Interview with Nicola Griffith

WG: I want to begin by asking you about your most recent book, So Lucky. It seems as though there are a number of parallels between you and Mara, the book’s protagonist, so I’m curious as to why you chose to write a work of fiction rather than a memoir.

NG: There are a number of parallels between author and protagonist in every one of my novels” all women, all queer; all skilled martial artists, or at least trained in body awareness; all raised in the UK, though not always identifying as British; all having lived somewhere I’ve lived—Atlanta, Hull, Seattle, Yorkshire—and all with a need to understand systems, whether social, cultural, ecological, or commercial. Mara has the added similarity of living with MS.

I think our fictions, like our dreams, are always to some degree about us. Mara may share traits with me but she is most definitely not me, or even much like me in terms of how she responds to events. So Lucky is fiction. Mara is a fictional character.

But why did I want to write this story as fiction, not memoir? First, I’ve already written a memoir, centred on becoming a writer. There’s more to say on that, but if I wrote a memoir about MS and becoming progressively impaired, that would become the focus. Second, there are plenty of crip memoirs but all too few crip novels. Most novels about disabled characters are authored by nondisabled writers. We’re all familiar with their tedious, infuriating, and dangerous clichés: the poor sad lonely cripple killing himself because life as a cripple is not worth living; the sad lonely blind girl whose happy ending depends upon a magical cure; the plucky little cripple who sheds joy and inspiration on all the nondisabled friends and family then conveniently dies at the end to free everyone to profit from the lesson, and so on (the list is endless). I wanted to redress the balance. Third, and most importantly, I’m a novelist. Fiction is my playground; it’s what I do best. And there are things fiction can do that nonfiction cannot.

WG: With respect to So Lucky, what kinds of things do you think you were able to do in that book that as a novelist that you would not have been able to do as a memoirist.

NG: With So Lucky I wanted to explore how chronic illness and disability affects us—our decisions, our friends, our place in the world—without confusing that exploration with my specific personal experiences. I needed the clarity of fiction. Fiction allowed me to compress time and so intensify the experience for protagonist and reader. To build a narrative structure that helps the reader experience ableism, its internalisation, and eventual deconstruction. And, importantly, to make metaphor concrete.

So Lucky takes place over the course of a single year. In that time, Mara learns about ableism what took me twenty years to learn. I make that possible by accelerating the course of Mara’s MS in order to lead her and the reader through an equally accelerated series of realisations. When we meet her, she is a woman on top of her world, who’s never met a challenge she couldn’t deal with—until, in the space of a single week, she’s diagnosed with MS, divorced by her wife, and loses her job. She then goes on to create a nonprofit, fall in love, and fight monsters, human and otherwise.

So Lucky is a story about a woman with MS written by a woman with MS. The first word of the book is It, and It is a monster. But the monster is not MS, the monster is ableism.

Ableism is the story we are fed from birth: Crips are less, crips are Other because of our physical impairments, our deviation from some imaginary norm. Ableism is a crap story but one we all—disabled and nondisabled—absorb and internalise. Mara learns that ableism is not only a crap story but a wrong story; it’s not our impairments that make us feel less, feel Other, but society’s attitudes to those impairments. She realises just how much she has internalised that message, and understands that if she does not acknowledge that internalisation, and find a way to counter it, ableism will kill her.

To show that dawning understanding I move the narrative focus from interior to exterior. So Lucky is a thriller of the body—a changing body, and how bodily change, in turn, changes our understanding of life, the universe, and our place in it. But before I was disabled, if I read that description of my novel on someone else’s book cover I might not have picked it up. It sounds claustrophobic: all internal angst and victimhood rather than a thrilling read. I like to read, and to write, books in which characters do things, not just feel things, and whose bodies are sites of delight rather than difficulty.

So I gradually steer the narrative from inside to out, beyond Mara’s specific, individual problems and into a plot involving nonprofits and how they work—their hierarchies and politics. Plus, of course, a bit of love and sex, some murders, and those monsters. The monsters, human and otherwise, are kind of the point.

This gradual metamorphosis is also a way to externalize Mara’s fears and so avoid the cliché that women—women going through a divorce especially, chronically ill women even more so, and disabled women most of all—spend our time marinating in misery; I wanted an active character, one with agency. Someone who takes action rather than stews in her own anxiety.

So much previous disability fiction has been gentle and elegiac. I wanted So Lucky to be a spear-thrust of a novel, more bolero than nocturne. Rather than Chopin, think Grace Slick singing “White Rabbit.” The whole point of the novel, the whole arc is about the crescendo: facing the monster right at the end. You can’t do that with memoir.

