Monday, July 16, 2007

A Conversation with Nicola Griffith--part one

Timmi: The other night at your party, Nicola, when we were talking about how writing fiction just gets harder and harder the longer one does it, you mentioned to me that in working on Always, the Aud novel that has been recently released, you wrote more than a million words that you eventually reduced to 175,000. In fact, you have always done extensive—often architectural—rewrites of your novels, which I take as a testament to your artistry. Artistry, of course, begins with talent, but talent that isn’t backed by passion and ambition results not in artistry, but in mediocre work—that is to say, in writing that is good enough to be published, hyped, and even critically praised but which at base does not live up to its potential. At writing workshops I frequently run into the attitude that if an editor can be found to buy a piece of fiction pretty much as is, a light line-edit of a first draft is good enough. And indeed, when many writers finish the first draft of a novel, they consider it in some essential sense “finished”; the very idea of doing what you do would appall them.

Nicola: It appalls me, too, if I stop to think about it. My guess is the actual Always word count is about two million, if you include the stroking and smoothing and so forth of ordinary rewrites. However, if we're talking about brand-new architectural restructuring, with new characters, new scenes, new metaphor systems, then two-thirds of a million is probably closer to the mark.

I feel for all those young (career-wise if not chronologically) writers who still regard publication as the magic bullet. Being published doesn't make you a good writer, it just makes you published. There is no magic bullet, no funny handshake, no secret decoder ring. There is nothing but talent and hard work and patience. This hard truth is one I think most artists try to dodge, for a while. We are, after all, profoundly lazy. (For me, one of the necessary components of art is elegance. Elegance requires simplicity--the fewest strokes, the most direct step, the least complicated solution. Lazy people work so hard to get things just right because that's how we learn to make things easier next time.)

Writing, funnily enough, doesn't work like the rest of life. It never gets easier. I can give personal examples of that. So settle in, get comfortable: I'm going to tell you of the unfurling of each of my five novels, with a focus on the rewriting.

My first voluntary fiction was a short story I began when I was twenty-two or -three, called 'Women and Children First'. It was meant to be witty and ironic: a spaceship hurtling through the void, an accident, a lantern-jawed hero-captain who says, 'To the lifepods. Women and children first!' The women say, 'Okay', and merrily abandon the ship, ending up on an uninhabited planet and founding a woman-centred society, where everything would be beautiful and perfect. But a funny thing happened on the way to utopia. When I started to write, with my fountain pen on my lined paper, I started to think, and that's When It Changed.

That is, I changed; my assumptions disintegrated, as soon as I started imagining specific people in specific situations. Specificity is the ultimate anti-cliché tool. I got specific and, phhtt, no more lesbian feminist paradise.

The story became a novel. By the time I finished it (and called it Greenstorm (after the planet it was set on, Grenschtom's Planet), I thought I was the second coming: a novel! I had fantasies of televised black-tie events where the glitterati applauded in awe as I collected my Booker Prize. I knew, flat out knew, I was Destined for Greatness. But first I had to get the damn thing typed.

Eventually it went off to publishers. After much trial and error, it found its way to Malcolm Edwards at Gollancz and to Jen Green at The Women's Press. (For more on some of this, see And Now We Are Going to Have a Party: Liner Notes to a Writer's Early Life, my kinda sorta memoir.

Jen Green explained in three closely typed pages what was wrong with the book but that she believed I could fix it. Malcolm Edwards said if I cut it by a third, he'd consider publishing.

This, of course, was tremendous response to a first fiction but all I saw was rejection. I was so beside myself with shock and a deep, focused rage that I destroyed the bannisters of the flat I lived in: kicked them out, precisely and deliberately, one by one. They crack had crack rejected crack me. Too crack many crack words! I thought I was cross at them; really I was appalled that despite all that effort, I'd failed; that they wanted me to work.

I got over it. (I got drunk.) Then I sat down and started rewriting. Half way through I stopped: I saw just how awful and amateurish the novel was, and I couldn't face the almost total destruction and rebuilding it would take. I had grown and changed; the book was too small. I couldn't integrate into the old book the (absolutely spot-on) criticisms I'd been given by these editors because those criticisms had fundamentally changed me as a writer.

I put the novel in a drawer and wrote another. This one was set on the same world but many hundreds of years later. By now there were two societies on the planet: the women-only side of the planet, and the mixed-gender side. I spent more time destroying the notion of essentialism. In a fit of irony I titled it We Are Paradise and then read it through and found it far too science-fantasyish for my tastes. Also, it was a love-conquers-all story. It just wouldn't do. I stuffed it in a drawer without showing anyone (though if you want to read the first four pages, see ANWAGTHAP).

