Authors and Editors in Conversation
Sean McDonald: So, 7th-century England! How did that happen? Your last novel was a distinctly 21st-century crime novel. How did you end up writing Hild?
Nicola Griffith: In my early twenties I was living in Hull, a depressed (and depressing) industrialised city in East Yorkshire. For a break, for my sanity, I went north up the coast, to Whitby.
The first thing I saw was the ruined abbey on the East Cliff. I didn’t even stop to unload my backpack before climbing the one hundred and ninety-nine steps.
When I stepped across the threshold it was as though history fisted up through the turf and through me. The power of that place wrenched my world off its axis. I stood there, gaping. History, I realised, was real. Built by real people with their own dreams, disappointments, and dailyness. Not at all like the stories I’d read growing up in which people behaved as though they knew they were part of momentous events.
After that, every year, sometimes twice a year, I visited Whitby. I walked the coastline. I roamed the moors. I spent hours at the abbey, reading the tourist brochures, imagining how it might have been long, long ago. Even after I moved to the US, I came back once a year. But I didn’t think of writing about it. I was happily writing other things—including three novels about a woman named for a 9th-century Norwegian, Aud the Deepminded. (So, clearly, part of my mind was preparing to visit the past. I just didn’t know it.)
Meanwhile, on one visit to England I picked up a battered 1959 Pelican edition of Trevelyan’s A Shortened History of England. On the plane back to the US I read about the Synod of Whitby, a debate held in 664 CE, hosted by a woman called Hild—who had founded the abbey—in which advocates for the so-called Celtic and Roman churches fought for ascendancy and the king’s endorsement. I don’t remember the rest of the flight. This, I thought. This Synod is a major turning point in the formation of England. But who is Hild?
I wrote this book to find out.
And in discovering Hild and her time, I realized I was born where Hild most probably was, a part of Yorkshire then known as Elmet. Perhaps we climbed the same kind of trees hanging over the same rivers, scrambled over the same rocks, lay on our backs in the same heather and watched the clouds and asked ourselves the same kind of questions: What does the sky feel like? Where do swallows go in winter? Where does the wind come from? And, later, as we saw how the world works: What makes people behave like that? How can we make things work better?
Sean McDonald: OK, that’s all very interesting. Honestly, it is. But I’m really interested in the moment you decided to commit to actually writing Hild—Aud may have been named after a 9th-century Norwegian, but she’s an ass-kicking lesbian crime fighter, not a historical figure. The story, or at least the character, had obviously been with you for a long time, but I want to know what actually possessed you when you took the plunge. Had you been avoiding before you committed?
Nicola Griffith: I was waiting for the proofs of Always, the third Aud novel. My mother was dying. I was going crazy. So I did what I’ve always done when I can’t sit still: I just started to write. In a blaze of energy I wrote a memoir. I wrote the whole thing, soup to nuts, in three months; there was no time to be precious or step around the truth. As I wrote the introduction, I found myself talking about history and language and landscape and how I was shaped as a writer by all three. It became clear that Hild was where I’d been going for years, where I’d always been going, I’d just been too afraid of failure—failing at this thing I’d been aiming for all my life—to admit it. So the day before my birthday I thought: Enough. I would celebrate by having begun. So I sat down, opened a new document. And there she was, lying under a tree, listening. She was three years old…
Sean McDonald: What was the single most daunting thing about writing about such a long-ago time?
Nicola Griffith: To make sure that Hild and all the other women do their extraordinary and interesting things securely within the constraints of their time—while being fully, recognizably human (not idiotic stereotypes of Women In Ye Olde Past; you know the kind of thing). Hild had to be believable as a woman in her time and place, yet singular. Because she must have been. She began as the second daughter of a woman widowed in exile, hunted by rival petty kings, and ended as the most powerful abbess of Britain, counsellor to kings and teacher of five bishops. Now beloved as a saint.
But saints are never saintly in real life. They’re complicated, sometimes difficult, human beings. I wanted to know what made Hild who she is, how she managed to remain within her cultural constraints and become universally revered.
So I researched, and I pondered, and, frankly, quailed. And as I indulged in all kinds of avoidance behaviour—including more research—I stumbled over a new factoid: one scholar estimated that Anglo-Saxon women spent 65% of their time in the production of textiles.
This stopped me in my tracks. Sixty-five percent. That’s a greater proportion of her day than sleeping, child care, and food preparation combined. As I thought about it I understood that textile production was life-or-death technology for the whole community. I kept returning to it. It fascinated me. But I didn’t want to write that kind of book.
Sean McDonald: Sorry, what “kind of book” did you not want to write? Did you feel like you had to avoid textiles? Was there not a way to make them interesting?
Nicola Griffith: I didn’t want to write about the restrictions of gender. Domesticity makes me claustrophobic. Hearth and home are all very well, but I love an epic canvas: gold and glory, politics and plotting.
To avoid that, I was tempted to take the easy way out and make Hild so singular that the restrictions didn’t apply to her. I tried everything I could think of; at one point I even had her learn and use a sword, although in reality she might have very well have been put to death for that.
It didn’t work: History is made by real people; the rules always apply. I despaired of being able to reconcile that reality with what I wanted, what somewhere inside I knew was possible.
In the end I did what any good Anglo-Saxon would: I got drunk, laughed in the face of fear, and charged. And I discovered what poets have known for millennia, that constraint is freeing. I had nothing to lose, so I committed. The words came. It felt like magic. It was Hild’s voice.
Sean McDonald: On a continuum that extends from Game of Thrones to a scholarly history text, where does Hild fall?
