Nicola Griffith is the author of Ammonite, Slow River, The Blue Place, Stay, Always, Hild, So Lucky, and most recently Spear. Menewood, her second book about Hild, will be out in the future. Griffith’s non-fiction has appeared in academic texts, journals, newspapers, and magazines; and she has won numerous awards including the Otherwise/Tiptree, the Nebula, the World Fantasy Awards, the Premio Italia, and the Lambda Literary Award (six times as of 2021). She lives in Seattle and, to quote her bio, ‘takes enormous delight in everything’.
You can pre-order Spear from Bookshop.org and wherever books are sold.
I interviewed Nicola Griffith via a collaborative Google Document in November and December 2021 and in a Zencastr call on 4 December 2021.
First off, who is Nicola Griffith and how did you come to be in Seattle, Washington, after growing up in Leeds, Yorkshire?
I grew up in Leeds, but I moved to Hull when I was about 18 and lived with a woman there and after about 9 years I was getting a bit restless. It was nothing to do with my sweetie. It was just that Hull is a very small, kind of dull, difficult place, and so I wanted to go somewhere and do something, and at the time I had just started writing. I hadn’t yet sold my first story, but I had started to write, and also I was teaching women’s self-defence and doing a lot of martial arts, and so I applied for two different workshops: one was in the Netherlands, which was an international women’s martial arts camp; and one was Clarion at Michigan State University, which is a science fiction and fantasy writing workshop. And I thought, —Well, whoever accepts me first, I’ll go there. It never occurred to me that either of them might say no, because, you know, why would they? To my surprise, it was the science fiction workshop that wrote back first, and they gave me a scholarship, so I went there.
I was in the US for seven weeks, and while I was at the workshop I met Kelley, and fell madly, insanely in love. I mean, it really was—it made no sense. She was just such a surprise. She was not what I was looking for at all because frankly I was not looking; I was happy. But it happened. So then I came back to the UK—and immediately got sick with what was eventually diagnosed as MS. I was sick, I couldn’t work, I had no money—but still I eventually scraped together enough money and strength and energy to come back to the US for another six weeks just to make sure that what Kelley and I felt for each other was real. Then I went back to the UK, left my partner, sold my house, and moved to the US on a tourist visa where I ended up living in Duluth, Georgia which is— talk about a red part of a red state. It wasn’t like anything I’d ever encountered. It was…interesting. And I couldn’t work because I was on a tourist visa (and also still sick), so I just devoted myself to writing. So that’s how that all began.
I bought a secondhand copy of Ammonite, your debut, which you had signed and inscribed with ‘Change—or die’. What did that phrase mean to you back in 1993?
When I was signing books in the UK in March 1993 I was desperately ill—it was the week before I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. (And that’s a whole story in and of itself.) So there are parts of that fortnight that I don’t remember very well. But I knew there was something very wrong, either with my brain or spinal cord, so I can guess at some of what I must have been feeling.
First of all, Change—or die was the marketing tagline Kelley and I came up with over dinner at our then-favourite restaurant in Atlanta, Eat Your Vegetables. We needed a hook to hang marketing on—and because this was a first novel, a cheap mass market paperback, we knew the US publisher wouldn’t be bothering—and we had no idea what Harper Voyager had planned for the UK. Change—or die worked because that was, literally, the dilemma facing Marghe: she would either be killed by the virus or changed by it.
And then, of course, it’s always been part of my personal philosophy. Humans are living beings; we either change and grow or we get stuck and slowly fossilise and die. But change can be intimidating; many people seem to give up trying new things, give up the opportunity for change as they get into their forties. I could equally have written, Stasis = death. But I’ve always preferred to issue imperatives rather than simply state facts 🙂
Finally, given my suddenly accelerating illness in early 1993, I knew I was either going to change or die—or perhaps even both. I’m not stupid, even without the internet I could do basic research, and my symptoms could have been: brain tumour, ALS, Guillan-Barré, Parkinsons, or MS. Luckily for me it was MS—any of the others and I’d be dead today.
What about now, in 2021?
Well, I still think it’s vital that we remain open to new things, new thoughts, new people and places and plans. But I’m also older, my MS is more advanced, and—frankly—I think I’m wiser. I don’t have energy or time to waste on doing new things just because they’re new. Every now and again it’s good\familiar more deeply, to cut a deeper richer canyon rather than meandering and spreading into a shallow delta.
I found the comment you made about ammonites in Whitby, near Whitby Abbey, the story being they are the snakes Hild changed, but you didn’t know about the Whitby connection when you wrote Ammonite? It’s amazing how our lives can speak to us across time.
I think the appeal of ammonites themselves is twofold for me. On the one hand, they are these ancient objects—I mean, they’re millions of years old—plus they feel wonderful in the hand. They’re amazing things. Also mathematically they’re fascinating because they’re based on Phi, the golden ratio. Which many classical architects based their proportions on. So I can walk into pretty much any stately Georgian house and think, —I want to live here. The rooms are constructed to that ratio. And it is just a ratio that really speaks to me. So it’s a double thing.
Are you very visual, in terms of how you understand the world?