It’s been fascinating to watch how many nondisabled readers, whether they call themselves critics or not, find this story structure discomfiting.

WG: As many readers probably know, So Lucky was not your first novel. I’d have to guess that many of the insights you’d gained as a writer and brought to bear on your work came from your experiences in writing Hild. To say the least, it is a very different novel, one that, because of the time period that you wrote about and the language you had to employ must have taken a great deal of research. I’d like to ask what motivated you to write Hild and what kind of preparation it took to embark upon that writing.*

NG: My expertise as a writer comes from 25 years of writing fiction; So Lucky is my seventh novel. Hild is the novel I’d been aiming for my whole career; the idea of writing Hild might be why I became a novelist in the first place.

In my early twenties I was living in Hull, a depressed (and depressing) city in East Yorkshire, England. And one spring I needed to get out, get away for a few days. I hiked north up the coast, to a town called Whitby. Because I’d read Dracula I was expecting the one hundred and ninety-nine steps up the cliff. I was expecting the great ruin of an abbey against the skyline. I did not expect what happened next.

When I crossed the abbey threshold it felt as though history was fisting up through the turf, and through me. It turned me inside out like a sock. It’s how I image it might have felt to be one of the Pevensey kids: one minute you’re looking in a perfectly ordinary wardrobe, the next you’re in Narnia. My world changed.

The immediate result was that I fell in love with Whitby. After that I went back every year, sometimes twice year. I walked the coastline. I roamed the moors. I spent hours at the abbey, sitting on those stones, reading the tourist brochures, imagining how it might have been.Bit by bit I learnt that the abbey had been founded by a woman called Hild. That Hild had encouraged—perhaps commanded is a better word—the creation of the very first piece of English (as opposed to Latin) literature, a poem called Cædmon’s Hymn. That in 664, 1350 years ago, she hosted and facilitated a meeting, the Synod of Whitby, which was a major turning point in English history.

Hild has schools and colleges named after her (e.g. St. Hilda’s at Oxford). But when I went looking, I couldn’t find out anything about her. There was no biography. No saintly Life Of. No scholarly monograph. Not even a novel. The only reason we even know she existed is a mention in the Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People—the first and the foundational text of English history—written over a century after she was born.What Bede tells us about the first half of Hild’s life can be summed up in one short paragraph. She’s born around 614 after her mother has a dream that her unborn child is a jewel that will bring light to the land. Her father is an exiled prince of Deira and poisoned in the kingdom of Elmet. Her older sister marries a nephew of the king of East Anglia. When Hild is 13, she’s converted and baptised in York—along with the rest of the household of her uncle, Edwin, king of Northumbria. Then Hild disappears from the record until she’s 33.

That’s it. That’s all we know. What we do know is that she must have been extraordinary.

Think about it. Born in 614, fourteen hundred years ago, in what used to be called the Dark Ages. Back then might was right. Kings were basically warlords. And Hild begins as the second daughter of a widow, probably hunted and homeless, certainly illiterate—yet ends a powerful advisor to statesmen-kings, founder of Whitby Abbey, midwife to English literature, and host/facilitator of a meeting that changed the world.

How did a homeless, hunted girl in a world of men do that? We don’t know. I wrote this book to find out.

For fifteen years, while I was writing other books—novels such as Ammonite and Slow River; The Blue Place, Stay, and Always; my memoir And Now We Are Going to Have a Party—I researched. I read everything about the 7th century I could lay my hands on: poetry, linguistics, archaeology, ethnology, food, textile production, jewellery, flora & fauna, even the weather. But the real key was language.

Words matter. They’re like icebergs; nine-tenths of their meaning lie beneath the surface. But that hidden meaning has mass, it has momentum. A single word can crush your pretty sentence, or paragraph or even scene, like tin.

The Britain of Hild’s time was a seriously multi-ethnic, multi-lingual place. She would have heard Old English of West Germanic origin (what she called Anglisc), a variety of Brythonic Celtic dialects (British), Ecclesiastical Latin (Latin), and Old Irish (Irish).

Old English was foundational for me. I began by reading several different translations of the extant poetry. I also read the original/s (they come in a variety of recensions)—though I admit my understanding of the language is pitiful. I can puzzle out a few phrases but I’m lost without the bilingual editions.