I resolved to learn to write by doing a few short stories. I reasoned that being able to complete a story arc in a month would teach me faster than throwing away a novel every year or two.

I sold my fourth short story attempt, 'Mirrors and Burnstone', to Interzone. It was a solid skiffy novelette about the rescue of a human security officer by an alien native. After it was published I was invited to attend Mexicon II and to be on a panel about gender and aliens. The moderator, Sherry Coldsmith, asked me a question about the aliens in 'Mirrors and Burnstone', and I opened my mouth but what I'd been about to say was blotted out by a sudden huge revelation: the aliens in M&B were women. And the plot of what was to become Ammonite dropped into my head like a screen menu as I sat mute before a hundred people.I spent the rest of the convention in a daze.

I would write this novel, I knew.

But I wasn't in a rush. I let the ideas accrete. I moved to the US. I wrote some other stories, and had an idea for another novel (that became Slow River). I got a letter (this was before email) from Malcolm Edwards, now the Editorial Director at HarperCollins/Grafton, saying, essentially: been reading your stories in Interzone, do you have a novel? Why yes, I said (lying), I'm working on two. And I wrote a paragraph about Ammonite-to-be and Slow River-to-be. And as my reply wended its way to London via the mysteries of international mail, I sat and wrote furiously the first few chapters of Ammonite.

Ammonite unrolled like a rug kicked open before an emperor: inevitable, unstoppable, luxuriant. Soup to nuts it took me less than a year. It came out whole. The reason it was so fast and easy was that it was set on the same planet--Grenchstom's Planet, GP, Jeep--as that first story-then-novel, and some of the characters (Marghe, Thenike, Vine, Uaithne) were familiar to me from the second novel. So another way to consider Ammonite is as the book that took eight years to make.

Meanwhile, Slow River was growing in the back of my mind. I was terrified of it; I knew I didn't have the skill to translate my vision. I was right. Thirty thousand words in, I knew it wasn't going to work. I had become hopelessly muddled with flashbacks piggybacking on flashbacks, and dizzily escalating dream and nightmare sequences. Each time I sat down to work I felt queasy. The more I tried to consciously wrestle the book into shape, the worse everything got. It wasn't until I'd given up--or thought I'd given up--that I found the solution.

Kelley came home from work one night and found me sitting in a heap on the living room floor. How did your work go today? she asked. 'It's crap. I'm crap. I can't write. I've given up. I'll have to find a job.' I meant every word; my life, as I understood it, was over. Once Kelley saw that I was utterly serious, that I could not be consoled, she disappeared into the kitchen and after a long moment re-emerged with two frosty Dos Equis. 'Okay,' she said. I looked up. She held out a beer. 'This is a magic beer. When you reach the bottom of the bottle everything will be better. You'll find out how tomorrow.' I stared. 'Trust me,' she said. 'Just drink the beer. It's magic.'

I drank the beer. About one swallow from the end, I felt a stray thought break my brain surface and arrow into my subconscious. I didn't pursue it. I was trusting the magic.

I woke in the middle of the night, thinking 'Brazzaville Beach', William Boyd's brilliant novel set in the Congo and written from two different points-of-view, though both from the same character. And the solution lay there, whole and perfect, in my mind. The next day I deleted those thirty thousand words and began again.

I don't remember how long it took me to write. Not long, I suspect. I was moving through an ecstatic dream. I printed the draft. Gave it to Kelley. She read it and burst into tears. 'Oh, honey, it's brilliant!' I smiled through my own tears and told her she gave good beer. 'Oh, god,' she said, 'I was so scared that day, I didn't know what to do, I'd never seen you like that before. The magic beer thing was sheer desperation.'

I have since learnt that despair, the feeling of being in the middle of the Gobi Desert--nothing before me but dust, nothing behind me but dust--is just part of my process.

Ammonite took one year to write (or eight, depending on your perspective), Slow River took two and a half (or perhaps four). The Blue Place took ten months--

--or perhaps six years. The idea of Aud--a dream of a woman who could kill without hesitation--occurred to me in 1991. I settled down to write in 1996. I was done, whap, ten months later in 1997. Like writing Ammonite, it just unfurled. Like Ammonite, like Slow River, I had no publisher edits. Unlike the two SF books, with TBP I regret this. The Blue Place is a good book, but it was a new genre and there are one or two things, just little things, line edits and metaphors--and one awful error-of-fact--I'd change today.