I think I’m more visceral. There is a sense of a thing and vision is part of that. But so is sound, so is smell, so is texture, and vibration. Everything. It’s a gestalt for me. It’s the whole package.
Do you think that things can vibrate through time ways maybe we don’t fully understand?
I’m not entirely sure what you mean by vibrate through time.
I’m thinking about things like panpsychism, or connections that are across time that we don’t understand in the context of current science.
I believe a lot of it is based on physical stimulus. I mean, there’s a good reason that gothic cathedrals look the way they do. To stand in the nave and look up is to feel as though you’re standing under trees, looking up at the canopy. And that resonance makes us feel good. The body under trees actually responds differently to, say, just walking under a concrete overpass. There’s literally stuff in the air under trees that affects neurological signalling, it affects how the body feels. So in that sense, absolutely, things echo through time, because we’re creatures of the body and we respond the same way to the same stimulus.
Could you introduce your new book Spear?
I suppose the one-line pitch is that that Spear is a bit like Hild—set in early medieval Britain but unconstrained by having to stick to facts. So like Hild but let off the leash. Because as well as magic—not just the wild magic of the landscape, but the monster-killing magic of myth and demi-gods—the prose is much less constrained. Much more Celtic than Old English. It’s very rhythmic.
I’ve been keeping a spreadsheet of early reviews—from librarians, booksellers, and so on—and tracking descriptive words. So far, the most-used descriptor is ‘beautiful’. And after that the second most common is ‘lyrical/poetic’. So, yes, there’s a lot of rhythm. It’s very much a language-based book. But it is also about atmosphere and people.
It’s set in the early sixth century. And it imagines Arthur/Artos in south Wales in Caer Leon. Peretur is born in a cave to a mother who is not entirely in her right mind, and she’s brought up wild and then eventually finds her way to the court of Artos. And Peretur has all sorts of adventures along the way and saves the world and fails to save some people and steals the hearts of beautiful women and falls in love and generally has an all-around blast. And then the end is a springboard ending so we can imagine Peretur moving forward in time.
The ending is wonderful. The whole book is wonderful, but as you say, the ending does look out from the valley in a very hopeful, joyous way.
One of the things I love to do as a writer is this kind of focus pull. You know, the camera pulls back to a wider angle and suddenly everything is much greater than you thought.
Do you read a lot of your reviews? Are you comfortable doing that, or do you go into them cautiously?
I love reading reviews! Reading them teaches me why people like certain things and why others don’t. It teaches me a lot about a reader’s bias, whether it’s conscious or unconscious. And every now and again it teaches me something I can do better. I read a criticism and think, —Ah shit, yes, they’re absolutely right. God damn it. So yes, I love reading them. I could happily read them every day.
How did you come to be publishing Spear with Tordotcom?
I published ‘Cold Wind’, a short story with them quite a few years ago, but this is my first book interaction with Tordotcom. It came about because my main publisher, Farrar, Straus and Giroux (FSG), is part of Macmillan, and Tor is also part of Macmillan. So, I wrote this thing, Spear, and I had no idea what to do with it, because it was so unexpected adn such an awkward size.
I said to my agent, —There’s this thing I wrote, I think it’s good, But what shall we do with it? She sent it to Sean, my editor, at FSG and he’s like, —This is not what we normally publish. And I’m like, —Well, no shit, Sherlock. And so he talked to other people at Macmillan, and Tordotcom says, —Gimme gimme gimme, we want it! So now I’m working in this unusual editorial collaboration: FSG is doing all the editorial work, and Tordotcom is doing all the publicity, marketing, and production. I find it works really well for me. It’s bringing together these two different parts of my career: all my non-sf books are done by FSG and obviously I used to publish science fiction novels back in the day, and so now I’m working with the science fiction publisher again. I think it’s great.
Is that length, novella-ish, a length you’ve written at a lot?
It really isn’t. I’ve written quite a few novels in the 100,000 to 120,000 words range—Ammonite, Slow River, all three Aud novels. And then I wrote So Lucky, which is definitely novella length, but was published as a novel. And then of course there’s Hild and Menewood which are just enormous: those two books alone are already much longer than the whole Lord of the Rings trilogy. They’re big books. So what is my normal length? I have no clue.
You said that you were off the leash for Spear, yet it’s shorter, which is interesting.
Writing Spear was great. It was one of the most marvellous writing experiences for me. I thought I was sitting down to write a short story I’d been asked to write and I had this vague notion it would be about 9 or 10 thousand words. And so I sat down to write and this torrent of words just came gushing out, and I thought, —Oh wow, well I’m going to ride this! And I kept going and ended up with the perfect length for the story I was trying to tell.
And it turns out that the story—Merlin and Nimuë, the Grail quest, the Lancelot-Guinevere-Arthur menage, the whole Percival story—fits into 45,000 words. It was such a rush to write.
It does feels like it is off the leash, and also very fluid, very naturalistic.