I also attempted Old Welsh (there’s very little) and Middle Welsh. These are difficult to read in the original—at least for me—so after a couple of tries I stuck to translations. The poem I kept coming back to was Y Gododdin, which is essentially a string of elegies for those killed in battle. Scholars argue about the real date of that poetry—originally written in Hild’s time by Aneirin, or by others centuries later?—but it, too, is stirring and heroic, proud in a slightly different register. And it lifts and flicks, splashes and plays, like otters in a stream.

In Hild’s time she might have encountered a bewildering variety of Latin. So although I studied Classical Latin in school, I mostly ignored the specifics for this novel except to take note of the sound, which I imagined as the cool clicking of game tiles. As for Old Irish, it’s an entirely impossible language. I didn’t even try beyond imagining its hot-tempered glow and exaggerated periphrasis.

I took all this—the rich-as-apples Anglisc, otter-splash British, Latin tiles and smouldering Irish—stuffed it into the black box that is my writing brain, and slammed the lid.

While it fermented I pondered metaphor.

Metaphor was key to my determination not to contravene what was known to be known. For example, for the first few years of Hild’s life, I couldn’t use anything that referenced writing and its tools or ways of thinking. Hild doesn’t take note of anything; night sky is not inky. But I could use a lot of weaving metaphors; by some estimates, women of that time spent more time producing textiles—planting, harvesting, processing, spinning, weaving, sewing—than in handling food and childcare. Hild would think in those terms, men too: textiles were life or death technology for the community.

These thoughts also went into the black box. But the writers’ black box isn’t like an airliner’s. The information doesn’t stay in neat caches. It fights, breeds and mutates. Strange things happen.

Hild speaks four languages, in a variety of registers, to slaves and kings, farmers and thegns, warriors and bishops. She’s constantly on the move with her uncle and his court, from rich wolds in summer, to grassy uplands in spring, and a tide-thrashed stone fastness in winter. The voice of the novel has to reflect these changes in people, places, and politics. I had to learn to think in different modes. For example, when Hild is on the moor, thinking in British, the Celtic tongue of a subjugated people, her language becomes that of high places, of wild and wary things—a language of resistance and elliptical thoughts. When she wears the king’s token and speaks Anglisc, her thoughts and words are arrow-straight.

In addition, women and men in high status households probably occupied radically different worlds. I suspect that communication was gendered—much as it is today, though many of us aren’t fully aware of it.

However, in addition to not wanting to contravene what was known to be known, I was determined to avoid the claustrophobia of gender constraint. (This is a personal preference: domesticity make me feel trapped.) So I kept the gendering of communication as subtle as I could. My aim was for Hild to act less as a woman or man than as a person.

This could be…challenging. Especially when one considers that she is in every single scene, and her understanding of the world is limited by her age and experience.

All this also went into the box.

When I first began reading for Hild, I learned that although the majority of the population prior to the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons spoke British, the elite—after centuries of Roman administration—would have been more at home with some variety of Latin. However, once the Anglo-Saxons arrived, Anglisc replaced British in relatively short order.

It’s possible that the speed of this change could be the result of population replacement, but (given DNA evidence) unlikely. I suspect—but it’s not my area of expertise, so what follows is pure speculation—that Anglisc was adopted so fast by the British elite for two reasons. One, that the two elites needed to be able to communicate clearly. Two, this would have been easier than it seems because both Anglisc and Latin followed many of the same rules. Nouns are similarly declined and gendered (using grammatical—as opposed to natural—genders; for example, a woman in Old English is neutral rather than feminine). Both use subject-object-verb (SOV) syntax. (Hild the bread ate, rather than, say, modern English’s SVO: Hild ate the bread.) Ancient Celtic languages, however, use VSO (like Welsh today: Ate Hild the bread).

If ones cuts a language core through West Yorkshire—where both Hild and I grew up, though in her day it was called Elmet—you will find a bedrock of Old English with the occasional gleam of Brythonic Celt heaved up from an earlier age, the pale glint of Norse, even strangely evolved fossils of Latin and Norman French. (Slightly to the east, in Hull, where I was living when I first stumbled over the existence of Hild, there’s more Danish than Norse.)

But today’s English also sometimes uses a kind of periphrasis (“You don’t want to be doing that”) that, in my opinion, can have come only from direct interaction with Celtic languages.

That went in the box, too.

Our language is our culture. It’s our history. It’s us. It shapes how we think, which I believe shapes who we are and how we feel. To paraphrase Weber, language is one of our iron cages of constraint. But as poets have known for centuries, constraint can sometimes set us free.

So by now my writer’s black box was bulging and writhing, waking me up at night. Was it full of monsters or magic?

There was only one way to find out. I opened it. And out snaked long Celtic sentences built of built of sturdy Anglo-Saxon words: Hild’s voice.

