Interview With Nicola Griffith (HILD)
Nicola Griffith’s iconic debut novel Ammonite (1992) won the James Tiptree, Jr Award and the Lamda Literary Award on its initial release, and signified the emergence of a special new talent in speculative fiction. Since then, Griffith has written an incredible range of fantastic novels, from the near-future SF of Slow River (1995) to the noir trilogy The Blue Place (1998), Stay (2002) and Always (2007), which follows the adventures of badass bodyguard/PI Aud Torvingen, to Hild (2013), the first book in a historical epic that follows the life of St. Hilda of Whitby. Following the completion of the first draft of Menewood, the much anticipated sequel to Hild, Griffith was kind enough to speak to The Fantasy Hive over Skype.
You’ve just finished the first draft of Book Two of Hild. The first Hild book covers a longer period in Hild’s life, it’s from her birth…
It starts when she’s three years old. And it goes through till she’s about 18. Whereas Menewood, the second book, I had intended for it to go from her being 18 to 33. But once I got going, I realized that if I kept to that chronology, the book would end up being a million words. I kept trying to fit too many words into too small a pot, and I kept hitting problems with it. So eventually, I just thought, fuck it, and and just decided to do four years instead of 16 or 14 or 15 years. So now I have this book that’s about 45% longer than Hild, and covers maybe a third of the ground that Hild did. It’s because of history. There’s so much stuff that happened during this era. There’s regime change, there’s religious fights, and of course Hild herself was going through all sorts of life stuff that she didn’t go through as a kid. When you’re a kid, you learn how the world works. But as an adult, you start to learn how you work inside the world. And it was a really different way to work for me from Hild.
Hild covers an era of history that I wasn’t very familiar with at all, but you get a real sense of just how different life was in those times compared to how it is now. How much research went into creating that?
I started informally researching, just idly picking up brochures and things when I went to visit Whitby probably in the 80s. But it didn’t get serious about the research until about 1999 when I suddenly started to get books from the library and research and then realize that the books were out of date, so then I would have to do inter-library loan to get the latest things. By the time Hild was actually published, I’d been seriously researching at least a dozen years. I was kind of obsessed with it. But that is because there’s nothing about Hild herself. We’ve got maybe two or three pages about Hild and most of that is just hagiography. It’s just rubbish about miracles that I frankly don’t believe in so it was no good to me. So instead of finding out about Hild, because there’s nothing to find out, I had to find out about the world and then grow Hild inside it to see what she was like.
So yeah, we know nothing. All we have really about this era is archaeological evidence. Because writing didn’t come in until the Christian conversion, and of course, the Christian conversion in Hild’s part of the world didn’t happen until she was 14. So we have the whole very early part that we know nothing about, except what we’ve dug up and then guessed from the physical evidence.
So I researched trees, and birds and flowers and weather and oh, my God, everything. I looked at jewellery evidence, like what jewellery did they have, and had to try and figure out what level of technology they had to make that jewellery. It was enormous fun. I mean, for a science fiction writer, it’s just a massive exercise in world building. The only problem, of course, is that people would know if I got something that was known to be known wrong. If you’re making up the planet Arrakis, people can’t say well actually you know that sand dune is over there six yards. I had to make everything up. But it had to be plausible for people who had been studying this stuff their entire lives. But you know, what’s life without a challenge! I had a great time. I got to research and live in this world, and imagine this tiny little person in it, and see how the world influenced her. And then how she influenced the world. That it was enormous fun. It was actually kind of crushing when I finished. But then of course I spent two or three years doing publicity. The publicity was gruelling for Hild. I did two US tours and one UK tour. And it was hard. But it was fun. I got to talk about the book all the time. And I got lots of people saying, Oh, it was awesome, which of course, always makes a writer feel good.
That thing you said about it almost being an exercise of science fiction world building really interested me. I guess that’s the thing that’s different that you can bring to a historical novel as a writer of science fiction, it’s that interest in world building, that basis in it.