To me it felt like how I imagine a greyhound might feel when you lift the door and it just…runs. It goes from zero to flying in a split second. Just off it runs. I love that feeling. That to me is always the goal of writing, and it happens so rarely. Usually there’s a place where you have to stop, and recalibrate, recalculate, rethink. But with Spear, no. I just sat down one day and got up seventeen days later and had a book. The rewrite was basically just a quick tidy.
What is your first memory of reading about or watching King Arthur?
I think it was an illustrated version of Malory and I suspect it was beyond my reading level because there were many parts of it that made no sense to me. I’m guessing I was about eight or nine and was reading whatever I could reach down from the library shelves. It was about this time that I read Gibbons Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, too, and very definitely didn’t have a firm grasp of that. But reading both made me feel good—like I was exploring another universe, encountering the mystery of history all my own.
When did you first think you needed to write a story like Spear?
I suppose it depends what you mean by a ‘story like Spear’. I began my first story when I was nine—a mounted warrior (vaguely Norse) on a mist-wreathed clifftop, with a dog, a grim banner, and a special sword. The man had no name—but the horse and the dog and the sword did. (A clue about what I already found interesting?) I gave up after three pages because I couldn’t think of a plot—just wanted to describe the grassy clifftop, the sword, the horse, the dog, the mist, the mysterious shore… About a year later I tried to write a novel—a time-slip story about a girl at Fountain’s Abbey who slips back into the thirteenth or fourteenth century. Again, it foundered for lack of plot after a few hundred words—I wanted to see and describe the river, the trees, the sky…
And then, of course, there was Hild (and soon Menewood. Are they like Spear? Yes in that they’re about an extraordinarily strong and smart woman moving through and communing with the natural landscape while having to handle Momentous Events. Hild and Peretur have another thing in common: they are not Chosen Ones; they choose.
But if you’re asking when I thought I needed to try my hand at an Arthurian retelling, the answer is I never did. The Matter of Britain is essentially a National Origin story, and as such the class-ridden, ableist, straight white male nativist manifest destiny is pretty much baked in. I had zero urge to try to break that open and remake it. I was asked to contribute a short story to an anthology of race-bent, gender-bent, queer Arthurian retellings and was poised to say no, it can’t be done, when into my head dropped the image of a figure in mended leather-and-horn armour and mounted on a bony gelding. And ‘Well, shit,’ I thought, because just like that I had an idea how to combine Arthurian legend with Welsh history and Irish myth. And it was just going to be a short story without any of that manifest destiny baggage. What could possibly go wrong??
The malleability of stories like the Arthurian myth are a great strength, in some ways. Stories can be reinvented, or recontextualised. I thought Joe Cornish’s The Kid Who Would Be King was powerful and moving, and situating it in a London comprehensive allowed them to use the source material to ask some interesting questions about class and privilege and leadership. At the same time, some adaptations of King Arthur are all surface, no feeling. How did your own knowledge and passion of Arthurian literature both liberate and constrain you as you planned and wrote?
I loved Attack the Block but I haven’t seen that one, except for the trailer. But all stories of Arthur—from the Nennian compilation to De Troyes to Malory to Tennyson, and on—are basically fanfic. The story is endlessly remade and recontextualised. But as I’ve said, some parts of the legend are baked in—particularly Manifest Destiny—so it’s very difficult to avoid some of the cliché. And the trailer I saw hinted at some clichés left unexamined—though possibly it’s not fair to judge a film by its trailer.
Constraint can be a weird kind of freedom—just ask any poet who uses sonnets or villanelles or any other rigid form to soar. I found that, too, with Hild: believing the old stories about sex, gender, and power in the Early Medieval made me work harder and really think my way past the cliché of women as either sad and dutiful chattels and rape toys or evil avengers for real and/or imagined injustices. I was so not interested in writing that kind of story so I had to go really deep into the details of the seventh-century to find the road less travelled. I feel confident that I found one; a good solid path now marked out and visible, ready for others to follow if they choose.
I feel the same way about Arthurian literature. The basic story—and almost every retelling I’ve ever read (I’d all, but perhaps I’m forgetting one)—is predicated on might is right, on the essence of nobility, on sexist, racist, and ableist assumptions, and on a very poor understanding of history. So when that image dropped into my head and I saw a way around some of those stumbling blocks I had to figure out how to get around the rest. That meant following my nose around footnotes, naming conventions, language and Irish myth, not to mention the philosophy of cosmogony and eschatology, to—again, as with Hild—find my own path to follow. And I did! And I couldn’t be happier!
You have talked before about how in your twenties Whitby Abbey sparked something in your imagination, and in The Blue Place it is a ‘haunted’ place which contains power. How would you characterise the importance of place in Spear?
It’s not important, it’s vital. It’s everything. It’s my soup stone—the moment where everything begins, on which everything is built.
Place, particularly the natural landscape, lies at the heart of what I do. A particular person in a specific place—the scent of the dirt, the sound of the trees, the plump burst of a summer raindrop on one’s forehead—is where I’ve begun every single one of my novels, and almost all of my short fiction. So, yes, vital.
The world in Spear is rich and immersive, and there is a truthiness to the depiction of the land itself. How did you go about placing Spear so securely in place, or space?
