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Nicola Griffith: Master World Builder

Nicola Griffith: Master World Builder

Author: Victoria Brownworth

November 24, 2013

Medieval womanhood. Middle Ages. Those words conjure a time and a place where women were an afterthought except as consorts and producers of heirs–sons, not daughters. What do we really know of women in the Middle Ages and how they lived? Weren’t the lives of women so restrictive and constricted as to be barely worth noting? Can we even conceptualize lesbianism in that era?

Nicola Griffith has answers to those questions, many of which are to be found in the pages of her new novel, Hild (FSG), a massive (nearly 600 pages replete with maps, genealogies and glossary) historical novel about women and the Middle Ages.

Nicola Griffith had already done world-building in her award-winning science fiction novels Ammonite and Slow River, and character-building in her mystery/crime series featuring lesbian detective Aud Torvingen. So perhaps she was uniquely positioned to answer the questions of who and what women in the Middle Ages were and detail how they lived when she embarked upon what is, without doubt, her most complex novel to date.

The novel is huge–both in heft and scope–and tells the story of St. Hilda of Whitby, a 7th century saint, founding abbess of the monastery of Whitby and a major figure in the conversion of England to Christianity. Her importance is as big as Griffith’s novel, and yet Griffith is the first to truly explicate Hild’s impact since Hild was first written about in the mid-8th century by the venerable Bede in his The Ecclesiastical History of the English.

I spoke with Griffith at her home in Seattle after Hild had debuted on the auspicious date of 11/12/13. After some 15 years of contemplating St. Hilda and six years since she wrote her first sentences, having the beautiful book in hand has been, Griffith said, “an exciting moment, a dream.”

The story–Griffith’s introduction to Hild–began one day in Whitby years ago, when she was in her 20s. Griffith had gone to Whitby to get away from a “gray time.” Her description of what happened to her there is nothing short of magical. “I went to Whitby. It was great. Just great. It was like sticking your head into a perfectly ordinary wardrobe and discovering Narnia.”

And so the enchantment began.

Griffith’s love of Hild is palpable as she describes her and why she has wanted to write about her for literally decades. She’s succinct, “I had to write about Hild because she was so important. She changed the world. Her story demands to be told. She basically midwifed English literature. And there’s no book about this woman. The more I thought about it, the more I thought, well, why?

That question is rhetorical for her (and for us), of course, and she has the answer: “Men have written history, that’s why. If this book had an epigraph, it would be that.”

There’s no anger or resentment in Griffith’s voice, which still strongly carries the accent of her native Yorkshire, despite having lived half her life here in the U.S., the last 20 years of which in Seattle with her wife (they married recently when same-sex marriage was legalized in Washington), Kelley Eskridge, also a writer.

Griffith continues, explaining that issues of “race, class, gender, sexual orientation, ability” (Griffith was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1993) have always been with us. “Women of Hild’s time were just as engaged in the world as we are. They weren’t just baby-making machines any more than we are now.”

 The perception and perspective that this was all women did and were until modern times is, Griffith asserts, “a myth. It’s a destructive myth–that women are seen in this passive way.”

There’s nothing passive about the women-–and there are many-–in Hild. From the literal first page of the novel, the reader is given entrée into a world of women that is not only just as complex as the world of men, but in many respects is more so. How women live in the time of Hild is very much text and sub-text. They have their given roles, but the intrigue that surrounds them (because the misogynist body politic has always been with us) demands a whole other layering of sotto voce social constructs which they must discern and within which they must move carefully and stealthily so as not to draw the wrong attention to themselves.

When Hild’s mother comes to inform her and her brother that their father has been killed, the boy, who is seven, asks a question predicated on what he knows of the world as a male. But Hild witnesses her mother in disarray and sees something entirely different. Hild is only three as the novel opens, yet she is already keenly cognizant of everything in her surroundings. Being female demands that she see the world from the vantage point of both her own female gaze and also the gaze through which she is seen, the male gaze.

Griffith explains that within the social milieu for women of Hild’s era, there were “different agencies, gender restrictions. If I am reading all the little clues correctly, the higher up status-wise you went, the more restrictive things were [for women].”

She notes that class was delineating–the lower the class status, the less distinction between the sexes. “Among subsistence farmers you’d see women and men in the fields together. But you wouldn’t be able to tell the boys from the girls. All this fancy role-playing happens higher up,” where status separates gender roles much more definitively.

If her day at Whitby many years ago opened the magical world of Hild to her, Griffith notes that the reasons “as for how and why I wanted to write this” are manifold, but come back to who she is, as a lesbian and a writer, not just what she discovered when she had her epiphany at Whitby about the importance of Hild.

“I’m a lesbian writing historical fiction. When I think of what that means, I think of the  Adrienne Rich quote, which goes something like: ‘We use what we have to invent what we desire.’”

There was little extant on Hild herself, and even less, of course, on lesbians in the Middle Ages. So as Griffith explored her subject, she explored our role–women, lesbians–during that time. In writing about it she didn’t employ what is always referred to (dismissively) as revisionism, she used what she knows of women, lesbians and female agency. “I know, sure, I know where I come from. Women have always done amazing things. We’re not just little counters to make babies. But we’re not allowed rights.” That, she asserts, has been consistent throughout the centuries.

One of the most compelling aspects of Hild is that like all truly good historical fiction, it situates the reader in the present of the book’s time period. As we follow Hild from three to nearly 20, we experience her life as she lived it and see that except for a plethora of weaponry and a dearth of technology, it’s not so different from our own–particularly with regard to how women discover their place in a male-centered world.

