In her own words, 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.” In our words, she’s a bit of a LesFic legend. With six novels under her belt (including the much-loved Aud Torvingen trilogy), Nicola was awarded the Outstanding Mid-Career Novelist prize at this year’s Lambda Literary Awards, which she can pop onto her shelf alongside her six Lammies and her Tiptree, Nebula, and World Fantasy awards.
Her latest novel Hild (released on Kindle this week) has been described as “a pulse-pounding page turner” (Lambda Literary Society), and “the most absorbing and addictive story I’ve read in years” (Vulpes Libris). Needless to say, we were chuffed to mintballs when Nicola said yes to our Q&A request and then responded with some absolutely fabulous answers…
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A historical novel is quite a change from your previous work. Why did you choose Hild for a subject? (Was it suggested by the legend that she created ammonites?)
Y’know, I’m not sure it is so very different from my other work. Take my first novel, Ammonite. I had to build a whole world–extrapolate cultures from tiny bits of information. That’s exactly what I did with Hild. Yes, one is far-future SF on another planet and one is set fourteen hundred years ago right here in Britain. But that doesn’t matter much. They’re both a different time, a different place. In both I got to really just let my imagination off the leash and immerse myself in the notion of difference.
In some ways, of course, they are totally different. In Hild I couldn’t use the kind of metaphors that might come naturally to Marghe (or Lore, or Aud—the main characters in my other novels). No turbine whine, no bullet-train speed, no electricity building between two women. Given that Hild didn’t know what writing was for the first few years of her life, for example, I couldn’t even describe the sky as inky. And I deliberately restricted my language to words that might have been around in Anglo-Saxon times.
I had a most marvellous time with it. Constraint, it turns out, is freeing. Poets have known that for centuries. (Otherwise why would they cling to such ridiculous metres and rhythms and forms?)
As for Hild herself, well, I didn’t so much choose her as gradually realise I couldn’t not choose to write about her. I tried to ignore her as long as possible but she was always there, giving me that look, waiting for me to understand.
I’d never heard of Hild until my early twenties when I took my first trip to Whitby. I was living in Hull and exhausted doing the kind of pays-nothing work that was de rigueur in those days: teaching women’s self-defence, helping to set up and then counselling for Lesbian Line, singing in a band then cabaret duo, setting up the Northern Dykes Writing Workshop, trying to teach myself to write, and so on. One week my partner was doing something (some kind of course? a retreat? I forget) in Whitby and I managed to get away to join her for 24 hours. Just 24 hours–but it changed my life.
Whitby Abbey blew my mind. It absolutely pinned me to the turf, flooded me with sensation. I’m guessing I stood there with my mouth hanging open. I realised that history was made by real people, people who had their own daily concerns, people who didn’t know they were part of great events. Just ordinary people going about their business like you or me. People who had no clue that some decision they made in a moment of boredom, or lust, or irritation, might set in motion changes that ripple through history. Why did this occur to me in this place, at this time? I couldn’t tell you, except that the place itself is steeped in a kind of magic. I’ve been there many times since and it never fails to move me. (My first author photo was taken there.)
Anyway, I fell in love with Whitby. That epiphany about history being made by real people, not actors in this stilted stage play call History, is probably one of things that nudged me from the song-writing path to writing fiction. I visited as often as I could. Even when I moved to the US I tried to get back once a year. Whitby seeped into my bones and is now inextricably intertwined with my writing DNA.
In the last couple of months I’ve been talking about Hild a lot and I’m only now beginning to understand how deeply entangled she and her abbey are in everything I’ve written. Just to take one novel, Ammonite. Whitby is rife with ammonites, extinct cephalopods belonging to the genus Hildoceras–named in honour of Hild. There is a legend that ammonites were created by Hild when she turned a bunch of snakes into stone. Or the Aud novels: Aud is fascinated by phi, the golden ratio. Ammonites are the embodiment of that ratio. Slow River is set in Hull, the city where I was living when I first went to Whitby. English literature itself owes Hild a debt; it was at her instigation that the very first (Old) English poem was written down. The connections are almost endless.
But I knew that in my twenties and early thirties I simply didn’t have the chops to write Hild’s story, so I waited.