Yeah, because one of the things I find that mainstream writers who write science fiction, who are not familiar with it – I think of them as tourists – the biggest mistake they make is they forget that a world a story, a person, it has a kind of grammar. I think of it as a narrative grammar. You have to get everything in the right order, and you can’t contradict the rules you’ve set up for yourself. Which is why I find a lot of well lauded literary science fiction just infuriating because they make amateur mistakes that that even a science fiction student wouldn’t make, because they know better. So I brought all that Science Fiction discipline to historical fiction. And from what I can gather, most people seem to think it turned out pretty well. And I am certainly quite happy with it.
It’s much more of a challenge now with Menewood. Because now I am “solving” things that historians haven’t been able to figure out. Some of the battles that happened don’t actually make sense, if you look at them carefully. It’s like, how on earth could that have happened? So I’ve had to work out how plausibly it could happen, which has involved building many, many maps. And so I became very interested in map making, map drawing, and having again enormous fun really doing the research. I know a lot about battles now, and war logistics. How many miles a horse can do and what food they need depending on what work they do, etc, etc.
Did you consult any historians while you were doing the writing?
On Menewood? No. On Hild? I did quite a bit. I did it mostly through blogs. I found early career researchers who were willing to talk online and they would build blogs about their research. And I so I would follow them. And in the comments, I would ask questions, obviously related to their work. And at first, they were all so wary and very careful. I would say, so tell me about dogs in the early seventh century. What do we know? And they say, Well, we know nothing. And I’d say, Okay. Well, so did they have Pekinese? No! Well, now, see, you do know something. So tell me what you know. What about this? What about this? What about this? And eventually, it turned out that so many people had so many different ideas that I decided Hild would not have a dog and just threw that whole plot out. But yeah, it took years to get some of them to trust me. To trust that I was not being this history tourist, the way that some writers are science fiction tourists. That I was really doing the work. Last year, I was invited to give the plenary speech at a big academic early medieval conference in Vancouver called Iona Islands of the North Atlantic, so that was really cool. I got to talk to all these people and have drinks with them. And I love their work. And it turns out they liked mine. So it was wonderful. I suppose one of the traps for me is that I love this work so much that occasionally I forget that I’m not actually a historian. I’m a writer. And I don’t actually need to know some of these fine details. I could just skate by it and not talk about it. But part of me, I just desperately need to know! So what for most writers might take a couple of years to write for me will take eight because I need to know everything.
And what was it originally that drew you to Hild, this person that we only know about from these couple of pages? What made you go, “There’s a story here that I need to tell”?
It was Whitby, actually. I’ve been having a really hard time in my early 20s and I I went to Whitby for the first time, and I went to the ruin. Have you ever been to Whitby?
No, I’ve never been.
Oh, it’s an amazing place. I am not really a woo person. But Whitby is one of those places where it feels like the skin of the Earth is thin, like there there’s this kind of numinous-ness that is present there. And it’s this ruined abbey on a clifftop overlooking the sea. And I stepped across the threshold of the ruins. I don’t even know how to explain it. It was like something in the earth came right through me and I just fell in love with the place. It was like falling in love instantly. So then I wanted to know about this abbey like, why is it here? On a clifftop when it’s cold, the wind is roaring off the North sea, why would you build this amazing place here? And then I found out it was founded by a woman, St Hilda. And I thought, wow, I need to go find out about this woman! Then I found out that there is no information about this woman. So then I wanted to know, how come this woman born in a time of basically when kings were petty warlords, and no one was literate, how come this woman became so famous that she still remembered 1400 years later? So then I was on the trail of this mystery. And then what I realized that that it was 1400 years ago, I started wondering, what would the world have been like then without contrails in the sky and with different trees and different animals? There were still wolves and bears and lynx in the UK at that time, and they didn’t have sycamore trees. Because they only came over in the 15th century. And then people argue about were rabbits were there or not, because the Romans brought them over, but they seem to have died out and only come back with the Normans. So it was this enormous playground. But mainly I fell in love with the place. And then I wanted to know, what kind of person would have also fallen in love with the place? I wanted to know how we were similar how we were different. And I just I wanted to time travel, I wanted to see the world. Back then, when there was no smell of hydrocarbons, no roar of traffic. So yeah, I just I wanted to play. So that that’s basically where that comes from.
