Nicola Griffith is a native of Yorkshire, England, where she earned her beer money teaching women's self-defense, fronting a band, and arm-wrestling in bars, before discovering writing and moving to the US. Her immigration case was a fight and ended up making new law: the State Department declared it to be "in the National Interest" for her to live and work in the United States. This didn't thrill the more conservative powerbrokers, and she ended up on the front page of the Wall Street Journal, where her case was used as an example of the country's declining moral standards.
In 1993 a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis slowed her down a bit, and she concentrated on writing. Her novels are Ammonite, Slow River, The Blue Place, and Stay. A fifth novel, Always, is forthcoming from Riverhead. Her most recent work is a collection of stories, With Her Body. She is the co-editor of the Bending the Landscape series of original short fiction published by Overlook, and since Griffith's previous interview with Strange Horizons in 2003, she has edited with Stephen Pagel the third in the series, a collection of queer-themed Fantasy short fiction. Her non-fiction has appeared in a variety of print and web journals, including Out, Nature, and Paradoxa: The Journal of World Literary Genres. Her awards include the James Tiptree, Jr. Memorial Award, the Nebula Award, the World Fantasy Award, and the Lambda Literary Award (five times). She lives in Seattle with her partner, writer Kelley Eskridge, and takes enormous delight in everything.
Lynne Jamneck: When you start writing a new book, what comes first: characters, plot—the simple spark of an idea?
Nicola Griffith: Every book has been different. For The Blue Place, it was a dream—I dreamt of a woman waking naked in a strange apartment with a gun at her head; she then kills the intruder. I woke up thinking, "Whoa. What kind of person could just do that?" How had this woman become the sort who could kill without hesitation? I didn't have an answer, but a few days later I was wandering about in the local library and came across a book on Norwegian architecture. The next day I went back and checked out a Norwegian history textbook, and Aud began to take shape.
With Slow River the precipitating event was a question: how can two people who appear to be in the same predicament react so differently? It was a question that came from my own history, from a time I lived in Hull (a depressed industrial city in the north of England) surrounded by people who in that time and place were considered the dregs of society: bikers, drug dealers, prostitutes, dykes, the terminally unemployed and unemployable. The underclass. I starved and begged and did all the other things that one does to survive, and after a few years managed to drag myself free and onto my current super-respectable path. But a lot of people I knew from that time didn't. It made me wonder why some could people could get out and some couldn't or wouldn't. The interesting thing to me is that after writing Slow River I understood that my initial question didn't make sense: no two people are ever truly in the same place. They might seem to be, but they've traveled there by different paths, they have different resources to deal with the situation, different hopes and fears, different webs of support and kinship to help or hinder their efforts.
Sometimes a book comes from thinking about a place. Stay stemmed partly from wanting to explore Aud further, and to examine my own grief after the deaths of two of my sisters (coincidentally—or not—both lesbians), but it was also about the Applachian forest. I'd always longed to live somewhere like that, completely off the grid. So I did, in my head, for a while. The original novel had a lot more forest stuff in it because I loved spending time in that world.
Ammonite was partly a thought-experiment, an examination of gender, but mostly an exploration of a place; it's very cool to invent a whole damn world. It was a blast to write that one.
LJ: What are you currently working on—is the third Aud book on its way?
NG: Well, I thought the third Aud book, Always, was finished. But it isn't. It turns out that what I thought was a novel is only half of one. It's going to be as different from Stay as Stay was from The Blue Place. Always has comedy and drama, sex and drugs and rock and roll. Love and food. Growing up. Mothers. Illness and joy. It's a big book, the longest I've written. I'm trying a high-wire act of different forms and styles and structures that I want to read as smoothly as milk. To be honest I'm not entirely sure if what I'm trying is possible or not, but, hey, what's life without risk?
LJ: Does Aud—or for that matter, any other character perspective you've written from—sometimes end up challenging your own beliefs?
NG: Writing often leads me to question my assumptions, which isn't quite the same thing as challenging my beliefs. I think of assumptions as temporary things, place holders, and beliefs as deep seated understandings of the world. For example, I believe that we don't have souls; that the sum of our worth as human beings is our lives here and now. I would be astounded if something I wrote could change a belief as basic as that—because writing in a sense comes from those beliefs.
But, as I've said, I tend to write to answer questions—What kind of woman can kill people? How would women develop as people in, of and by themselves without reference to men? And sometimes, as with Slow River, I find that I must re-examine the validity of the question.
LJ: You've always written from the point of view of "yes, I am a lesbian. My characters are (mostly) lesbians. That doesn't mean the books I write are lesbian books per se." Do you think that the lesbian community sees this as a good or discouraging thing?