Historical fiction is on a high at the moment, with Mantel’s Cromwell novels winning two Bookers, and many other authors – including LesFic favourites Manda Scott, Stella Duffy and Jeannette Winterson – turning their hand to history. Why the increase in popularity?
Hild in manuscript form
Adrienne Rich said, “We must use what we have to invent what we desire.” (What is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics) That’s what I’m doing with Hild: I’m inventing what I desire. I desire a vision of the world in which the woman I had imagined (after years of research) might have existed, in which she might have been able to live her life as a human being: as subject not object. I wanted to believe that the Hild I imagined was possible. To look at where we come from–the past–and believe we could have survived there as ourselves. By making Hild possible, I wanted to recast what people today think might be possible and so make it possible.
In other words, I’m recolonising the past. Recasting it. Retelling it. And by so doing, I’m recreating the present and so steering the future.
This is what history is: our interpretation of what happened. Our shared understanding of events in light of what we think/know/feel today. Our cultural attitudes inform our understanding of the past. But it’s a story. It’s not fact.
Our cultural attitude to gender has changed a great deal since Bede wrote his History of the English Church and People, the only extent source for the life of Hild that’s even remotely contemporary. (Hild died four years after Bede was born.) I think she deserves a new story. It wouldn’t shock me to discover that Manda Scott was similarly motivated on behalf of Boudica, Stella Duffy for Theodora, Jeanette Winterson for the so-called witches of Pendleton.
Also, you get to write about all those things that modern literary fiction (which I find etiolated at best, and claustrophobia-inducing at worst) eschews: the outdoors, war, lust, glory, terror. It’s perfectly forgivable to get epic in a novel set in the long ago; in fact, it’s expected.
The “Dark Ages” are a relatively obscure period of history. Does the paucity of documentation (and the ignorance of readers!) make your task as novelist easier or harder?
We don’t call them the Dark Ages anymore 🙂 Depending on your academic speciality and focus it’s the Early Medieval ages, sub-Roman era, or Late Antiquity. I tend to go with Early Medieval.
There’s very little written down about the time of Hild’s birth–mainly because the elite of her time and place weren’t literate. There’s some material culture–finds from archaeology–but interpreting that is as much an art as a science. We have no idea what Hild looked like, where she was born exactly, whether she was married or had children. We don’t even know what attitudes to sex and sexuality were.
We all know the myths of the time, of course: snaggle-toothed men labouring in the field in mud and misery; women in filthy hovels popping out babies every year starting at fourteen. If you’re lucky you’re old at 30 and dead by 40.
Well, it turns out that’s a load of rubbish. At least for the early 7th century, for Hild’s part of the world. Hild was one of the Anglo-Saxon elite. She would have had access to luxuries like spice and sapphires, glass beakers and finely woven clothes. She would have had plenty of good food–but because it wasn’t processed, her teeth would be strong and straight, though not white. (No Crest white strips.)
It’s true that royal men died young. I can’t think of any kings of early Northumbria who died in their beds. For royal women, of course, childbirth was the prime cause of mortality, but judging by the evidence of remains, they didn’t marry and start to have children until they were older, and they didn’t have many.
Women were much more than baby machines. For one thing, they ran everything except armies: it was women’s logistics skills that kept a community’s head above water.
But that’s what we know in general–that is, what we can guess. It’s not about Hild in particular. That gives me a lot of leeway–which I wasn’t afraid to use. So, in addition to Hild’s status I gave her three attributes that have always be useful among any power elite: she’s tall, she’s smart, and her mother is well-connected, subtle, and ambitious.
As I’ve imagined her, Hild was a striking figure. Niece of the all-powerful king, tall, multi-lingual, rumoured to be uncanny, a seer: a rumour engineered by her mother but maintained by Hild’s constant attention to detail and burnished by her appalling risk-taking.
That’s what this kind of writing is: risk-taking. It’s a huge gamble, but it’s also hugely rewarding. It’s play. Serious play, granted, but play nonetheless. It was a rush to write this book.
So in some ways it was easier not knowing things; I got to make shit up. I made her far from the sweet and pretty picture usually painted of saints. Saints are difficult people. You don’t get to be that famous by being all butter-wouldn’t-melt-in-your-mouth ish. So I played that to the hilt.
