2017 Contest: An Interview with Fiction Judge Nicola Griffith
Nicola Griffith, a dual UK/US citizen, is the author of six novels (most recently Hild), a few short stories, and a memoir. She co-edited the Bending the Landscape anthology series of original short fiction with queer protagonists. These works have won more than twenty awards. She is the founder of the Literary Prize Data group and #CripLit, the regular Twitter chat for disabled writers. She is married to writer Kelley Eskridge and lives in Seattle.
Interview by EMILY COON
Black Warrior Review: What do you do when you begin a writing session? Any routines, rituals, or habits?
Nicola Griffith: With a novel, when I begin for the day I rough-revise which gets me primed for the new work. A novel can take anything from ten months to three years. With short fiction I tend to drive relentlessly to the end of a draft without stopping to revise. A short story can be done in two days, a particularly meaty novella five weeks. In terms of my process and approach, novels and short fiction are entirely different beasties.
When I’m working I like to have a cup of tea or glass of water to sip—a physical distraction. But easily the most important ritual for me is to have a moment of non-engagement with the world before I begin, to find that still, quiet place.
BWR: You’ve previously described your research about the world of a novel as a kind of obsession. What role does research play in your writing process? As a writer, what makes research most helpful?
NG: Every single novel I’ve written has accreted around some kind of interesting snippet that snags my attention, draws me into a previously-unvisited realm (concept, or geographic location, or area of expertise), and then begins to exert gravitational influence on the story well, pulling up images, people, moments.
What makes research really useful, though, is an open mind. If you’re not open to where something might lead then you’re losing potential for discovery and delight. Slow River, for example, would never have existed if Kelley (my wife) had not brought home a catalogue of protective gear from her job at an environmental engineering company and if I had not become fascinated by the jargon. But sometimes what attracts my attention can be something as simple as the colour or texture of an old book’s binding. I pull it from the shelf, get lost in a 1940s history of Norwegian architecture, and my mind goes flying.
Research can be a thrilling journey but also an excuse to avoid work: Oooh, let’s go waste an hour trying to figure out exactly how tall Scottish sheep were in the seventh century! That’s when an app called Freedom comes in very handy: it shuts down access to the internet.
BWR: Your fiction is incredibly rich in terms of world, place, and detail, whether it’s historical detail, as in Hild, or science fictional detail, as in Ammonite. How do you keep track of all these details and worlds as you create them?
NG: I live in them. Up until recently I didn’t keep lists or charts because I could see the people and places in my head; they were as familiar as home. Halfway through the first draft of Hild, though, I realised my usual methods could not apply. It’s a huge novel, and there were a zillion unfudgeable historical dates to incorporate, and a dozen different variants on proper Anglo-Saxon and Brythonic names. So I started keeping spreadsheets.
BWR: What do you see as the driving force behind your writing?
NG: That I love it. Writing satisfies me in a way nothing else does. Until I was in my twenties I did most things: music (I fronted a band), science (I wanted to be a white-coated scientist who saved the world), sports (team sports, and individual, and martial arts), history (best job ever? an archaeological dig), political activism (non-profit and direct action), and so on. But I would become competent at whatever it was then lose interest. It wasn’t until I started to write that I realised I had found something it was impossible to perfect. It felt like diving into a fractal: always more to discover.
I write to find out. Sometimes literally, to answer a question about another character, as with Hild. Sometimes metaphorically, to explore something personal, as with Slow River. When I write I feel alive and fully myself.
BWR: What’s something exciting that you’ve read recently, and what books or pieces of writing do you find yourself returning to or dwelling on?
NG: I haven’t found a good, fall-stone-in-love-worthy piece of fiction for a while. I can’t decide if I’m looking in the wrong place, I’m in the wrong place, or if no one is writing what I like anymore. The most likely explanation is that poetry and non-fiction are what I need at the moment.
