You've been an artist, you were in a band--was writing always a form of expression you were interested in pursuing, or was it something that grew out of your other experiences?
When I was four years old, one of my favorite activities was to dress up in a violently turquoise velvet dress (to this day I have no idea where it came from--I never wore dresses as a child; I very rarely do now), sneak out of the house at dawn and take the steel lids off the rubbish bins. Then I would sing at the top of my voice and slam the lids together like cymbals for emphasis, waking every neighbor for miles. Great fun. My parents hid all the door keys, but I escaped through the windows. I think what appealed to me was filling the dawn silence with my voice, my noise, my presence. I didn't care one way or the other if others heard me, *I* did, and that was what mattered.
I like to sing. It feels good. It's a very sensuous activity: vocal chords vibrate, thrumming in my throat, setting up a resonating hum in my diaphragm. If you get it right you can send that vibration through every cell and into your bones. A sort of internal massage. Lovely. Then there is the artistic aspect of singing: to control sound to the extent that you can make people weep; to use voice like a scythe, slashing across an audience so you can see them jump in shock.
My first public performances (if you discount the lid-banging) were in operetta, at age fifteen: grotesquely miscast as Yum-Yum in The Mikado. Then they got wise and started giving me the male roles. Much better. Then I joined a band. Ah. Marvellous. I wrote all the lyrics, and some of the music. It was a truly exalting feeling to stand up there and *move* people: make them scared or exhilarated, make them dance, make them cry. I still remember the night on stage when it occurred to me that if I moved my hand, two thousand people would follow that gesture. I tried it. Two thousand faces turned back and forth, like wheat rippling in the wind. Incredible.
But then the band folded, as bands always do, and I gradually stopped singing. Oh, I sang in theatres and things--at benefit gigs and so on--but it wasn't the same without that group of women. I haven't really done much singing since. I realized the other day when I was washing dishes (there's something about steam--washing dishes, having a bath, taking a shower--that makes me sing...) that I don't sing as much as I used to because I write now, and writing comes from the same place inside.
Writing is exhilarating. I get up in the morning sometimes and think, Yes! Yes!, I know what I want to write today! and I sit at the keyboard and...zzzsst...it's like sliding down a well-greased ramp and into a deep, deep well. Time stops. If something hurts I no longer feel it. The CD comes to an end and I don't notice, because I'm riding the crest of a wave, bringing to bear every single mind muscle I possess, flexing, leaping, running, backflipping, endlessly, on and on. There's nothing like it. Nothing even comes close.
There are times during the process of writing a novel, though, when it *doesn't* feel so good. Writing a book can be a bit like crossing the Gobi Desert: one day you look behind you and see nothing but sand; you look ahead and see nothing but dust. There doesn't seem to be any life in the thing you've been working at for months. There's no end in sight. No oasis on the horizon. And then you have to slog. That's when the only thing that sustains you is self-belief. Despite all the (apparent) evidence, you have to say: I can do it. Most of the time, I can. But every single time I sit down to start something new, I wonder: *Can* I do this? Will it work? It's worth it. When it does work, nothing in the world feels as good.
A lot of the themes you write about (identity, sexuality, societal fear of the unknown) are quite universal. What made you choose a "futuristic" setting for your books?
Darko Suvin, the critic, has called science fiction the "literature of cognitive estrangement." It provides tools that other genres don't, ways to unhook the reader from his or her preconceptions, to unmoor us from our own particular reality. For example, with Ammonite, my first novel, I wanted to ask myself: What is a woman? It's not as easy a question as it looks. "An adult human being with a womb" you might say--but what about those who have had hysterectomies? "A person with XX chromosomes"--then what about those who are reared as men, by mistake? (There are hundreds of instances of infants born with ambiguous genitalia, and doctors assigning sex rather arbitrarily.) "Someone with female genitalia"--then what about sex reassignees? And so on and so forth. "Woman" is as much cultural in definition as biological. So, anyway, it seemed to me that the best way to examine "woman" would be to people a whole world with them, give them all the roles, make them human in, of, and by themselves--and not just in relation to men. To do that I had to find a way to remove men from the equation. I came up with a virus, and voila!, Ammonite was science fiction.
With Slow River I wanted to know: What makes an individual who they are? So I took a woman, Lore, and stripped her of everything--name, clothes, money, family, friends, familiar surroundings--and dropped her, wounded and literally naked, into the back alley of a strange city in the middle of the night. I wanted to know: How far are we each prepared to step outside our moral boundaries in order to survive? And what happens when we step so far outside those boundaries that we no longer recognize ourselves... To do this properly I needed a milieu that was almost but not quite the same as today's Western European or North American reader. Simple solution: shift the action forward twenty years.
Del Rey/Ballantine has made an effort to market your books beyond the science fiction genre, and its true that being labelled as "science fiction" can place a writer in a rather small (although growing) niche. How would you identify yourself as a writer?
I write fiction and non-fiction. I write science fiction. I write lesbian fiction. I write literary fiction. I write feminist fiction. I'm about to write a thriller. The bottom line is that I write. I write well. Genre labels are a convenience for sales reps and retailers, a marketing concept.
When you look at fiction closely, everything can be put in one genre or another: WUTHERING HEIGHTS? Romance. ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE? Fantasy. THE HANDMAID'S TALE? Science fiction. Academics and critics dislike fantasy and science fiction. When they come across someone like Gabriel Garcia Marquez (who is essentially a fantasist) whose work they admire, they have to call it something else: magic realism. Margaret Atwood is widely acknowledged to be a good writer, so when she writes SF it's relabelled dystopia. It's a semantic game that leads to all kinds of tortuous logic: "Science fiction is rubbish therefore I don't like it. But I like Ammonite, therefore it's good, therefore it can't be science fiction. Let's call it a utopia." Amazing.
