Interview: Nicola Griffith
Written by Andrew Keating
As an undergraduate literature major, I had a brilliant professor by the name of Dr. Susan Bernardo. Certainly the most grueling of professors, she challenged each of her students to creatively approach new and provocative writing not typically found in the literary canon. Sure, she taught courses like Victorian Fiction and Introduction to Literary Analysis. But every so often, she would open up an elective like British Gothic and Detective Fiction. Oh, the excitement! In my final semester, and already signed up for an honors elective and a British Literature survey, I was still one of the first on the roster. It was in this class that I met Nicola Griffith – not in the formal sense, of course, but in a much more intimate way: it was in this class that I read The Blue Place. That summer , I read the sequel, Stay, and Slow River. I had quickly become a fan of Griffith’s impeccable descriptions of places I had never been, characters that were dynamic, terrifying, and truly profound, and plotlines that made reading a novel in a day a simple task.
Needless to say, when we started up Cobalt, and I suggested interviewing authors for each issue, Nicola’s name came quickly to mind.
When Nicola agreed to the interview, I quickly e-mailed Dr. Bernardo, asking if she had any ideas for questions I could ask. Her only question was “When is the next Aud book coming out?” One of the most academic and brilliant minds I have come to know in my life was asking a question that I typically associate with Harry Potter fans, James Patterson followers, or fans of any other pulp-media series. What this demonstrates, to me, is Nicola’s ability to make even the most critical of literary thinkers the most avid of fans. –Andrew
COBALT: You have all but monopolized the Lambda Literary Awards, which celebrate the best of LGBT writing each year. You’ve won six “Lammys.” Would you identify yourself as a “gay author” or an author who also happens to be gay? And how does this identity factor into your work?
Griffith: I’m no more a queer writer than a Yorkshire writer or a woman writer or an immigrant writer. I’m a novelist. If I have to qualify it, I’m a good novelist.
Story works the same for queers and straights. Love is love, after all. Sex is sex. Frustration and grief are frustration and grief. It feels the same inside. What’s different is how we act in throes of those feelings; it depends on our individual–our particular, our specific–history, situation, and understanding of the world. That’s what I write about.
Having said that, all my published novels do revolve around women who have sex with other women. I have written some short fiction from a male point of view–but those boys tend to like girls, too. This is what my story brain brings me.
One of the tasks of a good novel is help a reader identify with the protagonist, to make that protagonist human, no matter how superficially Other they appear to be. Sadly, I suspect many potential readers don’t try my novels because they worry they won’t be able to relate to a woman who likes women. Or perhaps some worry more that they will.
It’s a cooties problem. A multiple-cooties problem: not just a book by a girl, or even a book by a girl about a girl, but a book by a girl about a girl who likes girls.
Sometimes, though, my books slide under a reader’s defenses. I get scores of baffled emails along the lines of, “I had no idea this book was about lesbians until I got halfway through, and then I couldn’t put the book down. You conned me!” (This is particularly true of Ammonite and The Blue Place.) A couple of people with strong religious beliefs have been quite miffed to find that lesbians are just people. They’ve had to take another look at their reflex prejudice. This pleases me inordinately. But is it the point of my work? No.
COBALT: Location plays a very significant role in many of your works. How do you select locations and what resources do you use to bring them alive for your readers?
Griffith: Setting is the heart of my joy as a writer. It’s how I express character.
What a character pays attention to in their environment tells the reader a lot. For example, imagine an Italian restaurant. Put your a character in the doorway. What do they notice? It depends. A woman with two small children might see easily-smashed wineglasses, sharp knives, and that big open fire. A man who’s recently been gay-bashed would zero in on every big man in the room–and take note of his fists and boots. Someone on the run might check dark corners and exit signs, or an epileptic might look first at the floor–what they could expect to hit their head on if they go down in a grand mal seizure.
How a character interprets what they see–the vocabulary they use, the metaphors they choose–can tell us about their history, their stance to the world. If I put a character in the woods, with just two sentences I can ensure the reader knows whether they’re a farmer or politician, biologist or interior decorator –without resorting to bald exposition. I could probably also make it clear whether they’re lonely or happily married, young or old.
As a writer and as a reader, I prefer the outdoors. Too much time inside and I get claustrophobic. My first novel, Ammonite, as well as being ‘an exploration of gender’ and a ‘biological What-If novel’ (also, if you can believe it, a ‘sex romp on girlie planet’) was a Planetary Romance. My main character, Marghe, explores the geology, culture, climate and dangers of a whole world. I had a fabulous time roaming the planet with her, showing how Marghe’s understanding of the planet and its processes changes as she changes.