But in other ways it was terrifying. Very few people know the first thing about the seventh century–not like, say, the times of Cromwell and Henry VIII. But I didn’t want to write tedious expository paragraphs or “As you know, Bob,” dialogue. I wanted for things to just magically be clear to the reader. I dithered, because I didn’t know how.
But I began, and there was Hild, under a tree. She was three years old. And I thought, Of course! A child–the reader will learn as Hild does.
But that, of course, has its own set of challenges; I’d never written from a child’s point-of-view before…
How much research did you do? Was it all just a good excuse to revisit Yorkshire and have a decent pint?
Oh, I can’t tell you how much I miss Yorkshire bitter. And fish and chips. And a decent curry.
I went back as often as I could–my family is there–but mostly I worked from my home in Seattle. And I read everything: Old English and Middle Welsh poetry, Irish annals, books on arms and armour, agriculture, jewellery, textile production, architecture, flora and fauna, even the weather. I’ve read popular histories, scholarly monographs, festschriften, blogs, academic journals. I’ve been researching this book on and off for fifteen years.
I wrote this book to find out who Hild was, and how she managed to do what she’d done. To do that I had to build the seventh century and grow Hild inside. To grow her properly I had to get the world right. I was absolutely determined to not contravene what’s known to be known.
But scholarship changes radically all the time. Once the book went into production I lived in fear that I’d read about some new discovery, or new interpretation of extant finds, and realise that I’d got it all wrong.
So far it’s fine…
What was the attitude to homosexuality/bisexuality at that time? Would it have differed amongst religious orders such as Hild’s?
When Hild was born I’m guessing the regional hierarchy didn’t give care who you rubbed up against–as long as you didn’t have their baby and screw up the lines of power and inheritance. They weren’t Christian. Some of the underclass might have been Christian–but an old-style Christianity with a tinge of Celtic egalitarianism. (I wrote a blog post on the topic.) When the Roman Christians arrived, just as Hild was becoming a teenager, they would have been quivering with Pauline morality/misogyny. Sex = bad; even sex inside marriage.
But that’s just a guess. For all we know the Anglo-Saxon religious attitude could have been even more restrictive. I don’t think so, though; judging by their poetry they were a lusty lot.
You mentioned in a recent blog post that interviewers and reviewers have already been asking you about Hild’s bisexuality. Do you think mainstream fiction will ever get to the point where authors writing lesbian/gay/bisexual characters won’t need to defend or explain the sexuality of their characters?
Yes. I think it’s already begun. And not a day too soon.
Hild must have been a huge undertaking. Did you grieve when you finished it?
I haven’t finished it 🙂 Ask me in a few years…
Seriously, there’s two more Hild books. Or at least I think there are. To start with I’d intended Hild’s story to be one big book, from birth to her death at age 66. But I hit 100,000 words (normal novel length) and she was only 12. I knew that wasn’t going to work.
What I’m saying is, I’m not the best predictor in this regard.
Many readers loved your Aud Torvingen trilogy. Are you ever tempted to return to the series and write a fourth instalment?
I think about Aud sometimes. Her attitude to the world is so refreshing! And without her I would never have been able to write Hild. I have more of her story in my head. But I don’t know if it’s urgent enough to write it. And certainly first I’d want to get the rights back to the three previously published novels. Right now those books are with three separate publishers. It’s ridiculous. I’d love to see them published coherently, all three together in matching jackets. I want them published in the UK, too.
What are you planning next? Or, having recently completed a 200,000 word novel, are you just lying in a darkened room with a damp flannel on your forehead?
I’m working madly on interviews like this. And pondering the next chapter of Hild’s story. That will take another year or two. Beyond that I want to finally publish a collection of short fiction. I’ve published enough stories–but I’ve never collected them in one place before. I dither about whether this should be a traditionally published book or self-published. It might be fun to experiment. I also love to see my memoir published in a trade edition as well as the gorgeous, but severely limited 450-copy collector’s edition. It’s a multi-media thing; it might make a good app as well as a paperback.
Then there are several short story ideas circling patiently, waiting for me to find time to bring them to a safe landing. I wrote one recently; it should be coming out soon–I hope–from Tor.com.
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Our heartfelt thanks to Nicola for taking the time to chat with us, and to Sarah at FSG Books for being our cheerful and very willing go-between!