NG: Oh, I think it's been a long time since we could talk with a straight face of some monolithic Lesbian Community. A community of rich Spanish lesbians in Madrid isn't going to be anything like a community of working poor lesbians from North Dakota or two women in a village in Kurdistan. Within big cities, there are so many of us that there is layer upon layer of community: the college dykes, the earth mother vegan dykes, the hard-drinking-pimp-out-your-girlfriend dykes, the Anglo dykes, the music dykes, the able-bodied dykes, and so on.
So I can only talk about individual responses, which ends up being a bit like Goldilocks and the Three Bears: some think there's not enough dykeness in a particular book, some think there's too much, some think it's just right.
However, my dykely opinion, as a reader, follows that espoused by Books to Watch Out For, which is that a lesbian book is any book owned by a lesbian. The old war cry is true: we are everywhere. We deserve all kinds of books.
LJ: I've come to notice that more and more straight women are becoming really fascinated by lesbians. They read lesbian novels, and watch them on television with some eagerness. What do you attribute this to? Is it a purely cultural influence?
NG: I don't know. Maybe straight girls are trying to learn how to be women from us. After all, dykes are full human beings, in, of and by ourselves; that is, without reference to men. Maybe we're finally writing books and running TV shows with enough non-political range and depth for the non-dyke. Maybe it's just our turn in the spotlight.
LJ: Is the gay publishing industry making headway, in your opinion?
NG: Headway against what? I'm definitely seeing a trend away from LGBTI publishers with a political mission statement. Political missions were great in the seventies, when lesbian publishing was new—when there was no lesbian publishing—but lesbian (and straight) readership now is more sophisticated. (Besides, I've always agreed with Louis B. Meyer on this one: "If you want to send a message, use Western Union.") This means there's been a lot of culling of the old-school herd, the closure of many well-established—and respected—lesbian and feminist publishers (and book shops, and review journals.) Now that the readership is established (in other words, now that dykes have done all the hard work,) trade publishing is moving in and doing what it does best: ensuring a well-distributed supply of interesting, wide-ranging, well-constructed books with lesbian and gay content to that readership. The best lesbian novels of the last five years have been from Riverhead, Houghton Mifflin, Dutton, Random House, and other trade presses. In terms of meaningful non-fiction, and the B, T, and I part of the LGBTI spectrum, the small presses still have the edge.
LJ: As someone that writes from a gay perspective is there anywhere you find yourself struggling with writing, scenes or subject matter?
NG: I used to struggle occasionally with sex scenes, not because they're woman-on-woman—for me this has nothing to do with being gay or straight—but because it feels so odd to write for public consumption about something that I've always regarded as private. I've never been one to kiss and tell; I don't boast about how many orgasms I had or how many I gave to whom, and how (just writing that makes my toes curl in embarrassment.) But sex is a huge engine in our lives, it drives many of our conscious and subconscious choices; to ignore it is to be dishonest on some level, to create less than truthful fiction.
I've been pondering for a few years a novel set in the seventh century. (There are all kinds of things I'd love to deal with fictionally—nation-building, the religious conversion of a people, language formation, sudden technological change—that I could only do in a historical novel.) But this question of sex keeps raising its head, because the woman I want to write about (a real historical figure) was most probably straight, at least for her early adult years. I'm honestly not sure how well I'd manage to write about a woman who loves a man, especially in those days when the kind of man she would marry would be a warlord. How convincingly could I write of loving a person twice my size who is accustomed to going off to war, maiming and mutilating and raping, enslaving the native populace, then coming back to the stockade and saying, "Honey, I'm home"? It's a challenge.
LJ: Is there a 'next frontier' in lesbian writing? What are some of the issues that you see are being addressed that weren't spotlighted before?
NG: I would still like to see more fiction about dykes just being in the world—not dykes wrestling with being a dyke, or having a bad (or even privileged) time because of it, but just being. There's a limit to how many Coming Out stories—or Tales of Oppression, or whinges about How My Family Done Me Wrong Because I'm Different—can be interesting.
LJ: You've previously said that you've always had an inherent sense of your own capacity for violence. Has writing books been an outlet for that internal hostility?
NG: A capacity for violence is not at all the same thing as hostility. I am not hostile, in the sense of not liking or being unfriendly towards the world. A storm is violent, an emotion can be violent, or a car crash, but hostility is a stance, and aggression usually involves intent followed by action. I think all humans have an innate capacity for violence, and there are times when a violent response really is the most reasonable, but acting on that capacity has largely been trained out of us as we are socialized. Women tend to be more heavily socialized in this regard than men. For some reason this gender socialization didn't work on Aud. She is like lightning: a force of nature without malice. Her violence is not about power, it is merely itself. She has no agenda. You could even say her violence is part of an essential innocence. If Stay was about the loss of that particular innocence then Always is about restoring it.
