Interview: Nicola Griffith
by Lynne Jamneck
29 September 2003
Nicola Griffith is a native of Yorkshire, England, who now lives in Seattle with her partner, writer Kelley Eskridge. Her immigration case was a struggle, which eventually led to the making of new law: the State Department acknowledged it to be "in the National Interest" for her to live and work in the US. Her novels include Ammonite (1993), Slow River (1995), The Blue Place, (1998), and Stay (2003). Her non-fiction has appeared in a variety of print and web journals, including OUT and Paradoxa: The Journal of World Literary Genres. She has won numerous awards for her work, including the Nebula, the James Tiptree, Jr., Memorial Award, and the Lambda Literary Award -- five times, in three different categories.
Lynne Jamneck: How do you find writing in different genres affects the overall aspect of your writing?
Nicola Griffith: I don't know how others would define the overall aspect of my writing, if indeed there is such a thing, but for me writing is about reaching in some way. Reaching out to others, and reaching for my own understanding of a real event, issue, person, place, or scenario through fiction. When I'm reaching, I use whatever tool seems most appropriate. My first novel, Ammonite, was science fiction because there was no other way to talk about women being human in, of and by themselves (i.e. without being compared and contrasted to men). My second novel, Slow River, was SF because, well, in addition to wanting to explore what it is that makes us ourselves (which I could have done in any kind of setting) I wanted to write about some really cool ecological stuff that I couldn't really place in any other context than the near future. Pure self indulgence, really. That and the science fictional ability to make metaphor concrete. My third and fourth novels, The Blue Place and Stay, are classified as crime fiction because I had a dream about a woman who killed a man who broke into her apartment, and when I woke up I started to wonder what kind of person could kill someone with no hesitation and no regrets. I found out by thinking and then writing. The books are actually about a woman called Aud Torvingen, who she is, how she came to be that way, and how's she's changing. They're literary novels, but with plots, and because Aud was once in the police force, and because she kills someone, the book world instantly classifies them as "crime fiction."
I have nothing against crime fiction. I read a lot of it. I'm just not convinced that it's the right way to talk about the Aud novels.
But all my novels are concerned with the same things: the world, the body, and how the two interact; the nature of self; the notion of forgiveness and change; physical joy; biological, cultural, and psychological systems, and so on. Genre makes no difference.
What is genre, anyway? Many people use it in a pejorative sense. I believe it's a marketing convenience, which arose from general laziness on the part of writers, readers, booksellers and publishers. Writing a balanced, beautiful novel, where plot and character and setting and pacing and narrative structure and imagery and, above all, story work in harmony and true proportion is fucking hard. It's a huge challenge. Writing something that most people would happily classify as genre, that is an unbalanced, misshapen fiction which privileges one set of concerns over another -- concentrates on character above plot (a lot of mainstream literature) or plot and tropes above story (a lot of mysteries) or setting and plot above story and character (a lot of science fiction) or tropes above plot (just about all coming out fiction), something misshapen and lazy (ninety-five percent of all fiction, in my opinion) is relatively simple.
When it comes to reading, it's easier to say, "Today I want to read something with a bit of sex and a happy ending," and march off to the romance section of the bookstore, than it is to think, well, I want to read something that will make me think, or make me see the world in a new way, or maybe just stretch my notions of what sex and happy mean, and pick up a well-balanced book that might (horrors!) surprise you. Easier for publishers and bookstores to sell these lop-sided books, too.
But to get back to your question about genre affecting my overall writing -- the biggest gear change for me is not genre (the very notion of which pisses me off, anyway) but length and form.
Short fiction is utterly different from novel-length fiction. And non-fiction is quite different again. Then there are the different forms of non-fiction: the opinion piece, the essay (literally, a kind of enquiry -- this is my favourite), the scholarly article, the memoir, etc. etc. I love to write non-fiction and short fiction in between my novels. Doing so acts as a real palate cleanser. It also works as a mirror; it forces me to change gear, to re-taste, re-see my work. It's vital.
LJ: Are you surprised at the way the character of Aud has wriggled her way into your life? Especially after telling people that you won't be writing sequels to your books?
