Workshop: Character through setting, Monday March 15

Rectangular graphic with white background and red borders and text in red, all caps: Online Writing Classes, with smaller Clarion West logo in white at bottom right.

EDIT: All paid places are sold out but a couple of scholarship places remain. So if you’re BIPOC or disabled, please apply!


In a little over two weeks I’ll be teaching a two-hour Zoom workshop for Clarion West on using setting to explore your character—and character to explore your setting. The class is designed for writers of any genre and level of experience.

How we describe a place and our character’s actions within it can tell the reader much of what they need to know: who the protagonist is, how they got there, and how they feel. Learn to find your way deep into your character—while drawing the reader deeper into your world. Come prepared for listening, writing, and talking.

The class runs 120 minutes, from 4:00pm –  6:00 pm Pacific time, Monday 15th March. It costs $55, though there are some scholarships available for writers who are BIPOC and/or from other traditionally marginalised backgrounds. Book here, through Eventbrite, because I’m not sure when/if it’ll go up on the Clarion West website. You should check out the CW site, though, for other classes and workshops. Some are free, and many look marvellous.

Space is limited so if you’re interested please book soon. The reason I’ve limited the class is that my preferred teaching mode is interactive: discussion, questions, answers, writing exercises, discussion, explanation. It will be the same on Zoom: I’ll talk for five minutes, we’ll write something, break into small groups, talk, come back to the main group, figure out what we’ve learnt; rinse; repeat. It’s hard to do that with a 100 people.

I’m still in the planning stages—figuring out how best to use Zoom—but right now I’ll want participants to bring just two things:

  1. An idea of your favourite fictional character—not a character you admire but one you love; one whose company makes you happy when you long to shut out the world and just dive into story for a while.
  2. A favourite moment with that character—it could be a whole scene, or just a moment, a feeling, a sentence; you choose.

It could be a kid from The Drawing of the Dark, Anna Karenina, the horse from My Friend Flicka, or the sacrificial Giving Tree. It doesn’t matter; what matters is how you feel about this person (or animal, or tree). But I’ll want that firm in your minds.

Bring questions, too, if you have them, whether about setting or character—for me the two are intimately intertwined. And come, of course, with that mix of willingness to play and work that makes for the best learning.

Menewood progress

Menewood has now been rewritten twice and is in the hands of my editor and agent. It’s a long book, so it’ll take a while to read. Then they’ll both have to do some thinking before I get edit letters. Then I’ll have to read the letters and think about those. Then I’ll have to rewrite it once or twice more (with ensuing rounds of reading, editing, thinking, etc). Then there’s all the paratext to prepare: the maps and glossary and family trees and so on. Deciding cover art, cover copy. Catalogue copy. Copyediting—which for Hild took three rounds. Then proofing—don’t even try to count those. Bound galleys, Advance Reading Copies, pre-publicity, publicity, and finally: Launch! At which point it gets really busy…

You’ll understand, then, why I have absolutely no clue of a publication date.

However, if I were Empress of the Universe I’d plump for November 14, 2022—right before St Hild’s feast day, and almost exactly 9 years after the publication of Hild. But on top of the novel’s insane length, there are so many things to consider, such as the fact that I already have a book coming out in 2022—Spear, due from Tordotcom in April—and there are the three Aud novels which await reissue. Not to mention the collection of short fiction which is almost ready to go.

So while I want it to be 2022, Menewood might not appear until 2023.

So as a tiny little treat I’ve written a map-heavy post about Cadwallon—his origins, battles, and faults. It’s going up on Gemæcce, my research blog, on Friday morning, and includes juicy little details about events in Menewood. Fair warning, though: if you’re not familiar with the broad Wikipedia-level outlines of British history c. 631-635 you might find it a bit spoilerish.

If you do choose to go read it, you’ll see I’ve been experimenting with map styles and beginning to lean more towards topographical maps which ultimately make the most sense in this context. I’ve used various types and levels of stylisation and am curious about which readers prefer.

Enjoy. And let me know—either here or over at Gemæcce.

Queer Early Medieval: LGBTQ+ History Month

M Shed, part of Bristol Museums, is celebrating LGBTQ+ History Month in February with four free events. As part of that series I’ll be talking to Cheryl Morgan on 16th February at 7pm UK time (11 am West Coast). We’ll talk about sexuality and gender in seventh-century Britain—and in Roman Britain—and how Christianity did and did not have an impact on Hild and her people’s attitudes. It’s free, and it’s on Zoom. I hope you drop in and ask a question or two—seriously, ask questions! I love to answer questions! And hey, maybe I’ll talk a bit about Menewood, too. Register here.

About the event

From M-Shed:

Saint Hilda of Whitby is a key figure in the history of Christianity in early Britain. Born into a royal family in Northumbria in 614 CE, Hilda entered the church and founded Whitby Abbey.

There she hosted the Synod of Whitby, in which clergy from the British and Roman branches of the Christian Church met to debate the then disputed question of how to calculate the date of Easter.

In her historical novel, Hild, based on the early life of the saint, award-winning novelist Nicola Griffith chose to make her heroine bisexual.

In this event, Griffith will be in conversation with historian, Cheryl Morgan. They will talk about the research underpinning the novel, and how we understand ideas of sexuality and gender in the ancient and early-medieval world.

They will address the perils of assuming a linear progression of attitudes from the past to the present day—tolerance is not a purely 21st-century characteristic.

Nicola Griffith grew up in Yorkshire, but now lives in Seattle with her wife and fellow writer, Kelley Eskridge. Griffith has a successful career in writing novels and memoir, and editing anthologies of original queer fiction. She has won multiple awards, including six from the Lambda Literary Foundation for books with LGBTQ+ themes.

Speaker: Nicola Griffith, award-winning novelist, in conversation with Cheryl Morgan, historian and co-chair of Outstories Bristol

How to Register

When: 16th February, 7pm UK time (11 am Pacific)
Where: Zoom
Cost: Free!
How: Register here

A Good Feeling

Young Black woman in red hat and yellow coat at a podium speaking into a double microphone.

It’s a good feeling to be able to follow @POTUS again on Twitter and know sudden, shocking blood pressure spikes will not blow the top of my head off. (I have perfectly normal BP, except when I see a picture or hear the voice of Trump. It got so bad that I could longer listen to the radio in the car for dread of that voice suddenly catapulting me into rage.)

It’s a good feeling to be able to write a blog post whenever I want without having to worry the Secret Service might start taking an interest because I sound unhinged. (If I still lived in the UK I wouldn’t have worried about such things, but I spent so many years watching my Ps and Qs going through the US immigration process caution became ingrained.)

It’s a good feeling to watch the first Latina Supreme Court Justice administer the oath to a Black female Vice President. (It was difficult watching the last two justices get confirmed despite their clear unsuitability. Gorsuch isn’t exactly a prize, either, but not as blatantly vile as the other two.)

It’s a fantastic fucking feeling to see a Black woman become Vice President. It’s thrilling knowing she’s relatively young with a stellar path before her. I do sincerely hope—and if I prayed, I’d pray—that one day she gets the top job with the short oath. (The VP’s oath is the same one members of Congress and the Cabinet take, whereas the President gets their own, special, mandated-by-the-Constitution oath.)

It’s a heart-fillingly good feeling to see Joe Biden sworn in as the 46th President of the United States. It’s a relief to hear his speech about honour, decency, unity, and truth. For one brief moment I actually believed it might just be possible to start fixing some of the horrors of the past. I hope it is possible. But at the very least it makes a vast huge difference knowing that the people in charge are no longer malevolent narcissists aided and abetted by venal criminals.

It’s a profoundly gratifying feeling to see a young Black woman stand before the world, full of promise and joy and strength, and—like Greta Thunberg, like Emma González—speak intellectual and emotional truth with a moving and powerful voice. ETA: Even more gratifying that she has a speech impediment and credits her disability not as a problem but as the thing that made her the performer she is.

It feels astoundingly good—I feel astoundingly good—to hope again. I’m still cautious with my hope, but I’ll keep trying. Between us, may we be lucky enough to succeed.

Kitten Report #17: Songbird Fever

Spoiler: the kitties are fine, better than fine.

New Year’s Eve dawned upon a great slaughter. Charlie and George turned the house into an abattoir: two moles, one vole, and a bird. It was Charlie who caught most of them—including the bird—and George who ate them—including the bird. The bird, in particular, was messy. Charlie brought it in recently-dead, and proceeded to toss it around and get feathers everywhere.

Tabby cat with feathers stuck in its mouth standing next to a dead songbird

Nope, wasn’t me

Then he threw it into the Christmas tree, where it got stuck. So of course he had to pull off ornaments (one shattered) and countless branchlets and pine needles to get to it. After a while, though—once he’d got feathers stuck in his mouth a few more times—he got bored, as he always does, and abandoned the bird for his dish of real kitty food. 

Enter George. He threw that thing around with enthusiasm, leaping, tossing, catching, pouncing, and then—again, as he always does—he settled in to eat it. The feathers—and beak—were a challenge so he left those and what seemed to be a crop and assorted tubules in a glistening pile on our white (oh yes) carpet. Then he, too, went to eat real food. 

We cleaned everything up, had our usual private and lovely New Year’s Eve celebration that begins with Champagne and caviar and conversation, and went to bed. The fireworks were a nuisance: they were the loudest I remember—and after recent events I was sympathetic of the urge to make a joyful noise, but it was like the Battle of the fucking Somme out there. Charlie jumped the first time then settled on the bed unfazed; George was nervous for an hour—or what I thought was nervous. But then they slept, so then I could sleep—about 3 a.m.

We woke up the next morning to a vast steaming pile of vomit on the white carpet, full of feathers and bird feet. (Happy New Year!) George didn’t want to eat anything—but we weren’t worried: he’d eaten a lot the day before (lots of catfood, a bird and a shrew). They both went outside and ran around, came back, played, had lap time—the usual. But then George started moving slowly, and he still didn’t eat. There was clearly something not right, but we didn’t know what. I began to fret that maybe Charlie had found a bird that was already dead of some kind of poison. But George wasn’t hiding, he wasn’t vomiting, he was just not eating and moving very slowly. But, oh, he looked pitiful.

Tabby cat sitting on the carpet looking up, woebegone

George feels woebegone

On most days, we would have called the vet and tried to get an emergency appointment. George is a jumpy cat, and we always take him to a veterinary practise that caters exclusively to cats (called, oddly enough, Cats Exclusive—a wonderful practice). But, well, holidays. So we resolved that if he wasn’t markedly improved by the next morning, we’d take him to the emergency 24-hour animal hospital, Blue Pearl. After all, he wasn’t bleeding, he didn’t appear to be in pain, and he was using the litter tray.

The next day, he was clearly worse. Off to the hospital he went. He had a very high fever. The vet suspected Salmonellosis—birdsong fever. I’d never heard of it, but it made complete sense. If the bird was already ill with Salmonella when Charlie came across it, it would explain why he’d been able to catch it—he’s been after birds for months but never managed to get one. But George was pretty ill, and apparently about 10% of cats with Salmonellosis die, so we were worried. They admitted him, and put him on IV fluids and antibiotics, and anti-nausea meds. They also did a lot of blood work. And an X-ray just in case he had some kind of intestinal blockage.

The results of these tests were not as clear as anyone would like, so they did some more.* His fever remained stubbornly high. He still wouldn’t eat. We were even more worried. But twelve hours after that, although he was still refusing to eat, his fever finally began to come down. George is a nervous cat, and the hospital was full of to-him dangerous animals like dogs; we were convinced that if we could just get him home he’s recover much faster. Eventually—late Monday night/early Tuesday morning—we managed to bring him home, along with a grab bag of meds: anti-nausea, antibiotic, and appetite stimulant. He’d lost a fair amount of weight (down to 11 lbs) but we were confident we could persuade him to eat.

At 12:30 a.m. he crept from his cat carrier, saw we were all there, that he was safe, and sat and cleaned himself nonstop for thirty minutes. Then he followed us to bed and crawled onto my lap, stuck his head under my arm, and fell straight into sleep. Awkward for me. I sat up for an hour just holding him while he twitched and mewed in a series of bad dreams. He had a shaved band on his right foreleg where they’d attached one IV—it looked startlingly like he was wearing a single, fashionable Ugg—and a shaved patch on his right rear foot where’s they’d put another. Just after 2 a.m. I was beginning to prepare myself for being the Mean Mom of the Year and to push a poor sick kitty off my lap so I could lie down and get some sleep, when he woke up, purred, and ambled over to where Charlie was sleeping at the foot of the bed. There he accepted a good head cleaning, and settled down to sleep again. He slept hard.

Tabby cat tucked up on a green sofa throw, displaying a shaved foreleg that looks oddly like he's wearing a single Ugg boot

Ugg

The next day he was clearly fragile, still slow-moving, but he ate—not nearly as much as he would normally but definitely eating. Charlie, though, was driving us insane: He wanted to go out! Out! Out now! He was alternately stonking about in high dudgeon, knocking things down, and climbing high to find an alternate escape route. Oh, well, I told him. Maybe that will teach you not to bring home disease-riddled birds. He just glared.

