Depends on her age. At three she’d study you silently, with great interest, but she wouldn’t see you as a real person. At eight she’d give you a fathomless look that would make you uneasy. At fourteen her eyes would be absolutely impenetrable, but by now you’d be beyond uneasy, because you’d know she was quicker on her feet than you, and more powerful. At sixteen, you’d be fascinated, but frightened: at this point she has a reputation for the uncanny, for killing people or having sex with them, and no way of predicting which. And as she’s the niece of the most powerful king in Britain, it would not pay to even try to mess with her. Towering mind, a will of adamant, and a mother who is beautiful, subtle, and ruthless. You’d have to be very, very nice to her and very, very careful.
Ah. I’ll ask you things instead, then.
Sounds like a plan.
Your bio says you used to teach women’s self-defence for a living…
For five years. In the UK. I taught a couple of classes in the US, too, most memorably a date-rape class for seventy Girl Scouts and their mothers.
…that you were diagnosed with MS in 1993 and switched from teaching self-defence to writing. Would you still be teaching women how to fight if you hadn’t been diagnosed with MS?
What I really mean is, if you hadn’t been diagnosed with MS would you have become a writer?
I was already writing–I’ve been writing since I wrote the lyrics for the band I fronted. Then I wrote a short story that morphed into a novel. The snag was I was doing so many other things at the same time. The first writing workshop I went to–okay, the only writing workshop I went to–was in the summer of 1988. And I only went because they responded before my other application did–which was a women’s martial arts camp in the Netherlands.
My first novel came out the month before I was diagnosed. Though I’d been sick for a while. It had become clear to me that my energy was less than it was, that I should focus on one thing or another. And writing was–still is–both a rush and a challenge. You can never, ever write a perfect novel, no matter how brilliantly you do it. There’s always something to learn.
So is writing books all you do now?
I wish. But it’s mostly what I do. Sometimes I teach, or consult, or edit. I also write essays and short fiction–but they are not huge moneyspinners.
So while you wrote Hild you did other things?
Yes and no. I wrote the first few chapters–the bit where Hild’s father is murdered, her mother positions her to be the king’s seer, she’s nearly killed in a dockside fight, is abandoned by the king in a strange place but eventually returns to her mother with a sense of purpose and a tutor in tow–in one long gush. Then I got sidetracked: a non-profit I worked with needed some help, which totally sucked me in and ate my life for a while. Eventually I came to my senses and resigned and went back to Hild.
How long were you away?
More than year. Nearly two maybe. I’m not sure. But going back to Hild was like being dipped in sanity. As soon as I picked up her story–she was working out the weave of seventh-century British politics, tracing influences to their source–I thought, This is where I belong.
It makes me so happy to wake up in the morning and know there is nothing else I have to do but work on the story of this child becoming an adult who will grow up to change the world. This is the story I’ve been aiming for my whole life. I got to build a whole world, people it–mostly with historical characters but some I’ve invented–and then sit back and watch how they act on each other.
It was meant to be one big book: the life of Hild, born fourteen hundred years ago, who becomes the woman we know as St. Hilda of Whitby. She lived until she was 66. But the story–the time, the people, the place–fascinated me to such an extent, I was having such a good time, that I hit a hundred thousand words and Hild was only 12. And I chortle with delight at the prospect of spending the foreseeable future–the next five years, say–with Hild.
So there’s going to be more?
Of course there’s going to be more! This novel finishes when she’s 19. There’s so much more to tell.
Tell me it’s not going to devolve into one of those endless cycles like a fantasy epic.
It’s not going to devolve into a meandering, low-information-density epic. I am focused. I know how the next book begins and ends, I know how the third and final book ends. I know where I’m going. I will get there in a timely fashion.
This story is epic in many ways–wars, dynasties, revenge, friendship, religious power struggle, ethnogenesis, sex, risk, joy–but in others it’s not. There’s no Meanwhile, a thousand leagues away in the point-of-view of a character you’d forgotten existed…, for example. Hild is in every single scene. It took me a while to figure out how to handle the narrative to allow for that without sacrificing either the sense of space (I get claustrophic, in fiction and in life) or the focus on character. Frankly, I thought that what I’d set out to do was impossible. It’s one of the reason it took me so long to begin.
But, hey, what’s life without a challenge?
NICOLA GRIFFITH is a native of Yorkshire, England, where she earned her beer money teaching women’s self-defense, fronting a band, and arm-wrestling in bars. In 1993 she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Her novels are Ammonite, Slow River, The Blue Place, Stay, Always, and her latest, Hild. Her writing has appeared in Nature, New Scientist, and the Los Angeles Review of Books, among other places. Her awards include the Tiptree, Nebula, and World Fantasy awards, the Premio Italia, and the Lambda Literary Award (six times)—most recently for her memoir, And Now We Are Going to Have a Party. Griffith lives with her partner, the writer Kelley Eskridge, in Seattle, Washington. You can find Nicola online at nicolagriffith.com and @nicolaz.