I’m back from a lovely week on Orcas island (if ever you get the chance to visit the Orcas Island LitFest you should) to find two new interviews and an absolutely stunning review of Spear.
One is with Locus. It’s my third interview with the magazine and this time I was talking to Gary Wolfe and Liza Trombi while attending ICFA in Orlando. Locus interviews are interesting in that they are very deliberately left as transcriptions of an oral conversation—you get to see the subject’s mind at work. Or, in my case, skipping about. My thoughts were going a mile a minute so I sometimes didn’t finish one before launching into a tangent. This is how i work during written interviews, only in written interviews I get to go back and put things in order, add the things I dropped mid-thought, etc. So in this interview one thing I did drop mid-thought was Clarion, and what I learnt. I talk about having learnt only two things about writing at the workshop—and what those were, and who I learnt them from—and had intended to then go on to say that the main thing I did learn was what it means to be a professional writer—how the business works; how to behave with others in the industry; and ways to deal with obstacles to career success. For the record, I learnt that mostly from Tim Powers, and Kate Wilhelm and Damon Knight. I’m sorry I didn’t get that into the interview.
Some interviewees apparently edit their drafts pretty heavily (and I think if you read a few of these things you can tell who, just from the style) but I just changed a couple of sentences to make them more clear. So, well, it’s about 6,500 words of NG raw and uncut. I’m pretty sure it’s behind a paywall, but if you’re interested in SFF you really should subscribe anyway. Locus is the trade magazine for the genre.
Here’s a chunk to whet your appetite:
“I went to Clarion because I found an old copy of F&SF in 1987 and there was an ad for the workshop in the back. This was when Clarion was in Michigan. At the same time, I was getting very restless in Hull. I was reaching that point of, ‘I don’t want to live this life anymore. I want to be warm in the morning, I want food in the fridge; I’m tired of being followed by police everywhere, and I’m done with this.’ I had been teaching a lot of martial arts, a lot of women’s self-defense, and I thought, ‘I need to go somewhere different, just for a little bit.’ I saw this advert for Clarion and thought, ‘Oh, science fiction.’ I’d been reading science fiction and thinking about it. I thought that might be cool. About a week later I heard about a women’s martial arts camp in the Netherlands and decided to apply to that too. ‘Whoever accepts me first, I’ll go there.’ It never occurred to me that neither of them would accept me — I was young, still operating in the ‘Hey, I’m amazing, someone has to’ mindset. Clarion wrote back and said, ‘Our actual application process isn’t open yet, but we’re going to put you on file and we’ll let you know.’ They let me know right in the beginning of February that year. They wanted me to go, and they gave me a scholarship. Super cool. Then, of course, I was terrified, because I’d never travelled to another continent on my own. I’d been out of the UK to the Netherlands and Greece and places like that, but always with other people. I thought, ‘Oh my god, I’m going to be gone for seven weeks and I have no idea what it’s going to be like.’ I was frightened. But I thought, ‘If I don’t do this I will regret it for the rest of my life.’
“My instructors were Tim Powers, Lisa Goldstein, Chip Delany, Stan Robinson, and finally Kate Wilhelm & Damon Knight. I don’t think I really learned anything about writing at that workshop. Actually, I did: the one thing I learned is what Kelley and I first thought of as ‘Delany-ization,’ which is putting everything in the right order. He took a bad passage from John Brunner and made it even worse (I think — I hope so!), and gave it to us — something about going into a room in a great and silver city. I can’t remember the details. He said, ‘Rewrite this so that it makes sense.’ Basically, you have to say, ‘He got to the door, he opened the door, he went in, the room was like this, then he did this….’ You put it in the right order. Kelley and I started calling it ‘narrative grammar’, because we realized that it’s not just important to get the physical narrative right — you have to get the emotional narrative right, too. You have to get everything in the right order. You’ve got all these layers of fiction and they have to swell together and fall together. So, I learned that.