That’s hard to answer. I read a lot, I think a lot, and then I fall into a sort of hypnogogic state where things drift up from my subconscious and acquire heft. It’s a difficult-to-articulate mix of work, expertise, and mystery—and I love it; it’s what keeps me hooked on writing.
The work is the reading and the research, the endless dissatisfaction with what’s gone before; the constant test and compare, discard and try again routine. All that, for me, happens at lightning speed, often just below the threshold of consciousness: it’s going on all the time I’m ferreting out the information. Take, for example, Llanza, or Lance—my Lancelot analogue. I really, seriously wanted a very obviously sixth-century name that was also, equally obviously, something that could be the precursor of ‘Lancelot.’ I went through all sorts of iterations, and it was by finally looking at the Iron Age-through-Late Antiquity Celtic history of Europe that I figured out how to handle that—trying to fit into time and place made me work hard, which in turn made the story unexpected in some places, and, therefore, richer.
Thinking about the writing process, do you plan and research a lot before you start writing?
A story like Spear? Yes—it largely comes from reading/research. A short story, particularly my earliest ones? No. Generally, the shorter the work the more likely I am to begin from an idea and do the research I need along the way. Very long books—Hild, Menewood.need vast amounts of research first, then research at various points along the way, then more research in the rewrite stage.
The other novels—it depends. Some begin as dreams—The Blue Place—some begin as the result of ideas from reading in real life—Ammonite (HIV research when I worked for a streets drugs counselling agency). Some begin as idle reading connected to something else—Slow River—when I was simultaneously reading environmental engineering catalogues Kelley was bringing home from work, and asking myself questions about my past. So, yes, it depends.
I recently learned that Muriel Spark would only write with a pen that had never been touched by another human hand. Do you write longhand, or on screen?
This changes all the time, but typically I make notes longhand—these days on my iPad Pro—and write the first draft with a keyboard. Every day I revise the last couple of pages of what I wrote the day before then continue with a raw draft which, again, I edit some of the next day. On a very long project like Hild or Menewood I have to stop every now and again to think and rethink and recalibrate. At which point I do a rewrite of what I have so far, then start the next section. So it’s a constantly iterative process.
With something like Spear or So Lucky, though, both of which I wrote in less than 3 weeks—Spear took just 17 days—it’s just one headlong rush and I don’t stop until I reach the end. It’s exhilarating.
I asked you to select a niche category of novels or other media that you would take to a desert island. You chose Arthurian stories, and the selection you sent is excellent. Could you talk a little about the choices?
- Mary Stewart’s The Crystal Cave (1970)
- Rosemary Sutcliff, Sword at Sunset (1963)
- Gillian Bradshaw, Hawk of May (1984)
I love these three books and have reread them many times—though Sutcliff a little less often than the others. All three are by women but all three are about men (one of the many problems with most Arthurian literature). All three have a fine and sure grasp of what was known of history in their authors’ time (though of course that’s changed a great deal in the intervening years), and all three use the natural landscape well. All three have been a great influence on my work.
All three authors ventriloquise well-known legendary figures—such as Merlin—and (not?) coincidentally, all make their male characters Othered by their gender performance. Take Stewart’s Merlin, for example: he is a loner, not very brave physically, not skilled martially, and forbidden by his god to have sex. He is Not Like Other Men. All three, on the other hand, virtually ignore women except to either pity their lot, or fall deep into the cliché of the sad-virgin-dutiful-wife vs. beautiful-whore-evil-sorceress binary. None of them were able to find the path through the thicket of stereotypes.
- Henry Treece, The Great Captains (1956)
I liked this book—or most of it—when I read it as a teenager, and it made an impression on me and—in good ways and bad—influenced my work. Treece, too, has a good grasp of what was known to be known about the past in his day but, like the others, his book was focused on the doings of men. There’s one particularly vile scene about the way a group of men treat a woman that almost made me stop reading it when I was a teenager, and has certainly prevented me from rereading after my twenties.
- Tracy Deon, Legendborn (2020)
This was an interesting take on the legend and a very interesting take on the cultural roots of power and magic. Though, again we get a lot of Destiny and a faint whiff of eugenics that, again, can be difficult to avoid—though Deon does call it out.
- Merlin, television series (2008)
Delightful, the same way A Knight’s Tale was delightful. Pure anachronistic fun. At least until Morgana was turned evil Just Because (because what else are you going to do with a powerful woman?) and Gwen was made foolish (because ditto). But I loved the relationship between Merlin and Arthur, and I would have watched a second series set in another time.
- Sword, Stone, Table, short fiction anthology edited by Swapna Krishna and Jenn Northington (2021)
Some of these stories were wonderful. I particularly liked Nisi Shawl’s piece. Some were very strange. Many, sadly, did not really live up to my hope of destroying the clichés—but as I’ve said, that’s very difficult to do.
You mentioned having ‘mixed (at best) feelings’ about Lavie Tidhar’s By Force Alone (2020), Bernard Cornwell’s The Winter King (1995), and Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Mists of Avalon (1983). What do those three do well, and what do they do badly?
