When accidents become icons

I’m guessing most readers are familiar with the classic ringed or Celtic cross: originally large, standing stone crosses with what many have described as a stone ‘nimbus’ around the arms.* These standing crosses ranged in height from about 3m to 5.5m. Here’s a generic vector drawing to illustrated what I mean:

Vector drawing by Petr Vodicka of an original in the public domain

There are now millions of these nimbused crosses in miniature: on tattoos, t-shirts, and tarot cards; woven in hanging cloths, painted on Christmas cards, and hammered from bronze and pewter and silver and gold and hung on neck chains. There’s lots of rumination among academics, religious, antiquarians, and historians about where and how that so-called nimbus developed. Perhaps it comes from the cosmological cross, an “important motif in Coelius Sedulius‘s poem Carmen Paschale,” composed in the fifth century and, according to Wikipedia, “known in Ireland by the 7th century.” (You will forgive me if I call bullshit, or at least an unseemly stretching of probability.) Or maybe St Patrick combined the cross with pagan symbols (such as the Neolithic and Bronze Age wheel cross—see footnote) to appeal to the heathen. (We have absolutely zero indication of this, but, hey, anything’s possible.) Or, gosh, it could represent Christ’s dominance over the sun god. (Well of course it could; it could represent a prescient seventh-century mystic’s representation of a lunar module on top of Apollo 13.) And on it goes. It’s always been clear to me that all these pedantic old white men were basically talking through their beards.

So I was absolute delighted last month when I read an article in the September issue of Current Archaeology, “Iona’s Archetype,” that gave a much more likely explanation: the shape is a useful accident resulting from at least two sets of damage and an eight-century repair. And for this eminently sensible suggestion there is some evidence—circumstantial, of course, but something tangible.

On the island of Iona (that Hild knows as Hii) there were several large standing stone crosses. Most now standing are replicas, or are in pieces—or parts of a larger, reconstructed whole—in museums. One, the eight-century St Martin’s cross, still stands in its original position on Iona:

St Martin’s cross. Original mounted photograph annotated by Erskine Beveridge ‘ St Martin’s Cross Iona – (from east)’. From the RCAHMS Society of Antiquaries of Scotland Collection MS/36/209.

Note how short the arms are, how small the upper surface area is relative to the width of the long central arm. Iona is a windy island. Any top-heavy structure, especially if the top part has a large surface area, will be prone to being blown down. My guess is that the size of those arms explains the St Martin’s cross’s survival.

The Current Archaeology article, though, examines St John’s cross, originally 5.3m tall (about 17.5′), carved in the early eight century and apparently the progenitor of all Celtic crosses. Here’s what the partially reconstructed cross looks like.

Photo via Canmore

This is very high and very top-heavy. That central boss and outstretched arms would have acted rather like a sail, tipping the top-heavy thing over. The stone, particularly the arms, would most likely break under its own weight—and in fact there’s evidence of more than one such break and subsequent repair. There’s also evidence that sometime after the cross fell over it was re-erected, this time jammed into the central slot of an old mill stone to provide stability.

More interestingly, from my perspective, the circle appears to be a latter addition, introduced during one of the repairs, along with an extra piece at the top and at the neck—the shaded bits in the diagram below.

Here’s a more detailed look at the structural repair and stability improvement.

Photos again courtesy of Canmore

It is an elegant solution.

So, that beard-tugging rumination about the origins of the circle in the Celtic cross? Just-So stories resting on wishful thinking.

Finally, just for grins, here’s a photo of the concrete replica of St John’s cross that stands today on Iona.

It must have been an awe-inspiring sight, particularly if it was painted. Was it painted? We don’t know. I’m not aware of evidence of polychromatic decoration but, there again, I’m not aware of any evidence that they weren’t. And why would you go to all the time, trouble and expense of creating such an amazing thing and then not make it as striking as possible? Maybe we should have a colouring competition…

*I am not talking here of the white supremacist hate symbol, usually with four equal arms rather than the long vertical axis of a standing cross. The hate symbol very possibly could be a direct descendant of the wheel cross—which is a cross inside a circle (and if you break that circle just before its join to the cross you get the beginnings of a swastika)—but it’s also just possible it could be connected to the nativist national origin myths that neo-nazis love to co-opt.

More on the enamel pin for Spear

Image description: A round enamel pin in the shape of a red shield with raised rim and embossed rivets held between a white woman’s the finger and thumb. On the shield are entwined forget-me-nots, with blue-and-yellow flowers and deep green leaves. Lying over all is a broad-bladed boar spear.

I promised an update on availability. Here’s what I know.

The pin will be available during a pre-order campaign which will begin much closer to the publication date. (Publication date is 19 April 2022. So perhaps after the holidays? I’m just guessing.) When that does happen, there’ll be an online form and readers can upload their receipt (from any retailer) to get a pin. So no need to cancel any pre-orders now, just file the receipt until the form is live! And I’ll be sure to let you know when it goes up.

If you want to be ready, pre-order the book now:

IndieBound | Amazon.com | Bookshop.org | Barnes & Noble | Amazon.co.uk

Or see this enormous list of independent booksellers in the UK, US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Ireland.

Meanwhile I’ve been happily futzing about making pretties of the ARCs. More on that later.

Happy Birthday to Kelley

Kelley in her office last autumn

Today is Kelley’s birthday. Once again I feel so glad we met and that she took a chance on me. She is the queen of my heart.

Nicola Griffith 101

Graphic of Nicola Griffith novels sowing six arranged in a repeating zigzag diagonal pattern

A nice piece today by Jonathan Thornton up on Tor.com, all about my books, in order, with short, sharp, thoughtful analyses of each. It’s good to feel seen (mostly—there are a few awards missing but he got the main things).

Now if only someone would fix my Wikipedia page

A spear and a shield

Spear package: two postcards, an ARC, and an enamel pin. Photo by Theresa DeLucci.

This is the package being sent out this month to early readers and influencers. The book in the middle is the Advanced Reading Copy of Spear. On either side is a postcard featuring one of the interior illustrations. I’ll talk about each of those things in depth in future blog posts. Today I want to talk about the fourth item, an enamel pin.

Enamel pin for Spear, designed by Forensics and Flowers

When the marketing folks at Tordotcom told me they were commissioning an enamel pin as part of their sales and marketing campaign, I wasn’t sure how I felt. Obviously, Yay! that there would be a marketing campaign. But also Eh? because what if it was some cheap, lightweight tchotchke—a mile from the kind of thing a Spear reader might be interested in?