“Actually, there was one other thing. I was talking to Kate and Damon, and they said, ‘Have some wine,’ and, oof, it was just nasty wine (a gallon jug of Gallo). They showed me all the stories I had written and said, ‘Put them in order of when you actually wrote these.’ I did, and they went right down to the bottom two stories–my submission stories–peeled them off, and said, ‘These two are good. With these others, we don’t know what you’re doing. You’re messing around. You’re not talking about anything that matters. What are you frightened of?’ I’m like, ‘Right now? Not much — maybe the wine?’ They said, ‘Nah, just be brave. You’re a really good writer: be brave. That’s all we have to say. Let’s have some more wine.’ So, that was it. I learned narrative and emotional grammar and I learned to try to be brave — to do the thing that I think can’t be done, or that most people say shouldn’t be done, or that no one will publish.”Locus, June 2022, Issue 737, Vol. 88, No. 6, p.66
Another interview I did before Spear came out was with Jenn Jordan for the Syosset Pubic Library’s Turn the Page podcast. And, yet again, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed listening, and the high information density of the finished product—which, given that it was’t edited at all—is exactly the same as the original product :)
I don’t generally listen to podcast interviews because I often find them to be tedious, rambling, fake-chirpy, low-information-density messes, so it’s been a delightful surprise to be involved in so many in a row that, well, are not like that at all. I’m prepared to admit that my notion of podcasts might be very wrong or at least outdated—but I’m curious: what’s your opinion of podcasts? Do you like them? Not? Which one/s would you recommend?
For archival purposes, here are my five most recent podcast interviews:
When Hild came out it was reviewed all over the place—lit mags, major newspapers, blogs, pop culture journals, entertainment sites—but that was nine years ago. The publishing landscape has since changed significantly. With the exception of lead titles from major trade presses, most novel reviews today tend to be one-paragraph blurbs from trade mags (PW, Library Journal, Kirkus etc), roundups from book bloggers and YouTubers, pretty but not exactly deep reels on Instagram, the occasional TikTok, squibs on Goodreads, one or two slightly longer pieces in review journals (Los Angeles Review of Books, Chicago Review of Books etc)—with perhaps a single major newspaper. If you’re lucky. And few are likely to be deep, interesting, or revelatory.
Given that Spear is a very awkward length—longer than a novella but not quite long enough to call a novel—and a retelling, at that, my expectations were not high. I’ve been pleasantly surprised. It’s true, I have had only one major newspaper but it was the New York Times and it was positive. All the publishing trade mags were positive, too, with a couple of online bookseller journals (e.g. Shelf Awareness) being absolute raves.
I’ll list a selection of the more substantial reviews below (again for archival purposes) but for now I want to talk about a review essay of Spear on the Ploughshares blog.
The first thing that struck me about the piece was the featured image, a gorgeous painting of mountainous upland—absolutely perfect for Spear. There was no attribution on the Ploughshares site but I liked it so much I did a TinEye reverse image search—and surprisingly came up with nothing. Stylistically the painting looks old enough to be in the public domain (late 19thC British/European maybe, but perhaps early 20thC North American), but I’m reluctant to use it without knowing for sure. So if you recognise the image, or have a better idea how to search for it, please let me know. [ETA: Thanks to Anna’s comment below, I now know it’s “Landscape With Distant Mountains,” by Arthur Severn, 1899.]
The second thing was the length of the essay—about 2,000 words. The reviewer, Holly M. Wendt, really liked the book—which of course is great—but the third and best thing was that they helped me understand more clearly what I had actually written.
Before I go any further, I want to reiterate what I’ve said before about how I wrote Spear. The original conception was as short fiction, perhaps 10,000 words. I’ve explained elsewhere (in one of those podcast interviews above, I think—maybe Intermultiversal?) that when I write short fiction my process is very different from novel-writing. Almost every stage of a novel is at least partially under my conscious control and by the time i’ve rewritten it every single part is wholly so; I understand the connections and nuances and connotations; I know what it does and why and how and what it means. Short fiction, on the other hand, is for me often a wild, intuitive rollercoaster ride through my subconscious, stemming from a nebulous image or feeling and (sometimes, if I’m lucky) a vague notion of the journey’s end, but—with zero sense of the points in between—relying wholly on my subconscious story expertise to get me there. Spear, for all its almost-novel length, functioned for me like a short story. I wrote not knowing nothing what would come out, only that it would be coherent when it was done. And it was. The first draft was essentially what you’ll find in the finished book—only with a few things added that I’d sped past in a frenzy the first time through. I deepened a conversation here, added an emotional resonance there, that kind of thing. By the time it was copyedited and proofed, after I’d written about it extensively, and after talking about it on Zoom, Skype, and via email I thought I knew almost everything there was to know. But there’s always—always!—more to learn.