Tabby cat on to of a stove vent hood with a skylight just visible above him

Figuring out if he can reach the skylight

Meanwhile George made one sad and pitiful attempt to pat open the door swooned in exhaustion. The vet had suggested it might take four days or so for George to feel like himself again, so I wasn’t worried. I explained to Charlie that maybe, if he let George eat and sleep in peace, they could both go out in three or four days when he was better.

Oh, ha! Ha ha ha! At one o’clock that morning I was woken up by kitties in full knock-down, drag-out, chase-me-now mode, including the destruction of almost everything on a shelf or table top in the living room and family room. Fortunately we had just taken the tree down. When we got up in the morning, every single scrap of food was gone and George was yowling his head off for more. We fed them. George ate everything in two seconds flat. Yowled for more. Repeat. We let them out that lunchtime—just for two hours (they didn’t mind: it was cold). The day after, they were back to their usual routine.

Two tabby cats with their back to the camera sitting on a deck bench on either side of a plant pot full of very dead flowers

G: You killed it while I was gone!
C: No, you killed it.
G: I wasn’t even here!
C: Dead, though.
G: Definitely dead.

There are days when they are obviously twins— 

Two tabby cats lying face to face on a blue throw looking like conjoined twins

Conjoined twins

Two tabby cats on a kitchen windowsill

Window twins

—and days when it’s hard to believe they belong to the same species, never mind family. They have days when they look startlingly young—

Tabby cat on the top shelf of a kitty condo

George no longer fits at the top of the kitty condo but every now and again he tries to revisit his youth

—and days when Charlie in particular looks old.

Tabby cat lying along a woman's arm, looking wise and contemplative

Charlie’s ennui is soothed only with a massage

Charlie saw fit to help with the Spear rewrite, but found the experience debilitating, so I was on my own with Menewood—probably why it went so fast.

Tabby cat lying on a cat bed—in between a screen and a keyboard—with his head on a juggling sack

Rewriting is so tiring

As I write, both cats are in fine fettle. They seem to have discovered a mole colony, and the daily round of rescuing the poor things is getting tedious—they don’t seem to kill them the way they do shrews and voles and mice, just bat them about—but both are currently in contentment mode.

Tabby cat blissing out on his back

George finds his bliss

In fact, George is mostly now so glad he’s not in the hospital that he almost glows.

Tabby cat looking fat and happy and almost glowing with contentment

George glows with contentment

May we all find such contentment in 2021. Meanwhile, if you need a break from doomscrolling and might be soothed by pictures of kitties, feel free to read previous Kitten Reports here.


*We got those results a couple of days later: he’s fine, completely normal.

 

A is for Abattoir: Five words for 2021 so far

For many people we know, the word that best characterises the year so far is Shitshow. Oh, yep, I hear that. But for me and Kelley the first half of January has been a rollercoaster of events clustered around five slightly different words. 

Word #1: Abattoir.

New Year’s Eve dawned upon a great slaughter. Charlie and George turned the house into an abattoir and war zone: two moles, one vole, and a bird. It was Charlie who caught most of them—including the bird—and George who ate them—including the bird. The bird, in particular, was messy. Charlie brought it in dying or just-dead (I heard him come in but didn’t see it), and proceeded to toss it around and get feathers everywhere. And I mean everywhere. Then he threw it into the Christmas tree, where it got stuck. So of course he had to pull off ornaments (one shattered) and countless branchlets and pine needles to get to it. After a while, though—once he’d got feathers stuck in his mouth a few times—he got bored, as he always does, and abandoned the bird for his dish of real kitty food. Enter George. But that’s a story for the next Kitten Report, coming soon. Back to the mainline narrative.

Word #2: Rewrite.

Just before the holidays—in our house usually Christmas Eve to the first Monday of January—I did my first rewrite of Menewood, cleaning it up, smoothing it over, taking out about 8,000 words. Then during the holidays I tackled the edit notes for Spear while Kelley read the rewritten Menewood. Spear is a short novel—less than 45,000 words—and Menewood a long one—more than 280,000 words, so their rhythms are quite different. But I think they both benefit from me swapping back and forth; there’s a kind of synergy between them.

The first rewrite of Spear is now done and back with the editor. It gained about five hundred words. This always happens. For example, most of Kelley’s notes on any particular draft consist mainly of How does she feel here? and Yes, but how does she feel? and finally, plaintively, WE NEED TO KNOW HOW SHE FEELS!! I always think it’s perfectly obvious how the protagonist feels—the reader can tell by what she does or doesn’t notice, what she does or doesn’t do—but I always grudgingly unpack things a bit, grumping to myself. And later, of course, I realise Kelley and my editors are always right. (Well, almost always. But, yeah, listen to your editors, kids.) I’ll expect a second edit letter for Spear before the end of the month.

Meanwhile, as Kelley read Menewood, every evening we’d chat about what she’d read—what worked, what didn’t, what she loved, what she found not entirely clear. (But how did she feel at that point?) I love these evenings: wine, conversation, writing, ideas… It’s my idea of heaven, especially with cats purring in front of the fire, a stew bubbling on the stove and veggies roasting in the oven. On these days I love the world and love my life.* 

Kelley finished reading and making her notes the day I sent the Spear rewrite off, so without any kind of break I plunged into the next Menewood rewrite. Unsurprisingly it took longer than Spear. Most of the work I did was to unpack emotional moments and explain one battle-planning sequence a bit more clearly. The end result? I put back 3,000 words—different words, better words. That went off to my agent the morning of Wednesday 6th January. 

Word #3: Insurrection.

There I was, after I sent off the rewritten Menewood, feeling pleased with myself, and looking forward to a rare afternoon of doing nothing in particular—watching some deliciously unimportant TV, or reading a no-brains-necessary novel. So after lunch I settled on the sofa with a cup of tea, some chocolate, and the TV remote. I happily clicked the power button…and saw a man carrying a confederate flag strolling across the Rotunda of the Capitol building, followed by jaw-dropping scenes of mobs chasing police up stairs, flash-bangs going off, and the president-elect accusing supporters of the sitting president of sedition and insurrection.

It was a surreal moment. I’m a US citizen born and raised in the UK. For the last 20 years I’ve been telling anyone who would listen that this country was heading for a cliff and if people didn’t fucking take these right-wing arseholes seriously they would wake up in an autocracy with no escape. No, no, everyone would say; it couldn’t happen here. But, I’d say, it is happening here, right now: Look at this, and this, and that. And eventually, as you probably noticed, I just stopped talking about it in public forums. So one thing I want to make clear is that I was not in the least surprised by a white supremacist, Trump-supporting mob to attack the Capitol. Similarly, I was not surprised that armed white people weren’t overwhelmed by militarised law enforcement, beaten or killed, and then rounded up, thrown in a cell, and made to eat the key—as would have happened, did happen, with any number of peaceful protests, particularly Black Lives Matter marches.

Nonetheless, seeing lawmakers in gas hoods, seeing that noose strung up outside, seeing law enforcement running or being beaten by white middle-class Americans was surreal. I think what made it even more difficult for me to bring the seriousness into focus was seeing these insurrectionists blithely taking selfies and posting them on social media. That and seeing Republican congresspeople openly encourage the attack. I’m not a person who doubts herself much, but seeing these images made me wonder if I was living in a different world to these people where the notion of consequences had a different meaning.

I turned it off. Drank my tea. Turned it on again. Texted Kelley who was in a Zoom meeting: I’m watching jaw-dropping scenes… By this time the talking heads were just rehashing what I already knew so I turned it off again. After I resolved to donate whatever my next stimulus cheque ends up being to local food banks—because I think it’s the most useful thing I can do to help anyone in this world right now—I did my best to tune it out. No point fretting about things I can do nothing about; it’s beyond my zone of control. Whatever happens with the impeachment is not something I can influence, so I’m not going to pay attention.

Word #4: Reading.

Like most writers, I get many—I mean many—requests for blurbs. I refuse almost all of them (yet still do at least a dozen a year). But late last year I got two ARCs for novels written by queer BIPOC writers at or near the beginning of their careers. Why would I say no to that? The problem: I had just one week to read both and come up with something enticing—all while still feeling as though I were living in an alternate universe, dealing with George-related stress, and, of course, my old friend fatigue. In the end, it worked out pretty well, most likely because they were extremely good novels; I was delighted to be able to offer heartfelt praise.

By this time I was feeling super seriously tired and in need of a break. 

Word #5: No.

No will be the watchword of my first quarter of 2021. Unless you are a friend, relative, or former student—or the project is seriously interesting or well paid, preferably both—the answer to your request will be No. Want me to blurb your book? No. Want my advice on crip characters in your work-in-progress? No. Want me to look at your query letter? No. Want me to teach/join your board/do an interview? No. Contribute a story/essay/book chapter to your project? No. Judge a competition? No. There are many things I’m already committed to this quarter—stories, proposals, teaching, essays, etc—and those commitments I will fulfill. New ones? Not so much.

So what will I be doing? Writing, mostly. Also loafing about, sorting out the house (it needs a lot of work), teaching, rescuing cats, reading, and generally having a life. I think it’ll be pretty cool to not be so tired that I can tell the difference between Good Things and Bad Things. I’m looking forward to having grownups in charge of the country in just a few days. Do I think Biden/Harris are endowed with political, social, and economic superpowers and can magically right all wrongs? No. But I think there’s a fighting chance that at some point in the next few months the deterioration will slow to a halt, and gradually reverse. And I want to have the bandwidth to witness that—or, y’know, deal with un/foreseen horrors.

The beginning of 2021 has been a rollercoaster ride so far. I want to have the strength to deal with what’s next.


*Eh, I always love my life and almost always can find something to love about the world, but these days/evenings are especially precious; they are the heart of who we are.

 

2020 Adieu

Two tabby cats sit with their backs to the fire, the larger with his paw around the shoulders of the smaller

Charlie and George bid 2020 adieu

Charlie and George bid farewell to 2020. The photo is from last year because the beasties are too busy murdering small things right now to pose. (Body count in the last 24 hours? One shrew, two moles, and a bird—not to mention a white carpet.)

May you have a peaceful New Year surrounded by warmth and comfort.

2021: A Look Ahead

2020 sucked for many people. For many, too—though sadly at least 2 million fewer than might have been the case, absent the pandemic—the first half of 2021 will also be difficult. Beyond that simple assertion, I’m wary of making predictions.

This time last year I wrote a couple of longish posts, a look back, 2010-2019: A Decade in Review, and a look forward, The Third Decade of the 21st Century. That latter was basically a detailed explanation of why I wasn’t going to make any predictions:

I am pitifully crap at predicting the future. The most seriously I’ve ever tried was writing Slow River in 1993 (published 1995). Oh, I did get some things right: Bioremediation and the need for it (though today we’re doing much, much less than we could, and we need it much, much more than we did). Data ransom. An increasing divide between rich and poor. Charity as fashion. Older people feeling like digital immigrants and strangers in their own culture. But I completely missed social media, the rise of online commerce, and the ubiquity of asomatic (extrasomatic?) connectedness, for good and ill.

So the only thing I’m reasonably sure about in terms of prognostication is that in two weeks we’ll be writing ‘2020’ on our cheques. Except, oh wait, we mostly don’t write cheques anymore. And maybe some deadly pandemic, unexpected asteroid, or nuclear holocaust—or just someone careless tripping the national grid leading to a cascade of devastating effects—could render this notion of money, or even the people who might need it, obsolete.

I chose those three disasters for the simple reason that they’re no-brainers—they’re always true—and our world is so complex and interdependent that it could easily end any time, even without anyone doing anything idiotic or malicious. And in fact, there was (and still is) a deadly pandemic; there was at least one unexpected asteroid; and the Russian hacking and insertion could easily have triggered a civilisation-ending collapse of our infrastructure if Putin had felt like pushing the button and turning business-as-usual espionage into an attack. And money—well, money is still with us, but cash has become vanishingly scarce for those lucky enough to still have credit. But here’s the thing: the prediction I missed the first time—the extrasomatic communication? It saved my sanity (and that of many others, I think) and I just, well, I didn’t expect to ever be grateful for Zoom (and Google Meet, and Skype, and FaceTime).

And here’s the other thing: in 2020 the world didn’t end.

But the best thing of all? I believe the world in 2021 is slightly less likely to end than it was in 2020. So…Yay?

Ah, screw it! Definitely Yay!! As someone on Instagram pointed out a couple of weeks ago, 1.20.21 is the world’s most anticipated palindrome. In less than four weeks we’ll have grownups in charge again (at least here in the US; the UK, well, I feel for you extremely—hang in there). It’ll take a long time to even begin to redress the harm Trump and his cohorts have inflicted on the world, but I think a Biden/Harris administration will make a good start. Or they’ll try. Obviously they will have to find their way past many obstacles, the rocks in the road like Mitch McConnell, but not being motivated by greed or malice will make many more good things at least imaginable.

So this year I’m just going to cross my fingers and say only that I sincerely hope that:

  1. the Covid vaccine works
  2. the Biden/Harris administration miraculously finds some way around the partisan gridlock that’s plagued US politics for the last 20 years.

1. Covid. To work, the vaccine must not only be effective at the biological level but also have wide take-up. And by wide I mean all the anti-vaxxers and the vaccine-hesitant get over themselves—and if you believe the polls they are beginning to—and that rich countries do the right thing and fund the production, transport, and administration of vaccination for populations that might not be able to afford it. Assuming this happens, we then need immunity to last a few years. And after that we need the virus not to mutate in ways that make it either a) more deadly or b) able to evade vaccine-induced immune response. Further, we then need the population of the world to keep wearing masks and following social distancing precautions for a while until we have true herd immunity. (But, again, the polls are hopeful on this point.) So how likely is all this? I don’t know. My hope is that it’ll happen, and by this time next year the pandemic will be largely in the rear-view mirror. But I am by no means certain.

