For a woman who once earned her beers by challenging bargoers in arm-wrestling competitions, British-born author Nicola Griffith has grown into the world of fine wine and international literary acclaim with surprising ease. Her sixth and most recent novel, Hild ( a thick, gold-embossed item containing the tumultuous life story of Saint Hilda, a gifted young leader and warrior of 7th-century England ), was released Nov. 12 and has already received glowing reviews from NPR and The Chicago Tribune.
Windy City Times hopped on the phone with Griffith for a chat about martial arts, nervous English housewives and the challenge of writing bisexuals.
UPDATE: Due to health reasons, Griffith had to cancel her visit to Chicago.
Windy City Times: Hild has gained a lot of traction off the bat. How has the public reaction to this novel compared to that of novels past?
Nicola Griffith: This publication is the best publication ever. It's the handsomest looking book, it's the best launch, it's the best reception I've ever had. The world has changed. My first book came out 20 years ago, so it may have been received very well but I didn't know about it because I didn't have a website, a Twitter, a Facebook.
WCT: Hild is set in the early middle ages and based on an actual person, which seems to be a departure from some of your previous sci-fi and crime works. What drew you to this period and this particular character?
Nicola Griffith: What drew me to Hild was Hild herself. I really wanted to know who this woman was. She changed the world and there are no books about her. There's nothing … The only way to do that was to build the 7th century and grow her inside it and see what happened. I used all my science-fiction skills to build that world.
WCT: How long did you research before you started writing?
Nicola Griffith: On some level I've been researching my whole life. I first heard the name in Whitby Abbey in my twenties in Whitby, a town in the northeast of England. … I think it changed my life going to that place. I discovered that this woman called Hild founded it and that's when I started wanting to know about her. I didn't start writing until 2008 and, by then, I'd be researching pretty seriously for nearly ten years.
WCT: Considering its focus on an adolescent girl and her newfound sexual desires, will Hild be appealing to the YA [young-adult] demographic, especially teens interested in LGBT fiction?
Nicola Griffith: It's about a girl who starts at age 3 and ends at 19, but it's not designed for a young adult audience. I think some young adults could handle it, but it's really designed for grown-ups. But how does it speak to that experience of burgeoning sexuality? That was actually one of the difficult parts about writing the book.
Writing from the point of view of a child is really different. I spent most of my life being a sexual being. I see the world from sexual eyes. It was easy once she got to have sex, I was like "oh yeah I know how this works." But the part in betweentrying to remember what it was like to feel desire for the first time or how to think about it, how to approach itthat was really interesting.
WCT: You've written lesbian stories before but Hild is your first bisexual character. What has that been like?
Nicola Griffith: I've had some mentions online of people saying they're pleased about having a bisexual character in a really well-written book. I think bisexuals are underrepresented in a realistic way. I think they're overrepresented for the male gaze. But for actual bisexuals, I don't think there's enough representation at all.
WCT: When you incorporate non-heterosexual love stories or identities into your writing, how different are the reactions from American versus British readers?
Nicola Griffith: In the UK publishing is a little more nervous. With the "out" books, I would get these plaintive emails from readers saying "I didn't know she was going to be a lesbian and then I read it and I really liked it but I'm married you know!" They were really puzzled that they could enjoy reading a book with a lesbian in it. It just freaked out a lot of people. And I just say lesbians are people. I read books about men, about straight women. Why can't you read a book about a lesbian? I'm not talking about a lesbian story. It's not a coming story in that way. It's just a story of a person who happens to like girls. As I climbed the publishing tree going to vic-fic, people just don't mention it really. The world has changed a lot. People don't seem to care so much.
WCT: What you want people to come away with when they close the back cover of the book? What do you want them to keep with them?
Nicola Griffith: Everything. I want this book to feel like their own memory. I want them to shut the book and think 'yes, that's how it was, in that time with those people'. Almost like it really happened, like a news report. I want it to be fiction in such an immersive way, that Hild's experience is their experience, her joys are their joys. Her lessons are their lessons. … It's like Google Glassan overlay on their world and an internal change. I want them to see the world differently.
UPDATE: Due to health reasons, Griffith had to cancel her visit to Chicago, which was to have been Dec. 4 at Women & Children First.