I can understand why retailers might like genre categorization. It makes their life easier. But why do readers buy into it? It just reduces the pool from which they can choose good books. Why not just pick up a book and think: does this look interesting? well-written? about something important to me? If the answer is yes, read it.
Reviewers of your work go on about the "female voice" in science fiction. Your first book was recognized with a Tiptree Award. Do you feel there's a lack of female perspective in the genre?
I feel there's a lack of female perspective, period. Our whole culture is enormously skewed towards the male point of view: literature, the government, language, film, education, health care.... I don't think SF is any worse in that regard than anything else.
The Tiptree Award is given out annually to the novel or short story published anywhere in the world that best examines and expands gender roles. This does not necessarily mean that it has to be fiction written by a woman or about women. It simply has to look at gender roles. The perspective is irrelevant. I'm a judge for this year's award, so if anyone has any suggestions for what the jury should look at--some book or story you think we might have missed--feel free to email me.
How much of a role do you want your sexual preference to play in what people say/think/feel about your work? Is there a tendency for people to label you as "Nicola Griffith: Lesbian Science Fiction Author" and does that bother you?
It doesn't matter to me one whit what people *think* about the fact that I'm a dyke, or that dykes are scattered throughout my fiction. What matters is how they *behave*: what they say and do for others to see and hear.
I'm amused more than anything by the wrong-headed reviews that harp on and on about the fact that my protagonists--in Ammonite and Slow River--are dykes. So what? Given the way I write and what I write about, that's about as relevant as their hair colour. But it seems to be a big deal for most critics. It's particularly funny coming from SF journals because the SF community prides itself on being socially, culturally and intellectually ahead of its time, yet they get their knickers in a right old twist when they run smack into a lesbian sex scene. Mind you, the mainstream press and the lesbian and gay press aren't much better. [Sighs and shakes head...]
What appalls me are those reviews that hint at the fact that writing about lesbians is, well, rather *limiting*, that if only I included some straight people, particularly more men, the book would be more...interesting. The implication being, of course, that women--especially lesbians--are rather boring. Just imagine how it would play to say of some novel by an African American author: "But my dear, why do you insist on writing about *black* people all the time? Don't you find it makes your book less universal in theme?" Aaaargh!! A lot of straight white boys think "universal" equals "straight white boy." It's not an equation I believe in.
So far you've avoided the tendency of science fiction authors to write sequels. Is that intentional?
Sequels don't interest me as a writer. I have far too many ideas for other books circling my head like planes waiting to land at a busy airport. Besides, I think readers are almost always disappointed by a sequel. When they read the first book, they identify with a certain character or a particular scene; they want to see more of *that* person or *that* plot in Book 2. The writer, however, will almost always be interested in a *different* plot point or character. The reader doesn't get what s/he wants. It's a no-win game. Why should I want to go back to a story that's already done when I have so many other, exciting new things to be working on?
Both your novels are, to some degree, concerned with identity. Has identity been an important theme in your life as well?
Isn't it in everyone's? It's the most crucial theme of all: Who am I? Why am I here? But the moving around has nothing to do with identity. I moved from England (I never lived in London, by the way) to live with Kelley--whom I met in 1988 at a writing workshop in the USA. She was living in Atlanta, so that's where we settled while I fought all my immigration battles. (And they were hard fights. We ended up using three different lawyers, spending about fifteen thousand dollars, and writing new immigration law to get me my Green Card. I insisted on being utterly up front about being a dyke throughout the process.)
In 1993 I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. It turns out that heat really exacerbates the disease (and, oh, Atlanta is hot!), so once the immigration dust settled and we knew we could stay in this country, Kelley and I moved to the much milder climate of Seattle. The political climate is milder here, too.
I've been told you have a website on the internet. How did that come about?
I did an interview for WREK in Atlanta, a couple of years ago. The interviewer was a man called Dave Slusher. We stayed in touch and he and his wife Darlene became friends of ours. He's now living in Lafayette (his wife is an engineer on the oil rigs) and getting into computer stuff. He did the website for me (a) as practice for his new skills, and (b) because he likes my work and wants people to know about it. He updates it every month or so. Check it out.
What's next for you? More books? Other projects?
Ooof. Lots of things. I have a tendency to over-commit. People are always writing or phoning or emailing saying: will you be on my show/review this book for our publication/write an article for my journal/edit this book/come talk to my class/speak on a panel.... Endless. But it all seems so bloody *interesting*. (Whenever I start complaining about overwork, Kelley gives me an exasperated look, "Just say no, babe." Maybe I'll get around to that, one of these days.)
My top three current projects are a collection of short fiction and essays called WOMEN AND OTHER ALIENS, due out from HarperCollins in October 1996; a novel, PENNY IN MY MOUTH, also HarperCollins, in summer 1997; and a series of anthologies, Bending the Landscape, that I'm co-editing for White Wolf Publishing. The anthologies are a lot of hard work for very little pay, but, well [grins sheepishly], it's interesting. It's all-original short fantasy, science fiction, and horror with lesbian/gay themes and/or characters. They're going to be good books. The first one--probably the fantasy volume--will be out in February 1997.
I'm no longer with Del Rey. They're an SF/F imprint and the novel I'm working on is a thriller. So I went to HarperCollins. What's the novel about? Well, um, a sort of Norwegian-lesbian-Travis-McGee-drug-smuggling-art-fraud thriller kind of thing. (Oh, one of those....) The next one? Even tougher to describe: clairvoyant talking parrots in the subways of New York and a religious cult in the Caribbean. Do I think the publisher will take it? I have no idea....