A book like Hild demands a great deal: research, time and a level of energy and application that novels set in the here and now do not. Griffith says over 15 years, during which she was writing the Aud books, “I was thinking about Hild.” It was, she says, “deep-minded.”

The research happened throughout that time, gradually getting more intense as she began the actual writing. She had “ idle interest reading around the period [Middle Ages]. I knew what I was going to write about Hild in 2001, when I was working on Stay. But I needed other skills.

I’d done world-building in my science fiction books, single character in the Aud books. But I did not know enough about the world and the way the world works yet to write Hild.”

 It was an evolving process.

“I’m not sure I could have written this book without social media,” she continued. “I began reading The Heroic Age. [The Heroic Age is a free online journal dedicated to the study of Northwestern Europe from the Late Roman Empire to the advent of the Norman Empire.] I don’t move in the university atmosphere, I didn’t mingle with that group of people, but I needed the kind of answers they could give me.”

Griffith would pose questions online to academics, looking for answers to questions of how society operated in the time of Hild. When people balked at categorical responses, she would re-frame her questions as hypotheticals.

 “I would read a couple of general histories–if something caught my fancy–like weapons in 6th century Britain. But I find that academics were extremely wary. I had to provoke people to get answers.”

 Throughout that process of envisioning the time and place and tone that the novel and characters would take, Griffith said, It was just so long. Sometimes it was just idle for my own satisfaction. Did she have a dog? Research told me they had dogs. So I wondered about cats. But then discovered they used to eat cats. Yet I was sure this child would have an animal. Hild got a puppy in the first draft. Kelley read it and asked, ‘Well how’s the dog going to die?’ I was sick of the horrible death of dogs, of war dogs. In the second draft, the puppy came out.”

This attention to detail is essential to historical fiction that works–and is the often fatal flaw in historical fiction that doesn’t. But for the sexuality of the book, Griffith said she felt on shakier ground.

 “Writing about Hild’s sexuality–I’m a sexual being, I’m used to looking through the world through sexual eyes. But I had to imagine all the different stages, like when she was ten.” She makes a noise of frustration, then continues, “So it was kind of easy once she got to be a teenager. Try to remember being 13, what was that like–suddenly feeling desire for the first time. But I was terrified. I don’t go into great description of some things–like where people piss and shit–but sex to me is like breathing and eating. So it had to be there.”

When you read the novel, however, there’s no faltering, there’s none of the hesitancy she describes. The sexual element is keenly written, declaratively described.

 In the end, Griffith harkens back to that Rich quote. I wanted so much to write a really good book that people would return to.” Another writer said to her last week, “I have this kinda Hild hangover,” explaining that he kept seeing the world through Hild’s eyes. Griffith’s response was succinct: “Awesome.”

Her fans, who have been clamoring for a new book in the Aud series, are, she said, content with Hild, some having written reviews on various websites.

That’s likely a good thing, because while Griffith isn’t done with Aud, she’s not done with Hild, either. Hild is still pumping fiercely in her veins. She’s already written the first 50 pages of the sequel to Hild.  

“The Meanwood–these are the missing years,” she explains. “The next book will end when she’s 33. The first was 3 to 19, the second 19 to 33. The third book will be the rest of her life–I won’t have to do the world-building. It will be more political. There will be more about her belief system. This [first novel about Hild] book was about who she is.”

 So is Griffith now Hild’s historian and biographer? It would seem so.

“In my dreams someone discovers her grave.” Griffith’s voice softens, turns a little dreamy, as if imagining that she herself makes the discovery, perhaps seeing herself there, in Whitby, or nearby.

Then her voice regains its declarative tone. “I want to own Hild the way Mary Renault owns Alexander,” she says, a little fiercely. “[Hild] was at the nexus of a huge amount of change. I do want people to reach the end of the story–her story. I’m writing these books to find out how this woman rode the crest of such enormous change. Literacy was such a huge change. I’m writing these books to find out how we got here.”

In “Diving into the Wreck,” Adrienne Rich writes, “the words are purposes/the words are maps.” Griffith’s words indeed have purpose. In detailing a world that at first seems so foreign to our own, she has become a cartographer of sorts–mapping out the places where women/lesbians have been throughout a period of history that is virtually unknown to us as 21st century beings. Yet in that mapping, in that search for how Hild did what she did, she’s illumined not just the past of women’s agency, but its trajectory through history. Women didn’t just appear in the 20th century–they have always been as they are now. In Hild, Griffith shows us how. Her sequel will tell us even more.

Photo courtesy of Nicola Griffith

Victoria Brownworth photo

About: Victoria Brownworth

Victoria A. Brownworth is an award-winning journalist, editor and writer and the author and editor of nearly 30 books. She has won the NLGJA and the Society of Professional Journalists awards, the Lambda Literary Award and has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. She won the 2013 SPJ Award for Enterprise Reporting in May 2014. She is a regular contributor to The Advocate and SheWired, a blogger for Huffington Post and A Room of Her Own, a columnist and contributing editor for Curve magazine and Lambda Literary Review and a columnist for San Francisco Bay Area Reporter. Her reporting and commentary have appeared in the New York Times, Village Voice, Baltimore Sun, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe, Philadelphia Inquirer, The Nation, Ms Magazine and Slate. Her book, 'From Where We Sit: Black Writers Write Black Youth' won the 2012 Moonbeam Award for cultural & historical fiction. Her new novel, 'Ordinary Mayhem,' won the IPPY Award for fiction on May 1, 2015. Her book 'Erasure: Silencing Lesbians' and her next novel, 'Sleep So Deep,' will both be published in 2016. @VABVOX

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