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 in the Britain today. It only comes out once a decade, and making the cut is a big deal. Past issues have helped launch some of Britain's best-known writers. With the 2013 issue hot off the presses, we asked Granta's editor John Freeman and Sarah Hall, one of the authors in this new issue, to head to our London studios for an interview.
Although Freeman has read Sarah Hall's ornate and spooky prose for years, this was the first time they met in person.
JOHN FREEMAN: She's quite a bit less scary than she is on the page.
SARAH HALL: Oh, there's still time.
GREENE: She doesn't look like a horror writer.
FREEMAN: Black hair.
SARAH HALL: Well, I should say, I have a T-shirt on that has: All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. So...
FREEMAN: I'm just noticing that.
FREEMAN: My hands are sweating.
GREENE: For someone who doesn't really know her career at all, I mean, how would you describe her, define her, as the editor here?
FREEMAN: Hm. That's so hard. She's sitting right here.
FREEMAN: She's not yet 40, and she's published five books - quite a 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. And her recent short stories prove that she can do all this quite remarkably in a very short form. She is one of the best short-story writers in England today.
What struck you about the language and writing of - that Sarah Hall uses?
Well, it's exactly what we're talking about, is that she's sort of a diagnostician of the inner states. I think she - one of her books describes the heart as a red, pulpy mass.
FREEMAN: And I think that there's a fierce attention to what language can do. And you see that she uses sentence fragments really, really well. She's a writer who uses language to describe altered states, as well, and how in a landscape, or in an atmosphere or place, the inner and outer states could kind of merge.
GREENE: And John, you wrote an introduction to this issue of Granta, and you said that literature asserts that the world, as it is imagined, is every bit as important as the world as it exists. Is that really the case?
FREEMAN: Yeah, because if we only agreed with what the world is, there would never be the future. The world, as it will be, is partly imagined, and it's part entropy. And if we believe that we can have some sense of control of our destinies - whether it's how we educate children or how we write our own stories - part of that has to do with the imagining, and novels help us imagine more beautifully, I think, than almost any other art form.
GREENE: I want to hear some of your piece, Sarah Hall, if you don't mind. You have it with you?
HALL: I do. It's going to take me just a second to find it.
GREENE: No problem.
HALL: If you can bear with me. OK. I found myself.
GREENE: Go for it.
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.
GREENE: Sarah Hall, who are these mysterious, howling beasts?
HALL: Oh, they're wolves.
HALL: It's not a zombie novel or anything, I'm afraid, although that would probably sell a gazillion.
GREENE: And Sarah, just if I can, let me ask you to just give us the plot of "The Reservation."
HALL: 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 the 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 project that he's running. 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, 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.
John Freeman is the editor of Granta. He joined us from London. John, thanks to you.
FREEMAN: Thank you.
GREENE: And also with us, 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 of Young British Novelists issue is out today in Britain, and we'll have it in the United States next week. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.