NG: Aud never wriggles. She might stride or glide or ease her way into something, but wriggle. . . . Heavens, no. And I'm not sure I ever said that I wouldn't write sequels to my books. I have said it's unlikely I'll ever write a sequel to Ammonite (which is what most people ask about). I've explored what I wanted to explore with those people and that idea. Every now and then I toy with the idea of writing a short story set in the Ammonite milieu, but I doubt I'll ever get around to it. Funnily enough, no one ever asks about a sequel to Slow River; I wonder why. When I started to write The Blue Place (which was called Penny in My Mouth, but everyone, i.e. my agent and my editor, kept asking me, "Who's Penny?"), I had no idea it would be the first in a sequence of novels. It was only when I got about a third of the way through that I understood that this book was the first chapter in the story of Aud. I wasn't happy about that but by then it was too late: she'd seized my imagination.
LJ: Your partner, Kelley Eskridge, is also a successful published author. It must be quite complementary for you both to have similar careers, especially in terms of understanding one another's schedules and routines.
NG: Ha! We don't understand our own schedules and routines, never mind each other's. What we do understand is priorities. We know what it means to have an idea and have to think about it, no matter what the circumstances. When I get that glazed, distracted look in the middle of dinner Kelley doesn't take it personally, she just sighs and pushes a pad and pen at me and I start scratching away.
LJ: It is tricky for any writer to explain their chosen profession. Generally, there is something that, consciously or subconsciously, propelled them into a need to write. Would you be able to identify this specific something?
NG: Rage. That's how it began. I was so angry I was afraid to leave the house. Instead, I started to write out my feelings. Then I became fascinated with the people and the place. Then with the process. Now writing fills my need to explore, expand, and explain the world to myself and others. Without it I honestly think I'd go mad.
LJ: As an SF writer, which writers of the genre have influenced you most?
NG: How do you identify influence? Perhaps this is a question best left for the critics to answer. I can tell you, though, which writers I've read and reread with a passion. Actually, it really depends on what stage of my life we're talking about. From about thirteen to nineteen my SF reading was all E.E. 'Doc' Smith, Isaac Asimov, Robert Silverberg, Robert Heinlein, Frank Herbert, and Cordwainer Smith. In fantasy, it was Tolkien and C.S. Lewis and Alan Garner and David Eddings. All boys. Oh, I loved that stuff. But then somewhere towards the end of my teen years I noticed that there weren't any women in the books, and I discovered Ursula K. Le Guin, Joan D. Vinge, Joanna Russ, Vonda McIntyre, and Kate Wilhelm. I thought I'd died and gone to heaven.
I stopped rereading the boy SF in my late twenties; I stopped rereading the girl SF in my mid-thirties. I hardly ever read SF/F at all these days. In the last few years I've encountered nothing rich, deep, wise and essentially joyful enough to make it worth reliving. The one exception is Lord of the Rings. Having seen the films, it's given me new impetus to go back and play in Middle Earth. The books hold up beautifully. Wonderful stuff -- if you give yourself utterly to them, surrender all urge to be critical or to judge in any realistic sense. Which is, of course, one of the things I love about reading novels.
But if I were pushed, I'd have to say that the work that has most influenced my fiction is the epic stuff, fiction and non-fiction, prose and poetry: the Iliad, Norse sagas, the Matter of Britain (that is, Arthur), Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and so on. I love what I think of as English Landscape writers, those historical novelists like Henry Treece and Rosemary Sutcliffe, Mary Renault and Mary Stewart (only her Arthur books, beginning with The Crystal Cave) who make you feel the heather of the moor under your boot, smell the rain on wool cloaks, sense the menhirs looming from the mist. Great stuff. And lately I'm able to lose myself in the Aubrey/Maturin novels of Patrick O'Brian, twenty books (beginning with Master and Commander) that are essentially one long novel.
LJ: Do you think there is a general consensus amongst readers to move away from classifying certain fiction in terms of a specific genre? I'd particularly like to refer to a category like "Speculative Fiction." Most Horror, SF and Fantasy can all be categorized under that heading nowadays.