2. Biden/Harris. What would help the most for the incoming administration would be for Georgia to elect two Democratic senators. Will this happen? I doubt it. On this I would love to be wrong. But even if I am wrong, that leaves razor-thin margins in both chambers and therefore the potential for disappointment when it comes to sweeping change. It could bode well, though, for infrastructure projects, which this country desperately needs—and would be good for employment and therefore the economy. In terms of social justice? I don’t know. the White House will no longer emit malicious Executive Orders in an endless stream designed to humiliate entire populations and/or enrich the already-rich and powerful—so, hey, there’s one improvement we can rely on. Given the current conservative majority on the Supreme Court I have deep concerns about the future of certain protections—for queer folk, trans folk, women, BIPOC, disabled folk. A 6-3 majority could lead to all kinds of dismantlement of rights some of us are only just beginning to take for granted and others thought they might have a hope of seeing soon. Obviously, a Biden administration could then encourage Congress to pass actual federal laws to take the place of previous legal precedent—but as soon as you drag religious freedom into the mix things get very, very tricky. As I’m fairly sure SCOTUS will be doing that a few times in the coming year, buckle up.

Beyond these two things I will only say, again, that I’m super crap at making predictions. 

The only things I’m very sure of—because they are in my control—are that Kelley and I will be doing our best to love each other and the world, to take joy as and when we find it, and to create and share joy as and when we can. May 2021 be kind to us all.

2020: An unusual year

I considered titling this post 2020: The Fuckening. Trump, his people, his party, and the Covid pandemic fucked with us all—some very much more than others. While I certainly did not have an easy year—with my health, for one thing—I also know that Kelley and I were and are luckier than most. Many others had, and, until we have some kind of working herd immunity, and even lost past that, will continue to have a much worse time. Even so, for me? Not an easy year.

In the first half of 2020 the only thing I was thinking about, apart from writing, was SARS-CoV-2. Each post I drafted was progressively more depressing, though, so I eventually stopped posting them. I kept researching, and making notes, and drafting posts no one would ever see—as a kind of journal—until one day in spring I had an iPad/iCloud catastrophe and lost all the notes. It was a weird relief. I realised I had zero desire to recreate them, or to continue collating data. So I stopped. But there was nothing to take its place: I wasn’t going out in the world doing things or meeting people; the news was mostly unbearable; I couldn’t take part in the Black Lives Matter protests; and it was hard to focus on reading. I spent much of my time in various doctors’ offices, trying not to despair about politics, and writing. When I’m in the middle of a writing project I don’t generally like to talk about it much, so I didn’t have much to say. So: I wrote fewer than 40 posts in 2020—which is about 10% of my output ten years ago.

As I say, Kelley and I are luckier than many. We live in a lovely neighbourhood stuffed with natural beauty, peace and quiet. Best of all, our neighbours are kind, generous, and thoughtful, and this cul-de-sac forms a tight community. Our house, too, is pretty much tailored to the kind of social isolation we’ve been experiencing. We have a three-bedroomed house, two of which we converted years ago to comfortable, efficient individual offices with excellent connectivity. We’e used to living in each other’s pockets 24/7 and to working remotely, and we delight in each other’s company. Plus we have two very private, flower-adorned decks; we could almost always find some bright, sunny, birdsong-laced outdoor retreat to enjoy in summer—when, y’know, there was sunshine and the smoke wasn’t choking us to death. On top of that, Kelley has a day job that pays well, she enjoys, is good at, and is designed for remote working. 

These factors, plus the fact that neither of us had to travel—this is the first year in our lives together that neither of us has boarded a plane—combined to turn what for many was a worrisome and precarious year into a year of unusual emotional, physical, and economic stability for us.

The new decade began promisingly with Kitten Report #12. In which Charlie and George tear into the new year (operative word being ‘tear’) with enthusiasm, growing like magic beans. They were mesmerised by their first snowfall, and I was mesmerised by their mesmerisation. George, in particular was becoming enormous. 

Large tabby cat sitting on a lap, head tipped back in bliss

George grows and blisses out

I was working well on Menewood and watching with increasing concern the epidemiology reports from China, as well as cooking up A Hild Companion, a collaborative, accessible guide to Hild and the novel’s Early Medieval context. the book—and accompanying website—are designed to appeal to scholars who might teach the book to undergraduates, scholars who may want guidance into certain areas of the field, and lay readers who wish to pursue the history/historical context of Hild in greater depth.

It was around this time that i could no longer resist posting about 2019-nCoV: the new coronavirus. I very deliberately downplayed the situation as I saw it, because I knew that saying what I really thought would either frighten people off thinking about it at all, or make them scornful and dismissive—and so also likely to stop listening. So I aimed for a Hey, this is interesting—want to play along with me? tone. But I don’t mind admitting I was extremely concerned—I looked at the fatality rates and R-0, did the math and thought, Oh, fuck. I had already ordered masks, sanitiser wipes, an assortment of household necessities and was trying to persuade Kelley of the utility of buying a new chest freezer and stocking it.

A diagram of SARS-CoV-2 replication and method of action understood in early 2020.

Crenim at English Wikipedia [CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D

In February I did two Covid updates. In the first, 2019-NCoV: an update, again to avoid reader distress, I split the post into a Just the Facts, Folks section filled with unemotional facts and figures, and a Speculative section with all the scary extrapolation. At this point no one seemed to be talking about the economy, and I thought I might at least mention the possible horrors ahead.

Science was moving amazingly fast and a couple of weeks later the virus had a formal name, SARS-CoV-2, as did the illness it caused. I wrote another Covid-19 update, this time railing against all the weasley WHO and CDC clap-trap about trying to prevent a pandemic when, in my opinion, SARS-CoV-2 was already out of the box, and Covid-19 already, clearly, a global pandemic. I repeated, for the third time, the need for people to stay the fuck at home, wear a fucking mask, and wash their fucking hands. How many of you were doing this? Not nearly enough. At this point, Kelley and I went into isolation—with one brief exception, a lunch with a friend who also took precautions super seriously.

In isolation, the world continued to turn, and I did an interview with Wordgathering: A Journal of Disability Poetry and Literature, in which, among many other things I talk about what fiction can do that memoir cannot.

In March I did three coronavirus updates. The first, Covid-19: Now what? was written in yet another attempt for people to take this thing seriously and take at least basic precautions, which I listed. Again. At this point there were 6 US residents dead, and I knew that would soon become a flood. Yet organisations were still planning big galas and other events as though nothing was happening; it was driving me up the wall. A few days later, when Washington State finally started issuing restrictions, I wrote COVID-19: Numbers game in which I talked about case fatality rates and why they weren’t useful numbers, and how almost all the other numbers people were floating were really, really wrong: gross underestimates of the problem.

By this time the West Coast and parts of the East Coast were beginning to understand that this was not going to be over in a month, and many online reading series and bookclubs began to spring up. For a while I was super busy with  raising-money-for-good-causes events. This was a time when what felt like  half the reading world rediscovered Ammonite because, well, it’s all about a virus that causes a global pandemic. Coincidentally Ammonite was just being released as an audiobook for the very first time.

Audiobook cover image: a planet floating in space with a giant ammmonite superimposed on it, and mountains and clouds and snow reflected. Text reads: Ammonite by Nicola Griffith, read by Gabra Zackman

I wrote a list of Good books for hard times, for all those asking for reading recommendations. Then a little while after that I posted for the last time on COVID-19: Zones of Control. The title is pretty self-explanatory: control what you can, including your behaviour towards others; kindness is what will save us. Then I took my own advice and stopped trying to change the world’s response to Covid, and stopped talking about it.

Instead, I was doing interviews and readings, and the only mention I made of Covid was explaining Charlie and George’s response in Kitten Report #13: Social Distancing

May marked Charlie and George’s first birthday and Kitten Report #14: One year in the world. For their birthday present, we let them out in a brief, supervised visit to the back garden; it did not go well. Charlie ended up on the roof and, copying a passing bird, tried to fly. He was fine, but I’m not sure my heart is still trying to recover.

May also marked the second anniversary of publishing So Lucky, and I had many thoughts about disability, ableism, and publishing: So Lucky is 2: Some thoughts. By this time isolation was seriously beginning to bite and I, like so many in lockdown, was having to figure out how to deal with the new reality—for which hair became my stand-in for the universe: regain control of my hair and regain control of my life! Yeah: no. I detail all my mishaps in Adventure in homemade hair, along with photographs. Meanwhile the interviews and readings were increasing. For me, the problem withe video readings is they’re a lot of work for very little reward: none of that wonderful performer-audience connection. So while I did a few, such as the Clarion West/Fight For Our Lives reading, I resolved to not do any more this year.

Mentally and emotionally, isolation is hard. Zoom helps, but Zoom cocktails, and Zoom coffees are not a patch on in-person meetups. They are very much better than nothing, but I can’t wait to get back to being in the presence of that cellular hum of other living beings. I talked a bit about coping in Self-care in the time of coronavirus and how I was beginning to ignore emails and messages in favour of just sitting outside among the flowers with a book, a cup of tea, and a cat. One minor flaw in that plan was that I hadn’t yet been able to sort the garden properly yet: coronavirus-caused supply chain issues meant that nurseries and big-box stores either had no decent plants or only bizarre choices. the deck flowers got off to a slow start this year, which meant that every time I went outside to relax I ground my teeth in irritation at all the work still to be done. At least I could always look through the window at the front garden which was in pretty good shape.

The end of June marked the 32nd anniversary of me and Kelley meeting at Clarion and falling in love. I talked about it a little in 32 Years: A Life.

A garden of flowers and lawn viewed from inside a house and framed by a window

At least the front garden looked good

By July the kittens owned the entire house, gardens, and surrounding domain. In Kitten Report #15: Einstein Houdini Ferociraptors I detailed my escalating war to keep them locked in at night, their increasingly inventive escapes, and their final, deliberate, diabolical (temporarily) successful attempt to lock us out of the house.

annotated photo of sliding door with cat door insert, shhowing the slider locking mechanism, the cat door locking mechanism, and home made portcullis

Not Alcatraz but…

Finally, in August, the deck flowers starting settling in—and I posted many photos and videos of Flowers, cats, birds and bees

This is also when Slow River is 25, and I take a look at just deep an influence that novel has been on my life and career.

Five cover images of the same novel, SLOW RIVER by Nicola Griffith.

Current US cover, current UK ebook, original US cover, current UK print edition, orginal UK edition

September was a hard month. For the first time in nearly 25 years—since before there were blogs when I set up a crude Ask Nicola page on my website—I posted nothing for over a month. Here in Seattle hunker down had become total lockdown: wildfires from Eastern Washington to British Columbia to Oregon to California were raging, and due to a cruel twist of climatological fate, all the smoke poured towards Puget Sound. The air quality index went from Good to Moderate to Unhealthy to Very Unhealthy and, finally, to Hazardous. Me, Kelley, and the cats couldn’t leave the house. Even running our HVAC with super HEPA filters—even wearing a mask between the front door and the van when I had to go to medical appointments—my health deteriorated. Oh, my lungs were fine, but my inflammation levels went through the roof and I ended up with what neurologists call a pseudo-relapse of my MS. Long story short, I was in awful pain for a long time, and had to drug myself into insensibility.

Many good things happened in September, too, of course—Kelley and I celebrated our 7th and 27th wedding anniversary; we both turned 60—but I wasn’t inclined to talk about them as they were occurring. Here’s a photo of Kelley at 60, looking more herself, and therefore more beautiful, with every passing year.

A woman with long silver-blue dyed hair and glasses sitting in front of bookshelves

Kelley at 60

The photo of me was taken just a couple of months before I turned 60, a still taken from a reading video (and pretty low-res). 

Head-and-shoulder shot of a short-haired white woman, wearing a short silver necklace and long-sleeved t-shirt, looking serious n front of a y ellow wall with a large map of early-medieval Britain on the wall behind her

A still from a video reading I did in summer 2020: two months before I’m 60

And, just because, here’s a photo of the wine we drank on Kelley’s 60th birthday. We’d been saving it twenty years, waiting for a special occasion—and this qualified. Also? So worth it!

Wine at 60

I wasn’t much inclined to talk much  in October, either, only doing one post about Vonda McIntyre’s The Exile Waiting. This silence was partly a function of illness/pain/pain meds but mostly due to being wholly focused: working like a demon on Menewood. (An unexpected bonus of laser focus: no time/energy/inclination to pay attention to election madness.)

In November, I began to feel a bit better. On the night before the US election I finally finished a draft of Menewood. After the election winners were sorted beyond reasonable doubt, I was finally able to delight in and shout about MENEWOOD!!

Sepia coloured manuscript page listing contents of document title MENEWOOD by Nicola Griffith

A monster is born…

It’s a hugeous book: 40% bigger than Hild. But I’m proud of it, I think its really fucking good, and as I rewrite it will only get better.

Also in November, the day of the election, I explained how to make our custom Election Day Cocktail: The Brandy Bramble. Even if I do say so myself, it’s excellently tasty.

