though I think it was rugby that made Owen like me.
The next day I was hanging around on the street with the Welsh boys and Owen, and one of them started tossing a ball about and I joined in. When Owen saw I could throw it (I play at a local club as a scrum-half) he was impressed, as he used to play the same position until he hurt his knee. And we ended up hanging around together for the rest of the festival.
Afterwards, we both travelled on to the Lake District, where Owen was the artist-in-residence at the Wordsworth Trust, and he began to think about his book Resistance while I was thinking about my third novel. Our books were very different; his was a counter-factual story about the Second World War and mine was set in the future. But the themes they had were very similar: resistance and terrorism and the Fells. And that summer we wrote together and strolled round the uplands together, batting around ideas and talking about terrorism and when would you turn against your government.
We get on enormously well, partly because we both had a semi-agricultural upbringing – me in the Lake District and Owen in South Wales – and we're both interested in the modern wilderness. Now, when I want to chat with someone to get a perspective on, say, badger culls, I speak to Owen, as he gets the countryside in a way a lot of my urban friends don't.
We have a competitive streak to our friendship, particularly when we go wild-swimming together. It's always about who's going to jump into that cold lake first. And on New Year's Day, Owen and I have a tradition where we meet for a swim in the River Cam, in Cambridge. It's nuts as it's totally Baltic and you can't stay in for longer than 30 seconds, otherwise you start turning blue.
One thing I like about Owen's work is that he's not afraid of going for the big idea. I don't like literature that's domestic and small in scope. I always encourage him to go for brave endings; I remember talking to him about Resistance and saying, "Don't worry about unsettling the reader, do what's right for the book."
Owen Sheers, 37
The landscape and history of South Wales inspires much of the work of the Welsh poet and author, including award-winning poetry collections such as 'Skirrid Hill'. His first novel, 'Resistance', was adapted into a film released last year. He lives in London.
I was the writer-in-residence at the Wordsworth Trust [based in the Lake District] and Sarah's first novel, Haweswater, was set on the Lakes, so I was aware of her as a writer.
I first met Sarah in 2004 at a party at the Edinburgh Festival, and we just hit it off. She was wearing a headscarf and I remember thinking, is that independent boldness or just affectation? I felt a little intimidated, but it quickly melted away and we had a great time hanging out at the festival, gate-crashing parties and, as the only other writer I know who has also played rugby, tossing a ball around.
After the festival, I was going back to the Trust, and as she's from the Lakes, she decided to come with. For the rest of the year we went walking through the Fells and I started to feel Sarah had the Cumbrian equivalent of my upbringing in Wales; the attachment I feel for the Black Mountains in Wales, she has for the Fells, so it was great to have her as a guide beyond the tourist sites.
There's a feeling you get when you're with another writer and you know you can really launch into a conversation about the pitfalls and exhilarations of writing. And with Sarah I've found one of my most important sounding boards. I spoke to her about adapting Resistance when I had a wobble about how bold I was being with it, and she was like, "No don't tone it down, go for it!" We work well together and when she's staying with me for a few days, if she's in London, we'll both work hard on our books in the mornings and in the afternoon we'll go for a walk and have a nice pint in the pub.
There's a beautiful waterfall in the Lakes that is a closely kept secret where we go wild-swimming together. It sounds very romantic, and I'm sure other people might have thought there should have been something between us, but I think the film When Harry Met Sally was wrong that men and women can't just be friends – it's just been one of those wonderfully platonic friendships, which I'm very grateful for.
'Resistance' (PG), adapted by Sheers from his eponymous novel, is out on DVD on 19 March (owensheers.co.uk)
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