For example, after talking to several critics about the change of pace in the narrative, and reading several reader comments from those who preferred the dreamlike opening, when the main character is nameless and speaks only to nature or to her unreliable-narrator of a mother, and those who preferred the real-world parts, I knew there was something there still to figure out. Then last week I was in the middle of a dinner conversation with friends when all those remarks came together in my head and I understood what I’d done—and how and why—with tenses and narrative distance and magic, with myth and the real world, and how it all pivoted around a single sentence:
Outside in the clearing her feet faltered but she walked on, through the thicket, and once on the other side she felt in her heart a snapping, like the parting of a sinew.Spear, by Nicola Griffith (Tordotcom, 2022), p27
It’s at this point that Peretur has her name and is essentially expelled with it from the gauzy and dreamlike world of myth and magic (and present tense—or at least present participles, and narrative distance, and periphrastic prose, and ever-slippery reality) and into the real world, solid under her feet, peopled with living breathing folk. Only now, in the world of people to interact with, that she can begin to truly cohere, to begin to coalesce into her real self. I’d done all that without being consciously aware of what I was doing, but clearly my writing brains, experienced in the way of story, knew what it was about. I felt pretty pleased with myself—smug, even—and at last thoroughly convinced I knew everything there was to know about my own book.
Then I read the Ploughshares essay. Here’s the opening paragraph:
There are few pleasures quite like sinking into a novel that actually merits the adjective “spellbinding,” one in which navigation of known and unknown is so ideally balanced that everything familiar appears from an unexpected angle and everything truly new arrives as deftly as a memory recalled. Nicola Griffith’s Spear, out earlier this year, is just such a book, achieving the particular feat of refreshing the well-trod world of Arthuriana to create a waking dream that echoes most relevantly in our time.“Spear’s Exploration of the Power of Understanding,” by Holly M. Wendt, in Ploughshares blog, posted June 09 2022, accessed June 11 2022 13:30 PDT
I immediately wanted to know: What about that waking dream echoes ‘most relevantly in our time’? And why, as Wendt explains a paragraph or two further down, is it ‘precisely the magical, fantastical elements of Spear that make the novel so seamlessly relevant’ today? I read on, delighted, beginning to understand not only Spear more deeply, but as a result Hild (and therefore Hild and so also Menewood).
For me the money paragraph comes right at the end:
In the midst of so much state oppression in the USA—the proposing and passing of bills that are anti-woman, anti-trans, anti-immigrant, anti-queer, and hostile to people of color, poor people, disabled people, and the environment—the fact that Peretur’s power is rooted in understanding others’ emotional and physical experiences is a striking act of resistance. It is an act of resistance within the sphere of Arthurian mythology itself, a way to remake that space and liberate it for a larger and more inclusive community, and it is an act of resistance that moves beyond the pages of the novel. Oppression gains strength from its refusal to understand others, from its insistent primacy of self-interest. Oppression is incapable of imagining what it might be like to be someone else. Nicola Griffith’s Spear, with its sparking and immersive prose, stands, with Peretur, in defiance of such abuses of power, offering a tale that is a heady and healing draught.“Spear’s Exploration of the Power of Understanding,” by Holly M. Wendt, in Ploughshares blog, posted June 09 2022, accessed June 11 2022 13:41 PDT
But the whole thing is beautifully considered. Do read it.
After that if you want more, here’s a partial list of some other longer (750 – 2,000 words) reviews of and/or articles about Spear I’ve enjoyed:
Meanwhile, I’ll start pulling together YouTube videos of events, and more of those furry, feathered, and fluttery friends of Spear pix. Keep them coming!