Photo of assorted bottles of spirits and liquers, cocktail shakers, lime, and two lowball glasses with ice and a dark red drink

Brandy Bramble

And finally in November I posted Kitten Report #16: 18 months old. In which Charlie and George observe a moment of silence for RBG, then pose (in the words of a Facebook commentator) as an 80s synth band who have lost their hairspray.

Two cats sitting in respectful meatloaf position with heads lowered

A moment of silence for RBG

Twom tabby cats looking at the camera. Bytheir expressions, they clearly do not approve of their conversation being interrupted

Demon Kitty and the Confused

By the beginning of this month, for the first time in four years, I am beginning to feel the first faint stirrings of hope—Biden/Harris, Menewood, finding myself pain free—and I finally start posting more again. I start with a partial explanation of my near-silence for the last couple of months, with a post about nerve pain and how pain meds give me Manatee Mind.

A slow grey manatee just hanging still in blue water

Photo by Maegan Luckiesh on Unsplash

Then it’s December 11, and in Love and Isolation: 31 years ago I talk about how weirdly similar today’s physical isolation is to how it was for me when I first came to this country to live with Kelley more than three decades ago. Then—finally!—after holding my tongue for months, I got to talk about Spear—my short fantasy novel. Writing this book was pure joy from start to finish, and I can’t wait for you to read it, which you’ll be able to do in April 2022. The whole blog post is an exploration of my astonishing (to me) burst of productivity this year, in which I wrote more than 200,000 finished words. I know there are other writers in the world for whom 200k is just something they do before Tuesday, but for me it’s a mind-blowing, game-changing explosion.

I attribute this productivity to three things. One, we got a brand new superautomatic espresso machine—and, holy shit, a triple-shot Americano? A thing of beauty and rocketfuel.

Photo of a super fancy espresso machine with beans and mugs

The secret of my success?

Two, not travelling, not going out for dinner—or to the pub, the boxing gym, or bookshop—freed up all kinds of time and energy. It turns out avoiding all communication except the occasional Zoom cocktail, really cleared my calendar. I felt really free. And then three, the sheer joy of writing something just for me, just plunging into the unknown without a map, broke all constraints. It’s been a while since I did that at any length. It’s usually my short fiction MO, for, say, “Glimmer,” or “Cold Wind.”

“Cold Wind” is an old story, but it occurred to me that it would be  perfect for a dark winter’s Solstice story, so I made a wee PDF, illustrated in a combination of magnificent art by Rovena Cai (below) and photos I digitally altered to look snowy and/or menacing. Then I put it on my website for free download. I’ll leave up for another month or so.

Coloured pencil illustratioin of a woman with burning eyes running th rough the snow—her legs are the legs of a deer

Cover illustration by Rovina Cai

After that I posted my final interview of the year., Since then a post or two of end-of-year stuff, like this one.

In a couple of days I’ll do the last post of the year: a look forward to 2021. Meanwhile I’ll figure out what were the top fifteen posts this year and make changes to the list in the sidebar. At this point I have’t even looked at blog stats and, like blowing up the Christmas tree, that might be an annual ritual I forgo this year. Life is short; I’d rather be writing, sitting with a cat on my lap by the fire, or talking to my sweetie.

Holiday Greetings From Various Beasties

I couldn’t find any decent FX this year for the traditional blowing up of the tree, so I intended to make another kitty card—then ended up not having any time to do that. So here instead is the greeting from Charlie and George last year.

Front face of a Christmas card, in pale yellow with a dark red border. The top two-thirds is a photo of two tabby cats sitting with attentive expressions next to a miniature Christmas tree and wrapped presents. The lower portion is hand-printed text that reads, “Charlie and George listened patiently to what the mice wanted for Christmas, and then they ate them.”

Image description: Front face of a Christmas card, in pale yellow with a dark red border. The top two-thirds is a photo of two tabby cats sitting with attentive expressions next to a miniature Christmas tree and wrapped presents. The lower portion is hand-printed text that reads, “Charlie and George listened patiently to what the mice wanted for Christmas, and then they ate them.”

Then—because, hey, two things are almost always better than one—I thought I may as well repeat the Dancing Reindeer from two or three years ago:

Perhaps next year I’ll be inspired to find a way to blend the two, then blow it all up for good measure. We’ll see.

I’ll be posting once or twice more before the end of the year—a Year in Review and a Look Forward—assuming, y’know, that i’m not in a chocolate truffle-induced coma. Meanwhile, may you have a wonderful warm holiday filled with all you enjoy.

 

Christmas Eve and flowers are still flowering

Here in Seattle we’ve had sleet and snow and frost and rain—so much rain. But astonishingly the flowers in pots on our decks are still valiantly flowering. It is strange and delightful to see so much natural colour during what the Norwegians call Mørketiden—the days when daylight barely exists. Obviously it’s much brighter here in Seattle than in Norway, or even Yorkshire where I grew up (which is on the same latitude as Denmark).

Anyway, here for your delectation and delight are the fuchsia and salvia, still feeding the hummingbirds (though of course we’re now supplementing the natural food with sugary water, as we do every winter). I’m taking it as an omen for 2021.

Hanging basket filled with bright red fuchsia blooms and no-longer-flowering veronica

The veronica is no longer flowering but the fuchsia is

Big blue ceramic pot on a rain-wet deck filled with jasmine (no longer flowering) and fuchsia (which is flowering bright red)

The jasmine’s no longer flowering but the fuchsia is, and next to it our Flaming Lips salvia is still bravely red

several flower pots and basket holding herbs, no-longer-flowering annuals and perennials, and still bravely flowering fuchsia and salvia

Some herbs have given up the ghost but many haven’t, and wow, that fuschia is the energiser bunny of flowers

New interview just up

A new interview just went up on The Fantasy Hive, in which I talk like a machine gun to Jonathan Thornton about my entire fiction career. Why So Lucky is unlike anything I’ve done before—or anything I’m likely to write in the future. The essential questions behind Ammonite, Slow River, the Aud novels, and Hild. Why I’m so deliriously excited about Spear. What comes next. And more.

Enjoy!

 

Solstice story

Coloured pencil illustratioin of a woman with burning eyes running th rough the snow—her legs are the legs of a deer

Cover illustration by Rovina Cai

In honour of the winter solstice I’ve made an illustrated copy of my short story, “Cold Wind.” You can download it in a high-res PDF here. If you have trouble with that, there’s a los-res version but the pictures won’t be quite as clear. (This may or may not be a good thing, seeing as they’re all—apart from the wonderful cover—partly my work based on others’ photographs. Do please read the credits at the end.) The story is set on Solstice night in Seattle. A woman walks into a bar and finds just what she’s looking for—or does she? 

When it was first published, in 2014, the acquiring editor, Ellen Datlow, called it a Dark Fantasy. I can see that, but I also see it as quite a hopeful story. 

This was one of those gift stories that occurred to me one day and I wrote the next (it’s quite sort). The inspiration came from multiple sources: mostly visual art, but also music. But as it was such a gift for me to write I wanted to make a gift of it to you, Dear Reader. Read it in front of the fire with a nice glass of Armagnac, and dream of snow. 

Spear—my short fantasy novel

Photo of blue sky with blazing sun surrounded by a corona, and cut by a brilliant white jet contrail

When your writing brain is already blazing and another idea streaks through—taken in early June

I’ve always loved the Matter of Britain: the essential tragedy of the never-ending fight of light and literacy vs. encroaching ignorance and suspicion;1 the intersection of wandering and belonging, Us versus Them; and the hint of mist and moors, menhirs and magic. But I was always put off by the essential straight, white, classist, nativist Christian touch-points of the legend. So last summer, when Jenn Northington and Swapna Krishna asked me to contribute to an anthology of queer Arthurian stories, I almost said No. But then an image dropped into my head—a cave, a girl, and a woman in red armour—and I saw how I could write a short story that took the myths and legends of first millennium Britain and blended them with real-world events like climate change, mass migration, and the multi-ethnic Roman occupation of Britain, to make something new. So I said Yes. They paid me half in advance and gave me a deadline of mid-January. I cashed the cheque and went back to working on Menewood.

Fast-forward to mid-January, when my brain was ablaze with Menewood, and I got email from Jenn reminding me the story was due the next day. I had totally forgotten (because Menewood, because blazing, and also because I saw the pandemic heading towards us like a freight train and was planning for that). So I wrote back and told Jenn I hadn’t started it but that if she gave me three weeks I was confident I could get it done. And I was confident—it turned out that those initial ideas had been breeding and mutating and were definitely alive and ready to be born. I set Menewood aside, opened a new document titled “Red,” and began.

But here’s the thing: I hadn’t reckoned on the energy that reworking the myth I’ve known all my life would unleash in me; it was like riding a rocket powered by sheer joy. In 3 days I had already roared past the 10,000 limit. I told Jenn it was going to be a long novelette rather than a short story. She said that was okay because some of the other contributions were coming in a bit short. I kept going. A week later I had steamed way past novelette length and the story was still not slowing down; I doubted I could even keep it to novella-length without spoiling what it had the potential to become.

It was at this point that I had to choose between being a professional who honoured her contract, or a writer who honoured her story. (To be clear, usually it’s perfectly possible to do and be both; that’s what ‘professional’ means. This time, eh, not so much.) I chose the latter: I apologised profusely and gave the money back.

The first draft took 17 days. When I was done, “Red” had become Spear, a short novel. (The title may change.)

What occasioned this burst of productivity? Perhaps, it really was the blazing delight of getting to queer the legend I love, to fuck with the the straight, white, male, cis, nondisabled, classist, nativist, patriarchal Christian crap we’re all fed about history all the time. Perhaps it was the opportunity to write a story set in the Long Ago, like Hild, but with magic—not only the wild magic of the landscape, and of love and the human heart, but also the sword-swinging, monster-killing magic of myth and demigods. There again, perhaps what really did the trick was the purchase of our first espresso machine.

Photo of a super fancy espresso machine with beans and mugs

The secret of my success?

So what is Spear? Well, Hild, but with magic—Hild let off the leash, unbound by those pesky historical constraints—and set a hundred years earlier, in Wales rather than England. The setting is throughly Celtic-flavoured, and so is the language: instead of spear-straight English I aimed for prose that’s rhythmic and rippling and periphrastic. Arthur’s/Arturus’s Companions (Fighters Previously Known as the Knights of the Round Table) are much more various than the myth, the grail is very much not what it seems, and Caer Leon/Camelot is queered six ways from Sunday. In many ways, though, all that is peripheral. What takes centre stage is the journey of Percival/Peretur, a girl and then young woman who leaves home to find out who she is. Climate change and other real-world events are there as underpinnings—you won’t notice unless you’re looking—but essentially this is a Hero’s Journey, or, more accurately, a Heroine’s Real Hero’s Journey2. All Heroes set out to win, and Peretur is no exception, but winning for her is not just about the slaying of monsters—which she most definitely does (both human and otherwise), and with great élan—but about connecting: finding her people and a place to belong. In many ways this book is a kind of homecoming—not just for Peretur but for me: a coming-together of two parts of my career. So I’m thrilled it will be published in an unusual editorial collaboration between two of Macmillan’s imprints: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (publisher of Hild and my other non-SF novels), and Tor.com (publisher of science fiction, fantasy, and horror). Excitingly, there may also be budget for interior illustrations; more on that when I have it—but I think this could be a beautiful, gift-worthy item.

Mainly, though, what I want to convey in this blog post is just how very much I loved every step of this journey. I hope you will too. It will be published in world English in hardcover, ebook, and audio in April 2022.

But wait! There’s more! After finishing Spear I was absolutely and thoroughly revitalised. When I went back to Menewood it blazed along more brightly than before, and now the first draft is done. I don’t think that would have happened without Spear: the sheer energy and joy of that work smashed the box I’d put around both myself and Menewood, and freed the book it could be. I’m pleased with it—I’m delighted with both books. They will, I hope, tear out your heart, sear your soul, and turn your brain inside out. Chortle.

Because I am so fucking happy right now—not only do we have a new administration coming to mitigate some of the horrors of the old; not only are there several vaccines in the works, bringing the end of the pandemic in sight; but in 2022 I will have at least one, possibly two, new books out—only celestial events can come close to mirroring my emotion. So let me bookend this post with a photo I took three months ago. I was standing outside admiring the moon and Mars while a bunny hopped about on the lawn, and then a coyote trotted past and stared (then came back and stared again, probably wanting to know why I wouldn’t let its special little kitty friends out to play). I am still amazed that one can take photos like this with a tiny thing you keep in your pocket (iPhone 8).

Charcoal colour sky with blazing full moon in lower third and immediately above it a tiny, perfectly round Jupiter. Beneath both the silhouette of a utility pole and a tree.

Moon and Mars, Oct 2 2020

Life is pretty fucking good.


1 Or, perhaps, liberals vs. conservatives.

2 ETA: I’m not a massive fan of the Campbellian monomyth—it boils down to old school crap about pulling yourself up by your bootstraps and making it on your own merits. Sometimes there are variously designated Helpers and Tempters (I find the Woman as Temptress particularly irritating) but we all know they are clichés in clothes (or out of them). Real life doesn’t work that way. We all need help and support and real connection with real people. We’re all born with different privileges and disadvantages; for some of us it’s easier than for others. But basically, there’s no such thing as Making It On Your Own. And as Tolkien well understood, we often can’t go home again. So, yeah, not a fan.