So, yeah: I needn’t have doubted. The pin turns out to be a rather splendid, substantial, lovely-in-the-hand object. Beautifully coloured, gorgeously designed, and astonishingly textured. It feels weighty and handmade.

When I opened the box the first thing that struck me was the size. That round shield is about 4 cm in diameter, and the two prongs on the back—like sharp earring posts—are held in place by two sturdy black rubber stoppers, big enough to need their own raised grip. You could pin this to canvas, leather—a belt, a book bag, the lapel of a winter topcoat—and it will stay secure. Equally, you could pin it to a t-shirt (which is what I did to test it; it looked very handsome against black).

The second thing is that the pin will stick to a magnet—as I found out when I put it on the table and click, it stuck to my iPad. So for those of you who wear expensive clothes, you could file the posts off and just stick a magnet behind your material. That way you needn’t be afraid of poking holes in your cashmere or silk or suede, or the beautiful wool cloth of your Armani jacket :)

Third, the detail. Look at the banding around the shield, and those tiny individual rivets. The shading and texture on the petals. The cross-piece below the leaf-shaped blade. Not to mention the yellow centres of the forget-me-nots.

Which brings me to the fourth thing, the amazing colour—and how beautifully it matches Rovina Cai’s artwork. (which I’ve already talked about elsewhere and will talk about more soon.)

Fifth, and best, is how perfectly it encapsulates the spirit of the book: spear—specifically a boar spear—shield, forget-me-nots, and red red red. It honestly couldn’t be better.

How can you get hold of one of these pins? I’m not sure yet. I think (again, I’m not sure yet) they’ll be used as part of some kind of campaign though I’ve no idea if it will be pre- or post-publication. I can promise you that when I know, you’ll know. So if you want one, stay tuned.

Wedding anniversary x 2

Ringshots from 1993 (top) and 2013

Image description: Two photos of two white women’s hands. The top photo is in colour; each woman wears a single gold band on their ring finger. The photo below is in black and white; each woman wears two gold bands on their ring finger.

On this day 28 years ago Kelley and I got married for the first time—in our back garden in Atlanta surrounded by about fifty of our family and friends. WE gave each other a 14ct gold wedding band. The marriage had no legal force.

Exactly 20 years later we got married again, this time before a judge and attended by fourteen family and friends. WE gave each other an 18ct gold wedding band which we wore next to the first. And this time it was a legal ceremony, and our marriage was—and is—valid all over the world.

That second wedding was possible because just a few months earlier, on June 26th, 2013—on the 25th anniversary of when Kelley and I met—we got the best anniversary present of all time: SCOTUS struck down the Defence of Marriage Act.

For us here in Seattle, today, life is good. I hope it’s good for you wherever you are.

My MS resume

If you’re here because of my recent interview for theMSGuide.com, hello and welcome. I’m a novelist—this website and blog is mostly about my life and work: I talk about books, book research, cats, SARS-CoV-2, queer issues and disability issues. MS is often peripheral to my interests. Obviously, feel free to fossick about in my essays and blog posts, but if you’d rather just focus on MS then here’s a short resume of me, my interests in and thoughts on MS and disability.

I have MS. I was diagnosed in 1993. I started using a cane in 1999, elbow crutches in 2004, and a manual wheelchair with power assist in 2016. I was one of the first people with MS on beta interferon but switched to Copaxone after bad reactions. I’ve always been a researcher, and in 1999 I came *this* close to persuading my neurologist to give me complete immune system reboot via ablation with cyclophosphamide or something similar. In the end he chickened out. Even today I am still sometimes angry about that. I then tried mitoxantrone which was amazing at first (almost like a miracle cure), then terrible (really bad rebound effect, plus I needed marrow-expanding rescue shots—and let me tell you, that shit hurts) and now, of course, means I have to have annual echocardiograms to look for heart failure and alert to the signs of leukaemia. I’m fine so far. After mitoxantrone I moved on to a variety of other immunomodulatory drugs until Tecfidera utterly crippled me for almost a year with the kind of pain that will drive people to kill themselves. Fortunately my wife is smart and realised it was the drugs causing the pain, not MS. I stopped the drugs and within 24 hours I stopped all the opioids. A week later I had my life back—and that is the closest I’ve ever come to a medical miracle. My only meds now are dalfampridine (a potassium channel blocker—and yes it makes a difference) low-dose naltrexone (ditto) and the occasional pregabalin (GABA analogue, that is, a nerve pain reducer) when an old ulnar nerve injury acts up.

In terms of activism and social justice around MS and disability I joined the the Multiple Sclerosis Association in 2002 as a volunteer and was soon spending 20 hours a week organising things like publicity, marketing, and yoga classes. I joined the board in 2004—and resigned in 2005 when I finally realised the organisation was more interested in perpetuating itself (paying staff—none of whom had MS—and fattening their pension plans) than actually working for people with MS. It left a bad taste in my mouth.

I started writing about disability and MS with posts such as “Lame is So Gay,” and “Coming Out as a Cripple.” I’ve offered my thoughts on MS beginning with faulty lipid metabolism, I write essays and Op-Eds, give lectures, and spent some time pointing out the awful imbalance in crip representation in books and film. I’ve given talks to organisations about disability access and inclusion, consulted on a Hollywood tentpole film in development about a disabled protagonist, and advised individual authors on disability representation.

In 2016 I founded #CripLit and with Alice Wong co-hosted a series of Twitter chats for disabled writers and editors. In 2017 I started collecting a list of books that pass the Fries Test—and the numbers were, frankly, so disheartening that I no longer bother. Though having said that, in the last four years there’s been an absolute explosion in CripLit and if I had to guess I could quadruple that list overnight. Having said that, even if I could multiply the list by a hundred, representation statistics would still be woeful: there would still be 1,250,000 disabled voices missing.

In 2018 I wrote my one and only novel about disability—So Lucky, a short thriller about a woman diagnosed with MS. It won the Washington State Book Award and got good reader reviews—and some appallingly ignorant reviews from nondisabled critics. Ableism is alive and well in all parts of the literary ecosystem.

There’s more to tell of my MS and disability journey, but for now here’s a list of some things I’ve written you might find relevant.

Two years of Çaturdays

We’ve now had the pleasure and privilege of living with kittens Charlie and George for two years. They’ve given us delight, terror, irritation and, again—and mostly—delight. We brought them home on 10 August 2019. They were about 12 weeks ago. They were small for their age: the only survivors of a litter of six, rescued and brought back from the brink (at one point Charlie weighed just one pound) by the heroic efforts of Seattle Area Feline Rescue and, particularly, their foster parent, Cody. Now they are happy and healthy and utterly in charge of their world. Here are a few pictures of their journey.

