Exclusive Interview with Nicola Griffith

14 Nov

NicolaGriffithIn 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…

~ ~ ~

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?)

91CYqVEe28L._SL1500_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.

abbeyWhitby 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.

ammoniteIn 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.

HILD_jacket_closerBut 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.

kstallabbey02I 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.

237642-MMany 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.

~ ~ ~

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!

5 Responses to “Exclusive Interview with Nicola Griffith”

  1. Elizabeth November 14, 2013 at 8:54 pm #

    The idea of Nicola’s memoir as an app sends shivers up my spine.

  2. szegerton November 16, 2013 at 3:43 pm #

    Damn, yet another one I’ve got to read. *Sigh*

  3. caseythecanadianlesbrarian November 21, 2013 at 2:24 am #

    What a great interview! I’m even more excited to get my hands on this book!


  1. Link Round Up: November 14 – 20 | The Lesbrary - November 20, 2013

    […] Nicola Griffith was interviewed at UK Lesbian Fiction. […]

  2. Hild roundup #3 | Nicola Griffith - March 5, 2015

    […] Hold onto your hats, this one is going to be long. (If you’re a glutton for punishment feel free to check out Hild roundup #1 and Hild roundup #2. One day, when things steady down a bit, I’ll consolidate things but today is not that day.)   Hild launched just three days ago and the reviews are so fabulous I can hardly stand it. I’ll start with those, in no particular order.   REVIEWS   NPR  With Nuanced Beauty, ‘Hild’ Destroys Myths Of Medieval Womanhood, by Amal El-Mohtar “With gorgeously supple prose, Griffith tells the story of Hild, the seventh-century woman who would come to be revered as Saint Hilda. Hild is, according to her ambitious and canny mother, “the light of the world,” destined to lead the Yffings into prosperity as the king’s seer. But her only magic is that of observations, of reading cycles and patterns of behavior, be they in weather, landscapes, or people. Step by step, thought by thought, we are introduced to Hild’s development and deployment as adviser to Edwin Overking at a time of enormous social change, as petty kingdoms clash and merge like tectonic plates. […] Hild is a book as loving as it is fierce, brilliant and accomplished. To read it felt like a privilege and a gift.” (With follow-up blog post by El-Mohtar, here, that is definitely worth reading.)    Bookforum Conversion Starter, Jenny Davidson “In it’s ambition and intelligence, Hild might best be compared to Hilary Mantel’s novels about Thomas Cromwell. Griffith does not have the extraordinary ability displayed in Wolf Hall to render densely populated political rivalries as vividly and concretely as one might describe the relationships between three or four members of a family…but she has other gifts Mantel doesn’t, especially that sharp eye for what happens to plants and animals (especially birds) over the course of the seasons, as well as an understated and just-lyrical-enough prose style that delights the reader locally without ever distracting from the forward movements of character and plot.” (No link to this, because it’s print.)   The Idle Woman Hild, by Nicola Griffith, by Leander “This was a rare thing: a book I came to on the strength of its subject, knowing nothing about its author, hoping that it would be a amusing read – only to find myself simply blown away by the quality of the writing. And I’m not easy to impress. […] Richly-described, sensitive and very far from being conventional, this is a real treat for anyone interested in this period – or anyone who loves lush, evocative language and the poetic resonance of ancient words – gesith; gemæcce; hægtes. Griffith has done a fabulous job and I hope she might turn to more historical fiction in the future, rather than the sci-fi and crime which I understand she’s focused on so far. She certainly has a gift for it. Do get your hands on a copy if you can – settle back and savour it – and come and tell me what you think. I do hope you enjoy it. And why wouldn’t you? Here is the gleam of arm-rings, brooches and torcs; the fellowship of mead and songs; and the echoes of heroic grandeur in an age which is already coming to an end:  We ride in service to a dream from the gods. If our dreamer’s horse fails, you will give her yours. If her food runs low, you will give your own. She will light our way. And now we ride.”   