My next novel, Slow River, was more daunting. It had three narrative layers, two of which were set in an ugly, northern inner city. I worried that this urban scape would make for a grey and depressing read. As a precaution I set the third narrative layer largely outdoors in a variety of exotic locations:Belize, the South Pacific, the Caspian Sea. But my worries turned out to be unfounded. Once I started paying attention, I discovered that there’s a lot of nature even in an old and blighted city: the eyes of a squirrel gleaming like apple pips, weeds springing green and glorious from broken pavement, a lush conservatory in a park.
The three Aud novels, of course, brim with nature: Appalachian climax forest, Atlanta gardens, glacial fjords. Aud’s interior life is reflected in her surroundings and vice versa.
I often open a novel with place, funneling and filtering it through the emotional lens of my point-of-view character. In describing the character’s world, I’m describing her and her situation. If she’s fleeing for her life, for example, she’ll see nothing more specific than ‘trees’. If she’s walking in her garden after a long illness, though, she’ll take fond note of the progress of the dogwood she planted two years earlier. The reader sees, smells, hears, feels the world through the protagonist, experiences the world through her body. I use all the senses. Sight is only part of the story. Scent, sound, texture, and heft are all vital.
I avoid generic setting and clichéd characters by being particular and specific. The vocabularies of an interior designer and physician are quite different–as are the metaphors they’d use. Every word matters. Words are like icebergs; nine tenths of their mass lie below the surface. English is a rich language. There’s always an exact word. Scarlet and red and crimson have different connotations; their meaning seeps through and stains sentences around them.
COBALT: One can’t help but notice certain similarities between you and Aud… How much of yourself did you consciously put into her character, and how has she developed through three novels? (More like you…or less?)
Griffith: I first saw Aud in a dream. (Yes, really.) One of those dreams in which sometimes you’re the person in the dream and sometimes the invisible observer. (Apparently most dreams are like this. It’s why third person works so well in storytelling; it’s what we’re used to.) In this dream, a naked woman is sleeping on a carpet in an empty room. She wakes to a man holding a gun to her head. Without hesitation, without thinking, without blinking, she surges off the floor and breaks his neck.
I woke up thinking, What kind of woman could do that? How would she get to be that person? How would it feel? Aud was born.
In some ways, Aud is a path not taken, a frightening plunge into the world of What If. What if I’d been born an only child? What if I’d been born rich? What if privilege had obviated the need to figure out that other people are human beings in their own right and not just broken copies of me?
I took two or three characteristics that make me who I am–how it is to be a stranger in a strange land, to see the world from a self-defense perspective, to feel grief strip you raw–and spliced them into a six-foot tall force of nature. Then I sat back and watched the transgenic experiment run.
It was easy at first, a dangerous delight. I got to play with extreme and luscious language, with rhythm and unreliable narration–always fun. Then I got halfway through The Blue Place and saw where I was taking Aud: so much loss, pain, and confusion. I began to feel like a monster. I hardened my heart. I told myself I was just forcing her to grow up, that we all have to grow up sometime. And Aud is growing up, it’s just that, being Aud, she doesn’t grow fluidly, but in fits and starts. Think of her life as a geological fault: pressure builds, the whole fault jerks forward in an earthquake. Everything falls down. The topography changes.
Stay is overtly about reconstruction: deciding who to be, how to live, after grief topples your life. It was very difficult to write. One of my sisters died. I had to spend a lot of time separating my grief from Aud’s. Not something I want to go through again.
Always frightened me as a writer. I gave Aud a love interest who is diagnosed with multiple sclerosis late in the book. When I realised where it was going I nearly stopped working on the book.
I hate having MS (no one in their right mind would enjoy it). It already takes up too much space in my life. I most certainly didn’t want it taking up all the air in my work, too. But that’s what my story brain brought me. I told myself that, just as Aud’s grief wasn’t my grief, was different in many respects, Aud’s love’s MS was not my MS. I did the work.
But Always is where the story stops, for now. There are several reasons for calling a temporary halt–I’ll talk about the main one later–but one is certainly that to go on would mean having to examine what it’s like to love someone with MS. I’d have to dissect how it might be for my partner, Kelley, to love me. I’d be spending my entire artistic life dwelling on a disease I loathe in order to separate reality from fiction. And, in the end, no matter what I said in the Author’s Note, half my readers would secretly believe the novel was about me.