With Hild I wrote women, queer women (Hild is bisexual) back into early medieval history. With another of the characters, James the Deacon, I wrote people of colour back into early medieval history. Sadly, it was not until the novel had been published for two years did I realise I had neglected to write disabled people back into history, too. I’m remedying that with the book I’m writing now, the sequel to Hild, Menewood.

WG: I’m in awe of the amount of linguistic and historical knowledge that you had to acquire – especially given the shifting languages and cultures of seventh century Britain – and I’m guessing that, in view of all of that research , you had several readers before your book went to press. Did you get any feedback that necessitated your having to go back and change parts of what you had written to bring it into accord with the currently accepted factual knowledge of those times?

NG: Once I’d written the book? No. Along the way, though, I consulted with many people.

I researched this novel for well over a decade before I wrote the first sentence. In that time, I’d started talking to medieval scholars and independent researchers online—first via an America Online forum (remember those?), then an email listserv, and then blogs.

Now it’s mostly Twitter (check out #MedievalTwitter if you’re interested) but for the writing of Hild, early-career researchers’ blogs were my gateway to current—often not-yet-published—Early Medieval scholarship .I read discussions of preliminary papers presented at conferences, reviews of forthcoming monographs and festschrift, and so on.

The beauty of social media is that it’s interactive. Anyone can drop a comment on a blog or RT a tweet along with a question. The problem is that many researchers, especially those early bloggers, would not engage with people they didn’t know, especially if they had no academic credentials. They especially hate to speculate in public. ‘We don’t know that,’ they might say. ‘We have no data on that. We can’t say for certain.’ I had zero credentials—at the time, no degree of any kind. So first I built my own research blog, Gemæcce, so that people could see I was real, and trying hard to do my own work, then I began to ask question and persisted, digging deeper and deeper, until I got something.

For example, at one point I decided Hild would have a dog. But I had no idea what the Anglo-Saxon attitude to dogs was: Did they love them as pets? Treat them as work animals? Breed them as food? So I asked Medieval Blogworld. The universal response? ‘We don’t know.’ So then I asked if there was material evidence of dogs, such as skeletons. ‘Well, some,’ they said cautiously. Okay, I said. How were these skeletons found? Were they thrown in the midden? With or without butchery marks? Lovingly laid next to an elite individual and wearing a jewelled collar? A couple of people mentioned the names of papers that might have some relevance, and I began to dig. A long, slow process.

But as I began to post the results of my research on my blog, researchers started dropping by and leaving comments, and gradually, almost imperceptibly, I found I’d moved from outsider to insider. Now that Hild has been out a while, lots of medievalists recognise my name. These days I can tweet a question and have answers, and a PDF of the relevant journal article, in my inbox within an hour. It’s amazing.

But Hild would not exist without those researchers. I am eternally grateful—not just for the research I used for Hild, not just the collegial spirit I now enjoy, but for helping me find the joy of scholarship, learning for its own sake. I got my PhD as a direct result of that awakening.

WG: You mentioned that although you did not include any disabled characters in Hild, you are remedying that in Menewood. Can you talk a bit about how you are incorporating disability into that book and a little about the sequel itself?

NG: Menewood is full of war. War is a brutal thing. Many people die—combatants and non-combatants—and many, many more are injured. These are horrific injuries; the injured are, if not maimed, at least disfigured. (Imagine swinging a machete at a side of beef: that’s a sword at an opponent’s torso. Then imagine no antibiotics, no reconstructive surgery.) Those captured, even if initially uninjured, are not well treated. So simply looking at the results of conflict we have missing arms, impaired mobility, brain injury, inability to vocalise, seriously damaged faces, castration (accidental and deliberate), and so on. Above all, constant infection. Some wounds would never heal; some minor wounds might lead to amputation.

Then there is malnutrition, accident, and congenital impairment. In Hild, I just…glided past all that. In Menewood, I don’t, or not wholly. (If I didn’t gloss over much of it, modern readers would not enjoy the book.) Early on in the novel, Hild is assigned a group of gesiths—elite warriors—to accompany her on a diplomatic mission that has a high chance of going wrong. But he won’t assign many. “Then make them fierce,” Hild says. the king smiles cruelly and assigns her the fighters so monstrously scarred that they are outcasts. Looks (and virility, and ability to speak) aside, they are still fiercely competent warriors. Working together, they form a small, embattled (literally and figuratively) community: they find a way to belong.