Nicola Griffith: I described Hild once on my blog as Game of Thrones without the dragons. But not really. Yes, there’s sex, and Hild does kill people. And there are horses and swords and blood and fire. There are dynasties and religions and competing agendas and personalities. But there are many, many differences. For one thing, there’s no magic—at least not the objective, point-at-the-dragon kind; there’s only fear of the uncanny or joy at the fleeting miracle of life: feelings Hild and her mother exploit to the hilt. For another, most of the characters are historical figures. Also the women are human beings in and of and by themselves, not in relation to men. Another big difference: my main character is in every single scene; it’s a novel of character. There’s a lot more pleasure, too, some lyricism and comforts and satisfactions to balance the brutality. Most of the people are, I hope, interesting enough to want to have dinner with—though certainly you wouldn’t trust their smiles and you might want to let a dog taste the food first.
As for it being a scholarly text, ha! I remember one of our phone conversations in which I said blithely, “You could describe Hild as an ethnography of seventh-century Britain,” and felt you turning pale on the other end of the line. So let me just say that I’ve done my utmost not to contravene what is known to be known, and one historian at least—a specialist in the Men of the North in the sixth through ninth centuries—thinks it’s fabulous. I haven’t done anything that’s actually impossible (though I have taken heinous liberties with one known character, another saint).
Sean McDonald: How much research did you do? What were your best sources?
Nicola Griffith: For Hild, there is really only one source: the Venerable Bede’s Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, often abbreviated to HE). Bede, a monk, wrote this foundational text of English history fifty years after Hild died. He never met her. And only five pages of his book concern her.
I read those five pages, then the whole book, over and over. But no matter how many translations I read, how much secondary scholarship I hunted down, there was never going to be any more than those essential five pages. So I switched trails: if I couldn’t learn about Hild, I’d learn her world. I’d build seventh-century Britain in my imagination and grow Hild inside.
For the general research I started with Stenton, progressed to Kirby and Yorke, McKitterick and Higham, and then fell into specialities: kings and kingship, gender, places, fauna, flora, culture, agriculture, architecture, art, textiles, jewellery, weapons, war, music, religion, even weather. I became utterly addicted. I read conference papers (on everything from Anglo-Saxon notions of slavery to language adaptations of conquered people) and began following—and sometimes making friends with—scholars of the period so I knew about forthcoming publications well in advance and academic bloggers have been a lifesaver.
Sean McDonald: I imagine a hyperactive hive of medieval historians… Any such bloggers we (i.e., non-obsessed lay readers) positively can’t miss? Or any particularly extraordinary ones you’d care to recommend in case there are a few readers as frighteningly interested in this sort of thing as you are?
Nicola Griffith: The lay reader could do a lot worse than begin with The Heroic Age, a peer-reviewed journal currently edited by Larry Swain. When I was first researching, it was invaluable. Consider, too: The Medieval Garden Enclosed, soothing, meditative ruminations on the uses of various plants during the Middle Ages, run by the people in charge of The Cloisters garden, a branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Unlocked Wordhoard, a Beowulf-inspired blog. For those with more exotic tastes, probably the very best source for all things related to the Age of Conversion is Heavenfield, run by Michelle of Heavenfield (who founded The Heroic Age and right at the beginning of Hild invited me into the community by tagging me in a history blog meme game). Jonathan Jarrett rules A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe—the title of which is a little misleading because his focus has broadened recently to include early medieval Europe in general; his reports on papers given at conferences are fabulous. Tim Clarkson over at Senchus loves all things north of Hadrian’s Wall, with a particular fondness for Picts and Scots (his books on the subject are definitely worth seeking out: wonderful narrative histories). Magistra et Mater is where “history, religion and motherhood meet” and have a fiercely intellectual conversation. And for a fascinating look at another writer’s process and very useful research (though we don’t always quite agree), plus the occasional recipe, I can recommend Carla Nayland.
Sean McDonald: How accurate are all the historical details in Hild?
Nicola Griffith: Very. I hope. Despite all my research, I have no doubt that I’ve made some terrible mistakes—when it comes down to it, there’s so much we don’t and can’t know. Whenever a new text is published I read it with a mixture of dread and anticipation—but so far nothing I’ve written has turned out to be wildly wrong. And now that the book is nearing publication I’m trying to let go of that worry: at this stage there’s nothing I can do.
Sean McDonald: Are you a big reader of historical fiction? Are there particular books you want Hild to measure up to?
Nicola Griffith: I might have been born in Yorkshire in the twentieth century, but as a teenager I rode the stony slopes of Mary Renault’s Macedon in winter, and gazed out over the summer fjords of Sigrid Undset’s Norway. Alongside Alexander, I led bronze-age cavalry and fought my father; with Kristin Lavransdatter I managed a fourteenth-century household and defied my family. I lived their story as deeply as I lived my own; their lessons were my lessons. And from the moment I realised I would write about Hild, I wanted her story to be as powerful as that to readers. I wanted them to live and breathe the seventh century, to reach the end of the book and nod: Yes, that’s how it was. In the writing of it, I knew I really wanted Hild to measure up to Mantel’s Cromwell: that sense of an extraordinary mind breasting the waves of competing political agendas. Beneath that I hope the reader will feel the same wild magic of the landscape evoked by Mary Stewart in The Crystal Cave. And if I could give readers the sheer exhilaration in Hild’s company that Patrick O’Brian gave me with Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin I’d know I was finally getting it right…
Nicola Griffith is the award-winning author of five novels and a memoir. A native of Yorkshire, England—now a dual U.S./U.K. citizen—she is a onetime self-defense instructor who turned to writing full-time upon being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1993. She lives with her partner, the writer Kelley Eskridge, in Seattle. You can find Nicola online at nicolagriffith.com and @nicolaz.
Sean McDonald is Publisher of FSG Originals and Executive Editor and Director of Digital and Paperback Publishing at FSG.