All three of them do women badly because none of them manage to think past the usual clichés: women who are avengers and/or evil sorcerers and/or helpless victims and/or adulterers and/or vulpine huntresses. Women are basically just political pawns and rape toys.
I seriously disliked the goddess crap in Mists of Avalon; I’ve always disliked the Arthurian incest/shame trope no matter who writes it.
With both Cornwell and Tidhar we again get the might-is-right, force wins the day, people are at heart monsters stuff of grimdark based on a pernicious historical cliché. Both drag in supernatural elements but without much coherence (not that it has to be super-coherent—hey, it’s magic, not science) but both seem to be using it ironically, which… why? Use it with conviction, or don’t.
And every single one is married to the hierarchical/monarchical/manifest destiny vision of leadership. But perhaps the worst thing? None of them gave me a character I liked well enough to forgive the rest for—except okay, I quite liked Cornwell’s viewpoint character (one not based on any legendary figure as far as I can tell).
I wonder if squeezing a character as idealised as Arthur into the mortal realm is always going to be problematic.
I felt that way about reading By Force Alone, the Lavie Tidhar book. Basically the story that he tells is that Arthur grows up in Londonium quite a while after the Romans have gone and everything’s rotting and nasty and there are street gangs. Arthur basically claws his way up through a street gang and then starts running everything. I can imagine him saying, —Fuck it, let’s make Arthur like Tony Soprano than a hero! But he also has Merlin who deals with magic. It’s a weird combination: grimdark ‘realism’ and magic. As I say, I think if you’re going to use magic you should use it, not step back from it and maintain an ironic distance. I think there can be some car crashes when you try to bring too many aspects of a mythic character together.
In Spear you bring Arthur down to earth, and you push him to the side. The focus in some ways is on the scale of the village, or the settlement. There is maybe a feeling of being closed off from what is happening in the country as a whole, the news coming from neighbouring villages. The world is smaller somehow, and in that context, the importance of Arthur is very different. The concerns are earthly: the harvest, the rain, individual lives.
At the same time, you can live a very close to the earth life and still be part of a community where there is news and there is trade. I mean if you look at just the history of Britain and the archaeological finds, you see that there was always exchange of ideas and goods from all over the world. You can find lapis lazuli, you can find sapphires, and all that stuff comes from where? They don’t come from the next village; they came from India and further afield. There’s always been to and fro, always this almost osmotic exchange of info.
You’ve talked about how vital the land is, and some of my favourite passages of yours are the descriptions of the land. This passage in Hild is wonderful:
Then came the rain. Endless rain, beating the shoots back into the earth, flattening the early flowers, drowning the hum and bumble of bees. Cattle found hillocks where they could, or rotted where they stood. Cloth mildewed and flour mouldered. Rivers rose, and rose again, til herons roosted on roofs and ducks on styles. Pastures turned to mud and roads to slipways. And still it rained.
You are brilliant at evoking the sense of myth—or history—in a place, and also the sensory, lived-in world, the ‘real people, not from stories’ who occupy the places. Seeing as the natural landscape is so vital to your writing, how does the landscape of Washington feed your imagination? Is it the same as your relationship with the landscape of Britain?
It really isn’t, and if I ever move back to Britain, it would be because I miss the landscape. There’s so much there. Here in the Pacific Northwest it is all conifers and mountains and sea and desert. There is temperate rainforest—the Hoh Rainforest, on the Olympic Peninsula, but it’s weirdly sterile. The first time I went I was expecting to have the kind of experience I’ve had in British forests: a sense of peace, and awe, and a kind of very long, slow-rolling exhilaration. But I went there and I was freaked out. It was not right. And I realised it was because it was so quiet. It felt weird.
People talk about how natural and wonderful and primaeval this PNW ecosystem is, but it’s a deeply damaged ecosystem. There isn’t a single predator left on the Peninsula. There are no wolves. There are no big cats. Just deer and massive, silent trees. But the only bird I heard there was a junco. Just one. And it felt weird and creepy and I couldn’t wait to get out of it, honestly.
The English landscape—and obviously the Welsh and Scottish and Irish—hills and dales and, particularly, Yorkshire, is home. It speaks to me in a way that no other place on Earth does.
Returning to Whitby Abbey, that was close to where you grew up?
Yes. Although I never saw it until I was in my early twenties. As a kid the family went to Fountains Abbey and Bolton Abbey and all those places because they were much closer to home. It can be quite difficult to get to Whitby from Leeds. Roads to the east coast—Filey and northwards—are narrow and winding, and it always seemed we ended up behind some dawdling caravan being towed by an ancient, under-powered car. It’s too narrow to pass, for there’s a tailback of a mile or more behind this caravan. There would be seven of us crammed in a single car when I was a kid, and you just didn’t want to be stuck behind a caravan. So though we went to the coast a lot, but it was rarely any more north than Hunmanby Gap, a little place near Filey. And Scarborough and Bridlington a couple of times. But we never quite got up as far as Whitby.
How did Hild first come about, and how do you see it relating to Spear?