12 August, 2019: George (left) and Charlie meet the sofa for the first time—

—but it doesn’t take them long to become lords of the sofa, just indefatigable. Here they are, exactly one week later, running round and round and round. At this stage they have not yet discovered the joys of scratching the sofa to pieces.

A month later: a bouquet of sleeping kittens. Now all they do is eat and sleep.
But it doesn’t take long for them to begin adolescence—Charlie sort of dreamy and George frowny
And now they are fully adult, kings of their world (and ours)—both a little grumpy here in this June photo because it was 108 degrees and we wouldn’t let them outside

So today, two years and four days after meeting two tiny kittens for the first time, we’re all having a Happy Çaturday. We look forward to hundreds more with these fine beasties.

If you want more pictures and videos—a lot more—take a look at two years’ worth of Kitten Reports. And meanwhile, enjoy your Çaturday.

Spear updates

A cropped version of the Notecard Rosette designed to look very much like an ammonite, or a giant eye with a dark blue pupil, with writing—"Spear" in big black letters, and, beneath that in smaller red letters, "Nicola Griffith,"—are prominent in the upper right corner.

Image description: A cropped version of the Notecard Rosette (see image description below) designed to look very much like an ammonite, or a giant eye with a dark blue pupil, with writing—”Spear” in big black letters, and, beneath that in smaller red letters, “Nicola Griffith,”—are prominent in the upper right corner. 

Spear, my short novel set in a sixth-century Britain of demi-gods and legends, will be out in 9 months. The publishing process proceeds apace. Here are some updates.

Today I got the first pass proofs—I hate proofing, it’s my least favourite part of the process—but I’m also delighted by these proofs because I’m finally getting a sense of what the book might look like. The finished length is 192 pages—which is actually 184 pages if you discount the title page, copyright page, half-title pages, etc, but include the Author’s Note. It’s a juicy note, long enough to need 19 footnotes. (I love writing footnotes; they’re an opportunity for sly jokes and generally things not to be taken too seriously—though of course some of these footnotes are Very Serious and Weighty Indeed.)

As well as the fabulous cover illustration, Rovina Cai has created five luscious and evocative black and white line drawings as interior illustrations. One in particular will stop your heart (especially if you’re sneaking peeks ahead of our reading, tsk tsk), but I’ll say no more for now.

Rovina has added colour wash and animated two of those illustrations to make lovely GIFs which we’ll be using for Very Special Promotions. More on that later, too.

And speaking of Special Promotions we also have a specially-designed enamel pin—the kind of thing that would look good worn on a lapel in all walks of life, as well as pinned to a book bag etc. We also have notecards which look like this:

Six notecards fanned out on a wooden table. The main body of the card is white, with a red, black, bronze and white illustration in a long strip down the left hand side. Across the bottom of the white part is printed, in big black letters, "Spear," and beneath that in smaller red letter, "Nicola Griffith."
Notecard spread, based on cover illustration by Rovina Cai

Image description: Six notecards fanned out on a wooden table. The main body of the card is white, with a red, black, bronze and white illustration in a long strip down the left hand side. Across the bottom of the white part is printed, in big black letters, “Spear,” and beneath that in smaller red letter, “Nicola Griffith.

Or if, like me, you get obsessed with patterns, like this:

Notecard Rosette: I got fed up of the cats trompling on my pretty patterns and fucking them up so ended up cheating and doing this rather clumsily in Photoshop

Image description: Dozens—at least 50—SPEAR notecards arranged like a rosette so that it looks very much like a fan or kaleidoscope or even wheels spinning within wheels of white, red, bronze, and black against a black background. The final card is arranged at the one o’clock position, but hanging perpendicularly, so the writing, “Spear” in big black letters, and, beneath that in smaller red letters, “Nicola Griffith,” are clearly displayed.

Or like the image at the top of the post (which, yes, is deliberately made to look like an ammonite—I’ve talked about my fascination with phi before).

I have made a map which I’m pretty pleased with. I made it too late for inclusion in the book, and it needs some tweaks before it’s ready for prime time, but—again—more on that soon.

I just got confirmation that I’ll be doing the audio narration. I’m thrilled about this! I love reading aloud, love to perform my own work, and this book in particular was written to be read aloud. It has a rolling rhythm that I can’t wait for you to hear. Excitingly, I’ve finally found an accessible sound studio that doesn’t charge obscene rates. Jack Straw Cultural Center is a venerable community organisation and I can’t tell you how much I’m looking forward to working with them. Assuming it goes well, it will mean much more audio from me in the future. That won’t be happening until February, at which point I’ll blog about the process, as I did with So Lucky. Meanwhile, you can listen and watch my 3-minute reading of the beginning of Spear and can pre-order the audio, hardcover, and ebook editions now from most book retailers:

IndieBound | Amazon.com | Bookshop.org | Barnes & Noble | Amazon.co.uk

Finally, I have my first two blurbs and an advanced reader review and I am hugging myself and grinning. Those, too, will appear at the proper time but for now let me just say—they are pretty fucking good 😎

That’s about it for Spear, for now. I hope to have some sort of MENEWOOD update soon.

Things disabled people do

The title is, of course, disingenuous: I have absolutely zero idea of what ‘disabled people’ do because we are myriad, more than a quarter of the population. I would not presume to speak for billions. What I will do is speak for myself and talk about what I, a disabled person, do.

Why do I want to do that, why flaunt my disability? Because July is Disability Pride Month. And while lots of people yell and scream and preen and beam for Gay Pride—I did too, back in the day (my first Pride March was London, 1979)—Crip Pride isn’t yet a massive, corporate-sponsored institution.

The thing about Pride, though, is that it’s complicated. Just as without heteronormativity there can be no queerness, and—if you subscribe to the social model of disability, as I do—without ableist culture no disability, without shame there would be no pride. 

Shame is baked into Otherness; many of us struggle with it at some point, no matter how fleetingly. The lucky ones among us get past it. So, yes, pride as a notion can be problematic. But as one tiny step towards dismantling the shame monolith that looms over so many of us, I thought I’d talk a bit about life as a crip—and along the way perhaps make disability seem a bit less exotic and/or scary for you nondisabled folks. Kidding! I’m not doing it for nondisabled people at all. I’m doing it for me and mine: I’m going to trumpet and celebrate all the good, fine and fun things I do despite the world actively conspiring to shove me and those like me out of sight.