And given that the second book looks like it’s only going to cover some of the ground that you were planning, are you intending to do a third book as well.
Oh, I think there’s going to be a few books. I’m guessing there’s going to be four. But who knows? I mean, what if the next one only covers six months? Maybe the next one will cover 20 years? I don’t know yet. This is still so raw. I need to hammer into shape. And once I have that, then I will know how to move forward. But right now I’m still in that exhausted and exhilarated and kind of blinking shocked stage like, wow, I have a draft. Do you write?
Yeah, a bit, but I’ve never completed a novel or had anything published in a paying market.
But you know what it feels like to finish a story. And it’s like, yes, it worked. Now I just have to make it work better. But it’s just a really good feeling. So I’m currently in that sort of post book high.
And in between Hild and Menewood you also wrote and published So Lucky (2018).
That’s right. Yeah.
So would you be able to tell us a little bit about that book?
Yes. I will preface it by saying this book is not like any other book I’ve ever written and I don’t expect to write a book like it again. It came about because I was doing a PhD. So in between Hild and Menewood. I did a PhD, and wrote another novel.
I’m going to backup right now to 2014. I was on the UK tour for Hild. I was in London. And I went out for dinner with a couple of friends, both of whom were college professors. And we got talking, they said, are you ever going to do any teaching? I said, I do teach sometimes. And they said, have you ever thought about becoming a university teacher? I said, No, because I don’t even have a degree. So who’s gonna give me a job? In the US, you certainly need an MFA to teach. And they said well, here you need to PhD and I burst out laughing and said well, there you go. That’s why I’m not a teacher. And then Farah said to me, well, if ever you want a PhD, come and talk to me. And I looked at her and I said, imagine I’m talking to you now Farah, What do you mean? And she said, there’s something called a PhD by published work. And with your publication record, and awards and stuff, I think you might be able to do that. I said, cool. And then when I got back to the US and then I did the paperback tour in the US. And after that I wrote to Farah and said, okay, I’m really interested, tell me more about this thing.
And so, longish story short, I applied to Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge to do a PhD by published work. And it turned out that Farah had exaggerated just a little and Anglia Ruskin had never ever done a PhD by published work in the humanities before ever! And so, I was sort of breaking ground there. Anyway, I was doing my PhD. And to do this PhD, I had to essentially analyse my own work. And during the analysis, I realized that the backbone of the books of the fiction I write is, I coined a term for it, focalized heterotopia, in which my characters are not oppressed for being who they are. So all the dykes in my books do not ever suffer for being lesbians and loving women. They suffer for other reasons, but not for that. And that helped me realize a problem with a novella I’ve been wrestling with for years. I had this story in my head about a woman with MS and had this kind of thriller plot. And I kept trying to write it and I kept thinking, this isn’t working. It’s a good story, but for whatever reason, I don’t like it. And I realized that the problem with this story was that this woman, although she was not oppressed for being queer, she was definitely oppressed and hounded for being disabled. And that broke my usual M.O. This was not a focalized heterotopia in disability terms. So I thought about it, and I thought well I do want to tell this story, and so I wrote it. It only took me took me three weeks to write the first draft of that book. I did it when I’d sent off my thesis for my advisor to read, and I knew I would have this three week break over the holidays. So I thought I’m going to do this, now or never, I just put the first draft. So the book is really different than anything I’ve done before. It is about a woman being oppressed for her identity, which I’ve never done before. And frankly, I don’t ever want to do again, because I find them less than fun. You know, I don’t like people to suffer for who they are. And eventually she’s fine. Everything turns out well, because I can’t bear stories where things don’t turn out well.
