About The Author
Sarah Hall was born in Cumbria in 1974. She is the prize-winning author of five novels - Haweswater, The Electric Michelangelo, shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, The Carhullan Army, How to Paint a Dead Man and The Wolf Border - as well as The Beautiful Indifference, a collection of short stories, which won the Portico Prize and the Edge Hill Short Story Prize. The first story in the collection, 'Butchers Perfume', was also shortlisted for the BBC National Short Story Award - a prize Hall won in 2013 with 'Mrs Fox'.
Her new collection, Madame Zero, is rich in the mythic symbolism of wilderness and wasteland. Written in Hall's lyrical prose, the tales blur the natural and urban, mundane and surreal, human and animal to form an uncannily disturbing collection glittering with poetic and erotic imagery. Below, exclusively for Foyles, Sarah selects her top ten books about erotic love.
Above that, in an exclusive interview with Foyles by Jonathan Ruppin, Sarah talks about her earlier novel, The Wolf Border, the influence of the very wealthy on British politics, humanity's irrepressible animal instincts and the lack of normal sex in literature.
Author photo © Richard Thwaites
Questions & Answers
Having researched the topic for The Wolf Border – and grown up yourself in another potentially feasible lupine habitat, Cumbria – do you feel the return of wolves to Britain is a likely and desirable possibility?
It’s certainly desirable, though a divisive issue. Wolves occupy a mythical space in the imagination of the public – people are irrationally afraid of them. Reintroduction would be very good for the ecosystem in certain areas, notably the Scottish Highlands. Is it likely? Some environmental experts think in about 20 years the public may have come round to the idea, but there’s nothing to say that public opinion can’t be ‘accelerated’ with positive campaigns. Good economic arguments can be made, as well as the benefits of trophic cascade in the environment, and Rachel makes both in the novel. I’m on board anyway – ready to don my wolf costume and lope over to the Houses of Parliament with a petition.
Paul Lister, owner of the Alladale Wilderness Reserve in the Caledonian Forest, has been hoping to reintroduce both wolves and bears to Scotland. How much did he and his project influence the character of the Earl of Annerdale and his plans to bring wolves to the Lake District?
I knew of Lister, and his ideas, but he wasn’t a huge influence on my character. The fictional Annerdale is probably more like Ennerdale in the Lake District than Alladale. But the estate is very much an imagined space – larger than any estate that exists in the north of England now (practically, it would have to be a certain size for a ‘free-roaming’ wolf project). As the concept of the novel is speculative, it seemed appropriate to create a Lake District of the imagination, a fantasy Lake District, so some names and places are real and others invented. The earl himself is perhaps based on a few prominent eccentrics in the world of politics, but as with any literary character there are so many odd elements that go into the mix it’s hard to unravel his DNA. In some ways, while I hope he is authentic and human, he simply stands for a class of English landowner and English power-holder. One of the issues the novel is investigating is the power imbalance in Britain, who influences, who governs, and who owns. At the end of the novel, Thomas Pennington has not quite been exposed (that would have a blunt literary thing to do), and there is the sense that one cannot determine whether his wealth and entrepreneurialism has been used for good means or bad, simply that his power is enormous, he is almost untouchable, and not be held to account.
Rachel has the strong impression that the Earl's passion for the project is little more than dilettantism. Given the private ownership of much of Britain's wild space, do you feel that Britain's political attitudes to rural areas are being determined by those who see them as recreational spaces, rather than areas of agriculture and biodiversity?
That’s the big worry, isn’t it, and one of the motivations for more devolved regional powers perhaps, or stronger independent bodies overseeing wilder areas? Certainly, at the moment, areas of woodland are being flogged off by the government, and the countryside is regarded as a garden for the city, or up for sale. It’s questionable whether national parkland really is protected, local occupancy laws don’t do much to prevent the gentrification of rural places. We don’t have the vast tracts of wilderness that North America does. We have to be careful with what we do have and act with foresight. There’s a big debate to be had about what rural spaces can and should be used for, as well as farming and tourism. This means thinking in modern, scientific ways rather than letting bucolic nostalgic govern. I’m interested in bottom-line land politics, and ownership, which means addressing the absolute power of the monarchy too. But the novel isn’t just about the countryside. I wanted it to be a state of the nation novel, with broad scope, that just happens to be set in several wild and rural areas.
You also feature a referendum on Scottish independence in the novel. Do you think that the political influences on a project such as this are indicative of an irresolvable division between centralised government and local needs and desires? And how do you feel about the outcome of the 2014 vote?