That’s one of the things I don’t enjoy about being a writer: how often readers, (particularly critics, who should know better) confuse fiction and autobiography–doubly so when the author is a woman. Because of this tendency, I think a lot of writers self-censor. Certainly I thought twice before writing Slow River. I knew what I’d be in for. I was right. I wasn’t born rich, or abused as a child. I didn’t hate my mother or work as a prostitute. Yet reviewers insisted that I “protested too much” about the story of Lore being pure fiction.
COBALT: Your partner, Kelley Eskridge, is also a widely reputable author. Do you compete with her? How does your relationship with Kelley work into each other’s work? (It almost feels like I’m asking “how do you the two of you manage work talk versus pillow talk?”)
Griffith: We wrote an essay about this, “As We Mean to Go On,” which was first published in Bookmark Now, edited by Kevin Smokler. (It’s available free on our websites, as is our second, “War Machine, Time Machine.”) We were the third writing couple Smokler asked to contribute. Both other couples refused. Apparently this is a difficult topic for some.
But over the years we’ve got used to handling this kind of question during real and virtual appearances.
We fell in love as writers. We chose each other partly because we both knew we’d found someone who would always the truth about our work, always say the hard thing, always support one another, no matter what. And so we do. We help each other with the practicalities of writing and the emotional ups and downs of being writers. We help each other be brave.
We talk about story all the time. We talk over breakfast, over beer, in bed. We live and breathe story. It’s our bread and butter.
Two years ago we started a business, Sterling Editing, to help other writers, too. It’s absolutely mind-boggling how little most writers know about their craft, how to bring story to heel using structure, narrative grammar, metaphor systems and other tools of the trade. I’m not sure what’s being taught in many MFA programmes, but I find it difficult to understand why more writers don’t know these most simple and obvious techniques.
COBALT: Many publishers and agents are recommending authors get onto Facebook, Twitter, and various other forms of social media in order to self-promote their work. This often leads to half-assed auto-generated Twitter feeds, etc. You seem to love and thrive on social media. Could you tell us a little bit about how you use these tools as a well-known author who manages her own website, blog and social media pages?
Griffith: I’ve had a virtual public presence since 1995. I’ve learnt how to appear to be transparent about many aspects of my life while remaining intensely private about others.
I rarely discuss important issues in real time. My blog is not a diary, not a personal journal. It’s a performance; it’s a tool.
Social media are a gift for writers. We get to interact directly with readers and potential readers. We invite them into our virtual lives but don’t have to admit anyone to our physical space. Having said that, I have met for drinks with Facebook friends, people on my Yahoo list, and regular commenters on my blog. Sometimes we have dinner. Sometimes we become fast friends. But that’s the exception, not the rule.
I think it’s easy for readers to think they’re my friend, think that because they know Margh or Lore or Aud intimately, they know me. They don’t. Yet, paradoxically, they do. Those who read my fiction, then read Kelley’s, would be able to tell who’s who if they met us at a party. Ditto reading our blogs and Facebook and Twitter feeds. Even without the photos, even without the accents, they would know. Call it what you like, persona, voice, branding (no, don’t call it that, branding is a pernicious concept for an artist) it’s real, it’s distinct, it’s mine. It’s just not all my voice. It’s not my only voice. And I rotate different facets of my social persona, different registers of my voice, on different platforms.
For example, my website is most useful for permanently archiving substantive pieces–previously published essays, long-form interviews, information on my books, publicity photos, appearance schedule and so on. My blog is good for opinion pieces, answers to questions, and good old-fashioned rants. Twitter is perfect for random observations, fits of lyricism, making professional connections, and passing along nifty links. Facebook… Well, frankly, I don’t much care for Facebook. But that’s why the universe provided Tweetdeck, which I use to update Facebook and Twitter at the same time, and to boost signal for blog posts.
My blog cross-posts to my website. But my website is pitifully out of date. It’s mildly embarrassing. In the last couple of years, I’ve designed websites for other people and organisations (sometimes for pay, sometimes pro bono) but I just don’t have the bandwidth (metaphorically speaking) to deal with my own. (Cobblers’ kids and their shoes…) When I’ve put my novel-in-progress to bed, I’ll build a new site (and spend some time with Google+ and Spotify). Until then, readers will just have to grit their teeth and cope with the existing 2002 Mondrian-esque design.
COBALT: You’ve edited three anthologies of science fiction, fantasy and horror. What are three mind-blowing pieces (one in each genre) that we’ve likely never heard of?
Griffith: This question is impossible to answer!
First of all, genre doesn’t divide that neatly. Sometimes it’s hard to say whether something is science fiction or fantasy. Often a story can be both fantasy or science fiction and horror. There were a handful of stories in various of the Bending the Landscape volumes that could just as easily have gone in a different one.