But I knew it was good, and I knew it would do well, and I thought the time might be ripe for me to tackle Stay, a novel about grief. My little sister had been dead eleven years. I thought I'd healed sufficiently to examine grief in fiction. So in 1999, I began, and it was hard, but it was good. In early 2001, I was halfway through the first real rewrite when my elder sister died.

I rewrote Stay thirteen times. Three of those were far-reaching changes, all in the service of my struggle to understand grief through the lens of a fictional character. There were times when rewriting felt like ripping off a scab off, over and over, or pounding a bruise with a hammer. It made me ill, physically and emotionally. Twice, I vowed I would stop, cancel my contract with Nan A. Talese, tell my editor there, Sean McDonald, that I wanted to write something else, something easier. Each time, my pride, my sense of who I am as a writer, made me go back to my desk, grit my teeth, and do it again. (I've written about this, from a slightly different perspective, in an essay, 'Doing the Work'.

And then it was time to have fun, to write a novel that wouldn't hurt, that would be nothing but a blast, a big, burly book, all excitement and rollercoaster ups and downs.

So I sat down to write Always. I knew it was going to be big. (The proposal itself was more than fifty pages long; if you're a devotee of process porn, you can read an excerpt here.)

I imagined it as a dual narrative, one in Seattle in the narrative past, one in Atlanta in the narrative present. The Atlanta narrative would take the form of self-defence lessons; the Seattle narrative would be more traditional novel chapters.

The proposal was accepted by Sean McDonald, now at Riverhead, in 2003. I wrote the first three chapters of each narrative strand, easily, fluidly. I was excited. I wrote some more; this was fun.

Then I became less excited. I began to get tense.

Physical tension is a clue that something isn't right. The body knows. By now, every time I sat at my computer my stomach closed and I couldn't get my breath. Perhaps I was becoming ill. I decided to rest. I set the book aside, did other things (joined the board of a non-profit, thought about teaching, pondered moving house), and felt fine. When I went back to the book, I couldn't breathe.

I printed out what I had and read it with a cold, clear eye. The individual scenes were good, better than good, but the whole was not going to work. For one thing, to say everything I wanted to say in the way I was saying it would take about a quarter of a million words. For another, the double narrative was fighting itself. The metaphors were not in synch; the emotional arcs were working against one another.

I threw away all my delicious work and began again, this time with a single-strand narrative. Fifteen months after my initial beginning, I had a novel. It was 140,000 words, longer than anything I'd published before. I thought it was pretty good; actually I thought it was lovely: nuanced and fun, witty and stately, plotty and character-driven. I sent it to Sean and concentrated on the non-profit I'd joined, on moving house, and on a short story collection. But I began to get very, very tense again. Whenever I thought about the book, I couldn't breathe. The body knows; the book wasn't right.

Four months later, I still hadn't heard anything from Sean and I was going crazy. Then he came to Seattle, and we went out for dinner. I was on my second kamikaze when he said, How come you didn't send me the book you outlined? And I explained that it didn't work, that it was impossible, that, anyway, it would be very, very long. Long doesn't scare me, he said. No, I said, really long. Our entrees came. So tell me what didn't work, he said. Everything, I said. I couldn't make the timing thing make sense, I couldn't get the resonance between Seattle and Atlanta. He chewed thoughtfully. So--and he was quite diffident--have you considered setting the Atlanta events before Aud goes to Seattle, rather than after?

Tumblers clicked and dropped in my head. I sipped my kamikaze. Well, I said eventually, that might work; I'd have to think about it. And then we chatted for another ten minutes, and then I said, 'So, Sean, you know you're asking me to throw away 140,000 words and begin again on a really huge, really emotionally and structurally complicated book and do it in less than a year?' He nodded. 'You know that's impossible, right?' He looked at me and said, 'Well, if you did manage it, I think you'd have an excellent book, and I and Riverhead could try to break you out.'

To a mid-list writer the phrase 'break you out' is magical. It means publicity, attention, print runs, co-op money. I told Sean I needed two weeks to think about it, and then went home in a daze. The thing was materially impossible. I was tired, and sick--viscerally and emotionally--of working so hard. But 'break you out...' Perhaps Aud would finally reach her audience.

I took every minute of the two weeks. What I would be attempting--to write, essentially, a non-fiction instruction manual as fiction, then nest that fiction inside another fiction, and make it all unbearably tense and exciting--would be a literary highwire act, one I'd have to do so well it would look easy; I'd have to half kill myself to write something so good no one could tell it was good.