And then I once it was done, I was desperate for it to be published, so that I could stop thinking about it and it would be behind me rather than in front of me. So I did that. Of course, doing a PhD writing in the book took time away from Menewood. But once all that was done, then I returned to Menewood. Then of course, I wrote this other books. But this book, Oh, wow. Jonathan, I am so excited about this new book. It’s the working title is Spear. And it’s like Hild but set 100 years earlier. And with magic. It’s basically a take on the Arthurian legend. And it’s swords and horses and magic and fighting and lots of love and sex. I had the best time doing his book. I really love this, and I can’t wait for people to read it. It’s all the things I really loved about doing Hild. But again, I got to play. I got to put magic in it, which I resisted with Hild. I didn’t put any magic at all. I think it’s pretty cool. It’s a very short novel right now. It’s about 45,000 words. I think by the time I’ve rewritten it, it might be closer to 50. It’s longer than a novella, but I have a hard time calling it a novel. I don’t know what it is. But it’s longer than So Lucky.
Well, it definitely sounds like a lot of fun.
Oh, yeah. It was enormous fun. So Lucky is basically me looking at ableism and how it works, and how to dismantle it internally. Because we all have this internalized ableism I think, there’s no counter-programming for it. We are raised to think Crips are just kind of useless. When I first started to become impaired with MS, I felt terrible. I was embarrassed about becoming a Crip. But eventually, I got over it. And so I wanted to talk about how it feels to get over this kind of internalized self-hatred and self-contempt. It’s a subtle and pernicious thing. I wanted to write a book about that to basically tell my story, and also to help others going through it and to help non-disabled people understand how it feels.
And you’ve been doing a lot of work, especially on social media with the hashtag criplit.
Yeah, I’ve been doing less of it the last few months since I really started rocking and rolling again on Menewood. And since I wrote this new book, because I just wasn’t in the headspace. And also now, enough people are using the hashtag, and talking about it. I was like the little starter culture. And now the bread is risen, and I can walk off and now the culture is out there and people can do it for themselves. But it seems to be one of the things I do is to I’m not a marathon runner, I’m a sprinter. have an idea. I do stuff. And then I get kind of, not bored. But it’s like, if you don’t need me anymore and lots of people are talking about it or something, then I go off and do something else!
And so you’ve also recently been doing a project on the gender bias and literary prizes.
Yeah. And again, I’m not really doing that anymore. Enough people have noticed. Enough people are talking about it. Enough people are now not just looking at the sex and or gender, depending on how you want to approach it. of the author. They’re also looking at what the story is about who the story is about, who is regarded as important in this world. And yeah, enough people have taken that up that it’s like, yep, I pointed at the thing. And now I want to write something else. Again, it’s not so much that I’m shallow, although perhaps I am shallow. I save my marathoning for my books.
Doing a PhD, writing two Hild books, writing two non-Hild novellas or short novels, that’s a heck of a workload! How do you manage?
We bought a new espresso machine, that’s probably part of the story! I’m very lucky. The pandemic, honestly, in terms of my writing, was nothing but good. Because there’s nowhere to go. There’s nothing to do. I’m inside the house. So what should I do? I should do some work. So it was a workload, but yes, bear in mind that it’s work I enjoy. And my wife, Kelly is also a writer, but she also has a corporate day job. And she works from home a lot. So we’re in the house together. We have separate offices. We have a three bedroom house, and we converted two of the bedrooms to an office each, which I think makes us very lucky people to have that space to do that. And so I think we deliberately set up the conditions to be able to do this sort of thing. We’ve become also very efficient at the things of life. So for example, I write a food plan for a week. And usually it’s two big pot meals. So we’ll do something like beef marrow stew. And we just eat from that every day for three days until it’s gone. And then we have like a day of we eat what we want. And then we do another big pot meal for three days. So we don’t have to cook fresh three times a day, except we are eating very healthily. And it’s homemade and good stuff, but we don’t have to do all the work for it. So we’ve basically organized our lives around efficiency and pleasure of course as a very important part of life. Which you can be efficient about your pleasures, too. So yeah, efficiency and being on the same page as your sweetie. So if I if I’m working really well, I can text Kelly from my office saying, let’s put up lunch for an hour and she’s like, cool. We suit each other, our lives suit us ,and we fit well with it. And I think that is one of the keys to living a good life is arranging things to facilitate what you’re doing.