First of all, I drink beer! In public, for all to see! A lot of beer. Probably more than is strictly necessary. Because I really like it. (Yes! Crips enjoy doing things that aren’t the extra special best things for their health.) I go to pubs and enjoy pints of Guinness with friends. (Yes! Crips have friends!)

Aaaah. That hits the spot! We’re here; we drink beer. Get used to it.
Me, Colleen—a friend we’ve known for more than 20 years—and Kelley at our neighbourhood pub: the first time we’ve all been together since lockdown

Image descriptions: Top—a big old pint of Guinness on a pub table by a window that looks out onto a sunlit neighbourhood street. Bottom—Three white women at a pub table. The one on the left (Nicola) has short fair hair and sits in a wheelchair and holding an almost empty pint of Guinness. The one in the middle is standing with her arms around the shoulders of the other two. The one on the right is sitting. The table is littered with empty glasses. They are all grinning.

I also go out to restaurants, and enjoy lunches and dinners and cocktails with friends—different friends, because crips have many friends! Because, yes, some crips like good food and fabulous wine; some crips can afford to eat in fine-dining establishments and drink in hip cocktail bars. (Though sadly some crips always forget to take pictures of these things, sigh.)

And those pubs and restaurants and bars aren’t just in the US, because, hey, some crips travel, too, flying across the Atlantic First Class when times are good.

So how does this crip afford to flaunt her disabled self in First Class and among the Great and Good in tony hotel bars? She earns money! How does she earn money? By writing fabulous, multiple award-winning, optioned-by-the movies, zillion-times translated novels!

Me signing books after winning my second Washington State Book Award in 2019 for SO LUCKY—a novel about becoming a crip

Image description: A short-haired white woman (Nicola) in grey suit jacket and black turtleneck and pants sits in a wheelchair with a book open on her lap and a pen poised to write something while looking at someone off-camera and waiting.

I also perform. In public. For entertainment (mine as much as yours) and profit (almost wholly mine—certainly not yours).

Me doing a live, staged radio show interview
Me in a downtown studio narrating SO LUCKY audiobook

Image descriptions: Top—Nicola in a wheelchair on a stage, speaking out to the audience, some of whom are visible at lower right. Bottom—Nicola in headphones, sitting on a stool with her wheelchair in the background, in front of a complicated microphone set-up and reading stand, sipping camomile tea from a white mug.

How do I get to these events? In my very own wheelchair-adapted Honda Odyssey GT—with an 11-speaker sound system, full navigation package, and luscious leather seats—with hand controls. Because this crip at least refuses to be reliant upon the kindness of strangers or be pushed around like a sack of potatoes; I’m lucky enough to be able to move under my own power, and in style.

At the controls of my super-adapted vehicle

Image description: Nicola sitting at the wheel of her adapted vehicle with right hand on an electronic steering knob and left hand on a push-rock brake/accelerator.

And how do I do that? In a piece of cutting-edge technology: a supercool all black ultralight, motion-assisted manual wheelchair. It’s such a sleek and enviable piece of tech that the most discerning creatures on earth—cats—try to claim it for their own.

Charlie loves my wheelchair

Image description: a tabby cat curled up fast asleep on a sleek, all-black wheelchair standing in front of a sunlit orange wall.

I also draw a bit, and play the ukulele occasionally—though not in my wheelchair. I drink wine in the evenings with my sweetie, sitting in the sunshine among the flowers on the deck of our lovely house. Yes! Crips deserve and often have love! Crips deserve to enjoy sunshine and flowers—they even choose the flowers and buy the flowers and plant the flowers! They deserve to and sometimes do live in lovely houses!

The view from our front window in late May
Kelley and I sitting just outside the same window in early April. Photo by Anita Corbin for Invisible Girls Revisited.

Image descriptions: Top—a photo of garden taken through a living room window. The window is framed by hanging red roses and the rest of the garden is a riot of colour: green, blue, purple, red, pink and white. You can almost smell the fragrance.

And you know what else I do? I fight. Crips are nobody’s pawns, objects of pity, or icons of inspiration. Sometimes we have tempers, don’t give a shit, are unwashed, slothful, and happy so to be. Sometimes we are shameless.

I do like to hit things

Image description: Black and white blurred photo of Nicola in a wheelchair at the boxing gym, wearing MMA gloves and pounding the shit out of a heavy bag, while her instructor—also in a wheelchair—looks on.

If you want to know more about any of the disability stuff I’ve mentioned, go read some of the other posts, essays, and speeches on the subject:

And if you want others’ perspectives, go follow #DisabilityPrideMonth hashtags on Twitter and Instagram and if you’re feeling generous donate some money. I don’t need it (not anymore) but a lot of people do—and Disability Pride has no huge corporate sponsors, disabled people don’t earn huge speaking fees, and disabled artists—writers, musicians, dancers—do not get fat grants.

Çaturday with Charlie and George

Charlie looking his fuzzy self

Image description: Black and white digital drawing of a mackerel tabby cat sitting upright facing the viewer with his tail stretched to the right. He sits slightly skewed, his whiskers are luxuriant, and his fur is fine and full.

A drawing of Charlie using Procreate (mostly). I’m still experimenting—mixing and matches brushes, trying (with limited success) to find the right textures. It’s harder with Charlie than with George because his fur is stippled rather than striped; it’s also finer and longer. It makes it harder to capture definite outlines.

George is simpler to draw; he was also my first Procreate guineapig:

George thinks he’s still a kitten

Image description: Black and white digital drawing of a tabby cat too big for his old kitty condo and so having to half sit, half stand on two platforms at once.

Even though George was my first Procreate kitty portrait, in some ways I think it’s more successful than Charlie’s. This beginner’s luck is something I’ve noticed often over the years, whether with physical activity or artistic practise: the first unselfconscious aikido move/sketch/song/story/axe-throw/clay model/painting is always far better than it has any right to be, and then it takes weeks to reach the point where I can consciously create something as good as that first unselfconscious attempt—which often wasn’t that great to start with. So of course what happens is that most of those hobbies turn out to not be worth the bother.

Some hobbies do turn into part- or full-time professions, at least for a time: singing and music; martial arts and women’s self-defence; writing. But there’s a limit to how many for-money occupations a person can have—especially ones that don’t pay brilliantly. Some go back to being hobbies—but only if it’s with unfamiliar instrument/tools. So for example I no longer teach self-defence of practise karate or aikido, but I like wheelchair boxing. I no longer sing with a band, but I like to noodle around with my ukulele. But these no-longer-professions are only fun for me if the results are very, very clearly amateurish and I don’t take it seriously. Because the minute I take it seriously I get obsessive. Obviously I didn’t give up on writing, and now that I’ve found the right non-messy tools—my iPad and Pencil—I suspect I won’t give up on drawing. The trick is to do it for play not pay—which is part of the reason I’m sharing this stuff publicly even though it’s not very good: it’s so that I don’t obsess about trying to make it good enough for pay; to not worry about it being (very much) less than perfect. Time will tell. But right now I’m having a good time.