Poetry is not something I reread; for me poems are like moments of life: much that is meh, some that is astonishing. Either way, why revisit those moments? Go experience another one! Nonfiction is much about learning: once I’ve learnt from a book or article and taken notes, why reread?
New fiction has many uses for me. In the last year I’ve just been zooming through fun stuff, a book or two a week, the kind of one-molecule-deep stories and novels that all run into one big blob because they’re not really memorable.
The fiction I’ve revisited this year has been the work that influenced me as a writer either formatively (books that at heart play with the relationship between character and landscape) or tangentially (those from which I learnt some technique or approach). I still love many of them—Mary Stewart’s The Crystal Cave, for example, first encountered as a teenager—but I see their flaws, and I’m saddened by the complete absence of rounded, dynamic women.
BWR: As a writer who has written across, around, and within, various genres, from chapbook-memoir to crime fiction, science fiction, and historical fiction, how does your process, particularly of character discovery, differ between genres?
NG: Genre to me is just a vehicle I choose to cross particular story terrains. The first novel I wrote was science fiction. I wanted to write something long, thrilling, and realist rather than utopian or dystopian, centred on women. But women as people who play all the roles and occupy every point of the moral compass, women who are human beings in, of, and for themselves. I didn’t want oppressive discourse based on gender or sexual expression: no sexual violence, for example. The only way I could think of to do that, to exclude oppressive disourse based on gender, was to exclude gender altogether, which meant setting the book on an all-women planet. Which made it science fiction by default.
After a while I figured out how to create focalised heterotopias—dismiss the oppressions based on gender and sexual expression without dismissing gender itself—so I could make the story contemporary. And, wow, not having to spend bandwidth on description and world-building freed up so much room for character! I loved it.
But after three novels narrated by a queer woman in the here and now I wanted to find a way to write queer women back into history, to show that it was possible, despite popular conceptions of women’s roles and treatment in the so-called Dark Ages (if you’ve read or watched Game of Thrones you know what I mean) for women to have joy and agency and power: to be subject, not object. Hild was a fabulous excuse to do all the stuff I love: explore landscapes and cultures, build characters and follow them as they grow and change, play politics—plus, y’know, whack off people’s heads with swords!
In the end, though, what connects all my work is voice and story: finding the one, clear line and following it wherever it goes.
BWR: How do your identities and shared communities, including disability, nationality, and sexual orientation, inform how you move through the world? What do these communities, such as #criplit and the Lambda Foundation, mean to you?
NG: The thing I tell everyone—writing students and otherwise—is, Find your people. I can’t emphasise enough how much it matters to talk to those who understand your experience. That experience can be based on mutual discrimination (being queer, an immigrant, a cripple) or delight (gardening, playing the ukulele, architecture of the Baroque) but what matters is being among those who will get it when you moan or chortle, those you can listen to and help, and those who will call you on your shit. For me that’s the function of the organisations I’ve joined, worked with, or founded.
For me moving through the world as a woman and as queer was not difficult. That is, it was hard—police harassment, violence, employment and education discrimination—but I never felt as though I wanted to be any different. Being a woman and being queer was normal to me: I’ve known I was both since I knew my own name. But becoming an immigrant and physically impaired at the same time was unexpected; for a while I felt utterly estranged; I did not know how to navigate my new world. But I’m happier when I err on the side of doing so eventually I just…started doing stuff. I joined the board of an MS organisation, the board of the Lambda Literary Foundation, the advisory boards of journals, created #criplit, etc. Creating and building things—story worlds or real communities or new ways of approaching old problems—pleases me.
BWR: What will you look for in a contest-winning story? What are you most looking forward to encountering in submissions?
NG: Joy. Story. Voice. Beauty and brilliance and risk. A person, an image, an idea or a place that takes me somewhere new then returns me increased.
Gorgeous sentences are all very well but if they’re serving a stale plot or clichéd character, the story is dead on arrival. My advice? Write what you’ve been avoiding. Go there and see what happens…