Of course, adopting two kittens put a bit of a spanner in the works efficiency wise!
My partner and I have also recently adopted kittens. They’re 10 or 12 weeks old now and they are just little whirlwinds of energy.
Another two months they’re going to be a nightmare. Because then they’ll be big enough to actually chew through the wires and destroy your blinds and our curtains are in tatters. All our blinds are broken. I’ve had to rewire a couple of things because they chewed right through cords. And talking about my mobility aids, they ripped the brake cable out my rollator.
Yeah, so I had to buy a new one. I mean, the brakes are fine, but it looks like a modernist work of art now because it’s got it all chewed and dinged. And I’m actually quite light on that kind of equipment. But cats are not. Yeah, but I wouldn’t change it for the world. And now cause they’re a year and a half old. So they’re very stately now. Ish. It’s just that when they do play, there’s so much bigger. But they’re fun.
And I wanted to talk a bit about your first novel Ammonite as well, because it’s such an iconic work of speculative fiction. So that was back in back in 1992, when it first came out. Yeah. What was your experience like of publishing a book that is so openly women centered, and so openly queer? Was that tough sell back in the 90s?
Actually, you know, it really wasn’t. Everyone told me it would be. I remember one of my Clarion teachers phoned me up, he said, Nicola, you know, you’re not going to be able to sell this book. I said, Oh, yeah. What do you suggest? He said, Well, there should at least be a mention of men. I mean, can we have the women dancing around the fire wearing fake beard or something? No. The point of this book is that there are no men in it. Well, you won’t be able to sell it. And I said well you know watch me. And I have to say, the book first of all came about because Malcolm Edwards sent me a letter saying, I’ve read some of your short stories in Interzone. If you happen to be working on a novel, I’d love to see it. And I wrote back and it was a complete lie, but I said, Oh, actually, I’m working on two. Here’s a paragraph about each. Tell me what you’d like to see first? This is by airmail, because there was no email back in 1991. And he wrote back, and said well they both sound great, just send me what you’ve got. And so I had to sit down, and I wrote the beginning of Ammonite probably in about three weeks. And I sent it there you go, that’s the beginning of Ammonite. And he wrote back saying great, when can I see the rest? Like, really soon? And I had to sit and write the rest! I think the book that took me about 10 months. And then he wrote back and said yeah I want to buy it. And so then I thought, oh, great is going to be published in the UK. I was so thrilled. I can’t tell you, I was insane with joy. But then I had to figure out how to sell it in the US. And I thought I would run into trouble. I thought it would be difficult. But I sent it off to St. Martin’s, which was like the most prestigious hardcover science fiction publisher at the time. And I got a letter back from a phone call back from Gordon almost immediate saying, Yeah, I really like this book. I want to buy it. I’m like, Oh, so cool. The only condition is that it has to be a co-publication with a paperback publisher. I said, Okay. So he was going to work with Avon. But then Avon said, Well, here’s the thing, because it’s a first novel, we have a product size issue, so you need to cut 20%. I said, oh, wow, what 20%? They said, Well, we don’t care. It’s just a product size issue. I said, no, I’m not doing that. They also said I would need to change the title, because no one knows what an Ammonite is. And I said, Well, they could look it up. And so that deal fell apart. Because I would not make these changes. So then I sent it to Del Rey. And they bought it and they offered twice as much money as the original deal. So it all kind of worked out. But, it was agonizing, saying no to St. Martin’s. It was that hardcover publication for your first novel. I mean, back in the day, that was kind of amazing. And so Kelly, and I walked around and around this park because we needed the money. We were really poor at the time. And it was like, shit, am I being too precious here? And she’s like, No, you just you just decide what you want. And I’ll back you. So with terror in my heart I said, No. And it actually turned out for the best. So the moral of my story is just be brave, know what you’re worth and stick to it.