The lovely thing about drawing the cats is that I’m spending a lot of time observing them closely which is always a joy. I’m learning to see them more clearly. For example, both Charlie and George tend to sit slightly off-kilter in the same way—though mirror images, with their tails going in opposite directions. Their eyes are differently positioned, too. And Charlie’s pupils are almost always less dilated than George’s.

Anyway, in the future expect occasional kitty pix of varying quality.

Historic, dangerous, prolonged, and unprecedented

The title is a direct quote from the Weather Service about the heat dome over the Pacific Northwest. Meterologist are falling back on deeply scientific language, calling it “insane,” “bonkers” and “incredible.” According to the Washington Post:

The strength of the heat dome . . . is simply off the charts. Its intensity is so statistically rare that it might be expected only once every several thousand years on average. 

Washington Post

Once every several thousand years? Yeah, no. I think this is just a shot across our bows; just the beginning.I chose Seattle 25 years ago because of its temperate climate—specifically, because one late September night in Atlanta I woke up at 2 in the morning and it was still 74 degrees. No, I thought. No no no. Won’t. And we moved. Yet last night, at 2:38 am outside it was 86 degrees. This is so far from ‘normal’ I can’t wrap my head around it.

Here in Seattle:

  • yesterday hit 102
  • today heading for 106
  • tomorrow to hit 111

For those who use 21st century measures, 111ºF is 44ºC. This heat is so all-encompassing that frankly I’m finding it hard to wrap my head around it. Yet we’re lucky: we live in one of Seattle’s real cool spots:

Image description: heat map of Seattle just north and south of the ship canal. Colours range from red (hottest) to blue (coolest). On small island of blue to the north is marked with a purple dot and purple arrow.

Also, we have central air-conditioning. This is good—I think I might be dead without it (I have MS: my nerve signals fail when I overheat)—but our system just isn’t designed to handle temperatures 21 degrees above previous records.

We’ve offered help to friends, and shelter for neighbours. I hope everyone out there has cold water, shade, and pre-cooked food. See you on the other side.

Indivisible—except by 3 and 11

I took this photo of Kelley in her home office in November, 2020. George helped.

Image description: Colour photo of a woman and tabby cat sitting in front of a wall of books. She has long hair, bleached to silver, tinted with turquoise, and is wearing glasses and a simple, single stone opal pendant that matches her hair. She is looking at the camera, laughing, gesturing with her hands—she wears two wedding rings on the ring finger of her left hand—and seems delighted with the world and the cat, who is licking her right hand.

33 years ago today I met Kelley. It was a wicked hot day—just as today (and tomorrow, and Monday) will be—and we were young, 27. I’ve told this story many times before and so won’t rehash it here; feel free to go look at 30 years: a love story in photos, or read an excerpt from my memoir about the moment we met.

I know that my 27 year-old self was real (and in fact at the time Kelley and I met I considered myself a mature adult with vast life experience) but I sometimes have a hard time believing I ever had a life without Kelley in it.

She’s an amazing woman. I love her. I’ve loved her since the moment we met (though of course she didn’t believe me for a while). We’ve married twice: the first time in 1993, long before it was legal, the second time on the 20th anniversary of our first wedding, when we could legally call each other Wife. I’ll love her til the day I die, which frankly I hope is not for at least another 33 years.

Please have a most marvellous weekend—we certainly plan to—and raise a glass to love, of all and every kind.

Kitten Report #18: Two-and-a-bit years old

Made on the occasion of their second birthday as an experiment in digital drawing

Image description: Black and white digital sketch of two tabby cats. The one on the right is made to look like a pencil sketch; he sits neatly, tail around his toes, in profile except for is head which is turned to stare directly at the viewer as if to say, “What, exactly, are you begging to do for me?” The one on the left looks like a black and white gel pen and brush image of a cat on a table. He is sitting slightly crooked and leaning forward a little, with his tail not quite curled around his toes, and his eyes wide and quizzical.

These are the sketches I made of Charlie and George on their second birthday.[1] That was five weeks ago; they are no longer kittens but full-grown cats. At least I think so. Kelley swears that George is still growing. (We’ll find out at the end of summer when we take them in for their annual inspection and tune up.) Charlie, however, is definitely no longer growing. George weighs about 50% more than Charlie—though you wouldn’t think so from the sketches. When you don’t see them side by side there are times you’d automatically assume Charlie was bigger: he has this ability to look weighty and luxuriantly furred—whereas in reality he’s very sightly built; his bones are slender; his neck is about half the width of George’s. He also has the ability to just stretch and stretch and stretch until he looks like a mile of leopard-spotted belly

Charlie has the longest belly in the world

George, even now, can look very young and uncertain.

I’m just not sure…

They’re both healthy. Although they both—Charlie particularly—occasionally suffer a flare of their kitty herpes (sore throat, sore gums, a slight bubble in the breath) it never lasts longer than a couple of days and it doesn’t affect their appetite for food, lap time, and play.

In terms of appetite, dear god they eat a lot! Charlie still won’t touch anything but canned kitten food—he ignores cat treats; ignores fresh (and cooked) chicken or fish; doesn’t even care to chase chickpeas or steal broccoli (something our other cats did). But if you put down a can of Fancy Feast Tender Chicken Feast (Kitten) he can hoover up the whole thing in about sixteen seconds (yes, I’ve timed him). He’s marginally less fond of Tender Turkey (that takes him more like 22 seconds).

Charlie demolishes one plate of food, nears the end of the second, and considers of the third—though because it’s human food (fish) he ends up not touching it

George eats a lot of Tender Chicken, not much Tender Turkey, but manages his body weight in shrews, voles, moles, and mice. He’d add birds to that if he could (he brought home his second bird last week—more on that below). He also adores Orijen natural freeze-dried cat treats, but only the original flavour. He will also occasionally graciously accept cooked beef, cod, and chicken (though is not keen on pork or lamb or bacon).