LJ: Which are more challenging for you to write: the crime genre or SF?
NG: Think of story as terrain. Off-road, interstate, and steep incline all need different driving responses. I choose the best vehicle and the best gear for getting to where I want to go. It's easier to tell Aud's story in the here and now, for example, because it's about a damaged woman who took a wrong turning and is now fighting her way back to being a whole human being. I don't need to go into the future or the past or to another planet to do that. I do, however, sometimes need to take her to different locations (Norway and Atlanta in The Blue Place, North Carolina, New York, and Arkansas in Stay, Seattle in Always) and, more importantly, different emotional states (exhilaration, grief, rage, embarrassment, love.)
But every mode has its own challenges. An arealistic setting—science fiction or fantasy (whether the sword-and-pony kind, or the sexual kind)—requires a writer to be gently educating the reader about the world she finds herself in, as well as about the character and the plot. In a purely realistic setting, e.g. present-day Atlanta, I don't, as a writer, need to explain how the buses work, or how you order a beer in a bar: I can assume the reader already knows this. This part of being a writer is just like driving: some gears give you a smoother ride, better control, more efficient fuel consumption. They just feel better.
LJ: Are you planning on writing more SF?
NG: I've just published a collection of short stories, With Her Body (available from some specialty bookshops, and direct from the publishers website—it only costs $8), which is well over a hundred pages of purely SFnal fiction. The first, "Touching Fire," begins in a women's bar on a hot, sultry night in Atlanta, and is about the nature of art and genius, of love and trust. Oh, and there's lots of sex. The second, "Song of Bullfrogs, Cry of Geese," is also set in a hot and sultry Atlanta, but this time after the apocalypse. No sex, but loads of Deep Thoughts about the nature of humanity. The third, "Yaguara," is a novella set in the hot and sultry (I'm sensing a theme) jungles of Belize. It's a story of sex and shape-changing, dreams and Mayan myth.
I found going through the proofs, rereading these old stories (I wrote them in the early nineties) fascinating. The joy I'd taken in telling them shines from the page. There's a real freedom in letting rip and not having to worry about the real world. I found myself longing to return to that kind of storytelling: just making shit up. So I've been thinking about writing a fantasy novel: no angsty mother stuff, no wrestling with conscience, just people doing magic and whacking each other's heads off with swords. Oh, and having lots of sex. Naturally, conception and execution will be quite different. I've been making notes, and it's already getting more complex and grown-up and psychologically realistic. I find that it will be a novel about the nature of change, and how people fear it.
I'm also considering editing an anthology that I've had in mind for a few years. I want to put together a collection of other people's stories that really play with gender, seriously fuck with it, using fiction that will cut like edged weapons, which give the reader a real frisson of excitement and transgression. It will be SF—because that's where all the best fiction like this comes from.
But before I can get to any of that, I have to spend some more time with Aud.
LJ: Which aspect or elements of writing do you find the most challenging?
NG: The hardest part is making a living. Writing is my only source of income and there are years when I wonder how it's all going to work. Publishing is an odd business. Success is dependent upon so many factors, and "success" in terms of art, whether we're talking awards or name recognition or personal satisfaction, doesn't always equate to cash in the bank. It can be tricky remaining true to the book when the money is dwindling and I can see how I could write a flashier, splashier (i.e. better-selling) novel. But flashy and splashy are rarely the essence of excellent fiction. In my not particularly humble opinion.
The second hardest thing is the travel. I have multiple sclerosis. Travel is brutal. I can only do it under certain conditions. For example, if I'm flying for more than two and a half hours, I can't do the economy thing, it has to be business or first class. I also can't go to six bookshops in one day. I need a lot of sleep in a good bed; I can't sleep on someone's floor. I have to have access to heat in the winter (cold makes my muscles spasm) and air conditioning in the summer (heat slows my already compromised nervous system and I'm likely to get very weird and/or collapse) and to food all the time, which translates to a good hotel with 24-hour room service. All this means that my list of requirements makes me sound like a prima donna. I hate that. But I've learnt from hard experience that I need what I need and that's that.
I suppose the third hardest thing does relate to the actual writing, and that's doing the work. I love writing, but it's not always easy to go sit in a room and slave over a hot keyboard or a blank piece of paper (I make notes in long hand but actually write at my keyboard). Beginnings are particularly hard, as is the umpteenth rewrite of a long manuscript. But there's rarely a day—in fact never a day—that passes where I don't smile to myself and think, "Damn, I love my job."
