I think characters in fiction are a bit like characters in dreams: all aspects of oneself. The main character, Aud Torvingen, is me and not me. She's a sort of path not taken. If what happened to her had happened to me at that age, maybe that's how I would have turned out.
When asked what kind of writer she is, Nicola Griffith responds frankly, "Determined. Convinced of my own worth." Her work shows proof of that conviction. Her first novel, the paperback original Ammonite (Del Rey, 93), won the James Tiptree Jr. and Lambda Literary Awards, and the ecologically-oriented Slow River (Del Rey, 95) was winner of the 1997 Nebula Award for Best Novel and the 1996 Lambda Award. Her Yaguara won the 1996 Nebula for Best Novella.
A native of Leeds, England, Nicola Griffith first came to the United States in 1988 for the Clarion Workshop in Science Fiction and Fantasy. During that time she realized that as a stranger in a foreign land, she could reinvent herself without expectations. She chose instead to define who she really was.
Griffith's latest breaks into new territory. The Blue Place is a taut thriller that lives up to the suspenseful promises of her previous work. Her protagonist, Aud Torvingen, is a character fully formed, and could be a product of the science-fiction genre as much as any other -- a physically perfect security consultant, beautiful martial-arts expert and cobalt-hard sensualist whom the New York Daily News called the love child of Smilla and Nikita.
Griffith is herself a political animal. She is not enamored of labels, either of her work, or herself, and while her move from science fiction to mystery novel was dictated solely by the material, her characters walk along similar paths. The denizens of her worlds have problems, they battle with insecurities, yet Lore Van Oester of Slow River is no less capable than the almost superhuman Aud Torvingen.
And like Ammonite' s Marghe Taishan, Griffith and her main characters have another commonality, but one she insists should not categorize the work. In an interview about the novel Ammonite for the radio program Reality Break, she said, "I'm the author, I'm a lesbian. My protagonist is a lesbian, and she has a lesbian love affair. [But] it's no more a book about being lesbian than [William Gibson's] Neuromancer is a book about coming to terms with ones heterosexuality."
Griffith's award winning extends to editorial work as well. Along with Stephen Pagel, she puts together the Bending the Landscape anthologies -- BTL:Fantasy (White Wolf, March 97) won the 1997 Lambda Literary Award for Anthology Editor, and the World Fantasy Award for Best Anthology. BTL:Science Fiction was released in September 1998 from Overlook Press and a third edition of horror stories is in the works.
We talked recently in an online interview.
Joseph Hayes: The Blue Place, your latest book, is a thriller/mystery, while your first two books, Ammonite and Slow River, were science fiction. What brought you to the field?
Nicola Griffith: You mean what brought me to SF, or what brought me to mystery? The answer is pretty much the same, anyway. I started writing SF because that's what I was reading. It seemed to be the best way to discuss the things that interested me: the way the world and the people in it work. The way systems fit together. I love having theories about things. SF seemed to be the way to go. I find "mundane" fiction often quite boring.
Do you consider Blue Place your "first book" in some way?
No. Yes. Well, it's my first foray into the bigger pond outside the tiny pond of SF. In some weird way it feels like my first "grown-up" novel. Hmmn. That's not what I mean at all... How can I describe it. Okay, for one thing, it's the first full-size hardcover. For another, I got paid real money <grin>."
Like Aud Torvingen, your protagonist in The Blue Place, you are a martial arts instructor. Do the lives of your characters reflect your own life?
I think characters in fiction are a bit like characters in dreams: all aspects of oneself. The main character, Aud Torvingen, is me and not me. She's a sort of path not taken. If what happened to her had happened to me at that age, maybe that's how I would have turned out. She's from three cultures. I'm only from two (that's hard enough!) but we're quite different in other ways. The other characters are a real mix of people I've seen, people I wish I'd seen, and purely invented.
You go from descriptive passages, to pages of dialogue, to jarring violent action. Where does your sense of pacing come from?
I like to keep readers interested. It's not so much in the pacing, per se, as in keeping the reader oriented at all times, letting her or him know where they are, exactly. Sometimes I do that with sensory detail -- smell, sound, taste, texture, sometimes with dialogue... so we can see the characters interacting. Besides, life's like that: no humongous descriptive passages but lots of choppy changes.
Samuel Delany says that all writing is political. What occurs first to you, the story or the politics?
Ooof. Tricky question. Let's see, I find that parts all come to me at once. For example, with The Blue Place, it was a dream I had years ago. Then I found a book on Norwegian architecture then I came across the name Aud the Deepminded and I got to wondering what a woman like Aud the Deepminded would have been like (she was from 9th C. Norway) -- and gender politics were quite different back then.
