Book City: Nicola Griffith doesn't see 'genre as an identity, but as a tool'

The UK-transplant is an award-winning author, but what does it take to get her to keep turning the pages?
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Nicola Griffith

The UK-transplant is an award-winning author, but what does it take to get her to keep turning the pages?

Nicola Griffith is a dual UK/U.S. citizen who lives in Seattle and has written five award-winning novels and a memoir. Her first historical novel “Hild,” to be published in November, is set in seventh-century Britain. Griffith recently won the Lambda Literary Foundation Mid-Career Prize, and will be traveling to New York the first week of June to be honored and pick up her check.

Val Easton: What books are lying open on your nightstand right now?

Nicola Griffith: Enid Blyton's “Second Form at Malory Towers,” which I'm reading to my partner, Kelley. Now that I'm a U.S. citizen, I want her to learn more about the UK. These simple kids' books, written in the 1940s, are a primer on deep-rooted English values. Also “The Nutmeg of Consolation,” which is the fourteenth book in Patrick O'Brian's magnificent Jack Aubrey/Stephen Maturin series. 

Have you read a truly great book lately? One you’d unhesitatingly recommend to friends and colleagues?

Not a new one, no. But that happens when I'm immersed in my own work. I can't read fiction when I'm writing it: the prose rhythms clash. I like to read poetry, or nature non-fiction. But I can re–read old favorites — hence the O'Brian on my nightstand. The last non–fiction book I thoroughly enjoyed was Robin Fleming's “Britain After Rome,” a wonderful narrative history of Britain from 400 – 1070. No footnotes, no endnotes, just the story. I wish it had been around when I'd first contemplated writing “Hild.” It would have saved me a lot of work.

What is the Lambda Literary Foundation Mid-Career Prize? Congratulations…. 

The prize recognizes LGBT novelists of demonstrated ability and a promise for continued growth — who also have made contributions to the LGBT literary field beyond their writing and publications. This year's judges' comment about me and my fellow winner, Trebor Healey, was that "they are unafraid to take risks, stretching the strictures of genre to ask bigger questions," and "use the lens of their LGBT experience as a prism through which universal themes of love, society and the meaning of life are refracted, disassembled and reassembled in ways that are at once challenging and rewarding to the reader. Their work deepens and enriches the tapestry of LGBT literature: worthy of a place in the modern canon of English literature while expanding the notions of what LGBT literature can be."

Which is deeply satisfying. They get it: I write to find out. I write to bring others what I've discovered.

You’ve published a memoir, short stories, essays and your upcoming book is an historical novel, but you’re best known for your science fiction. Do you consider yourself a sci-fi writer?

I think of myself as a writer. If pushed, a novelist. If pushed farther, a good novelist. I don't see genre as an identity, but as a tool. I choose genre to fit the story I want to tell. For me, it's like choosing the right vehicle to cross a particular terrain: no point using a boat to cross the desert. You'd want a camel, or a Land Rover. It depends on who you're travelling with, and why, and where, and when.

Are there novelists whose work has encouraged you to try out different genres?

Not to try different genres, no. To try different techniques, yes. For example, without William Boyd's “Brazzaville Beach” I would never have come up with the lacquered/layered structure and POV of “Slow River.” 

You’re from Yorkshire  how did you end up in Seattle? Is Seattle a good city for writers?

In the summer of 1988 I traveled from the UK to a six–week writers' workshop, Clarion, in Michigan. I met and fell in love with another writer, Kelley Eskridge, who was at the time living in Georgia. We fell hard. Any sensible person would have known that we were doomed. It was illegal at the time for lesbians and gay men to even enter the U.S. Fortunately, I didn't know this, 

At the end of the six weeks, Kelley went back to Georgia and I went back to the UK. I sold my house, left my partner of 10 years, my family and my community, and moved to Georgia. So there we were, madly in love, broke, sick (eventually I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis), and surrounded by homophobic Republicans, sticky heat and bugs. But with the help of an amazing array of credit cards and an even more amazing attorney we made new law. It took five years but the State Department ended up declaring it to be in the National Interest for me to live and work in this country.

About six months after my Green Card came through I was lying awake one night listening to the tree frogs. It was 72 degrees. I got out of bed, found a map of the US and tried to figure out where the climate would be more hospitable — culturally as well as geo–physically. Portland, Seattle and Bellingham were in the sweet spot. Two weeks later we flew into Portland for a few days. Drove to Seattle. And never got to Bellingham. We've been here ever since. 

I feel at home here. In some ways it's the closest environment I'll find to the UK: the weather, the beer, and chocolate and tea and coffee, the willingness of the populace to obey simple societal rules like lining up in a queue or giving way to pedestrians. The city has crept into my work: my last novel, “Always,” was set here. And if I ever write another novel about Aud Torvingen, she'll move here, too. 