LJ: Have any of your books ever been optioned for film or television? The Blue Place would make an awfully good, rip-roaring movie.
NG: No, but it must be an amazing experience to see one's art translated into another medium. In fact, I know it is. My partner, Kelley Eskridge had one of her short stories turned into an episode of a TV show a few years ago and it delighted her. Imagine seeing your characters and world through another artist's lens. Imagine what you could learn. Incredible.
I'd love to see all my novels turned into films. They'd be very different. Ammonite would probably have to be slightly arealistic, a "Daughters of the Dust" kind of thing. Slow River (I turned down a film offer on that once, for a variety of reasons) would be a techno-thriller, with perhaps some spiffy "Memento"-like narrative juxtapositions. Stay and The Blue Place . . ., well, they'd probably work best as TV shows, sleek series with very high production values. Someone wrote to me via my website a while ago and suggested that The Blue Place would make a great TV series because every chapter was, on some level, whole as a story and with a distinct setting. It hadn't occurred to me before, but I think she has a point.
LJ: Do you think it's possible for a writer to step completely outside of their characters? To have nothing of themselves in any character they create?
NG: I think the better writers get, the more we can be conscious of where what comes from, but it all comes from us. Even if we're trying hard to write about a character we saw on the street, what we noticed and remembered of that character will have been filtered by our experience, our understanding of the world.
LJ: How do you explain the notion to people that the characters you create don't always follow the line of action you've idealistically chosen for them?
NG: Well, I try to avoid idealism in my fiction, and I don't really choose lines of action. I flesh out a character, I have an initial situation, and I have a question or dilemma, and then I let the experiment unfurl. I often have an emotional moment, a snippet of a scene in my head for the end of the book, but I often don't really know how my character gets there, or why. I write the first three chapters, and then I sit down and outline the rest (I hate outlining, but in publishing it's a necessary evil). Sometimes, in the outlining process, I build a chain of reasoning and action, a series of events, which I dutifully write down and send to my agent so she can persuade my editor to part with some money, but the novel itself almost always does something else. For example, the book I've just finished, Always, is about Aud, and I knew she had to go to Seattle and meet someone there; I knew how she would feel in the very last scene of the book, and where that scene would be set, but when I sat down and followed the outline I'd written, I ended up with sixty thousand words of fiction that, while not bad, just wasn't what Aud would do. So I had to throw it away and begin again. What I have now is much better—it ends the way I imagined it, but she gets to that end via a very different route.
LJ: Have you ever experienced any animosity as a direct result of something you wrote?
NG: Oh, I've had some vitriolic email but, oddly, most of the time it's about things I would consider trivial. For example, I got one a few years ago from a women who had just read The Blue Place and wanted to know why I hated running and jogging, who told me that I clearly didn't understand that running was good for a person, healthy, that we should all do it, and that it was irresponsible of me to suggest otherwise. Clearly it had escaped this woman's understanding that it was Aud who had disparaged running. Personally, I love to run. (Or at least I did when I could still do it.)
I also get a fair number of complaints about the sex in Slow River. This is mainly from straight male SF readers, though their response isn't so much homophobic as body-phobic. A lot of science fiction readers prefer their genre pristine and intellectually based. The visceral makes them queasy; the notion of body fluids makes them want to pass out. So why are they reading my work? It's a bit of a mystery.
LJ: Do you think that the current political climate is having any effect—positive or negative—on what people are writing and reading?
NG: Without doubt. We are all influenced by the world around us. Since 9/11 and the on-going war in Iraq there have been a lot more books published concerning Islam and the Middle East. Some of the memoirs and personally-based novels would have been written anyway—real writers write what they have to write—but perhaps they wouldn't have been accepted for publication, or if they had, might not have received a tenth the review attention before the current political climate. And some, of course, would never have been written without the events of the last few years because the Middle East wouldn't have crossed the authors' radar screen.
I've noticed, too, a resurgence of right-wing political publishing, with a couple of publishers setting up imprints for just such books. But art is no different from business, politics and academic theory in the sense that there has always been fashion. Now is no different. Things will change in due course. At least that's what I tell myself on bad days when the Senate gives the nod to drilling in the Arctic wildlife reserve and Homeland Security okays yet another privacy-stealing legal provision. The current administration sucks, but the wheel always turns. I lived eleven years under Margaret Thatcher; I imagine I'll survive whatever George W. Bush comes up with. Though not everyone will, and I find that difficult to bear sometimes.