I find that you write more about people than politics... to me, anyway.
Yes, but people are, of course, political animals. What we do affects everyone and everything around us.
How prevalent is political correctness now in fiction?
It's not, at least not in my work. I think that in genres just starting out like "lesbian fiction" and, oh, "disability fiction" authors are a wee bit oversensitive still.
How much feedback do you get to the gender issues in your work?
Funnily enough, not much with this one. With Ammonite and Slow River it was a different kettle of fish.
Really... is the SF community less tolerant?
No, it's just that they all had to comment on the fact that I seemed to believe that the future would be chock full of dykes whereas with the more mainstream TBP reviewers/critics/readers seem to understand that I'm trying to create a particular narrative space with the way my characters do not comment on sexuality.
Are writers just writers, or are men's voices different fundamentally?
I think one's voice has to do with one's experience. Some men have experiences similar to some women. Some women have experiences similar to some men. I don't think it's biologically programmed, but I do think one's propensity towards certain things in life is. But there's huge overlap, therefore I don't think you could say there's such a thing as a "man's" voice or a "woman's." Remember James Tiptree...
Aud, and Lore [from Slow River] cope with their particular demons in their own ways. What are your demons?
I suppose my real demon is worrying...
About being ignored, or being stupid. Being less in some way, I suppose.
And is that from your own experience?
No. The opposite, I think. I was one of those really irritating kids at school who was good at everything. I could do gym and sing and was academic and the sports captain (I'm sure I was insufferable) except I was always convinced that something would happen to take it away. And in a way it has: I was diagnosed with MS five years ago. So in some ways I am less now, certainly from a physical viewpoint. And I worry that my brain will slowly rot. But it seems okay so far.
The depth of knowledge in your work is quite impressive. Are you a research fiend?
Thanks. Yes and no. I like to read at random, sometimes. This means I know all sorts of irrelevant things, some of which are actually useful, most of which isn't. Then when I find I need to know something for a novel, I go off and read. But I get bored and restless pretty easily so I tend to research, and then just make stuff up <grin>.
You have strong feelings about the editing process.
I've been lucky. My editors have sent me a sheet or two of paper with things like: add a comma to this sentence, and I write back and say: No.
That's lucky? Do you ever listen to their suggestions?
Yes. I always listen. When I turned in The Blue Place, for example, it was suggested to me that I 1) change the ending and 2) add a wee bit more menace to the Norway section. I agreed to 2) because my editor was absolutely right. I spat upon suggestion 1) from a great height because in my opinion it would have ruined the book. I'm editor, though, as well as a writer, and I sometimes ask for sweeping rewrites. I sometimes get them, sometimes not.
What about editing your own work?
Ah, that's different. When I was writing Slow River I wrote 35,000 words then threw them all away because they were rubbish. Then I wrote them again. Then again. And so on. Until I was happy. I'm very finicky.
How hard was it to find a publishing house for your first novel?
Well, my first novel, Ammonite, was -- and I hesitate to say this because it sounds so unlikely -- actually asked for by the publishing director of HarperCollins. I'd published three short stories in an English magazine called Interzone and he'd noticed them. He wrote me a letter asking me if I was writing a novel. I said, yep, I'm writing two (a lie) and sent him a paragraph description about both. He wrote back and said: When can I have them? I sat down and wrote Ammonite. Wow. I grinned for a year. Finding an American publisher was different. I had a few wrangles before Del Rey took me on. I was very, very lucky but you know what they say: "luck is an opportunity well taken."
What are you working on now? What's next?
I'm working on the second Aud book. The working title is Red Raw. Aud is half way up a mountain, building a house with her bare hands, and crazy as a loon.
The Blue Place would make a great movie... any bites?
No. I think it would be a good film, too, but who would play Aud? Aud would become a straight girl.
Any encouraging words for your fellow writers?
Enjoy it -- there's no point if you don't because we certainly don't get paid enough! But the best way to approach writing, I think, is to just... do the work. Writing is a hard job. Pains should be taken to get it right. Do the Work. | June 1999
Joseph Hayes writes for a living. His non-fiction publication credits include articles in Orlando Magazine, Poets and Writers, Spirit Airlines Magazine, Inklings and other publications, and hopes for a modicum of success in fiction and stageplays. A features correspondent for The Orlando Sentinel and contributing editor for The Gila Queen's Guide to Markets, he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, because you can never have too much e-mail.