NG: A long, long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, "fiction" meant basically, "this is make-believe, it's not real, people, and it doesn't have to be realistic, just true." All fiction was, in the most basic sense, fantasy. Tales of Paradise, of Gilgamesh and magic lamps and Beowulf and merchants of Venice and melancholy Scottish kings and Frankenstein's monster were classified only as "good," that is, the writer made you believe it, realistic or not, or "bad," that is, they failed to convince you. I wish it were that way still.
LJ: Do you think that SF and crime fiction has come some way in the last decade in addressing issues of gender and sexuality? Is societal conditioning still a factor in how people view these issues?
NG: Socialization is the factor. But books and film and television are part of that socialization. Who we are and how we live creates our culture, from which springs our art. Art isn't magic; it can't create something from nothing. It's a catalyst, able only to tilt the balance. To do that, though, it has to really speak to the populace, or at least to trend- and/or decision-makers. The latter two categories of people are more likely to admit their fondness for genre fiction and entertainment now than in years past because there seems to be a less of a social stigma attached to it. (Why? I have no idea.)
Decades ago, if you read or wrote SF you were weird. Period. This meant that SF writers had incredible freedom to write about verboten subjects -- communism during the 1950s, gender in the sixties, queers in the seventies -- because no one took it seriously. No one felt threatened: it was just those weirdos writing crap about bug-eyed monsters. The downside of SF being taken more seriously these days is that the genre as a whole is bigger and a lot more conservative. This creates genres-within-genres, niches if you like, which means that straight SF readers can now choose to read only straight SF, and eschew anything with dykes in it as "not Real SF, but a sub-genre." Conversely, it also means that queer readers can read only SF/F with queer characters, if they choose. I think it's a real pity, because both groups are losing out. When you arbitrarily dump a portion of your reading choice, your reading options are diminished.
LJ: There have been some particularly strong female protagonists in popular culture as of late. Television shows like CSI, The Wire and Buffy the Vampire Slayer comes to mind. Care to comment on the prominence of such characters in pop culture entertainment?
NG: I don't read a lot into it. It's cyclical. Having said that, I think it's possible to see a generally upward trend. Xena and Gabrielle were subtext (even though the show made no fucking sense without their relationship being a sexual one); Willow and Tara were maintext. I look forward to the day when we can watch a TV show with a strong woman in the lead role who isn't angst-ridden, and whose lesbianism (if she's a dyke) isn't the point of the programme. Many of my readers really like the fact that Stay and The Blue Place are about a dyke, but not about being a dyke. Aud just is a lesbian; she never thinks or frets or talks about it. This, though, is the main reason no one is rushing to make Aud, The Movie, because the concept is still pretty new to the sort of people who control the purse strings: What do you mean, she never thinks about it?
Tipping the Velvet got made because, apart from the fact that the book is a vivid and rip-roaring read, it does or says nothing too surprising to the mainstream: Nan doesn't want to overthrow the world, just be happy, but being a dyke is what gets in the way of her happiness. Aud doesn't want to overthrow the world (though she's quite capable of doing so) but being a dyke has never given her one iota of trouble.
LJ: You're one of a handful of lesbian writers published by a major publisher. Is there a move amongst publishers to start seeing books with lesbian protagonists as just that, instead of classifying it as a 'lesbian' novel per se?
NG: Some younger editors already think that way. The problem is, their attitude isn't always mirrored by the marketing people. Marketers are inherently conservative: they operate on what is, not what they'd like things to be. Sometimes they get a little behind, because the mood of the reading public is mercurial. Certainly, when I wrote Ammonite, several people in the business said to me: You can't sell that to a mainstream publisher! I said: Watch me. These days, some might think it privately, but they wouldn't say it out loud.
Actually I fired my first agent because she told that the outline for Slow River was "not a selling outline." When I asked why not, she said, "Well, I could understand why Marghe (the main character in Ammonite) was a lesbian -- she was living in a women-only world, poor thing, and didn't have a choice, but I don't see why Lore (main character of Slow River) has to have a girlfriend." I said, "Because she's a dyke." She didn't get it. I told her, tough, that's just the way it was. She said: no one will buy this. I got a new agent.