I can’t imagine cutting it
Well exactly! I honestly think most books can can afford to have 5% cut. But 20% on a book that length? Absolutely no way.
And then after that you published Slow River, which I also really like it.
I like it, too. Yeah. It’s pretty different to Ammonite, though.
And then this is one of the things about your publishing career is that you’ve managed to do quite a bunch of different stuff. So you have science fiction in Ammonite, and then you have Slow River, which is sort of like cyberpunk but it’s not. Then there are the three Aud books, and Hild. How do you see your approach to genre over the course of your career?
To me, honestly, genre is just a vehicle I use to cross the story terrain. So depending on what story I want to tell, I use the appropriate genre. If I’m crossing a desert, I don’t want to use an ocean liner. I will use a camel or a Range Rover or something. So I mean, I could have written Hild, for example, as a fantasy. But it wouldn’t have done what I was setting out to do, which is to find out really what kind of woman could have survived and thrived in this era. Because if I put fantasy in it, it would have ruined the experiment, if you know what I mean. The Aud books came from a dream, where I had a dream about this woman who was laying naked in an absolutely empty apartment. And she wakes up with a gun to her head from this guy. But instead of freaking out, she just comes right off the mattress with an old fashioned maglite flashlight and breaks his neck, just bang! and I thought, Oh, shit, what kind of woman could do that? So then I wrote these books to find out. All my books start with a question. Slow River started with the question of who are you, when you have nothing left? When you are reduced to, you have no resources, you have no friends, you have no family. You literally don’t even have any clothes on your back. And you’re hunted and in a strange country, what do you do? How do you survive? But and that question itself came from question I’d asked myself about my own life. Because I lived through 10 years in Hull, which was a very depressed and quite depressing city. And it was 25% unemployment at the time. The city itself stank of sewage, because the drains were falling to bits. it was just awful. It was full of poverty and despair and violence. And I was unemployed, and I was mixing with people. I was mixing with literally murderers, and drug dealers, and prostitutes and the whole underground queer scene. And that was just not a life I had lived up until then. I mean, I was a nice little Catholic girl from a big middle-class family. And then suddenly, I’m in this milieu, which is very like that of Slow River, for Lore. And I would look around at the people with me in. And now I look back, and I managed to get out of that. But some of those people didn’t. And so I wanted to know what made it different for some people. And so I wrote Slow River to find out. And it turns out, basically, it’s just a class issue. If you’re born into the middle class, you have different resources. You might look as though you’re in the same place as these other people. But you’re not. You have a better education, you have better teeth, you have better eyesight, you have more confidence. It’s just it’s a class-based life, this kind of survival. And so yeah, I had to write that whole book to find out. So all my books begin with this question. And so depending on the question, I choose the genre that will help me best answer it.
It sounds like you’ve got a pretty busy publishing schedule coming up of the next handful of years. But what’s next for Nicola Griffith?
I actually suspect that most of the rest of my writing life is going to be taken up with Hild. And then I will pop out the occasional book in between Hild books. I mean, I have a book of essays I want to do, and I have never published a short story collection, which I would love to do. I’m kind of interested in poetry. I’ve never published any poetry and I don’t write it very often. But I’ve written it often enough, I now have maybe 50 or 60 poems, maybe I could do something with that one day. But really, I think my main line of work is going to be Hild. But then with all these play projects in between… So Spear is my very first fantasy novel, because that’s what it is. It’s a fantasy. And it’s historical fantasy. But, you know, that’s something new for me. I’ve never done it before. And I had such a good time with it that now I want to try other things. Maybe I’ll write a Western or a pirate novel. I don’t know. Life’s kind of interesting. And I want to play in all the corners and see what happens.
Thank you, Nicola Griffith, for speaking with us!