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We All Have Our Magical Thinking: An Interview with Nicola Griffith

January 14, 2014 | by

St._Hilda_at_Hartlepool_by_James_Clark_(Oil_Painting)

James Clark, St. Hilda at Hartlepool (detail), 1925, oil on canvas.

Late in Nicola Griffith’s 1998 novel The Blue Place, her protagonist, Aud Torvingen, speaks rapturously about a spot on the coast of England. “Have I told you about Whitby Abbey, on the Yorkshire coast? There’s a ruin there that dates from the twelfth century, very haunting, very gothic, but the first abbey there was founded in the seventh century by Hilda. There’s a power there.” Fifteen years later, Griffith’s latest novel, Hild, explores the early life of the woman who would go on to become Hilda of Whitby.

Hild is an intricately plotted historical epic, set in a landscape that seems familiar and a culture that is anything but. Hild, the young protagonist, acts as an adviser to the king, Edwin, and the novel abounds with plotting, misdirection, and the use of mysticism toward decidedly realpolitik ends. Griffith’s ability to evoke a different time and place has manifested itself in very different ways over the years; her first two novels, Ammonite and Slow River, were both science fiction, though of very different types. Ammonite begins as anthropological science fiction and gradually becomes more epic in scale; Slow River involves conspiracies, industry, and a marvelously intricate plot. The series of three novels featuring Aud Torvingen—The Blue Place, Stay, and Always—are set in the modern world, with a fiercely analytical (and sometimes critically violent) protagonist. And in 2007, her memoir, And Now We Are Going to Have a Party: Liner Notes to a Writer’s Early Life, was released.

Reached via phone at her Seattle home, Griffith’s spoken language is as precise as it is on the page.

How long have you known that Hilda of Whitby was a figure you wanted to write about?

Since my early twenties. Actually, I didn’t even know that I was going to write about her—I discovered the abbey in my early twenties, and I was very struck by it. Hilda grew on me. She grew in the back of my mind. At first, I thought I was going to write an alternate history novel, one in which the Synod of Whitby didn’t go the way that it actually went. But the more I discovered about the world itself, about the seventh century, the more I wanted to write how it actually was. Not make it fantastical, just really go there, really live there for a while. And Hild herself became more and more interesting to me.

I kept putting off writing about her, because I really didn’t want to write a book about women as chattels, and women as baby-making machines. But as I discovered more about the seventh century, I realized that my preconceptions were wrong, and in fact, Hild could have been a really powerful woman in her own right. A really powerful person—not just a powerful woman. And then, one day, I just thought, This is enough. I have to really go there. It’s time to step up. The day before my forty-seventh birthday, I sat down and wrote the first paragraph. So it took more than twenty years. Read More »

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