Then I said yes. A week later, my MS reared up and crashed over me; I went numb from the armpits down. I stayed that way for nearly two months.

The body knows. In this case, the body quailed. Since I couldn't type, I spent my time thinking. I persuaded myself of my ability to achieve the impossible, and eventually I recovered enough to sit at my desk again.

I threw away the beginning and the end and many chunks of the middle of my lovely, heartbreaking novel, and I hollowed out the scenes that were left and began to work on the simultaneous novel-within-a-novel writing that gradually refilled the barebones scenes with different emotions.

And I had an absolute blast writing the self-defense lessons. I invented ten new characters and banged them together joyously and at speed. I was eager every morning to get up and at it. In fact it was all going so well I threw in an extra layer, so now it was a three-ply novel: well over 200,000 words.

I could go on and on and on, but at this point I'll just say I ended up cutting out one layer and slightly reconfiguring the other two to balance the whole, and left thirty thousand words on the cutting room floor. The Always you can read now is not the Always I originally wrote. The first one was very much A Novel. The final one is, well, I'm not sure what it is, A Bustling Slice-of-Life Thriller, an Action Meditation, a Rollercoaster-with-Philosophy Ride? And, believe it or not, I'd love the chance to go through it one more time. The copyedit and proofreading stage was knocked off the rails by my mother's death. There are simple errors (some actually inserted by the proofreader, to the degree that one sentence doesn't make sense). But I'm proud of it. My hope is that most readers will zip through it and simply not understand how much work it was. My hope is that all they'll get is joy, a seamless experience that will, ultimately, change their life.

Because that's the point. To change the reader's world.

Now I'd like to take a moment to backtrack a little and clarify this notion of 'how writing fiction just gets harder'. What's really getting harder for me isn't the writing, it's what happens after the writing. This falls into two parts: shepherding the novel through the publishing process, and then trying to survive on the proceeds.

Trade publishing is a deeply stupid industry. The individuals who work in the business aren't stupid, but the prevailing corporate business model is. International publishing conglomerates are trying to operate in a culture at odds with itself: gentlemanly literary hardcover publishing, whose basic goal, historically, has been the promotion of art and culture and personal prestige, rammed up against cut-throat commercial fiction, whose aim has been to sell product. Both cultures have of course mutated considerably over time but, still, it's like watching Disney try to sell R-rated films; there's an obvious dissonance. In addition, the big houses' long-term profit goals are unrealistic, in my opinion. To achieve these goals they would need to adjust (perhaps 'destroy' is closer to the mark) their models: returns policy, marketing and publicity process, approach to sales, handling of the author, understanding of the reader, relationships with allies and critics... Everything. But this is an old, old complaint. I don't want to bore readers (or, frankly, myself) by rolling around in the grubby details.

The end result of all this is that the ecosystem of the working novelist is becoming increasingly precarious. At first glance my literary lake appears serene, but fewer and fewer things live in it; its underpinnings are being eaten by the zebra mussels of bestseller-focused publishing, and by exotic media. The original habitat is dying. There's very little left for a midlist writer to live on.

I don't know how my life looks from the outside, but lately enough people have made enough off-the-cuff comments in my presence that I can only assume it looks more easy and affluent than it is. I don't have a trust fund, a steady-income-producing spouse, a sideline writing articles for Harper's, or a teaching job. The only money I earn is through novels and very occasional short fiction. As I've never appeared on the NYT or PW bestseller lists, this is less than you might think; it takes me a long time to get a book to the stage where I can look it in the face, year after year.

Don't misunderstand me: I love what I do. It's a joy and a privilege. I'd like to do it forever, but those striped mussels are munching up everything their path. I don't know how much time writers like me have left.

What makes the creation of a great novel possible--and, yes, as I've said, I believe I write great novels--is time. What buys time is money. Those bestsellers who bring out a book a year have an army working for them: privately hired people to do their research, answer their mail, run their websites, cater their parties, do their publicity, even edit their books. (I recently exchanged email with a man in California who makes a comfortable living editing a dozen or so of the biggest names in crime fiction, on their dime.)

I don't have an army, and so it takes more time. I could have published that long-ago first novel, Greenstorm, I think, and my path would have been set: a writer of sub-genre feminist potboilers. I think I might have become rich. I doubt I would have won the Tiptree or Lambda. I wouldn't have readers come up to me (as one did last year) and say, in all seriousness, Your book saved my life. That is worth the time.

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[To be continued...]


Anonymous said...

Please continue!

Anonymous said...

Oh, I have, I have /grin/. I think the rest of the conversation/essay goes up in a day or two.