Zoologist Rachel Caine has monitored a wolf pack in a remote section of Idaho for the past decade, distancing herself from her estranged family in England. But she’s drawn back to the English countryside when an eccentric earl proposes a controversial plan: reintroducing the Grey Wolf to the Lake District. The ancient and the modern collide as Rachel must reconcile the earl’s vision of an apex predator thriving in the wild with the public’s fear in the 21st century.
Paste caught up with The Wolf Border author Sarah Hall to chat about researching wolves for the gripping novel, the possibility of an independent Scotland and what she’s writing next.
Paste: What sparked your imagination to write The Wolf Border?
Sarah Hall: I’ve always been interested in wolves, since I was a child. There was a wolf enclosure in a wildlife park very close to where I was brought up; they were the main attraction. As indigenous animals, they have been gone from Britain for so long they now occupy a mythical place in the imagination and are no longer “real.” Though the novel touches on fairy tale themes, which it must, it is concentrating on the reality of the wolf—their behavior and ecology.
In the last few years, there has been a big debate about the countryside and our wild spaces—perhaps because these places are so under threat—how they should be managed, who owns them. New scientific understanding about what a healthy environment might look like is making people reassess farming and other land uses. These issues have certainly fed into the book. Apex predators are good for an environment in terms of biodiversity and trophic cascade—we have very few. But realistically, only a few areas could sustain free-roaming wolves in Britain, mostly in Scotland.
Paste: What was your research process for this novel? Any visits to wolf sanctuaries?
Hall: I visited the wolf center in Reading and had help from the woman in charge there—she copy-edited the novel for me, checking I had all the wolfish bits correct! I also went to see the Saw Tooth pack in Idaho about 10 years ago (though, of course, I didn’t actually see them, elusive as they are). I read up thoroughly about the subject, too—one could go on reading about these animals forever, they are so fascinating, adaptable and brilliantly clever. I tend to research as I write so that the narrative can take priority, which is important for a piece of fiction, I think, finding out facts as and when I need to. Often research can make you turn an unexpected corner in the plot, too, which is great. There was also some predictive/speculative research to do with Scotland … politically and topographically, and I had to talk to civil servants, politicians, the police and reformers.
Paste: What was the most challenging scene to write in the novel?
Hall: Great question! There were a few, for different reasons—some descriptive, some psychological. The pregnancy sex scene felt quite taboo, especially as Rachel is single at that point in the novel and her partner is not the father of the baby. Wolf hunting with the baby in tow required steady nerves, and I wanted to really examine the irrational fears people have about wolves during that scene, versus Rachel’s professional knowledge of them. But she is also conflicted about having her son with her, so it’s an extreme version of a new parent balancing motherhood and work! The scenes with the wolves were hard—describing animals, their look, movements, the lack of cognitive access, is always very hard, requiring poetic brevity and specificity almost. A reader must be able to see them.
Paste: The Wolf Border explores the reality of an independent Scotland. Could you see Scottish independence occurring as smoothly as it does in the book?
Hall: It’s very interesting to me that the nationalist movement in Scotland has become so positive and self-reflective, rather than anti-English. The referendum in 2014 was peaceful, for all its deeply and passionately divided people. Not that there haven’t been notes of tension, racism, some spats and scraps along the way. But on the whole, a very forceful political ideal, which is still a very active issue, has not resulted in violence to speak of. I think if the yes vote had won, there wouldn’t have been the chaos, protest and exodus that the scare-mongers predicted. The transition and secession may not have been easy or uncomplicated, but bloody revolution was not on the cards.
Paste: Can you divulge any information about what you’re working on now?
Hall: I’m working on another collection of short stories, which is almost finished. Some of the stories have been published, but there will be a few new ones, too. I’m also commissioning and editing an anthology of short stories on the themes of sex and death (publishers Faber UK, Harper Collins USA, Anansi Canada). Twenty highly acclaimed and accomplished short story writers from around the globe are contributing and I’m very excited about the project.