Los Angeles Review of Books Weaving a Hedge, by Brian Attebury “Midway through Nicola Griffith’s splendid Medieval novel Hild is a scene of hedge-construction. […] This scene can stand for the novel itself, and for its genre of historical fiction. Supporting the narrative are bare facts: names, dates, battles, kings. Between those dead stakes the novelist transplants green shoots, bits of lived experience that link the historical moment to the present. She then lops and bends and weaves these shoots — the smell of horses, the sound of crows, the stirring of desire — to make a pattern that is not only beautiful but also meaningful.”   The Other Side of the Brain Hild: A Lyrical, Lingering World, by Alix Heinzman “Nicola Griffith’s Hild: A Novel is something rare. It’s a historical fantasy, but it’s not a magical adventure, a bodice-ripper, a military drama, or even a political thriller. It’s not the kind of book you dive into and finish a day later and forget almost immediately. Hild is a whole world with a taste and texture of its own. It lingers. […] Hild herself: A girl in and of the past, navigating a complex and patriarchal world. Griffith hasn’t caved to the strong-woman-defies-patriarchy-and-becomes-a-legit-knight tendencies of fantasy with female leads (although, admittedly, Hild does learn to use a staff). Hild gains power and influence for herself and her family, but not by hacking up bad guys and teaching everyone about equal rights for women. Instead, her weapon is her intelligence. She also isn’t motivated by some personal horror-story—she isn’t strong because she was “broken first,” she’s strong because she has natural ambitions and hopes of her own. She changes the world not because she’s man-like, but because she’s human-like.”   The New Republic Why Is Pop Culture So Obsessed With the Middle Ages?, by Cara Parks “Over the past three years, George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire fantasy-meets-Tudors books have taken the publishing world by storm. The fifth installation, published in 2011, had the highest first-day sales of any fiction book that year, and the most recent season of the HBO adaptation was the network’s second-most popular of all time. We have the CW’s hilarious teen-soap version of Mary Queen of Scots, Reign; before that, there were The Tudors and The Borgias. Hilary Mantel has won two Man Booker prizes for her novels about Thomas Cromwell, which are currently being made into a BBC TV series. And now we have a new entrant into the canon: Nicola Griffith’s novel Hild. Hild, which takes place in seventh-century Britain, is based on the historic figure now known as St. Hilda, who helped to convert Britain to Christianity. The novel uses her scant biography (about half a page in a Christian history) to weave together an epic bildungsroman. We follow young Hild from the death of her father to her early career as a seer for King Edwin of Northumbria and her eventual evolution into a political actor in her own right. Griffith explains Hild’s mystical powers as a combination of attentiveness and keen intelligence, and limits the discussion of wights and witches to Hild’s less perceptive peers. It is a tasteful work of historical fiction, artfully dramatizing real events to recreate Hild’s seventh-century world.” (A mixed review.)   INTERVIEWS   Shelf Awareness The Writer’s Life, with Ilana Teitelbaum The language in Hild seems carefully wrought to evoke the period and setting of seventh-century Britain. Was Old English an inspiration in writing this book? I’m grinning at the notion of “carefully” and “writing this book.” Yes, Old English was foundational for me. Especially the poetry. I read the surviving poems, in several translations and in the original (though my OE is rubbish). It’s stirring–heroic, alliterative, elegiac. But I’m not sure how representative it is of Hild’s era. It’s written, rather than being oral, which means it came to us through the double filter of Latinised, Christian scribes. I read a fair amount of old Welsh/British poetry, too, because Britain in Hild’s time was a seriously multi-ethnic place. Scholars argue whether that poetry was originally written in Hild’s time or centuries later, but it, too, is stirring and heroic, proud in a slightly different register. I took the poetry, stuffed it into the black box of my writing brain, and let it ferment. And then I quailed. I was terrified of screwing it up. In the end I did what any good Anglo-Saxon would: I got drunk, laughed in the face of fear, and charged. So while the thinking beforehand and the editing afterwards were carefully considered, the writing itself was more like riding a bull. UK Lesbian Fiction Exclusive Interview […]

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