Yes, perhaps. Reintroduction projects are interesting to think about in relation to man-made borders, as nature often doesn’t observe them. The wolf reintroduction project in the novel is driven by one influential man – Rachel calls it a ‘mad hope and glory’ project. The balance between centralised and local government is in a way irrelevant. The Earl manages to push through a game enclosure bill (allowing predators to hunt game in an enclosed space, which at the moment prevents anyone from activating a project such as Annerdale’s) and he has the money to build a giant fence and fly in a pair of breeding wolves. It’s Big Business, but also playful. I suppose I had in mind very rich businessmen who seem to have a gravitational pull over British policy making and can indulge in largescale projects. The reader is never quite sure whether there are different motivations beneath Pennington’s eco-warrior persona, and whether some kind of network enables him to do what he wants initially, then tolerates what he does eventually (sorry to be coy – spoiler alert). The 2014 vote – let’s say I’d be interested in a re-run. I’m very interested in May’s general election.
Your 2013 BBC National Short Story Award-winning 'Mrs Fox' also offered, as you explained in an a recent Booktrust interview, a contrast between 'something raw and feral against something more civilised', and this is a motif present, to some extent, in all your previous novels. Why do you think you're so strongly drawn to this concept in your writing?
Partly it’s a dramatic device – Jekyll and Hyde. Interesting things occur when our redder aspects get out from inside the refined exterior. Human beings are still animals, and particular activities reveal it – sex, violence, labour, maybe even death. It’s hard to write about these moments or movements of ferality, hard to find the right way of expressing it all, but I like the challenge, the test. You could also blame my upbringing for the preoccupation. I was as likely to see and interact with a horse or a dog as I was with another human being. This was the population where I grew up. I spent as much time outdoors as indoors, not at garden parties but on the moors, and in the river, literally. You begin to wonder what sort of a creature you are in that context. I just don’t think of myself, or anyone, as that far removed from nature.
The romantic relationship Rachel begins as the project progresses is conducted with very little compromise on her part, continuing the depiction of strong-willed and independent female protagonists that are a feature of your writing (but that unfortunately remains relatively rare in contemporary fiction). Were you concerned that Rachel's relatively unusual career and domestic circumstances might detract from an exploration of a woman forging her own identity?
Rachel’s job is a great way to explore her identity and her psychology, I think, her interactions with her own species. Many readers, and societies generally, aren’t that comfortable examining the full spectrum of female capability, emotion and experience in literature. Such things as promiscuity (or soldiering, which I wanted to explore in The Carhullan Army) still make readers uncomfortable. Male protagonists have for a long time been allowed anti-heroic or unsympathetic stances – eg human stances – and can stand for a universal figure. I challenge myself with every character, particularly female, to write the possibility of a universal character, even though they have a particular set of individualistic characteristics and circumstances. What I mean by that is a character that can stand for human existence, than a reader can associate with or at least break bread with. I still hear a lot of men say ‘I don’t read books written by women, they aren’t writing about what I’m interested in.’ (Apologies to the very many enlightened male readers with a various literary diet.) It’s an interesting phenomenon and I consider that a direct challenge. Firstly to write well, to use language skilfully, and confidently, because any experience, even kitchen-sink, when written well and ‘activated’ can be interesting if the reader feels transported and empathetic. So, for example, an exclusive experience – this is what a pregnancy and a C-section feels like. Can you feel it now? Now we’re all a bit closer to understanding each other’s lives and experiences. That might sound grand, I mean it in quite a small way, but this is the project of literature and humanity, surely? Secondly, I’m going to write about female characters doing interesting things, because I find there to be a dearth of female characters doing interesting things in books, and lots of women I know do interesting things, every day.
The inclusion of a sex scene involving Rachel while she is heavily pregnant is particularly unusual; do you feel that this is something which remains taboo?
Yes, I suppose it is – especially as it’s not with the father of the baby. Pregnant women are still attractive, and there is certainly a stage of pregnancy where the libido goes up; nor does pregnancy prohibit the illicit. But the sex scene in question has a kindness and humour to it, I hope, a reality. It’s not a political statement; it’s sort of normal. There’s a lack of real and normal sex in literature maybe, by which I mean all the strange, imperfect, loving, unromantic, funny ways it actually happens in life. My favourite part of that scene is when Rachel hears Alexander peeing in the toilet afterwards. This is life.
This is your first return to the conventional long-form storytelling after How to Paint a Dead Man, a novel with four parallel narratives, and your first short story collection, The Beautiful Indifference. Did your time focussing on alternative forms have any impact in your approach to this novel?
I think short stories, demanding and formal as they are, and in many ways harder to pull off that a novel, have made me a better novelist. It’s made me pull my socks up on form, plot, pace, and even on the level of language there’s a certain new degree of choice going on in my work, execution and exclusion. It’s hard to analyse all the stages in your development as a writer. But I do think writing short stories has been good for me.