So they’re grown cats, but in many ways they the same as those tiny kittens we brought home in August 2019. Charlie is the extrovert of the family, and his moods are alarmingly mercurial with the highs and lows turned up to 11: sweet and loving, wholly demonic, plaintive, Cardinal-in-all-his-Medici-glory, territorial, playful, and limp—when he’s still, he’s utterly inert; otherwise, he doesn’t stop moving. George is more introverted and cerebral: by turns cautiously playful, mildly mournful, wild-eyed-and-feral, pondering, or desperate for love—which involves many yowls, head bumps, scritches, treats (rinse and repeat), then kneading, then suddenly jumping up and going away. The picture I drew of him (above) is his quintessential doubtful self—wanting to be loved, but not entirely sure it’s a good idea. He thinks a lot; he’s one of the most thinking cats I’ve ever known. He;s both wary and smart.

Charlie is smart, too, but less thinky—and he has much less stubbornness and stamina than his brother; he’ll attack a problem headlong—and very often figure it out—but he has to figure it out fast; after two attempts he’s done; he’s bored; he walks off. He can’t understand why, if he wants something, it doesn’t just, y’know, happen. After all, he’s a god; or at least the Pope. Self-doubt is not his thing.

Charlie still goes first: still tries everything first; still first to wake us up and demand breakfast; first out of the door in the morning. He’s much more pushy and demanding: he knows with every fibre of his being that he’s adorable and loved.

George, well, I’m not sure George even now always quite believes he’s safe—most all the time, yes, but any sudden noise (especially men, or women with loud voices and heavy treads) and he vanishes. But when he thinks he’s safe he’s the sweetest cat on earth.

Alternately watching Time Team and guarding my head

Charlie will jump at a loud noise—but then immediately go investigate it. He’s not 100% fearless—but he’s not far off. Last week I looked out of the window and saw a raccoon in the front flowerbed—with Charlie sitting about two feet away. I nearly had a heart attack. Fortunately it was a young raccoon and a bit nonplussed by a morsel-sized cat just sitting there. Kelley shot outside and ran it off; Charlie came in looking nonchalant—but with his tail fluffed like a bottle brush. 

Their relationship to each each has changed, though it’s hard to describe. They’re both more and less at ease with each other. It used to be that as kittens they always hung out together. Outside as young cats it was a different matter: they’d immediately peel off in different directions. Now I often see them sharking about together. Yesterday they tried a pincer move on a squirrel. The squirrel was on the back fence, and Charlie left onto the fence behind it, George in front of it. They started mincing (it’s less than half an inch thick) towards the squirrel, which immediately made a death-defying leap into a tree with branches too thin to support a cat—which didn’t stop Charlie leaping after it, and falling off, while George, startled, also fell off, leaving the squirrel shrieking at them both from the tree and two crows laughing raucously at the lot of them. 

Indoors, though, during the day they are only in the same room if one or both of us is there; even so, they prefer separate perches. 

Charlie with me, George by the fire, Kelley in the chair off screen—on the last day of the fire before autumn

On the rare occasions they’re inside during the working day (usually when it’s raining), Charlie likes to sleep in front of my screen, or next to Kelley’s keyboard. 

After deleting all my copyedits for SPEAR, again (it’s a gift) Charlie sleeps the sleep of the righteous

Like Kelley, Charlie sleeps like the dead. George is more like me—part of him is never switched off. In the afternoon he will sleep next to me on the sofa (when I’m reading/researching, or just watching science or history TV—he seems to like that) in his green-blanket-and-yellow-cushions fort, but if I’m working and he really wants uninterrupted sleep he creeps under the bed where he’s built himself another fort by the floor vent so no one can surprise him.

These days, the only time they spend tumbled together is at bedtime, on the bed, with us. It can take a while to get to this deceptively peaceful state, though.

Yeah, no, I don’t trust him, either

George, particularly, likes my attention at bedtime. He gets grumpy when I try to read. In fact he took such a dislike to this particular book that after six months I still haven’t made it past page 20.

Do. Not. Read. Pay. Attention.

They fight a lot, usually when George wants Charlie to give him some love and Charlie just wants to sleep. George will sidle up and offer to clean Charlie’s head—which Charlie is fine with; it’s when George moves to the throat that things go sideways. George can’t seem to grasp that he shouldn’t choke his brother out like a prey animal, while Charlie, quite reasonably, objects to having his oxygen and blood supply cut off. They have a knock down drag out fight right there, then thunder around the place for half an hour. As this invariably begins on the bed at two in the morning, I—quite reasonably—also object. Kelley doesn’t care because Kelley could sleep through both a zombie attack and the nuclear explosion that created the viral mutation that led to the zombies in the first place.

Charlie is much better at the give-bruv-some-luv thing: he can clean George for hours, and frequently does. Occasionally he’ll meditatively sort of suck on George’s ear, which every so often turns into trying to bite it off, but this is rare, and they rarely have a big fight as a result—probably because George is not the least threatened by his brother, who is only two-thirds George’s size.

But if they had their way they would spend hardly any time indoors. We try to keep it to roughly nine-to-five outside and the rest of the time in the house. This does not always work. In summer, particularly, they are now trying to persuade us to let them out earlier and earlier. They don’t understand the crepuscular hunting habits of coyotes, raccoons, and owls; all they know is is the sun is shining and they want out!

Charlie tries yowling—well, given his damaged vocal cords it’s more a chirruping squeak—but George’s preferred mode is fixed staring. 

You are feeling the urge to open the door…

Charlie has taken to copying him, though he hasn’t quite got the  hang of it yet: he thinks staring at the table is the way to go.

It’s not working…

Every now and again he tries to sneak out disguised as recycling.

Ha, ha, George. This is how you do it!

Charlie is much, much better about coming home when called, though. With George we can never rely on his timing; the other day he didn’t come home until 4 in the morning. Those days are rare, but I hate them: he comes home black-eyed, wild, and skittish. I know how he would be as a feral cat.

They continue to kill many small beasts. Their routine: Charlie generally catches the mole/vole/shrew/mouse, brings it home, kills it (except those times he gets bored and drops it and wanders off—in which case George dispatches it efficiently), and George gives the dead beast a couple of perfunctory flings, then eats every single scrap, starting with the head (I no longer flinch at the crunching sound). Occasionally he’ll leave the liver—always (sigh) on the white carpet.

George brought home their second bird—the first he’d killed. (Charlie brought home the first, a pine siskin; George ate it and nearly died of salmonellosis.) Although this one wasn’t a pine siskin and so less likely to be infected we still had it from him in a split second—but sadly not before he covered the entire (white) carpet in feathers (sigh).

I’ve really noticed the seasonal change in their coats; outside they glow like sunlit sandstone—particularly George. Sometimes he looks like some unknown alloy of gold and ginger. This filtered photo captures something of the colour he turns in full sun. It can be pretty startling.