Love and isolation: 31 years ago

I moved to the US 31 years ago today to live with Kelley. We were in a tiny apartment in Duluth, Georgia—in Gwinnett County, a very red county in a very red state. I had no money, no job, no health insurance, and I was sick. We were very isolated: twenty miles from Atlanta with no public transport, not even any sidewalks. But we had what we needed: heat, light, food, and each other. In many ways it felt like living today in the middle of this pandemic. I haven’t been to a restaurant for nearly 10 months. I haven’t had a hug from anyone but Kelley—and the kitties—for almost as long. We don’t have much in the way of accessible public transport out here and there are no sidewalks.

But, oh, so much else is different. We have enough money for the things we need. We have friends and family out there just waiting, like us, for the time when we can throw away our masks, hold out our arms, and hug and laugh and eat together once again. Meanwhile, we have a whole house that’s ours (and, y’know, the bank’s), a car each, two fuzzy kitties, plenty of delicious food, even better drinks, all the TV and books we could possibly need and, of course, each other.

We had to fight hard to be together—at the time it was illegal for queers, communists, and HIV+ people to even enter the US, never mind stay for any length of time. I refused to pretend to be anything but queer, so my immigration case took four years, cost more than $20,000, and made new law. After that mammoth stress the pandemic feels easy; there is nothing, absolutely nothing that could rock our foundations. Kelley is the heart of my life, the axis around which everything else revolves. 

Here’s a photo of her I took in her office last month. It’s not carefully posed, the light’s all in the wrong place, and, even so, she’s more herself and so more beautiful now than she was when we met. The best person in the universe to be locked down with. I am profoundly grateful every single day.

Photo of a white woman with blue-tinted blonde hair down to her shoulders, wearing glasses and wearing black, sitting in front of a bookcase

Kelley at 60

Signed personalised books for the holidays

White background, blue letters spelling "Phinney Books" with an image of a Big Wheel in gold at lower leftImage description: White background, blue lettering spelling “Phinney Books,” i all caps. And, in gold, an image of a Big Wheel lower left and “Seattle,” again all caps, lower right.


I’m teaming up again with Phinney Books, on Greenwood Avenue, Seattle, to bring you signed, personalised books for the holidays. Why Phinney Books? Well, because it’s my idea of a perfectly-sized bookshop with just the right stock. Also, it’s level-entry with a light front door so very easy for me to get in and out of. And of course before and after pandemic restrictions it’s wonderfully convenient because it’s right next door to the 74th St Alehouse, which sells an excellent pint of Guinness.

Here’s how it works.

  • Go to Phinney Books’ online ordering page to buy any of my books, no muss no fuss, and get them shipped to any address in US. Everyone else, see the next step.
  • Email info@phinneybooks.com (phone is okay: 206 297 2665) with billing info: all major credit cards accepted. They use Square, so they’ll also need the 3-digit code on the back and your billing postal code.
  • Tell them what you’d like, e.g. Hild (paperback or hardcover) or So Lucky or Ammonite or Slow River.* Or, hey, another book by somebody else—lots of books, any books! It’s the holidays. You (and your friends, your family, everyone you’ve ever met) deserve something nice. Splurge! Remember, too, that you can order ebooks via the store, and—woo hoo!—audio books (I narrated So Lucky). Sadly I can’t personalise those, though—unless you pay for a card and shipping from Tom and I sign that.
  • Tell them whether you want the books by me personalised (to you, or to someone else; if so, who; and what short thing you’d like me to add). If you give this order by phone, please spell out even the most common names.
  • Give them your mailing address and payment info.
  • Beam, sit back and relax: you’ve done your holiday shopping!

Tom, the owner, tells me he is happy to ship multiple copies, to ship internationally, and to ship express/priority, but then there will be extra charges you will have to work out with him.

Deadlines: We’re late sorting this out this year, so my advice: order as fast as possible, and consider paying for Priority Mail. Good luck!


*There are no more of the limited edition memoir boxes, and it takes time for Tom to order copies of With Her Body. Also the Aud novels are no longer available. I reverted the rights two years ago and sold everything I had lying about in an earlier promotion. But, woo-hoo!, they will be back on sale at some point soonish in spiffy matching editions from Picador—and I’ll be doing the audio narration. either late next year or early the year after, so next time I do this, who knows. And the time after, well, get ready for an announcement next week.

Manatee mind

A slow grey manatee just hanging still in blue water Photo by Maegan Luckiesh on Unsplash

In “The Proper Means of Regulating Sorrow” Samuel Johnson wrote that although most human needs have a theoretical solution—the miser could perhaps gain more money, the glutton more food—for the sorrow of grief:

there is no remedy provided by nature; it is often occasioned by accidents irreparable, and dwells upon objects that have lost or changed their existence; it requires what it cannot hope, that the laws of the universe should be repealed; that the dead should return, or the past should be recalled.

Nerve pain is like that. There is no remedy. It can be dulled with drugs like alcohol and opiates—which don’t actually reduce nerve pain much, though they certainly make the sufferer care about it less—or treated with an anticonvulsant like pregabalin that reduces pain signals. The problem is, pregabalin also reduces other nerve signals. Some people seem to have a reasonable tolerance to it; I do not. Pregabalin, even in small doses, makes me feel like a manatee: grey, blimp-like, and drifting through a dreamy liquid world. Everything requires an enormous effort.

In September I had a pseudo-relapse of my MS. Pseudo-relapse is helpfully explained by International Multiple Sclerosis Management Practice:

Another way MS patients can experience worsening is called a pseudo-relapse. When physicians use this term, we are also referring to worsened neurologic symptoms; however the underlying cause of the worsening is not from new immune system activity or inflammation, but rather from the damage that has occurred from previous inflammation. […] There are a number of stressors that can affect the body and MS in this manner.

My pseudo-relapse was caused by physical inflammation—the truly awful wildfires and smoke that, for 10 days, turned Seattle’s air quality, along with Portland’s, into the worst in the world; plus writing every single day without a break for months—and emotional stress: politics, protest, and pandemic. Also overwork—writing every day, flat out, seven days a week for months. My symptoms were a recurrence of the terrible nerve pain I had six years ago—only, thankfully, instead of the entire left half of my body, it was part of the upper left quadrant: neck, shoulder, a bit of my chest, arm, and hand. And instead of constant, sheeting pain, it was only when I moved. Basically, my pain-gating held—so it wasn’t as bad.

But it was still, y’know, a lot. Bad enough that I needed biggish doses of pregabalin; I turned into a manatee.

Manatees are not known for much more than drifting about looking grey; they’re certainly not known for their writing talents. It could be their lack of thumbs, but also it turns out it’s very difficult to focus on words when drifting about in a hazy world; being in pain; and watching the world burn, literally and figuratively. So while on pregabalin I watched hours of TV, and fell asleep a lot. I did still manage to work, just very…slowly. (Without the pseudo-relapse I would have been done with Menewood long before Halloween.) But then the rain came, the wildfires died down, and gradually my inflammation eased. My pain began to lessen. I could reduce the dosage; I began to wake up. Then one day I realised I had had no pain at all for 24 hours; it was over. I swore I would be grateful for the rest of my life for every single day without pain.

The funny thing about pain, though, is that we forget. As the days pass our minds close seamlessly over the horror and it fades. We can remember that it happened but we don’t feel the memory. I’m guessing this is a necessary evolutionary adaptation. After all, what woman in her right mind would ever go through childbirth twice if the pain wasn’t swaddled in gauze and sprinkled with glitter then safely tucked away somewhere inaccessible? And so it was with me. I wake up in the morning and forget to be grateful for lack of pain. I’m grateful for many other things of course—delighted and grateful every day for sunshine, kitties, Kelley, a roof over my head, hot tea, tasty coffee, cold beer, fabulous cocktails, and a thousand and one other things.

So while sorrow and pain might have no immediate remedy, if we’re lucky they both eventually fade. I am glad. May this be true for you, too.

MENEWOOD!!

Sepia coloured manuscript page listing contents of document title MENEWOOD by Nicola Griffith

A monster is born…

Late on the night before the election I finished the first draft of Menewood. It is a monster!

I’ve been working on this for a while. I wrote the first chapter in 2014 but then got distracted by many things: my health, three tours and consequent rounds of publicity for Hild (US, UK, US again) other projects like gender bias in literary prizes, and #CripLit, doing a PhD, writing another novel, doing my first audio narration, grief for my father, writing another other novel (more on that soon), politics, adopting kitties, more politics, more health stuff (more on that another time), and other interesting things I’m not ready to talk about yet. It’s been…busy.

Busyness aside, though, the real problem I was having with Menewood was its length. Hild, the first novel, spanned 14 years of Hild’s life, from her first conscious memory—at age 3, of her father’s death—to her marriage. Menewood, I thought, would pick up immediately after her marriage and cover the 15 years to joining the church at age 33. But as soon as I got about 100 pages in I ran into trouble because given the sheer amount of story I had to cover the novel would end up being about a million words. But that story was what I was contracted for, so I kept trying to shoehorn the story into a smaller container—and kept running into the walls of that container. I kept trying, though, because a) I hate those endless, meandering series, and b) I had a contract. I was determined. 

But every time I reached the 150,000-word mark, I despaired. I kept second-guessing myself: maybe it wasn’t working because I’d made some misstep with Hild’s character; maybe it was the story, or the pacing; maybe I’d got the history wrong, or the mood. So I’d stop and throw away the most recent 10,000 words and try again. And hit a wall. Over and over. Every time I did that I’d turn to another project. Or write another book. Or fly to the UK to deal with my father’s death. Or adopt cats, or whatever. I knew Menewood was a good book, I knew the story I’d told so far was exactly what I wanted to tell, but at the same time I couldn’t see how I could make it work, how I could fit a gallon of story into a pint pot.  

But then at the beginning of this year an interesting thing happened—I’d been working well on Menewood (again) but then had to stop to start work on something that was meant to be a piece of short fiction. For various reasons (I’ll tell that story soon! It’s exciting! I promise!) it broke my constraints, just smashed them to little shiny bits. So when I got back to Menewood I let go of all preconceptions, worries, and constraints—including where the story was supposed to end—and just fucking wrote. I wrote like a beast. Between March and November I wrote 130,00 words, saw the perfect stopping place, and wrote -END-

The book covers four years. Those years are eventful: birth, death, marriage, grief, famine, joy, destruction, contentment, belief, betrayal, two full-fledged wars (or maybe three, depending how you’re counting), love, sex, resentment, surprise, wandering, homecoming, and three—count them, 3—sets of regime change. Trust me when I tell you: a lot happens. And I had the best—the fucking best—time writing it! Right now those events take 39 chapters, 1342 pages, and 285,531 words. In the rewrite the manuscript might grow, it might shrink, but either way it’s going to be a big book.

I’ll start the rewrite in a couple of weeks. As I rewrite I’ll share thoughts, and research, and maps—oh, lots and lots of maps; maps are key—both here and on Gemæcce, my research blog. Until then: time off, and lots and lots of rounds of Brandy Brambles in honour of Hild’s Feast Day—which in the Catholic calendar is today (17 November), in some parts of the Anglican Communion tomorrow (18 November), and in the Church of England the day after that (19 November). Hey, more drinks for me.

Meanwhile, I CANNOT WAIT FOR YOU TO READ THIS!!

Kitten report #16: 18 months old

Twom tabby cats looking at the camera. Bytheir expressions, they clearly do not approve of their conversation being interrupted

What are you looking at? Charlie and George at 18 months old

Today the kitties are exactly a year and half old. They’ve changed quite a bit since we got them last August—bigger, obviously (compare this photo of them on their kitty condo to an earlier one), but also beginning to become grown cats, by which I mean they sleep a lot more and spend more time on their own pursuits (often literally). They spend a lot of time together. Outside they hunt together sometimes. Indoors after dark they often play, and sleep, and fight together—Charlie usually starts it—but during the day they prefer to move around the house separately. George will sit near me but not on me; Charlie wants to be on me, though when I’m working he’ll mostly settle for being put in his bed on my desk. They still both love playing Feather, and Foil Ball, so I keep a stack of crumpled gold chocolate wrappers next to my desk and just toss one when they get irritating. But mostly they are wholly involved in each other, and in their individual presences out in the world.

And they are out in the world a lot. You will remember the trials and tribulations we went through with the cat door, and lock, and portcullis. Well, we’ve been through another couple of rounds. George began to stay out later and later, getting really good at sneaking in quietly for food, then sneaking out again before we could lock the kitty door. So we decided it was time swap to a four-way lock mechanism—where you can set it to open both ways; closed both way; open only for going out, and open only for coming in.

Photo of a circular locking mechanism with 4 settings One with a picture of an open padlock, then a house with a cat and an arrow pointing outward, then a house with a cat with an arrowing pointing inwards, then a closed padlock

Four-way cat door locking mechanism

That way we could set the lock to 3 (inwards only) mid-afternoon and any time George sneaked in for a snack, whap, he would not get out again. Then when they were both in we’d switch it to 4 (fully locked). One problem—the mechanism is bulky, which meant the portcullis had to be dismantled. We didn’t worry, though, because we thought even our Einstein Houdini Ferociraptors wouldn’t be able to figure out how to turn the lock anticlockwise, to 1 (fully open) and escape.