Have any of your books been sparked by something you’ve read?

All of them. Though usually by an accumulation of things.  Aud, the present–day narrator of my novels “The Blue Place,” “Stay” and “Always,” came from a combination of a dream (yes, really; those clichés have to come from somewhere...) and a visit to the library. I'd had a dream about a woman who fascinated me, but I knew nothing about her. While I was pondering, I wandered into the local library and stumbled on a book from the 1940s about Norwegian architecture, which led me to a text on Norwegian history, and information about a woman of the ninth-century called Aud the Deepminded. And, oh, I thought, oh. Aud Torvingen sprang fully armed into my imagination.

“Ammonite” was the result of several years of reading about the mechanics of the HIV virus, then personal research into CFIDS (one of my pre-MS diagnoses), all on top of the novels by Ursula K. Le Guin and Joanna Russ and Mary Gentle that gave me the notion of an anthropologist on a women–only planet.

“Slow River” came from the years when Kelley worked at an environmental management company and brought home magazines with alluring titles like Garbage and Pollution Engineering.

And “Hild” sprang directly from the landscape. Hild and I were both born in Yorkshire; I holidayed in Whitby, where she founded her great abbey. And from Trevelyan's account in “A Shortened History of England” of the Synod of Whitby.

Do you have a favorite among your books? 

My most recent is always my favorite, because that's the novel that is the sum and summit of what I know about writing and about life at the time.

What were your most cherished childhood books? 

I read everything, anything. I could read three library books in a day, from “My Friend Flicka” to “Old Yeller” and tales of Narnia. A particular favorite was a giant encyclopedia sampler that we had at home with the most incredible artist's impressions of Mars or the moon. I think what woke that writerly yearning in me were tales of adventure, historical epics such as “The Iliad,” and historical novels (both juvenile and adult) by writers such as Rosemary Sutcliffe and Henry Treece. 

Can you think of a particularly powerful passage from a book that’s stuck with you? That you return to?

One from childhood: the wild night in C.S. Lewis's “The Magician's Nephew” when Jadis, the bare–armed, 6–foot witch queen, rides a hackney cab chariot–style through the streets of Edwardian London leaving wreckage and admiration in her wake. And from adulthood: a final scene of Patrick O'Brian's “The Reverse of the Medal which makes me weep, every time.

Have you read a wellreviewed or popular book lately that disappointed you? 

Most of them, frankly. I will read in any genre or culture or era but a novel must fulfill three criteria not to disappoint me: the prose must be excellent, something must happen, and people change as a result. I need vividness, clarity and joy.

Do you have a book or two that you’ve re-read over the years and will no doubt read again?

Perhaps my long–term favorite, my absolute comfort read, is The Lord of the Rings. It's not perfect. I admit that in the first hundred pages or so the prose wobbles — and occasionally lurches — here and there, enough to make me turn away to allow a decent pause for the prose to collect itself. His storytelling, however, is without peer. Tolkien's arcs — for Frodo, and Sam, and Aragorn — are graceful and strong, elegant as Chinese cabinetry: pared down to the essential, perfectly balanced. The result is a story so compelling that, at age 11, I read the entire book in one two-day marathon. And I've read it roughly every 15 months since. 

And then there's poetry: Judy Grahn, Mary Bernard's translations of Sappho, John Masefield of course, and Christopher Logue's “All Day Permanent Red.”

When and where do you settle down to read?

On sunny days I sit on our back deck by the ravine that runs into Carkeek Park and listen to the birds while I read and sip tea. But mostly I read at night.

To write?

I write in my office, which is on the north side of the house. My keyboard desk faces the corner, the window and its temping garden view are behind me. I do business and admin work in the morning and write in the afternoons, though when I'm really in the flow of a novel, I work in the mornings, too.

What book(s) do you plan to read next?

I'll be at BEA (BookExpo America) in New York at the end of May. I'll be doing a reading with Alice McDermott, Fiona McFarlane and Mary Kay Zuravleff. McDermott of course needs no introduction, but I'm getting up to speed on my other fellow readers by looking at the galleys of their upcoming novels, “The Night Guest” by Fiona McFarlane and “Man Alive!” by Mary Kay Zuravleff. 

What Val’s Reading This Week: Eve Ensler’s new memoir “The Body of the World,” an emotional ride through Ensler’s humanitarian work on behalf of women in the Congo and her own life–threatening struggle with uterine cancer. The story is raw, difficult; a commentary on the state of cancer treatment in this country, and at the same time humorous and deeply human — what else would you expect from the author of “The Vagina Monologues?”


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Valerie Easton

Valerie Easton started her career as a librarian shelving books at Lake City Library when she was in high school. Now she writes full time, and has authored five books, includingThe New Low Maintenance Garden and her newest title Petal & Twig. She writes a weekly column and feature stories for Pacific Northwest magazine in the Seattle Times.