Charlie, wake up! Wake up! Your brain is ticking…

George still will not be picked up, though allows himself to be held if he climbs on a lap voluntarily; Charlie is fine with it. Despite their foibles or more likely because of them, we love them fiercely and look forward to another twenty years with our furry aliens.

These are not the droids you’re looking for…

I might draw an occasional picture, and maybe do an update at the end of summer after they’ve been to the vets for their booster jabs and a general exam. Meanwhile, please feel free to amuse yourselves with previous Kitten Reports.

[1] Well, okay, George was drawn on his birthday; Charlie wouldn’t pose for me until about a week later. And even then every time I tried to draw him my app crashed and ate the work-in-progress. So his pic is a bit more stiff than George’s.

Me and Laurie Frankel in conversation: Friday 11th June, 4pm Pacific, on Zoom

  • One-hour event (40 mins conversation between me and Laurie Frankel, 15 mins Q&A)
  • ASL interpretation and transcription…
  • On Zoom: attend from anywhere!
  • Free (or you can pay what you like or buy the book)…
  • Starts at 4pm Pacific/7 pm Eastern.
  • Register to get the Zoom link here.

Laurie is a Seattle writer and friend. We have—well, okay, had—lunch regularly to talk about our work, books, life, the universe and everything. Since the pandemic we’ve had a few Zoom happy hours—but this will be our first event together. I’m looking forward to it.

Laurie is smart, warm, and generous in person—and all that as a writer, too, along with a particular gift for characters who feel simultaneously real, specific, and unexpected. (If you haven’t yet read This Is How It Always Is, about the family of a trans child, you should.) Her latest novel is One, Two, Three, a tale of ecology and environment, capitalism and greed, disability and adversity and triumph. But it’s good triumph: real and earned triumph. There are no miracle cures, no suicides, no pity and no inspiration porn. There’s a lot of delight in this novel, yes, but, again, it is always earned.

Laurie does something very interesting in this book, something that very few people have been able to figure out: she norms the Other in terms of disability. Here’s the blurb I gave the book:

One Two Three is a powerful and nuanced novel about hope, human frailty, and love. Laurie Frankel takes a clear-eyed look at the mess we make of the world when we privilege profits over people and, brilliantly, without flinching from the truth, allows no hint of contempt, disgust, or hatred to enter the conversation. Three sisters, Mab, Monday, and Mirabel, understand that you can’t fight old problems with traditional tools. Their gifts and differences and love for each other help them to understand that their mother―and by extension our mothers—can’t make the change the world needs. It’s up to the daughters to act, to move us forward, to tell a different story. It is the daughters who will save us. One Two Three is the blueprint for a true revolution.

We’ll talk about the book a lot, of course, because always the point of these things, but along the way we’ll cover writing process in general, highs and lows in particular, norming the Other, why girl superheroes are nothing like boy superheroes—and how that relates to my notion of Real Heroes (my terms for the dreaded ‘heroine’), and almost anything else you might want to know. There’ll be at least 15 mins Q&A: just type your question in the chat box as we talk and get an answer from either or both of us. It’s like magic. And did I say it’s free? And you can join from anywhere i the world?

See you on Friday. Bring your questions!

Hild’s bynames #3: Little Prickle

My drawing from an Adobe Stock photo 63039127. Except that link is no longer working. So I don’t know the photographer’s name, but over on iStock the credit is to eve-eve01genesis.

Image description: Black and white drawing of a hedgehog with its face lifted, snuffing the air after truffling about in the forest litter at its feet. The parts of the forest litter that are identifiable are elm leaves and twigs, oak leaves, and two acorns.

Normally I do these byname post over on Gemæcce, my research blog, but as this particular name is more of a pet name than an earned adult name, I thought I’d do it here. Why? I’m not sure—perhaps because Little Prickle is a personal name—given by her mother and Onnen, the women who raise her—and so doesn’t belong with the more awe-inspiring definitely-not-fond fear-power-and-violence related bynames she acquires as she gets older. 

European hedgehogs—or hedgepigs as Hild would say—Erinaceus europaeus, are native to Britain but the Romans introduced a domesticated variety, perhaps the African four-toed (or white-bellied) hedgehog Atelerix albiventris, or perhaps a cross between that and another breed.[1] They were kept as pets—they eat anything, insects, worms, fruit, nuts—but also as meat, and their skins with their long sharp spines were useful for combing and cleaning woollen garments, and individual spines could be used as pins.

I assume hedgehogs developed their spines for self-defence: they’re eaten by badgers, owls, and other predators. I’m guessing a hungry fox might tackle one if it was desperate enough to risk a face full of spines.

So why Little Prickle? Let me quote from near the beginning of Hild

Onnen pushed Hild forward. The visitors, both slight, with magnificent moustaches and the air of brothers, turned.

“Ah,” said the taller one in British. Strange British, from the west. “You have your father’s hair.”

Yffing chestnut, her mother called it. And her outside one big prickliness like a chestnut, too, said Onnen. Or a hedgepig, said her mother, and they would laugh. No one was laughing now but Ceredig, and it was his laugh-because-I-am-king laugh, the one for important visitors, to show ease in his own hall. Everything a king does is a lie, Onnen said.

Her mother and Onnen only ever use the pet name when they are conveying something emotionally difficult and important. Like this moment after Hild first hears some people calling her a hægtes—a byname I’ll tackle another time.

Long after they’d gone, Cian found her. She wouldn’t speak to him. He left. Onnen came. She sat beside a wide-eyed Hild and wiped at her cheek with her thumb. “So you’ve heard what your own people say. Does it surprise you?”

Hild said nothing.

“Now, see, this is one reason they think you strange. Your eyes flash, but you never speak.”

“I’m not a hægtes.”

“No, no. Of course not.”

“I’m not,” Hild said. “I’m not a seer, either. I just notice things.”

“If you don’t want to be a prophet then stop prophesying. Or at least mix prophecy with some other talk. People know you’re thinking, but they don’t know what. It frightens them.”

“Does it frighten you, too?”

Onnen’s face was white and black in the moonlight, like a mummer’s face smeared with ash. After a moment she said, “I caught you as you slipped from your mother. I taught you your first words.”

It was neither yes nor no. But then Onnen folded Hild in her arms and that familiar sharp woman smell overlain by peat smoke. “Oh, my little prickle.” And Hild breathed deep and wondered why her own mother never held her this way. “You’re like a sharp bright piece broken from a star. Too sharp, too bright, sometimes, for your own good.”