LJ: Is writing a painstaking task for you? I've heard so many times from other writers how hard writing sometimes is for them and whether it should make them worry.
NG: Yes. No. Sometimes. Always. Never. Writing is like life: far too complex to characterize in a couple of sentences. I wrote a whole essay about this, "Doing the Work," which you can reach via the essays and interviews section of my website. Writing is a huge joy. It's also work. It's . . . writing is everything to me. Writing just is.
LJ: What were your five personal best books read in 2004?
NG: I sincerely hate these kinds of lists. How can you compare one book to another? It's like asking whether one prefers tea or beer. (I can't do without either.) But, okay, I'll give it a go—though I won't stick to five.
The book that knocked my socks off last year was The Whole Story and Other Stories, by Ali Smith. I hadn't read anything by Smith before, and these short stories absolutely blew me away. They made me laugh and cry and shake my head, they made me remember fear and safety and confusion. They are the bravest, truest, most emotionally precise stories I've read for years. I can't recommend them highly enough.
In terms of non-fiction, one I quite admired was Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare, by Stephen Greenblatt. The title is pretty self-explanatory. What I liked about this one was the way Greenblatt traces historical, sociological, and psychological factors through various plays. It made me want to go out and read Hamlet and The Merchant of Venice and Macbeth all over again. Very nicely put together.
All Day Permanent Red, by Christopher Logue, is an astonishing book. Logue is an English poet and occasional screenwriter who has reimagined the first battles of Homer's Iliad. His technique is often quite cinematic, with jump cuts and scene notes, and he renames characters from the epic without batting an eye. His imagery is a mix of historically accurate and wildly anachronistic (arrows carve tunnels the width of a lipstick through people's necks, a foot soldier's shield sprouts arrows as thick as the microphones at a politician's podium) but I felt the dust gritting under my palms and the blood in my mouth. The whole is as startling as a flick in the eye.
Hauser and Reich's book, Notes on Directing, is very short, and in the form of numbered rules for directing a stage play ("Never, never, never bully actors," "movement will always draw an audience's eye.") The book began as twelve pages of notes handed by Hauser (an English director who has directed the royalty of the stage: Judy Dench, Ian McKellan, Lawrence Olivier) to Reich (at the time an American neophyte) with the murmured words, "You might find these helpful." In addition to being a fascinating window onto a world I'm not familiar with, it is wickedly funny in places, and thought-provoking for anyone whose business is narrative.
At the end of last year I also read for the first time one of Mary Renault's early novels, The Middle Mist. I love her Greek historical fiction, particularly Fire From Heaven, the first of her Alexander the Great trilogy, but I've only just got around to tracking down her earlier work. I recently read The Charioteers, her clear-eyed portrayal of gay male love during the Second World War, and wanted to read her early lesbian fiction. Surprise, surprise (yeah, right), it was much harder to find. But finally I got hold of an old copy. I didn't enjoy it. Oh, it's beautifully written on the sentence level, but it's so claustrophobic, and so subterranean that I thought I'd go crazy. I found myself gritting my teeth, wanting to fling myself back in time, grab Renault by the throat and bellow, "Stop beating about the bush and just fucking say it." One day, when I have time, I want to sit around and think about Renault's writing—why she had such a hard time writing from the lesbian perspective and yet did so brilliantly (not a word I use lightly) from the viewpoint of gay men. Food for thought.
An author new to me last year was Arturo Perez-Reverte. I read The Fencing Master and then the Seville Communion but what really popped him out of the pack for me was The Queen of the South, a wonderful novel about a low-level drug runner's girlfriend in Sinaloa who escapes an attempted gangland execution and builds herself a drug import empire and eventually becomes the Queen of the South: the nexus of all important drug smuggling around the Mediterranean. She also spends a year or so in prison in the same cell as a charismatic upper-class lesbian. Tasty stuff. Perez-Reverte's fiction has the kind of dispassion and precision I only associate with European writers.
Finally there's Adam's Curse: A Future Without Men, by Brian Sykes, a non-fiction account of the coming death of the Y chromosome and men in general. It's equal parts biology, sociology, and personal memoir and for those not already familiar with the notion that the Y chromosome is a very fragile beastie, it makes cool reading. Fun with biology for all those of us who used to dream of the lesbian feminist separatist utopia. . . .
LJ: The five things every aspiring writer (and the people living with them) should know and make peace with.
NG: That you won't make a million dollars. That good writing has nothing to do with how well your career goes. That you are always waiting (publishing time is glacial, operating more on geological time than human). That it's a never-ending challenge. That none of this matters because writing is a sheer and utter joy, and is extremely—possibly incurably—addictive.