I’ve told the Hild origin story often. See for example:
In many ways—certainly the most important ones—Hild was the book I’d been aiming for my whole life, right from those first days imagining the nameless warrior on the cliff or the girl slipping between the 20th and 14th centuries. I’ve always wanted to explore the wild magic of the ur-landscape. Except, of course, there’s no such thing—probably not anywhere, not for 20,000 years, but certainly not in Britain. Insular geography, the flora and fauna, have been shaped by human hands for tens of thousands of years. There is very little that’s ‘natural’ about it. But it doesn’t stop me wanting to try.
Why? Because I hunger for it, the same way I hunger to walk under the trees when I haven’t been out to the woods for a while. I would love to time travel, to see northern Britain without metalled roads, without car exhaust and light pollution, without contrails in the sky.
Spear come from some of the same yearning—to take a peek behind the curtain of legend and find out how it might really happened! Except, of course, legends aren’t based on reality. But still, part of me always wonders, But what if they were?
Both Spear and the Hild books share two other commonalities. One, my need to see myself and other traditionally marginalised people—women, nonbinary, queer, disabled, poor, people of colour—represented in a heroic past we’ve been told doesn’t belong to us. More than that, I don’t want us just to exist in that heroic past but to thrive: to be the heroes. Two, by writing us into history, I want those like me to know there was a place for us then, there’s a place for us now, and so there will be a place for us in the future. In other words, I want to change the world, one reader at a time—while giving them the best fucking ride of their life along the way.
‘My Story, Mystery’, your letter to Hild, was a real pleasure, and I recommend that anyone who hasn’t read it goes and reads it as soon as possible. You write about how you began ‘to dream in the rhythms of heroic poetry’. Could you speak a little about how foundational those Old English texts were?
Actually, just stop there one second, because that passage you quoted, about the rain, I’m realising came partway through writing Hild, at a point when I was going through this phase of having strange hypnagogic moments just as I was falling asleep. I would keep 3 by 5 index cards and a pen by the bed, and as I was falling asleep these rhythms would fall into my head and without opening my eyes I would write them down. The next day sometimes they were illegible but sometimes they had these amazing snippets of things. And one of those things I wrote actually ended up being published in the New Scientist under the title ‘Acid Rain’. It was purely about the rhythm—and it’s that rhythm that paragraph you quoted comes from. It stuck with me. So yeah, that was from a dream.
That’s amazing. I was listening to the audiobook and it jumped straight out. It’s magical to hear from you that it came from a dream.
Sticking with the Old English, could you talk a bit more about how you feel today about how those rhyhms are still affecting your writing?
Menewood is written quite differently to Hild. There are parts that still have the rhythm of poetry, but it’s much more Old English poetry than Brythonic poetry, so the rhythms are different. And there are many more hard parts in Menewood for Hild personally, and those parts are plain. They are blunt and brutal. But when it came to Spear, that was all about the rhythm and the poetry and the old school joy of writing.
The voice, the writing, had to become more prosaic, because of what she was going through?
Yes. It can be an emotional cheat to lyricize pain. There again, sometimes plainness itself becomes poetic. Some poems are very, very simple. So in that sense I suppose it still has some of that.
What did you learn about yourself as you wrote Spear that has helped you with Menewood. or has changed it on some level?
I relearnt faith in myself and the necessity of joy.
When I set it aside to begin work on Spear, I’d been working on Menewood for a long time; I’d written about half of it, or maybe a little over half. I kept thinking it was going well, then started second-guessing myself—not something I’m used to. I kept stopping and rethinking, reworking, convinced I was doing this wrong somehow. I was taking it all so very seriously: this was work, goddamn it!
And then I plunged in Spear and the words just poured out, absolutely right, absolutely in the right direction the first time. From start to finish I didn’t falter once. And it felt the way writing should feel, the way it’s always felt—or had felt, until I started to write Menewood. And that helped me understand that I’d been paying too much attention to what my imaginary reader—a fearsome mix between a highly regarded Early Medievalist and a razor-minded literary critic—might think when they compared the book to Hild. I had stopped thinking about the place and the people and the story.
Spear gave me that perspective back, and the minute the first draft was done I turned to Menewood and just plunged in with the same attitude I’d approached Spear: woo hoo! This will be one long joy!
And soon as I flicked that critical parrot off my shoulder, it was. And again the words gushed out; I wrote 140,000 in about six months. And then I read the whole thing through and was shocked and delighted to find that the first half was just as zesty as the second half—there’d been nothing wrong with the words, just my attitude towards them.
I generally prefer reading paper books, but devices are useful, too, and I’ve always been a big fan of audiobooks. When you were writing Hild, how conscious were you of how the sentences and language would come across when read or performed?
I’m always conscious of how the sentences will sound in the reader’s head: I hear a lot of it in my own head. I never really think about the books being read out loud, though, except when I’m actually reading them, either as a short performance or narrating the audiobook myself, as I did with So Lucky, and will with both Spear and The Blue Place.
The audiobook for Hild is brilliant. Do you enjoy listening back to stories you’ve written?
