Literary magazine Granta has just released its latest Best of Young British Novelists issue. It's a hefty volume that comes out only once a decade, so making the cut is a major feat, putting its chosen in the company of modern literary legends like Salman Rushdie and David Mitchell.
One of the writers with a coveted spot on the list is Sarah Hall. Granta editor John Freeman tells NPR's David Greene that he's been reading Hall's ornate, spooky prose for years. "She's not yet 40 and she's published five books ... and as she's gone on, I think her language has deepened and richened so that she's not just a writer of landscape, she's a writer of atmosphere," he says. "Her recent short stories prove that she can do all of this quite remarkably in a very short form. She's one of the best short-story writers in England today."
Hall is at work on a new novel, called The Reservation, and it's about a woman who's working with a wolf pack on an Idaho reservation when she's wooed back to the U.K. by an earl who wants her help with a wolf-related project. "He's very involved with a self-sustaining wolf enclosure. She's also dealing with a couple of personal issues. I don't entirely know where things are going," Hall says — she describes herself as not being a writer who does a lot of upfront plot planning before beginning to write. "That's quite exciting, I mean, I can say something here and not necessarily hold myself to it. In fact, you know what, I'm going to change it to bears. Not even wolves!"
In her stories, Hall's language is gorgeous and precise. "You have to have a respect for the language and an understanding of its musicality and its structures, its rhythms," Hall says, "because it's not just about calling a table a table, you know. Just describing the entrails of an animal as plush and red — well, plush is a good word. It's kind of a beautiful image on the one hand, but it's hopefully an image that's successful. It's not just visually accurate, but it's something that will stir the reader, make them feel slightly squeamish."
The new Granta list showcases an impressive diversity of voices — but John Freeman says that wasn't intentional on the part of the editors. "It's a surprise. We've never had a moment's conversation about ethnicity or diversity," he says. "The big thing is, I think, about the novel as a form — it benefits from the sound of other languages. It's what's made the American novel so robust, and actually, if you look at this British list, it suggests that that will not particularly be just an American quality to the novel."
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
The literary magazine "Granta" releases its Best Young British Novelists issue today. Past issues have helped launch the careers of some of Britain's best-known writers. This year's list includes poet and novelist Sarah Hall. Granta's editor, John Freeman, describes her this way...
JOHN FREEMAN: She's not yet 40, and she's published five books - quite productive career for someone so young. And as she's gone on, I think her language has deepened and richened so that she's not just a writer of the landscape; she's a writer of atmosphere.
GREENE: And you can feel that in this selection that Sarah Hall read for us. It's from her novel in progress, called "The Reservation."
SARAH HALL: (Reading) It's not often she dreams about them. Through the day, they are elusive, keeping to the tall grass at the reservation, disappearing from the den site. They are fleet or lazy, moving through their own tawny color-scape, sleeping under logs, miscible either way. Their vanishing acts have been perfected. At night they come back, the cameras pick them up, red-eyed, heads lowered, muzzles darkened, returning from a hunt.
(Reading) Or she hears them howling along the buffer zone, a long harmonic; one leading, then many. At night, there is no need to imagine, no need to dream. They reign outside the mind.
GREENE: Sarah Hall, who are these mysterious, howling beasts?
HALL: Oh, they're wolves. (LAUGHTER) It's not a zombie novel or anything, I'm afraid - although that would probably sell a gazillion.
GREENE: Yeah, they're really an enigma - at least, in the excerpt that we have in "Granta," here. Why not use the term "wolf"?
FREEMAN: Well, I mean, I have occasionally. I suppose it's just - I have a kind of resistance for using names, even with main characters. They end up being "he" and "she" quite a lot. So perhaps it's that same tick that I have. I mean, you do have the actual names of wolves in packs as well. So it's things like Left Paw or Tungston. So you do get actual names, too.
GREENE: You know, I was struck reading this - because we're living in an age where we read so much on Twitter or blogs, and there's so much brevity. And you know, your language just - the imagery, it's just - you take time, and it's so beautiful. I'm reading just a part - (Reading) In the rain, the redstone manor looks patched and bloody.
Is there a feeling that you're doing something that's becoming more and more rare, you know, in our day?
HALL: Why, I don't know, really. I mean, I assume that all writers aspire to wield language in a successful way so that you're creating a kind of precise imagery and an atmosphere, at the same time. And you have to have a respect for the language, and an understanding of its musicality and its structures, its rhythms - what can be done with it because it's not just about calling a table, a table. I think maybe in the last 20 years or so, both in America and the U.K., there's maybe an idea that beauty is somehow suspicious; it doesn't necessarily accurately represent the world. But I think there's probably room for beautiful writing, whatever that means - and other kind of writing.
GREENE: And Sarah, just - if I can - let me ask you to just give us the plot of "The Reservation."
HALL: Um - the novel isn't finished. It's about a third to half of the way through so far, and I'm not a writer that plots too heavily right up at the front. But the general scenario is, the character of Rachel is working on a reservation in Idaho with a wolf pack there, and she is wooed by an earl to come back to the U.K. and oversee a project that he's running. He's very involved with a self-sustaining wolf enclosure. I don't entirely know where things are going, so that's quite exciting. I mean, I can say something here and not necessarily hold myself to it.
GREENE: That's true.
HALL: In fact, you know what? I'm going to change it to bears. Not even wolves, not even wolves. Let's scrap that.
GREENE: There we go. Sarah Hall - she's one of the young writers featured in "Granta's" latest issue of young British writers. Sarah, thank you.
HALL: Thanks very much.
GREENE: And "Granta's" Best Young British Novelists issue is out today in the U.K. We'll have it in the United States next week. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.