Oh ha! Ha ha ha!

It took Charlie about three minutes to figure it out—he worked out that if I set it 4 (all-closed) then he could just lean on it and push it round clockwise to all-open. So we had to build a new portcullis. But that wasn’t hard. So now we’ve managed to establish an indoor-outdoor rhythm: we unlock their door at 9:00 am, and we set the lock to enter-only around 4:00 pm. They are now always both home well before 5:00 pm. They are throughly adjusted to this—to the degree that George doesn’t even try to go out anymore past mid-afternoon. He’ll give one pro forma yowl, then go eat his bodyweight in cat food, then curl up (on something green) and go to sleep. Charlie, though, well, not always. Every now and again he’ll just get mad at the restrictions and just run from window to window to door to kitty door, chirring and meeping and desperate to get out. If neither Kelley nor I know where Charlie is at any given moment, nine times out of ten he’s on a windowsill somewhere, yearning, threatening local wildlife, and plotting revenge.

Tabby cat on a home-office window sill, prowling, and about to knock some files over

Charlie prepares to knock every single file folder off my desk

They sincerely disliked us for ten days in early September when wildfire smoke turned the outdoor air quality here in Seattle to unhealthy then very unhealthy then flashing-red hazardous. We let them out the first morning when the air was merely moderately bad—and even so you can see how yellow the light is.

Two cats o a backyard deck looking at the yellow-tinged air

Everything’s yellow

But then it got really bad. There were a couple of days when day seemed like night in our living room.

A cat sitting along the back of an armchair. Both are barelyvisible it's so dark

Charlie on the back of a chair in the living room at 10:58 am

The cats did not understand, and were very, very unhappy. There again, so were we. The whole family spent a lot of time watching TV. It turns out they’re both fans of speculative TV—and dislike realism quite a bit, unless it’s about big cats killing big game. Here they are watching The Old Guard, and Charlie is quite taken with this notion of being killed, then just getting up again. It’s hard to say whether here he’s having visions of having to catch only one shrew that he can kill over and over again, or if he’s figuring out that, hey, he’s a cat: he can live forever, like NINE TIMES!

Black and wite hoto of two cats on a throw watching TV

Hey, George, wake up George! I’m gonna live forever—like NINE TIMES!

George likes Firefly, particularly Wash—whereas Charlie is more of a Jane fan.

Cat watching TV

George is a fan of Wash

They are both mystified by Lucifer, particularly when he sprouts wings, but George likes him; Charlie prefers Maze.

Two cats watching Lucifer on TV

Is he a bird or a boy? No idea; let’s eat him and see.

By the time we could let them out again, summer was over, and fall was well on the way to winter—Seattle’s five-month rainy season—so now it’s cold and wet outside all the time. As a result, they’ve really changed their habits. We haven’t had a dismembered vole or shrew to deal with for nearly a month—an abrupt change to finding three livers and a tail in a single day. Perhaps it’s just that they’re eating them outside but I suspect not because they are eating a truly astounding amount of food.

They are both still growing—that kitty condo is now ridiculously too small for them; they love it anyway—but much more slowly. I suspect they’re within a whisker of their final size. George is bigger; he always will be. Here’s a photo taken a few months ago, with a Kindle for scale. He’s bigger now.

Tabby cat lying stretched out on the bed with a Kindle for scale—he's about four times as long

Kitten with Kindle (for scale) on a green blanket

They’ve developed habits. George, for example, will never come snuggle up during the day. If it’s daytime he’ll find a place to sit near me—usually his favourite ratty green blanket that we’ve had to make an almost permanent feature of the family room sofa (sigh).

Big tabby cat sitting half curled i the corner of a sofa covered by a dark green blanket

George likes green

In the evening, he’ll settle in front of the fire—

Tabby cat asleep on a green carpet in front of a fire

George by the fire—on a green carpet (he really likes green)

—while Kelley and I have our wine or cocktails and Charlie plunks himself onto Kelley’s lap. Or steals her chair when she gets up to get us a refill.

Tabby cat half reclining on a big brown leather armchair in front of a red cushion

Charlie likes red

But at night, George will climb onto my lap in bed while I read—again, onto a green blanket—and head bump, then knead and purr luxuriously, then slowly fall asleep. I not a fan of the blanket, so as soon as he wakes up, yawns, and wanders off for his second supper I take the blanket off. When he comes back he does a double-take (every time) at being faced with a (to him) unfriendly duvet (even though it’s green) then huffs his way to join Charlie bracketing Kelley’s legs on the blue blanket.

Black and whie night-time photo of two tabby cats curled up o either side of a sleeping figure's legs

Guarding the legs

While George is still very cautious of people who aren’t me or Kelley, Charlie is utterly promiscuous—he will settle on anyone, anytime. As Seattle enters its rainy season he’s been helping me a lot with my work.

Tabby cat curled up on a cat bed cunninly placed between a keyboard and computer display

Charlie helps with MENEWOOD*

Both of them have had their first wounds. George got bitten on the base of his tail a few months ago—by something small, judging by the spacing of the bite marks and how shallow they were—but there was no infection. He cleaned the bite so assiduously that half the hair on the base of his tail fell out, and it’s still growing back in. Charlie wasn’t so lucky. Three weeks ago he got chomped by something just above the dew claw on his right foreleg. We knew something had happened, but we couldn’t find a break or anything, and he seemed to get better, but then he started to limp and the paw swelled: the wound had abscessed. Off to the vet. Shaving draining, antibiotics, and a kitty who felt very sorry for himself for a couple of days and wanted cuddles every minute of every day, and never missed an opporunity to show his shaved patch.

Tabby cat curled on alap showing a shaved oblong on his leg

Wounded warrior wants a cuddle

They have been an immeasurable comfort to me during a recent MS relapse and the horrors of the American political landscape. Here’s George beaming love and comfort.

A pink-tinged photo of a large tabby cat sitting on a cushion with his tail wrapped aroun dhis feet doing that kissy-eyes thing

George sends love and comfort to all those who need it

And they both offered a moment of silence for Ruth Bader Ginsberg.

Two cats sitting in respectful meatloaf position with heads lowered

Respect for RBG

And a few days after the election they seemed thankful for new possibilities.

A cat on a window sill gazing at the moon

A new hope

But mostly they’re just learning to be cats, and trying to learn to make space for others, one mum at a time.

Two cats on a sofa: one sitting along the top, above a cushio, one sitting on the bottom, in front of the cushion

Waiting for Mommo

Mostly, though, like all of us I think they’re just biding time until spring. Instead of vaccines and new administration, though, they looking forward to pulling up flowers, chasing butterflies, and pulling the heads off anything they can catch—perhaps a few slow-moving White House escapees. Meanwhile, you can enjoy many, many earlier adventures—including photos and video—in previous Kitten Reports.


*News about that next week

Election Day Cocktail: Brandy Bramble

We invented this so it doesn’t have a name, but let’s call it a Brandy Bramble. Except I prefer to make it with Armagnac. Except Armagnac is more expensive than brandy—especially when you drink it in the kind of quantities I’ve felt the need to since spring, what with the global pandemic, health crap (family with COVID, friends with COVID, family with cancer, friends with cancer, and, of course, a perfectly timed pseudo-relapse of my own MS), apocalyptic wildfires, civil unrest and curfews, emergency vet visits*, and—O Joy of Joys!—the election. So sometimes, yes, it’s a Brandy Bramble.

What’s in it? Well, lots of fucking alcohol. The best taste comes from brown, rich-and-fumey stuff—Armagnac, Cognac, or—if you’re a fan of grain alcohol—bourbon. Things like gin and vodka are okay, but lack that autumnal warmth I’m after. So I go with grapey goodness and use Armagnac when I’m feeling flush and Cognac when less so. Part of the delicious autumnalness comes from the berry liquers: St Germain, which is elderberry (yeah, okay, it’s elderflower, not berry, but it’s what we first used and it turns out the flowers add a delicate aroma that berries don’t) and crême de cassis, made from blackcurrants. (At some point I’d like to experiment with blackberry liqueur.) These liqueurs are sweet, so you don’t need much, but they add a lovely colour and, as I say, a kind of sit-by-the-fire-while-the-leaves-fall taste that is very comforting. But you need something to cut the sweetness a bit, and put a bit of wake-up on your tongue, so a squeeze of citrus is good. I don’t like lemon very much, so I use lime—but I’m guessing most people would find lemon more convenient, not to mention cheaper, and a sharper contrast.

In addition to the alcohol, you’ll need a shot glass for measuring, a lime/lemon squeezer, lots of big ice cubes, a cocktail shaker, and two glasses. We use 8 oz lowball glasses which end up being about the right size, especially if, like Kelley, you prefer more ice.

To serve 2
Fill cocktail shaker with ice.
Add:
– 5 shots Armagnac (or brandy—or, if you really must, bourbon)
– 2/3 shot elderflower liqueur
– 3/4 shot creme de cassis
– juice of one lime (more if you prefer)
Shake. For a long time.
Take four ice cubes from the shaker and drop two in each glass.
Strain cocktail over the ice cubes, dividing evenly between the two glass.
Sip slowly. Unless you’re watching election returns, in which case gulp the fucking thing and immediately make another.

These are deceptively strong drinks, though, so take care. We usually drink just one. But the election is a special case. All bets are off tonight.

See you on the other side.


* I’m fine, the cats are fine, and I’ll write about all that in a few days.

Handheld Book Club—Vonda McIntyre’s The Exile Waiting, Tues. 6 Oct 11:30 -12:30 PST

Book cover: blue image on a white background of what look like jellyfish with helical, DNA-like trailing tentacles. Title in blue, "The Exile Waiting." Au thor name in black "Vonda N McIntyre"

Are you a fan of Vonda McIntyre’s science fiction? Or want to know why so many people are? Then please join me, Una McCormack, and Kate Macdonald on Tuesday to talk about Vonda McIntyre’s The Exile Waiting.

The Exile Waiting was the first novel by the Hugo and Nebula award-winning novelist Vonda N McIntyre, published in 1975. It introduces the world that McIntyre later made famous with her multi-award-winning Dreamsnake: a post-apocalyptic world in which Center, an enclosed domed city, is run by slave-owning families who control the planet’s resources, and are strangling the city’s economy by their decadence.

Mischa is a thirteen-year old sneak thief, struggling to support her drug-addict elder brother Chris, and their predatory uncle who uses their telepathic link with their captive younger sister Gemmi to control them. The alien pseudosibs Subone and Subtwo have come to Earth to take over Center’s resources. Subone is attracted by the decadent living on offer and begins to unlink from his sibling’s conditioning. Subtwo has fallen unexpectedly in love with a slave.

When Mischa defends Chris from Subone’s malice, Subtwo hunts her beneath Center’s foundations, and discovers how terrible Center’s cruelty has been to its inhabitants with genetically distorted bodies and minds. They have to rescue them and leave, but how?

This is the new edition of Vonda’s first novel, and includes a wonderful Afterword by Una, and the first reprint of the original story, “Cages,” originally published in Quark 4, in which she first created the pseudosibs and their origins.

Vonda’s best-known novel is Dreamsnake (1978), which won the 1979 Hugo and Nebula awards for Best Novel. But The Exile Waiting was her first, and you can see so many of her themes and motifs emerge here. It’s going to be a wonderful hour of conversation—and a great opportunity to ask questions, whether about the publication process (Kate is the publisher), the novel (Una is an academic, a fan, and—like Vonda—a writer of Star Trek novels) or Vonda herself and her other work (I was her friend and colleague, and both Una and Kate are very well-versed in her work).

All three of us admire Vonda as a person, member of the SF community, and writer. We would dearly love to share that admiration with you. So please join us on Zoom on Tuesday (11:30 – 12:30 Pacific/14:30 – 15:30 Eastern/19:30 – 20:30 UK). Book your Eventbrite ticket (£3 + VAT) here.


Date And Time
Tues, 6 October 2020
11:30 – 12:30 PDT
Tickets

About this Event
Una McCormack and Nicola Griffith talk about Vonda N McIntyre’s great science fiction novel The Exile Waiting from 1975, republished by Handheld Press in 2019. Una wrote the introduction for this new edition, and Nicola wrote a heartfelt endorsement. Una’s new Star Trek novel will be published in November, The Autobiography of Kathryn Janeway, so they’ll be talking about writing for Star Trek too. Kate Macdonald of Handheld Press will moderate the conversation. All attendees will receive a special code giving a discount on The Exile Waiting from the Handheld shop.

About Vonda
Vonda N McIntyre’s most well-known novel is Dreamsnake (1978), which won the 1979 Hugo and Nebula awards for Best Novel. She was a biologist by training, and the author of several Star Trek and Star Wars novels and many short stories. Her 1997 novel The Moon and the Sun was filmed in 2013 as The King’s Daughter. She died in 2019. More at the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, or Wikipedia, or her website.

Flowers, cats, birds and bees [photos, video]

I usually do a blog post at the beginning of summer talking about the herbs and flowers I’ve put in the containers on the two decks. This year I didn’t because the choice at local nurseries and big box stores was abysmal, even downright weird, and to start with my pots and boxes looked pretty pitiful. Then I forgot about posting. Then I got busy. But, hey, I finally got around to taking some pictures—though sadly I’ve now forgotten the names of everything we ended up sticking in pots so it won’t be a very dense-with-detail post.