I don’t listen to audiobooks or the radio. In the days of books on tape I used to, on long drives or long walks or when cooking or cleaning the house etc. But I don’t do any of those listen-while-physically-but-not-mentally-engaged things anymore because of MS. (Anything physical takes all my focus.) I can’t listen to a story while trying to write one of my own; while writing an essay or planning a speech or creating a lesson plan; I can’t listen to a book while watching TV or researching a novel or booking a flight or… Well, I just don’t listen to things except music. And I can’t listen to audiobooks in and of themselves without simultaneously doing something else because the information density is so low it drives me to a fury of frustration. Reading is much quicker!
In your interview with Jonathan Thornton for The Fantasy Hive, you say that a genre is like a vehicle that you use to cross the story terrain. This is a wonderful metaphor. You also said in The Paris Review interview that ideas ‘circle like planes running out of fuel’, which is also wonderful. I can’t help but picture these fragile ideas buying the farm in your mind, a small puff or boom as they disappear. Which planes are still managing to stay aloft?
- Obviously there’s more Hild ahead. That’s a long story that won’t end anytime soon. But each book is a complete novel in and of itself, so it doesn’t matter how long it takes or whether I do other projects in between.
- I really want to write Part Two of a memoir that began with And Now We Are Going to Have a Party: Liner Notes to a Writer’s Early Life—but I’m not sure how to go about it. Party (Part One) was a limited collector’s edition: a numbered and boxed set of objects—a CD, a poster, scratch and sniff cards, a photograph, a reproduction of my very first book written and drawn at nursery school when I was three or four years old, poems, diary excerpts, old letters—all stitched together with long essays and short descriptive paragraphs in five slim volumes. No one would be mad enough to recreate that, and what’s the point of Part Two if Part One isn’t available? But if I did do more memoir it would be in the form of already-published essays, interviews, speeches, and blog posts: I have a lot of those—enough for three or four books!
- I also have an idea for a super longform essay—about 20,000 words—that I don’t want to say more about just yet.
- There’s a collection of short stories I need to put together—amazingly enough I’ve never published a proper collection, even though I have enough for a fat volume. But I’d really like to write at least one new piece, and as for me short story ideas never start down the runway with much fuel—if I don’t land them soon after take off they just vanish over the horizon or disintegrate mid-air—I’ve o idea when that will happen.
- I’m noodling with a glimmering of an idea for more stories of Peretur and Nimuë—stories of them moving through time. But that may or may not ever solidify enough to bring into the world.
- I’m contractually obliged to write three new Aud stories—about 10,000 words each—as part of the deal to reissue the trilogy. I have notes, but that’s as far as I’ve got because I’ve been focused on Spear and now Menewood rewrites.
- Every now and again I toy with writing a series of kids books about two cats and their adventures, complete with illustrations. But I suspect that’s a plane that’s simply not designed for landing.
- But the story that’s been aloft the longest is a big, strange fantasy novel, or perhaps alternate science novel, or perhaps alternate history. Parts of it are already written; I just have to find the time to really clear my head and focus. That idea must be fuelled by solar power because it just keeps patiently circling. So one day, yes, I think I might bring that one in to a safe landing. Maybe.
You mentioned your memoir. How did that come about?
Ha! This is one of those, ‘My dad has a barn’ kind of stories. In 2005 I got this fat envelope in the mail from my dad and I opened it thinking, —What on earth is this? And it was full of things he had collected from my childhood that I had no idea he had kept. So there was a copy of the very first book I ever made when I was three and a half, or four, crayon on newsprint. I had been basically sat in a corner at nursery school and told to occupy myself because I had been misbehaving. There was a poem that I wrote that won a BBC poetry contest when I was 11. There were a couple of school reports. There were old letters to Santa with things like, —Dear Santa, I would like a manicure set, an automatic weapon, and a truck. And I just looked at that and thought, —Oh my god, I’d forgotten that child. The envelope was so stuffed with all this kind of thing.
At the same time, my ex in Hull that I had lived with for 10 years also sent me some old photos that I had forgotten about of our time together, and so I had all this biographical material—I was fascinated by it—and I’d also discovered some old diaries. I was never really a journal keeper. For a couple of years—before I started writing fiction—I went through this phase where every now and again I would just have to write something down to get it out of my head. So I was looking at all this, just as my mother was dying, and really thinking about the past: who I am, where I come from…
Then Therese, one of my good friends who was the director of curatorial affairs at the Science Fiction Museum here in Seattle got together with the curator of the Music Experience and formed an art publishing company. It was very whimsical. They would publish anything they felt like, so they had acquired the poems of Thomas Disch, for example (though that project never actually came together). They had a couple of other projects and one day we were having a pint, me and Therese, and talking about her new venture and my bag of stuff from my dad, and how strange it was and she said, —Wow, we could do something with that! I said, —Oh yeah! We could…we could do a box of photos! And, and a poster! And, you know, we drank more beer and got more fanciful, and I said, —And there could be scratch ‘n’ sniff cards! And reprints of handwritten letters!