But as much as I'd like to believe that editorial attitudes are changing, it won't make much difference until the rest of the industry, the marketing and sales, the booksellers, the review editors and critics, get an attitude change. The most frequent phrase in reviews of Stay and The Blue Place is "lesbian lover." It's true that Aud is a lesbian and she has (had) a lover, but until the day comes when I see reviews that say "straight lover" I'll know we have a long way to go.
NG: It is still a niche. In fact, Bending the Landscape was designed, in part, to dissolve some of the artificial boundaries between gay and straight, speculative and mainstream fiction. We did get some straight writers to write queer characters, and we did get some mainstream writers to dip their toes in the SF/F genre, but I'd have to say that with regard to getting rid of genre lines it was only partially successful. Commercially, too, it was less than a blockbuster (though I believe it could have been marketed more vigorously).
As books, though, I think they're damn good. At least some people agree; they've won a few awards between them. Putting them together was a great deal of work for essentially no pay (Stephen Pagel and I put most of our advance into paying the authors). But I really enjoyed working with the writers.
LJ: You're a native of Yorkshire, England. Did you know that, according to popular myth, it's one of the supposedly most haunted places in England?
NG: Yorkshire has some harsh landscape -- harsh relative to English norms, that is -- and hard land makes for superstitious behavior. Historically, too, Yorkshire has a slightly different cultural cast, which goes back to the ninth and tenth centuries when the country was split in two, and Yorkshire was ceded to the Danelaw. Lots of Yorkshire dialect is very similar to Norse. Lots of Yorkshire myth can be traced to Norwegian and Danish folktale.
LJ: How has the experience of loss in your personal life affected your writing?
NG: When someone asks me casually, "How many brothers and sisters do you have?" I don't know what to say. Saying I have two sisters feels like a lie; saying I have four is no longer true. And I don't always want to take the time and energy to sit down and explain, "Well, I did have four sisters but my little sister, Helena, died fifteen years ago and one of my older sisters, Carolyn, died two years ago," because people stand there in shock and don't know what to say. But losing two sisters has changed me. When I change, my writing changes.
Grief really does change everything. Until Helena died, I had no idea what real grief was. Oh, I'd been sad when a pet died, or a grandparent or a great aunt, but when I got that phone call about Helena, who was only 24, I literally felt as though someone had ripped my skin off. The world became shockingly, violently intrusive. It's really marked my writing, I think. And then there's loss of health. I was diagnosed with MS ten years ago and until I was ill, I had no idea how much I took for granted the amazing system that is the human body. I was always one of those lucky (insufferable) people who could do just about anything physically -- play the drums, do gymnastics, learn a martial art -- after a few tries. Now I sometimes find it hard to cross a room. I see the world differently. It's interesting, as a result, to write from the point of view of Aud, a woman with superlative physical abilities.
LJ: Would you describe Aud Torvingen as an anti-hero?
NG: No. She's a hero. That is, she's in transition. Perhaps she hasn't figured it out, yet, but she's definitely on her way to becoming a hero.
LJ: What are you reading at the moment?
NG: I've just finished Ann Patchett's Bel Canto, which I enjoyed much more than I thought I would. I'd expected to feel very claustrophobic -- after all, the entire novel is set in one house -- but Patchett does a great job of maintaining a feeling of expansiveness. Having said that, it's not a book I'd ever reread. It was nice enough, but I don't think a second read would reward me with anything I didn't take from it the first time.
My belief that is that a great book should sweep the reader off her feet, and as soon as she's finished, she should long to begin again at the beginning. And she should be able to reread the book every couple of years -- a bit like revisiting a particular vintage of wine and appreciating both how the wine has matured and how her own taste buds have changed. Patchett didn't sweep me, but it was a very pleasant four hours. I've also just picked up Stars, a science fiction anthology edited by Janis Ian (yes, the singer) and inspired by her song lyrics.
LJ: How much of your research for books is hands on?
NG: It varies. Most of the martial arts and self-defense stuff I understand intimately, having studied several martial arts and taught women's self-defense for years in England. Police work -- well, I don't know a thing about it, and don't really need to, as Aud is no longer with the APD. Woodwork -- again, I don't know a thing about it, but it's fun to imagine. I've never been to Norway, never been to Arkansas, or even Asheville, for that matter. But I read a lot, and I talk to people who have lived in all those places, and I love to imagine. That's one of the primary joys of writing for me: to take a few facts, and then sit around and build a whole town or country or world in my head. I admit I get a kick when readers tell me that they lived in Oslo, or Arkansas, or wherever, and that I got it just right. (I also like to hear from readers who think I got it wrong, so that when a new edition of a particular novel comes out I can correct the mistakes.)