We looked at so many different flowers, and so many of them were in a poor state, that in the end our selection was more of an assortment than a deliberate plan, so I just experimented. And by ‘we’ here I mean me and our handywoman, Sue (who helped fix our Einstein Houdini Ferociraptor problem). i made lists and pointed and said, I want something big and red there, and some small blue things with yellow and pink there, and some trailing stuff here, and she planted them and hefted the pots about because I can’t do that. So when I say I’m not a gardener, I really mean it. Kelley’s input was: Put all the herbs on the kitchen deck this time, please. And this year we could do that, because this year we finally got around to trimming the trees overhanging the deck at the side and so finally had enough sunshine for herbs to thrive.

So, anyway, here are an assortment of pictures, some with cats, and two videos of hummingbirds, one for each deck. One is of a hummer dogfight—if you turn the sound up you’d swear they’re unsing light sabres. In the other, the hummingbird is working itself half to death on the Flaming Lips salvia, even destroying one of the blooms in frustration while a bee works her way around the furious bird.

We’ll start with the kitchen deck because that’s where I spend most of my time. Here’s what it looked like in early June just as we’d got started.

Photo of a sunny deck with a tabby cat lying by a blue cermaic pot with jasmine and fuchsia, a smaller pots of sage and marjoram, and a hanging basket of saliia and marigold

Charlie guarding me from the jasmine, or maybe the jasmine from me

That big blue pot contains the jasmine we’ve had for four years now, and some fuchsia and a vine thing that all overwintered. Next to that is a pot of sage and marjoram, and above that the coir basket with the salvia that overwintered, plus new marigolds and some tiny blue flowers (lobelia, I think) or perhaps never knew in the first place.

Here’s what that looks like now.

Photo of flowers and herbs of many vrieites growing lusly and densely and colourfully on a sunlit deck

Everything’s loving the sun

Everything’s flowering—the jasmine, fuchsia, marigolds, petunia, cosmos (I think but could be wildly wrong) and even, sadly, the marjoram—which I neglected to tell Kelley was there, so she hasn’t been picking it for cooking, so it just kept growing. And I just liked the tiny little pale mauve flowers so wasn’t much concerned. We have some geranium in there too somewhere. I think. And maybe a few nasturtiums.

There a clay pot balanced behind the salvia basket, with rosemary and more marigolds. Herbs in the coir baskets include more sage, parsley (lots of parsley—we use it it to make soup and salad dressing), oregano, thyme, basil (which Kelley enjoys on cheesy tomatoey things that I can’t eat; I prefer it in the tofu dressing we’ve been making for 25 years but sometimes forget exists until we rediscover it), chives (not doing well this year, I don’t know why), and mint (very handy for cocktails).

And here’s a photo of a bit further back on the deck.

Hanging basket of lavender and pale yellow trailing flowers

Lavender and yellow flowers (million bells?) in a hanging basket

The crows love to come perch on that hanging basket support every morning—before we let the cats out—to wait for their food, which we put on a white plate on that railing. When the cats are out Charlie often sits near the (empty) plate hoping for a crow to have a brain cramp and come back just one more time. George, meanwhile, is in the ravine hunting.

Photo of a cat sitting net to an empty plate and surrounded by herbs and flowers

Waiting for Crowzo

And further back from that you can see a pot of fuchsia, the latest parsley we haven’t yet potted (seriously, we eat a lot of parsley), and past that another coir basket of fuchsia—Kelley loves that stuff—and lovely forget-me-not-like-things plus more of that brighter blue flower I can never remember the name of for sure but think is lobelia.

Photo of a deck table and railing with fuschsia and parsley i pots and baskets, and bright green watering can

More parsley, more fuchsia, forget-me-nots (?) and a watering can

The kitchen deck is where all the wildlife action is: hummingbirds, butterflies, bees, crows (the towhees and chickadees and tits stay away now, sigh—the robins do too, but I’m happy about that). The hummingbirds are addicted to the Flaming Lips salvia.

Hummingbirds also really enjoy the back deck salvia, but even more they like those gigantic purple salvia spears and what might be veronica. If you turn the sound up you’ll hear this pair engaging in a dogfight over the flowers armed with invisible light sabres.

The back deck is where I have no clue what we’ve got planted, except for the stuff that overwintered from last year. You can see those humble beginnings here, with some of the new stuff—two sets of petunia, one pink, one red, and a set of marigold—still in their little seed-start six-packs waiting to be potted.

Photo of a garden deck i May with big pots holding very small plants and flowers just waiting to grow...

The overwinters (in big-girl pots) the new arrivals (in little plastic containers)

The things that overwintered include, starting in that corner pot and moving clockwise, the humble-looking pile of pale green leaves, that will soon turn into the huge purple hummingbird attractors, and those little shocking pink flowers look like a cross between miniature petunias and tidy impatiens but are neither—but I want to say they’re million bells (we have pink ones, peach ones, and yellow-and-white ones of whatever they are, scattered about in various pots). The only thing I know about them, or thought I know about them, is that they’re annuals, not meant to overwinter. So—not a gardener, remember. To the right of that is that sword-like palm thing and the little white flowers, both nameless. To the right of that, on the deck, is more of that delicious-to-hummers Flaming Lips salvia. And below that, again on the deck, the sweet bay that only just survived plus more of that vine thing that grows in the big blue jasmine pot on the kitchen deck.

Not shown are the motley collection of stuff that might include bee balm, cone flowers, cosmos and geranium (and please remember I could be wrong about all these names).  Here’s what the pots look like a month later.

Pots of flowers on the deck looking bright and blooming and healthy

How it looks a month later

Here’s a close-up of the big pot with sweetbay now being overpowered by flowers.

Red, more red, and orange flowers against a green background

Red and orange for the win—and there’s sweet bay in their somewhere

We also have a few other pots on the other side with things like lavender, veronica, marigolds, petunias, big red salvia and more. The petunias in one pot are the loveliest soft and dusty mauve.

Dusty purple petunias

Purple petunias pale to mauve

But they seem to be temperamental things, also prone to being munched on. So here’s a photo of the kitties one early morning in the first half of August that gives you a pretty good idea of how things look now (all those petunias are gone).

Early orning on a Seattle deck with bright pae blue sky, slanting yellow light, and two tabby cats sitting on the deck admiring the flowers

Morning with cats—this is the most  you’ll see of George outside because he prefers to be hidden under things just waiting to pounce

The weather this year has been wonderful for flowers: bright, sunny, not too dry, not too hot. These two decks with their flowers are what have made this pandemic isolation bearable for me. I spend an hour on the kitchen deck after lunch with a cup of tea, some chocolate, and a book. In the evening, Kelley and I sit in the slanting light with wine, and sometimes something on the grill, talking about our day, smelling the flowers, listening to the birds. It’s all made more precious by the knowledge that in two months all the glorious colour will be gone and we’ll be heading into the grey cold of winter. All the more reason to enjoy it now.

 

 

Slow River is 25

Slow River now demonstrates that Griffith is the major new voice in the field… In her depiction of a woman struggling for control of her life, Griffith has fashioned a paean to the human spirit, engaging both the mind and heart. It’s fashionable to say such books transcend the genre, as if quality had no place in science fiction. Rather, I think Slow River elevates the genre, joining a select few books that shine as beacons of excellence.” — Seattle Times 

Five cover images of the same novel, SLOW RIVER by Nicola Griffith. All but the second from the left use blue as one of the main colours, and at least one woman's face. Most have waves or water bubbles as part of the design. The second from the left is the exception: it uses the bright yellow, zero-graphic aesthetic of all Gollancz covers, with the title in black and author's name in red.

Covers of English language editions of Slow River. Left to right: current US cover, current UK ebook, original US cover, current UK print edition, original UK edition

Slow River is 25 years old! Actually, the anniversary was earlier this summer, but a 25-year old novel has learnt to be patient and so won’t mind that I’m a little late.

SR was my second novel, but it could have been my first. I wrote the first couple of pages in 1991 when Malcolm Edwards, then editorial director of HarperCollins, asked me if I was working on a novel. I said Why yes I am! (I lied—you can read the whole story here) and quickly wrote a couple of pages of two different novels I’d been thinking about, one set in the far future and one in the near future. He wanted to read both. After pondering for a day or two I started the far-future other-planet one, which became Ammonite. So I didn’t get to the idea that became Slow River until 1993. In fact, I’d just started it when I was at the Lambda literary Awards banquet, sitting next to the Ballantine/Del Rey VP of Sales, Owen (whose last name I’m sorry to report I have forgotten). I won the award for Ammonite, and Owen asked me when Del Rey could have the sequel. I said, ‘Oh, I’m not writing a sequel.’ He said, with a smile, ‘You misunderstand me. I didn’t ask if, I asked when: we have the option on your next novel. And I want a sequel.’ And I smiled back and said, ‘Perhaps you misunderstood me: I’m not writing one.’ He was not happy but I didn’t particularly care.

So where did Slow River comes from? The intersection of two different experiences, both of which changed my perceptions of myself and my place in the world. I wrote a whole essay about it, Writing Slow River. In that essay I also describe why at first I had such a hard time writing the novel and how I came up with the narrative structure that solved my problems.

I wrote the first ten thousand words twice and threw them away. Then wrote the first thirty-five thousand and stared at it, and despaired. It wasn’t working. It wasn’t working at all. The narrative had become hopelessly muddled with flashbacks piggybacking on flashbacks, and dizzily escalating dream and nightmare sequences. Emotionally it was a mess. 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.[1]
“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 back into my subconscious. I trusted the magic, though, and didn’t pursue it. In the middle of the night I woke up thinking, “Brazzaville Beach!” (Brazzaville Beach is William Boyd’s 1990 novel set in the Congo and written from two different points-of-view—both from the same character, one in first and one in third person.) And the solution lay there, whole and perfect, in my mind. The next day I deleted those thirty-five thousand words and began again.

Instead of two points-of-view I used three, though all were Lore’s. I used first person past tense for the narrative present (A); third person past tense for the immediate narrative past (B); and third person present tense for her childhood (C).

Present tense is the language of dreams, of dissociation and dislocation. It is malleable, the tense of events to be reviewed and interpreted later. It seemed suitable for a childhood that, in comparison to Lore’s present situation, was almost a fairytale—at least on the surface. Let’s call it layer C. Past tense, on the other hand, is much more concrete: this happened. The events described are not open to interpretation—just right for layer B, Lore’s immediate past. I wrote this section in third person because she is looking at it from a little distance; not the same distance as her childhood but no longer quite who she is in the narrative present. The main layer of the novel, though, A—the one with which we begin and end—is in first person. This is the mature Lore, the one who is working out how her childhood, her immediate past, and her present, fit together. This is the voice that decides, the one who chooses, the one with agency.

Slow River is a very deliberately layered book because that is how I have come to view the world. Details of Lore’s character are lacquered one on top of the other, each revelation seeping through to stain the next, each informing the whole. Layering forms not only the narrative structure, but also the predominant image of the novel. Lore knows the different strata of a bioremediation plant because she has, literally, been different people. Lore has been rich and spoiled. She has been a thief and a prostitute. She has been a kidnap victim. She has been a lowly grunt in sewage processing plant. Lore learns the city from a range of perspectives and finds out that the city is like a jungle, each layer having its own predators and prey. She understands where the power in each milieu lies, and how those milieux interact.

The greatest challenge for me, technically, was to layer these narratives in such a way that they reinforced each other emotionally, while also situating the reader, making sure they always knew what part of Lore’s life they were in, emotionally, timeline-wise, and geographically. To help with that I built a formal pattern that I knew a reader’s subconscious would recognise: a recurring ABA C ABA C ABA… The readers’ brain, I reasoned, would learn to expect various time and perspective shifts, and relax.

I wrote each viewpoint in chronological order. I don’t remember how long it took me to actually write. Not long, I suspect. I was moving through an ecstatic dream. Then I printed it and chopped everything up (literally—when it comes to think kind of work physical paper works better for me than screens), spreading it out all over the living room, dining room and hall floors, then splicing it all back together. Undoing. Redoing. That took two solid weeks of twelve hour days accompanied by curses at playful cats and petulant glares at Kelley when she told me it was time to eat. (And one particularly horrible day when she flung open the front door, announced, “Honey, I’m home!” and set a whirlwind loose on my carefully arranged piles of paper, destroying all the work I’d done so far.) But eventually I had it all arranged to my satisfaction: emotional chords and plot lines harmonised, character development and reader movement through the book followed pleasing peaks and troughs.

I printed the final draft. Gave it to Kelley. She read it, burst into tears, and told me it was brilliant. I beamed 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.”

Many critics of course did not recognise the structural schema (see, for example, the New York Times review) which surprised me because I’d worked so hard to make it clear. But I shrugged because, eh, you can’t win them all.

One problem I did anticipate and wrote a pre-emptive Author’s Note to address:

There is a disturbing tendency among readers—particularly critics—to assume that any woman who writes about abuse, no matter how peripherally, must be speaking from her own experience. This is, in Joanna Russ’s terms a denial of the writer’s imagination.

Should anyone be tempted to assume otherwise, let me be explicit: Slow River is fiction, not autobiography. I made it up.