Then, too, stories are like wine. On a hot sunny day, over a tapas lunch, a cheap and cheerful Spanish white is perfect. But an anniversary dinner at a French restaurant in autumn requires a haughty Pauillac. What are you in the mood for? How much do you want to spend?
And how can I choose just three?
But, oh, alright, here are four stories to think about.
The first, and oldest, is “Surface Tension,” by James Blish. It’s science fiction, first published in 1952 and written in classic genre style: windowpane prose without a hint of pretension. A long, long time from now in a galaxy far away, humans create a line of microscopic aquatic humanoids to survive on a world where they can’t. They thrive for generations. They grow, they learn. Their culture hits the boundary of exploration–the equivalent of humans breaking free of the atmosphere into space. Blish employs a classic trope of the genre: a vertiginous focus pull that shocked and thrilled me when I first read this thirty-five years ago. It’s been much anthologised. It shouldn’t be too hard to find.
The second, and newest, is “And Salome Danced,” by Kelley Eskridge. This 1994 horror story doesn’t achieve its effect with ghosts or gore but through a mesmerisingly intense metamorphosis of the narrator’s understanding of the world. It will turn your notions of sex/gender inside out. It’s so brilliantly done that most readers will only notice the bravura portrait of Jo/e–but the heart of this story is Mars. Read this story and tell me: is Mars a man or a woman? Does it matter? What matters is that sickening moment where Mars’s reality dissolves and reforms, and yours does too, and there’s nothing you can do about it. You can read this one for free online, or in the collection Dangerous Space.
The longest, a novella, is “The Mystery of the Young Gentleman,” by Joanna Russ. Russ was a giant. You’ll see why when you read this. It’s nearly thirty years old and it could have been written yesterday. Depending on how you squint you could call it fantasy or science fiction. Its main concern is gender performance. It’s set on a 19th century riverboat–far enough in the past that the reader becomes complicit in the protagonist’s manipulations of a surprisingly sympathetic man-of-his-times. It’s a witty piece–and poignant. Included in Russ’s collection, (Extra)Ordinary People.
The saddest, in so many ways, is “Your Faces, O My Sisters, Your Faces Filled of Light!” by Racoona Sheldon, aka Alice Sheldon, aka James Tiptree, Jr. This one’s from 1976, the same year as Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time and covering much of the same ground in many fewer words. It’s a piece of meta-fiction that couldn’t exist without the tropes of fantasy and science fiction. It tore my heart out. Read it.
COBALT: What’s next for Aud? (High crime in the Norwegian Space Program?)
Griffith: Aud is temporarily quiescent. She’s been displaced in my affections by a little girl. A little girl who grows up to change the world. Her name is Hild of Whitby. She was real.
What little we know of Hild comes entirely from Bede (see this blog post). She was a pivotal figure in seventh century Britain during a time of great change. During her lifetime the island went from a heroic society of warlord kings who worshipped a variety of gods to a handful of Christian proto-states. Hild, born c. 614 CE, stood at the centre of these events. She was the first great abbess, a counsellor to kings, and trained five bishops. She hosted and facilitated the great Synod of Whitby, where Roman Christianity was chosen over so-called Celtic Christianity. That decision changed the course of history. And no one has written about her. Until now.
Although we know very little about her, we can infer a great deal. And, oh, I have. So much, in fact, that I’ve decided to split the story of her life into three parts. The current draft of part one, covering her childhood to marriage, is about 200,000 words. It’s a huge project.
I’m learning so many new things: how to paint an intimate novel of character set on an epic canvas; how to write historical fiction–and from a child’s perspective; how to describe the world without using metaphors impossible at that time–what words do you use instead of ‘focus’ or ‘electricity’ or ‘taking note’ of something? It’s stretching me to my limit. I love it.
About Nicola Griffith:
Nicola Griffith is an English novelist living in Seattle, author of five novels (Ammonite, Slow River, The Blue Place, Stay, Always) and a multi-media memoir (And Now We Are Going to Have a Party: Liner notes to a writer’s early life). She is co-editor of the Bending the Landscape series of original queer f/sf/h stories. Essayist. Teacher. Blogger. Winner of the Nebula, Tiptree, World Fantasy, and 6 Lambda Literary Awards. (Also a BBC poetry prize, some Gaylactic Spectrum awards, the Premio Italia, and a few others.) Partner of writer Kelley Eskridge. Griffith is currently lost in the 7th century – working on a novel about Hild of Whitby. She frequently emerges to drink just the right amount of beer and take enormous delight in everything.