A year or two ago, in a #CripLit chat, I was struck by something one of the participants said: That once, just once, she would love the girl with the limp to get kissed by the handsome prince. I put in a scene, just for her. Then there’s disease, and chronic conditions: how do they play out in life and death situations?

All that makes Menewood sounds grim. It’s not. Like Hild, Menewood is meant to be a reflection of life, whole life, good and bad, only with the boring bits left out.

Menewood is not misery lit. As a writer I subscribe to the axiom that characters should only be hollowed out by sadness in order to be filled with joy.

WG: “Hollowed out by sadness in order to be filled with joy.” I like that. What led you to making this an axiom to follow?

NG: As a teenager, I found the axiom, We are vessels hollowed out by sadness in order to be filled with joy, a handy explanation for the wrenching grief of losing one’s first love to another; for the miseries of physical illness; and the anxieties of a family riven by both mental illness and the clash between devout Catholicism and three queer daughters (and two straight daughters). I could tell myself there was a point to all the sadness—other than, as my mother would have it, a test sent by God or (depending on how fatalistic she was feeling) an offering to God—that the more I suffered now the greater capacity for joy I would have later. And somewhere along the way, when I was getting cross, yet again, at some over-praised piece of Misery Lit, I started incorporating the axiom into my creative writing teaching: Characters should only be hollowed out by sadness in order to be filled with joy. I taught that what a reader loves, above all, are the contrasts: the highs and the lows. You need both.

For a long time I thought the saying was my original creation, but ten or fifteen years ago I stumbled across Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet and realised it is probably a paraphrase:

“The deeper that sorrow carves into your being,

the more joy you can contain.

Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the potters oven?

And is not the lute that soothes your spirits the very wood that was hollowed with knives?”

If your question is why do I hate Misery Lit so much I need an axiom, a full answer would be essay-length (probably a long essay; one I intend to write soon). A short answer would be that I find misery lit to be poor writing. It’s easy to get critical attention by subjecting fictional characters to endless suffering. There’s a lot of data showing that people equate negativity to intellect: many of us believe that those who criticise others a lot, or say mean things, are smarter than those of us who don’t. There’s also data showing that this bias is bullshit. But people still do it. A while ago I started looking at critically-acclaimed novels, and found that a huge proportion are miserable and full of suffering. But they win awards because critics think that misery and cruelty must be more true, and written by smarter, more talented authors. But this is faulty logic. It’s wrong. And, more to the point, it’s lazy writing. You might get more critical bang for your buck with less work, but it’s bad art.

WG: I’m glad that you brought up the issues with Misery Lit (and all of its permutations) because it has huge ramifications for the writing that is going on right now in disability literature. If you do end up writing your essay on the subject, we’d love to see it here at Wordgathering. In the meantime, though, I think we’ll need to bring this conversation to a close so that readers in our next issue get to know more about your work. Before closing, is there anything else that you would like to add to what you have said already?

Ha! Let me just insert paragraphs from all my pet rants. Seriously, I could write another hundred pages. But if any of your readers are interested they can read a selection of my essays for free on my website – Here I would like to sound an optimistic note.

A couple of years ago I noted that disability fiction was, at that time (and very much from my perspective; I’ve no doubt others disagree), in roughly the same place queer fiction was in the 60s or 70s: nascent. Today I’d say we’re already in the late 70s and early 80s, and the change is accelerating. Now, crip writers on Twitter only have to use the hashtag #CripLit to be seen almost instantly by our audience and signal-boosted to those outside the community. We have the DisLit Consortium as a fully constituted 501(3)(c) nonprofit. Editors and agents are beginning to actively seek #OwnVoices #CripLit. And bookstores and libraries are beginning to curate CripLit sections. The work we—you, me, everyone reading this—are doing means that a young disabled reader can now walk or roll into a bookstore, or open her browser, and have at least a chance of finding a book about people just like her. And that young reader in turn will grow up knowing she’s not alone, that she’s just fine as she is, and will perhaps one day write her own book that some other young reader can find. We, all of us, are building culture, right now. And frankly I think we deserve to applaud ourselves and each other because we’re doing a damn fine job.

Of course there is more work to be done. I would like to see publishers pause for thought before buying a novel about a disabled protagonist that’s not written by a disabled writer. I would like to trust that assigning editors will no longer ask nondisabled critics to review CripLit. I would like to know all writing programmes and workshops are fully accessible. But the CripLit wagon is now rolling. All we have to do is get behind and push.

* Editor’s Note: A portion of the answer to the third question in this interview is excerpted from an essay, “The Language of Hild,” that was originally published in Work in Progress.