The next day I forgot all about it, as you do after flights of fantasy fuelled by beer, but Therese got in touch about a week later and asked if I was serious about doing this memoir box thing, and I thought, —I could be. So she and Jacob came over and I cooked a massive pot of chili and we drank more beer and talked, and it still seemed like a good idea. So I started at the end of November and I had the whole thing done by about mid-February. My mother died halfway through. But it was another of those really fast things—just boom, done! And it was all there.
I’d been thinking about it for years, and I’d been telling all these stories about my childhood to Kelley and others over dinner—regaling people in pubs, basically, with these things—and I had lately started to feel reluctant to tell the stories because I was so tired of telling them. It started to feel ike boasting. It’s— I like to tell stories, it’s my job, and so I can’t help but shape and shade events to make a better story. The stories began to feel fundamentally untrue—even though those things actually happened. This memoir was a really good way for me to write it all down, draw a line under it, and move on. And that’s what I did.
And I put in old poetry: there’s a facsimile of that very first book written at nursery school. There are stories of coming out, and getting caught having sex on the chaplain’s desk at school. Of being beaten up by queer bashers, and setting stuff on fire. Things like that—it’s stuffed with anecdote. It’s really meant to be read aloud.
As it was basically an art book, a collector’s piece—they made 450 copies and sold it for an outrageous price—there are now no more in the world for sale. So while I would love to write a sequel, how can you do a sequel to that? The point of a sequel is that it’s connected to something else—and that something else has to be available. And of course it’s not. Maybe I’ll figure it out one day. One day I’ll be sitting there thinking, —I should really write the next Hild book, and I’ll suddenly have an idea of how to do this memoir.
Spear is out in April and can be pre-ordered wherever books are sold. Once it’s out in the world, are you planning to take a break, or will you be right back to working on something else?
When a new book is published I spend at least the first month writing guest posts and essays and doing interviews—creating marketing collateral—and doing the whole reading-and-signing and in-conversation thing. I don’t yet have a clear picture of what that will entail for Spear because it’s my first publication with Tor and also because pandemic. So it could be short and sweet or it could do completely insane the way it did with Hild, when I essentially spent fifteen months touring: hardcover tour in the US, hardcover tour in the UK, paperback tour in the US. That was wonderful and terrible at the same time and I’m not sure I ever want to do it again. There again, these days with Zoom I might not have to.
But even if I just stay at home and use Zoom I won’t be resting. I have those Aud stories to write. I have The Blue Place to narrate. I’ll be finishing edits and copyedits for Menewood. researching Hild III, putting together that short story collection. Or, knowing me, working on something brand new and unexpected!
In your Author’s Note to Spear, you talk about reading Malory and sensing ‘the dark forests tangled and forbidding at the side of the road’. I’m very drawn to this image, and it reminded me of a piece by Angela Carter, ‘Overture and Incidental music for a Midsummer Night’s Dream’, in which she writes:
[…] the English wood, however marvellous, however metaphoric, cannot by definition be trackless, although it might well be formidably labyrinthine, a maze. There is always a way out of the maze […]Angela Carter, ‘Overture and Incidental music for a Midsummer Night’s Dream’
Do you view your writing as a journey through a labyrinth? Do you see yourself finding your way through a maze?
Later in that piece, Carter contrasts woods with forests. She says:
[…] to be lost in a forest is to be lost to this world, to be abandoned by the light. to lose yourself utterly with no guarantee you will either find yourself or else be found.Angela Carter, ‘Overture and Incidental music for a Midsummer Night’s Dream’
No, I don’t think I do. That’s not a metaphor that rings true for me. I can see how it might for other writers, but that’s not how writing feels to me. The notion that my writing process is like finding my way through a maze implies that there’s already a maze that’s set up to be solved, that someone’s already made it, and therefore that the solution already exists. But I don’t think the questions I’m asking have any ready-made answers. I have to find my own, I have to make my own answers—and that’s not by following a path already laid out. It’s more like I’m creating the path—building the steps, digging the tunnel, stringing the bridge, whatever—not just finding my way through.
It’s interesting that you mentioned that you’re not finding your way through a maze, because there is no path set out before you got there. There’s no design.
So maybe I am finding my way through a forest? I don’t know. Another metaphor I’ve used in terms of being a writer is that of an explorer, or a shaman: I am holding this torch overhead and walking into the dark—looking around and learning the landscape, its shape—and then I come back to the hearth to tell the story. Basically, I do the exploring so that others don’t have to. I have used that metaphor in the past, but I’m no longer sure it really fits.
It’s great that you mentioned doing the work, the pathfinding, and that the readers are following you down the river. I really enjoyed that note at the end of Spear about the research, and the thought process, and your influences. I read it several times and it sent me off on tangents looking for names and thinking about connections.
One of the things I love about writing is that it brings many parts of me together. It brings the researcher, it brings the explorer and the creator, the thrill-seeker and the physical person all together, and it’s the best job I’ve ever had. I expect to have it for the rest of my life. I love it. I’m so glad I found it.
Finally, what is the question that you’re always hoping you’ll be asked, but never have been?
Last time I was asked this I gave the answer I’ll give now: I would like someone to ask me—simply, human to human—how I feel, how I’m doing. We tend to forget that human connection lies at the heart of most good things. I think we could all do with more of it.
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