The Wolf Border: Sarah Hall

The Wolf Border: Sarah Hall

Event: Sarah Hall in conversation with Sam Leith

Venue: Foyles, Charing Cross Road

Report by Alex Masters

‘It’s the place where the streetlight ends and the wilderness begins. It represents the divide between man and beast.’

Sarah Hall is explaining the concept of ‘a wolf border’. But, she says, it’s a subtle separation, unlike our crude, manufactured partitions and political divides. Just as the wolves enter new territory, so with The Wolf Border, Sarah ventures into new literary terrains. ‘It’s utterly glorious,’ Sam Leith, looking all cross-legged and intellectual, enthuses.

While the theme of division is clearly at the heart of the novel, it is never clear-cut or linear. ‘The wilderness we have is quite complicated,’ Sarah explains passionately. Her face is expressive and there’s an infectious energy about her.

Then there is the complexity that arises from the old versus the new. ‘We have modern sheep farming rubbing against nostalgia for the old farming ways,’ she says. ‘It’s complicated and difficult. It’s a very good debate to have and it should be had.’

Sam Leith interviewing Sarah Hall at Foyles

Sam Leith interviewing Sarah Hall at Foyles

Political upheaval

Set against a background of political upheaval, the book was written in the run-up to this year’s referendum on Scottish independence: the timing could not have been better in terms of real-life border debates. ‘There were lots of contemporary issues swirling around. I was thinking about land and borders and territory – that’s a very interesting issue and at odds with wildlife, where borders mean nothing.

‘In terms of English identity and regional policies, I wanted that land talked about and I didn’t hear it on the level I wanted to. Certain businessmen have a lot of sway and I wanted to look at that and how it fits with our ideas of democracy’. Indeed, Sam is intrigued by the character of the earl. ‘He is old money and very well-connected,’ he says. ‘He seems a very ambivalent figure but the wolves wouldn’t be there without him.’ Sarah agrees: ‘Ambivalent is the right word. On the face of it he’s an eco-warrior but he’s so powerful and has so much money. He’s in a position to do things; it’s a personal whim rather than a project.’

Predators

The Wolf Border also explores the debate around predators and town versus country. ‘A lot of people don’t mind the idea of wolves.’ Indeed, wolves have become something of an obsession for Sarah. ‘Wolves look splendid everywhere,’ she says ardently. ‘You find them in the freezing cold and in deserts.’ She confesses she did become ‘the biggest wolf bore.’ ‘I was reading about them the whole time. I fell in love with them. They occupy a fabled space.’

While not a great planner when writing – ‘I know I can go back and edit that very messy first draft’ – and never one to set things in stone, Sarah knew one thing would set the tone: ‘When the wolves first arrive on the estate, the owner comes down and sees protesters and says: “Oh madam, these wolves won’t go out; you can leave a baby in the enclosure.” It was obvious! I knew there’d be a hell of a drama!’

Sarah Hall reading from 'The Wolf Border'

Sarah Hall reading from ‘The Wolf Border’

‘Who’s normal?’

Audience members are fascinated by the character of Rachel, particularly her wildness. As one audience member eloquently puts it: ’She is defined by her own terms; she doesn’t play the stereotypical relationship. She’s allowed to be a bit of a maverick that men can always be in novels. You’re very rare: you write female characters who are not defined by expectations of their role in society.’ He admits that, as a man, he found Rachel quote intimidating. ‘Do you find that men and women react differently?’

‘I find her relatively normal!’ Sarah laughs. ‘But who’s normal? I like reading about female characters with complicated aspects. Rachel felt like some people I knew – maybe she’s a bit like me in some ways. It’s a hard question to answer.’ She jumps from idea to idea, searching for something conclusive. ‘It’s unravelling her and who someone is. I find her kind in some ways. There is psychological damage of a broken upbringing. I love that sometimes she is not loving and hugging but she wanted to explore the relationship with her brother. She was absorbed some North American ways of living. She was promiscuous, a floater when it comes to politics.’

‘In some ways,’ Sam ponders ‘she was unconventional, not completely domesticated.’ ‘I know lots of ladies like that!’ Sarah replies. ‘She was in conflict with her mother. I was very interested in the main characters pitted against the wolves who work together very well. They have very good rules within packs. Humans are seen as the higher species but they fuck up a massive amount!

‘There are different responses from men and women. I think Carhullan Army is the book that divides people. Women would never torture each other to make themselves better soldiers.’

I ask her how she feels when a lot of critics describe her as a ‘masculine’ writer. Does it anger her? She makes a bodybuilder pose, flexing her muscles, to much laughter. ‘I write like… me! I’m from the fells: I’m quite hardy. It’s still quite insulting.’

Inconclusive

Throughout the entire writing process, Sarah never had any clear goal. ‘Did you know where it was going?’ Sam asks. ‘It’s better not to look too closely,’ Sarah says. ‘I’m glad it’s “plotty”; some of my books have been decidedly “unplotty”… you’ve to have a balance! If you write a synopsis for your publisher, suddenly you can’t write because you know too much about it; there’s no room for natural movement.’

When it comes to writing, Sarah wants questions left unanswered. ‘I can’t write books that resolve anything – they’re so fake. I wanted sinister elements in the book. There are some characters that are never unmasked. A novel is more of an investigation; more questions are raised. It’s an inquiry into something.’

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