Predictably, it made little difference—lots of people still assumed I was writing about my life. (Just as they made that assumption about So Lucky.) Again, I shrugged: you can’t please everyone and if you try you’ll drive yourself to despair. Also, it just didn’t matter: enough people liked the book that it won awards (Lambda Literary, Nebula, Spectrum) and was nominated for others (Seiun). It’s been translated into many languages, two editions, and many reprints. I still get royalty cheques twice a year.

Right after I finished the draft of Slow River I wrote a fantasy novella, ‘Yaguara,’ which might at first seem to bear no resemblance to the novel—but in reality was another perspective on the whole notion of layers, which can apply to cities, to ecosystems, to meaning, to class and privilege… So many things.

And as a result of recognising those similarities I wrote another essay, ‘Layered Cities,’ which I’ll revise (I cannibalised some of it for ‘Writing Slow River’) and post here some day. But today is not that day.

And as a result of that, and of the critical takes on Slow River, I also wrote a very short polemical piece about the gendered nature of Hard vs Soft Science Fiction, Hard Takes Soft, Still.

So you can see, Slow River forms a large part of my personal and professional career in SF. I’m very fond of the book. It was a tough one to write but I just reread some of it for this post and I think it holds up, so I’m happy. If you’d like to read a bit for free, here are the first two chapters. My one as-yet-unfulfilled hope for the novel is to turn it into an audiobook. Some day I’ll get to that. Meanwhile, I’ve found this old recording of me reading a bit from near the beginning.[2]

Enjoy!


[1] Now I know that this despair is just part of my writing process for about half my novels: Slow River and Stay and Always. Not for Ammonite or The Blue Place or Hild or So Lucky. It doesn’t seem to happen with stories, and it didn’t with my memoir. Why? No idea.
[2] It sounds weirdly high-pitched and fast for me. I can’t remember when I recorded it, or what hardware or software I used, so it could be that in some conversion or other it got pitch-shifted, or perhaps it just that I was just much younger and more energetic when I read it.

Kitten Report #15: Einstein Houdini Ferociraptors

The cats have learnt to team up for hunting and escaper cats have been going outside. I have many photos of Charlie out there—he does love to pose. This is his resting demon face.

Tabby cat sitting by basket of herbs and flowers looking fluffy and paradoxically demonic

Resting Demon Face

George I tend to only see when he comes in and goes to sleep.

Tabby cat curled up tight and fast asleep on a soft green blanket

What the shrews never see…

Our cats are too smart for their own good—well, certainly too smart for our good. Individually they’re very different and can manage different things. Lately, though, they’re learnt to team up, and together they are unstoppable. If you’ve seen the original Jurassic Park you will no doubt remember the pair of ferocious, wicked smart velociraptors that hunted the children as a coordinated pair. Charlie and George have started to do that team-hunting. They’ve been practising on the crows, which fortunately are older and wiser than they are; also, they can fly. But watching our wee ferociraptors, I am very, very grateful that I outweigh them by a factor of 10. Bear this in mind as I tell you the story of the cat door.

As you recall from the last Kitten Report, Charlie and George had their first venture outdoors. We kept them in for a while so we could all recover—we could do that with no worries because we’d blocked off the old cat door years ago when our last cat, Zack, died. But they had a taste for the outdoors now and they were determined to get out there again. and when Charlie fixes his will on something, it happens. So we bought a new cat door: the usual kind with a magnetic seal and a sliding lock.

The problem was, it was an extremely strong magnet, and Charlie (who is small) couldn’t quite manage it. We disassembled the door, took a look, and thought, Well, it should be easy enough to pop that top magnet out. Wrong. It was glued in, so in the end we had to break a chunk off the door. This meant a) there was now a hole in it, b) without the magnet it flapped crazily in the wind, and c) we could no longer lock it. But, Hey, we thought. That’s okay. Until the new door arrives we’ll just prop something in front of it when it’s time to close up shop.

So when it was time for them to be in for the night, we blocked the door with the heavy black mat covered in nonslip rubbery stuff that I usually carry in my wheelchair backpack as a portable tray. It’s heavy duty and difficult to slide aside. Then we drew the heavy velvet curtain over that.

Five minutes later we heard the plap of the mat going down and the creak-flap of a kitty busting out.

Fortunately he (Charlie) hadn’t gone far so we got him back in and propped a big heavy painting in front of it, with the heavy threshold mat up against that. Ha! I thought. Figure that out!

Thump. Crash. Creak-flap. Out.

So then we propped the big painting, slid the threshold mat, and put a big dining chair in front of that.

They tried a few times but couldn’t manage it, so we went to bed and were just settling down when Skreeeek. Thump. Crash. Creak-flap. Out.

Now we were getting thoroughly pissed off. So next we propped the big painting, slid the threshold mat, and then wheeled my heavy wheelchair hard against the painting and put the brakes on. We went to bed. THEY DID NOT FIGURE IT OUT! Yodel of triumph!!

A week of happiness followed: cats allowed out after breakfast, in-and-out until 5 pm, then locked up safe for the night; bliss. Bliss for us, anyway. the small mammal population began to suffer: George likes shrews; Charlie prefers voles: he brought home three on Monday afternoon. Weirdly, neither seem that interested in the birds, or perhaps they’re just working their way up to that. They’ve been eying the bunnies that keep our lawns cropped (and the north garden very well fertilised, sigh) but so far haven’t caught one—or maybe they just couldn’t get it through the kitty door.

Little dead shrew lying on its back on an ivory carpet

George wuz here

However, during the day the broken door with the hole it that flapped with every breath of wind was driving us crazy.

So we bought a new door. I figured out how to degauss the magnet—I weakened it enough that Charlie could push through it okay—and more to the point, it left the lock intact. So one night, instead of the picture, mat, wheelchair routine we simply…locked the door! And went to bed.

At three o’clock we woke up to find no cats on the bed and the house eerily quiet. We staggered into the living area and found they were outside taunting the coyotes (which, thank god, can’t climb onto the roof). We got them inside—eventually—locked the door, then sat and watched. George strolled over and pushed the lock open with his paw. We scooped him up and stuffed him in the bedroom before he could get through the door. Then we watched Charlie—who trotted over and opened the lock with his teeth. So now we were back to the painting and the wheelchair.

This was getting seriously old, because when the cats were safely locked in the house, I was too: I couldn’t use the wheelchair.

So I worked out how to build a physical block: a frame around the kitty door, with a door-sized piece of plywood that slides in, acting as a portcullis—a physical barrier. We couldn’t even need a lock. Then our handywoman, Sue—appropriately masked, gloved, and social-distanced, of course—built and installed it for us.

We slid the thing down: yay! High fives. Settle down with a beer, grinning, because we would not have to worry about the cats for the rest of the night. 5 mins later? George figured out how to push the portcullis up an inch with his nose, enough to get is head under it, and then flick it all the way up and zip out before the portcullis fell. Well, I thought. That’s an easy fix: lock the door, then drop the portcullis. Ha! I thought. Figure *that* out!

I forgot ferociraptor mode. Charlie watched George nose up the portcullis, then zipped in and unlocked the door with his teeth, and voilá! Team Houdini! And we were back to the painting and wheelchair. Oh, now it was on!

If cats with brains the size of a walnut can figure out how to escape, surely a woman with a fucking PhD can figure how to lock them up without locking herself up. Sue suggested a weird combo of pegs and clips and carabiners that would have made the door look like a Heath Robinson bank vault but would stop George lifting it with his nose. I was convinced there had to be a simpler, more elegant way to do it. So I looked at Sue’s collection of shims and bits of wood and tape and screws, and pointed out we could use double-sided tape to build a bottom l/edge to the portcullis frame without having to dismantle everything. And with a bottom edge, George wouldn’t be able to get is nose under it. He would have to figure out how to stand on three legs, half turn upside down so he could hook a claw into and *under* the <0.5 mm gap between ledge and portcullis, and AT THE SAME TIME get his nose in far enough to then get his head under, then flick it up with his head, while Charlie AT THE SAME TIME unlocked the door his teeth and squeezed out. Ha!

annotated photo of sliding door with cat door insert, shhowing the slider locking mechanism, the cat door locking mechanism, and home made portcullis

Not Alcatraz but…

It’s now been three days and they haven’t yet figured it out. I dance in victory! (With my fingers crossed…)

Meanwhile, they’ve decided on another approach. We’re still mostly managing to get them inside by 5pm because any later than that and they turn into totally feral beasts and vanish into the wilds of the ravine—and we don’t see them until the wee hours while they play chicken with coyotes and barred owls and mysterious pools of sticky stinking stuff. Yesterday, though, was a lovely hot day here in Seattle, so in the early evening Kelley and I went outside on the back deck to enjoy a bottle of rosé and conversation in the delicious scent of our flowers and vines. The cats, of course, stayed inside. They. Did. Not. Like. That.

Charlie’s forte is social engineering, so that’s what he turned to: the repeated whang! whang! whang! of throwing himself at the portcullised door with a relentlessness designed to weaken our will to live, admit we’re lesser beings, and obey: that is, open the fucking door. George, however, decided that engineering engineering was the way to go. First, he stood on his hind legs and moved parallel to the slider by inching his front paws along the middle ledge, probing for structural weakness. As he inched along he gave us the evil eye (his head was above the divider: he’s a very tall cat) and made it plain he did not appreciate us taking our ease in *his* garden while *he* was stuck inside. Then he sat down, wrapped his tail around his toes, and settled in to think. It’s fascinating—you can practically see the gears turning. He looked at the door. He looked at us on the other side of the door. He looked at the door handle. He thought some more. When we went out to the deck, we had mysteriously been able to make the wall slide to one side by moving something near the handle, that is, the lever that locks and unlocks the slider. In the open position, the top of that lever is 42″ above the floor; I was not worried—until he went back to the door, stood on his hind legs, and stretched up. And up. And up some more and tugged on the lever. Result? He pulled it down—and locked us out. Well, fuck.

It’s a slider; it doesn’t use a key; we were not getting back in that way. The cats sat there looking smug: Now you know how it feels! And I could tell George was also thinking: If I can work out how to lock it, I’ll figure out how to unlock it one day when you’re not around and then it won’t matter about your locking cat door and your portcullis. It’s a very heavy slider; I sometimes find it difficult to open. Even if they both grow a bit ore, and even if they go ferociraptor on it, I’m sure they won’t manage it. Or pretty sure. So I’m not worried. What does worry me, though, is being trapped on the back deck. The other day was fine, because kelley was there, and she could walk around to the side deck where, fortunately, we had left the slider unlocked, and get in that way, and open the back door for me. If I’d been on my own—even if I was again lucky enough to forget to lock the side door—I’d be totally screwed: I can’t do the steps down from the back deck, then the steps up to the side deck. (Charlie likes to guard me on the side deck.)

Tabby cat sitting sphinx-like on a sunlit garden deck surrounded by pots of flowers and herbs

Young deck owner

Now we’re going to have to figure out a failsafe mechanism for the locking lever, too. Probably we’ll have to replace the whole locking mechanism and get one with a key, and keep a spare in my pocket at all times.

But for today? I’m so very tired of having smart cats. They, however, are cats: they do not get tired.

Meanwhile, for your delectation and delight, previous Kitten Reports are archived here.

32 Years: A Life

A garden of flowers and lawn viewed from inside a house and framed by a window

32 years ago today I met Kelley and fell stone in love. That love grows wider, deeper, and more richly textured every day. Along the way we have changed each other, and between us we have made a third thing into which we have put a large part of ourselves: we have made Us. There are things I will do for myself, things I will do for Kelley, and things I will do for Us. They are not always the same things.

What is Us? Us is indefinable; I will say, rather, what Us includes. It includes me, and Kelley, our families, our shared history, our shared joys and jokes and sorrows; it includes the home we have built and the disagreements we had over this painting or that carpet or those mugs. Us includes our kitties—not just Charlie and George, but all the kitties before, and all the tiny things they have killed and we’ve buried, or half-killed and we’ve dispatched for mercy’s sake. It includes our garden—the flowers we plant and tend (and neglect, and sigh over), the trees we must prune and the railings we must erect even though they are not beautiful. It includes the tidying up after every snack, so the other doesn’t walk into a messy and miserable kitchen when she needs a moment of peace; it includes remembering to put an extra beer in the fridge because we know our beloved is having an extra tough meeting this afternoon and will need it. Us includes our work—the long conversations over wine, the digging deep and bracing against disappointment when we can’t say, immediately, Brilliant, best book! but, for the sake of love, must say, Oh, it will be beautiful my beloved—only not yet, not quite yet. Us is care and kindness, but it is also ruthlessness and clarity: it is truth when necessary but not honesty as a weapon. Us includes—often—doing something inconvenient, or tedious, something we just don’t want to do. And always—yes, always—being open, being vulnerable, being willing to listen and improve. But, oh, Us is so much joy! It is glee and excitement and thrill; it is delight; it is contentment. Us is where we live. Us is the home we have built.

This is all I want to say about it today. But someone always has questions. So you can find out more starting with a brief excerpt from my memoir about the moment we met. Or read our very first collaboration, As We Mean To Go On, about how books built the bridge for us to meet on. Or just go look at 30 Years: A Love Story in Photos. I’m going to go spend the day with my sweetie, and revel in Us. May your day be as fine.