With the science fiction, I use the same method. Take, for example, Ammonite, which is all about a world where a virus has killed eighty percent of the population -- including all the men. I had to learn about viruses and vaccines, which was relatively easy at the time because of the newness of serious AIDS research: every paper and journal seemed to have a mention of peptide chains or the immune response somewhere in their pages. When I was writing Slow River, Kelley was working for an environmental engineering company and would bring home trade journals with titles like Garbage and Pollution Engineering. I'm one of those people who will pick up anything and start reading, and so I read these journals. The ads are what fascinated me: ads for neoprene gloves and special toxin detectors, for drench showers and HAZMAT suits. They really fired my imagination. I started looking forward eagerly to her bringing them home, and gradually started picking up the lingo: short-chain aliphatics, bioremediation, biological oxygen demand, etc. The Hedon Road sewage treatment plant started to take shape in my head. Call me weird, but I had a hell of a good time imagining that place and how it would work.
But I talk much more about this stuff at various places on my website.
LJ: What do you do to impress people -- tell them you're a writer? Does it work?
NG: I point at Kelley and say, "She loves me." And, yes, it usually works. (Anyone who isn't impressed by Kelley is not someone I care to get to know.) Every now and again if I want to feel self-important I rabbit on about my immigration case changing the law -- but that usually backfires because most people have no idea how hard I fought or what it meant to be admitted to this country on a National Interest Waiver not long after it had been illegal for gays and lesbians to even visit. Ten years ago I used to try impress people by talking about how fast I learn things -- but I'm less impressed myself these days by speed and facility than by depth and originality. And no one believed me, anyway. So now I just point at Kelley, and smart people don't take long to figure out that if she loves me, I must be all right.
LJ: Do you live vicariously through the characters you create? Is there an Aud in you waiting to break out?
NG: Nah. Although very occasionally I do indulge in a bit of wish fulfillment. For example, when Aud's lover dies, she gets to go off into the woods and be alone in natural beauty for months. I wish I could have done that when I was grieving. Also, it would be fabulous to be disgustingly rich and to not have MS. But would I want to be Aud and live her life? Nope, I like mine, thank you.
LJ: What drives you to write?
NG: The need to impress Kelley -- and I'm only partly joking. I think one of the reasons I fell in love with her is that I knew, and still know, that I will always want her to admire me. Wanting her to love me means I will always work hard to be the very best I can be. Writing is part of that.
On a day-to-day basis, though, it varies. Sometimes what drives me to write is the story, sometimes it's delusions of fame and fortune, sometimes it's boredom. Often, though, I write because, well, that's what I do, and because if I didn't do it, I'd go crazy. And because it's a rush. There's absolutely nothing like the sheer joy of diving into a piece of fiction and just making shit up, feeling the words come purling from the keyboard and the characters start moving around and talking and meeting each other. It's incredible. I get lost in it, sometimes.
LJ: Any pearls of wisdom you'd like to dispense to would-be writers?
NG: Do the work. It's not about talent, though that's important. It's not about the connections, though that, too, will make a difference. It's not even about the ideas (which, honestly, are bottom on the list in terms of what matters). It's about the work. Wanting to be a writer, talking about writing, planning to write one day -- none of these things makes you a writer. Writers write. Writers who are talented, and lucky, and very, very stubborn get published. But essentially, writers write.
Copyright © 2003 Lynne Jamneck
Lynne Jamneck is planning on waking one morning early to take over the world. Her writing has appeared in Best Lesbian Erotica 2003, Clean Sheets, and City Slab Magazine. Upcoming work will feature in H.P Lovecraft's Magazine Of Horror, and the Anthologies Delicate Friction: Lesbian Erotica (Bullock Publications), Darkways Of The Wizard (Cyber-Pulp) and Raging Horrormones (Lethe Press).