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


At Work


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.

Reading the book, I was impressed with how deeply it immersed me in seventh-century Britain. It gives you this wealth of information, and there isn’t a lot of hand-holding.

My worry is that readers are going to find the first few pages quite difficult, especially as they’re told from the perspective of a three-year-old. That was the most difficult part, beginning, just trying to figure out how on earth to enter this world. And then I hit on the fact that one should enter it as a child, and discover it as children do. Some things just are and make no sense, and some things we have to figure out.

One of the things that really struck me about Hild was the way that literacy is treated as a technology throughout. It’s something that certain characters are able to use to give themselves an advantage.

Language is one of our primary tools, and as Wittgenstein says, it is the iron cage of consciousness. If you have the language gift, you can use it as a tool. That’s one of the assets I gave Hild. Trying to figure out what kind of style to use for the book nearly took the top of my head off. I didn’t want to start the book until I thought I had a notion.

I was reading bilingual versions of Anglo-Saxon poetry, and old Welsh poetry. I read a bit of Middle English, but that just wasn’t the same. It’s not where I wanted to go. I wanted to go earlier. Even words like hythe—I stuck the word hythe in there, it means a sort of sandy harbor. But that’s a Middle English word. I was cheating. I felt very wicked. But I thought, It sounds suitable. It sounds Anglo-Saxon. I ended up thinking of language as a kind of chisel. The sentences are what you might call almost Celtic. They come back along, they’re winding. The words are very short and sharp and blunt. They’re not transparent. These are very solid little words, and I think that’s a very Anglo-Saxon thing.

The novel treats religion somewhat similarly. Religion is pragmatic here. Characters convert not because they’re dedicated to a particular faith, but more because it will be advantageous to them.

Everyone has this notion of the Middle Ages—certainly the early Middle Ages—as being this very superstitious era. I think that all eras are superstitious. We all have our magical thinking. But I wanted to show that the people fourteen hundred years ago had minds just like ours. They thought the same way about things. The pragmatic, political people would have pragmatic, political thoughts about religion. They would have used priests as tools.

You made reference to a sequel to Hild on your Web site recently, and at the end of the book, there are parts of her life that remain unexplained. Is her life something that you’re planning to return to?

Oh, yes. I had originally intended to write one big fat novel. I got to about a hundred thousand words and the character of Hild was only twelve, and I thought, You know, this just isn’t going to work. The way I’m seeing it right now is that there are going to be three books. The second book will take us to the point where she rejoins the historical record, when she’s thirty-three. And the third book will be the second half of her life. I know where the second book begins, and I know where it ends. And I know some of the points in the middle. I just don’t have the whole thing yet.

I find Hild to be a very likable character, and a very admirable character. At the same time, her society is one where people can be bought and sold, and you don’t shy away from that aspect of it.

Hild has to be sympathetic in the sense that the reader has to understand what she thinks and how she feels. They don’t necessarily have to like her in the sense of, I wish she was my friend, or my daughter, or my mum. They just have to understand her. Honestly, I wrestled with the whole slavery issue. The way, obviously, we’re all brought up is that it’s just anathema to own a human being in that way. But the more I thought about it, the more I thought it’s just a question of degree. We are all beholden, on some level, to some institution, some more than others.

If you were a slave in Hild’s time, some of them had better lives than some of the free people. That’s a low bar, I know. This is just how it was, and I had to deal with it. Hild had to. I think, in book two, we’re going to see more slavery, and see how that really unfolds. I couldn’t afford to spend too much time on the notion too early, I don’t think. There’s a lot about the seventh century that’s going to be difficult for twenty-first-century readers, without throwing too much at them at once.

There are parts of Hild’s life that are well documented and parts that aren’t. Where did you draw the line for yourself, as far as which things you could write speculatively about and which you couldn’t?

For me, the rule was very simple—if it could have happened, it was fair game. If it was actually written down, I was not going to contravene it. But there was so very little that’s known to be known. I can give you her entire life in one short paragraph.

Most of what we hear from Bede about Hild is, pretty much, hagiography. If you strip that out—the fantastical dreams about her ascending to heaven, and all that stuff—there’s very little left. We know roughly when she was born, but not exactly. We know she was probably born in Britain. We can guess that she was born in what’s now Yorkshire. I was guided greatly by reading all the secondary scholarship around this time. The material goods and so forth. All the archaeology, the ethnology. How the jewelry looked. And I could extrapolate from that. I started off as a science-fiction writer, so that’s my meat and drink—take three facts and build a world from it. It’s a joy to me.

Do you have a sense of what your next project might be after the third volume of Hild is done?

I’d love to write the next phase of my memoir—I wrote that multimedia memoir in 2007. And there are lots of novels I’d write. I would love to write about this country in pre-Columbian times. I would also love to write about the UK and Iceland a little later, like the ninth century. There’s another Aud book bubbling in the back of my head. I sometimes think about Ammonite, and what that might be like now. Ideas are cheap. They circle like planes running out of fuel. Whichever looks most important, I will bring that in to land when it’s time.