Hild had to grow up entirely too fast, carrying the weight of the world—her survival, her mother’s Cian’s—on her shoulders from a terrifyingly young age. She, too, developed defences. But she also learnt to lower her spines with those she trusted. And eventually the hedgepig becomes a personal symbol.

When they’d left, Cian cleared his throat, drank more ale, rubbed his lip with his knuckle. Eventually he bent and lifted his bag to his lap.

“I made something.”

He untied the bag, lifted out a lump wrapped in sacking. Hefted it. Held it out.

Hild took the bundle, unwrapped it. Dark wood gleamed in the firelight.

Travelling cups, three of them. Tiny things, fitting one inside the other: small, smaller, smallest. Old wood, black with age. Carefully cut with the grain, smooth as a girl’s shoulder, and as warm to the touch.

“I cut them from the root of the great thorn hedge. The biggest will hold two fingers of white mead.”

She put them back together. They felt dense and weighty in her palm. She turned them, it, over and over in her hands. Old in the days of Eliffer of the Great Retinue… “Oh.” Carved under the base was a tiny hedgepig, prickles out.

“Look at the others.”

She slid them free again. On the smaller one, the hedgepig’s prickles were drawn in; on the smallest one, the hedgepig lay curled in sleep.

“One for you, one for me, one for Begu,” he said. “So we may drink to home wherever we are.”

Those cups, and hedgehogs in general, play a large role in Menewood.[2] I can’t wait for you to read it!

[1] In the UK you can’t keep European hedgehogs as pets, so most cute pet pictures you see are of domesticated. I suspect the photo I used as a basis for this picture is of the latter. Anyway, I don’t much care that it’s not entirely accurate because I just really like it.

[2] I’ve become inordinately fond of hedgehogs as a result of writing these books. So much so that there’s even a hedgepig in Spear.

Hild’s bynames: Butcherbird

Black and white digital drawing of a raptor-like songbird perched on a branch. It has a black eye stripe, grey head and neck and patterened black-and-white tail feathers. The wing shoulder could either be grey or red, ad the underparts could be white or very slightly pink.

Over on Gemæcce, another in my occasional series of posts about the bynames Hild acquires in both Hild and Menewood. Plus this picture of one of the stabby birds I’ve ben working on, a shrike.

Çaturday with Charlie

Digital sketch made to look like a pencil sketch of a tabby cat. He sits neatly, tail around his toes, in profile except for is head which is turned to stare directly at the viewer.
Charlie deigns to pose

On the occasion of just after his second birthday, and having become jealous of his brother getting a portrait last week, Charlie deigns to pose. When you see him on his own like this he looks like a big cat. He isn’t. He’s actually very small and slightly built. He just gives the impression of heft. When you see them together, it’s obvious that George is 30% bigger.

As you can see, some parts of this sketch are more, well, sketchy than others. I was having trouble with my iPad: every time I came close to finishing, the native photo app just dumped all the edits and I was back to square one. After the third time I lost patience and just roughed out everything from his chin down. ETA: I just improved it a bit.

I’ve learnt a fair bit since last week’s attempt. I’ve found that if I begin in Abode Fresco (or Sketch as was), then continue in Apple’s native photo editing app, I get enough of what I need for my level of skill. Right now I don’t need the ten million zillion choices of Photoshop; it’s overwhelming. At the level of figuring out how to show the curve and flow of fur, and how to create shadow (I truly am a beginner at this) I really, really don’t need to figure out the difference between ink and scratchy ink, or wet edges and shape dynamics—I just want a fucking pencil, y’know? Anyway, I’m enjoying this sketching thing now that I’ve found a way to make it simple.

Now that the cats are done I’m turning my attention to some birds, trying to figure out how to make little pictures I can use as icons for the maps I want to make. Per requests on Twitter and Facebook I’m starting with a couple of stabby birds: a bittern (for both SPEAR and MENEWOOD) and a shrike. But I want to do a wren and robin (a British round, Robin Redbreast: I love little round birds that look like truffles you could just pop in your mouth). Then maybe an eagle owl or tawny owl, too. Perhaps a rook. If I can figure out how to make something look fluffy I’ll do an owlet. After that, back to mammals: hedgehog, otter, horse…

Expect more random sketches in the future.

Happy Çaturday!

Here, on the occasion of his second birthday, is a drawing I made of George.

George is 2

Image description: Black and white digital drawing of a tabby cat on a table. He is sitting slightly crooked and leaning forward a little with his tail not quite curled around his toes.

Charlie thinks it’s embarrassing and wouldn’t pose. I’ll get his soon…

I started playing with the various drawing apps for iPad and Pencil in service of creating icons for the HILD and MENEWOOD maps I’m making. I found doodling about remarkably relaxing, and as an added bonus, it frees my writing back brain to work without distraction. Also, it’s just plain satisfying to make things.

Sometime in the next week or so I’ll write a proper Kitten Report but for now, enjoy George.

More on the Spear cover

Spear (out April 19, 2022) has a lovely cover. But like all covers it took some time to come together.

It began with choosing the artist, and I plumped for Rovina Cai because of the wonderful illustration she did for my Solstice story, “Cold Wind.” I admired the way she caught the moment of transformation at the heart of the story—the reversal from predator to prey—and the sense of movement, and the outside-time atmosphere. And I loved the fact that she did it with such a subdued palette.

When I was asked what I wanted to see on the cover the first thing was easy: no clear representation of Peretur’s face! I also suggested a list of meaningful objects in the book:

  • spear
  • cave
  • wooded thicket
  • hanging bowl (or cup—as it’s sometimes in the book).

I made sketches of two kinds of spears—a boar spear and a javelin—but I focused on the bowl/ cup. There’s a good reason for that. Here’s a passage from near the beginning:

In the cave is a great hanging bowl. “My cup,” her mother calls it, when she tells her stories


The bowl is not gold, it is not silver, nor even beaten bronze; it is enamel on black iron that never dulls and never dents, though sometimes the iron shimmers with light reflected from elsewhere. Even direct from the hearth it will not burn the hand that holds it, and any who drink from it are healed. Or so Elen tells the girl. The girl herself cannot tell because she drinks and eats from the bowl every day, but every day she grows tall and taller, strong and stronger; her hair with the same heavy wave as her mother’s but paler, brass where her mother’s is bronze, her eyes sea grey with a hint of green. With her fingers she traces the bowl’s wondrous twining beasts of inlaid bronze, their raised wings and bright glass eyes; she touches the cold, enamelled escutcheons where great hooks hold the bowl when it hangs, and pushes with her palm the four small iron stumps on the base on which it stands by the hearth; she smooths the sharp etched points of the mounted knights’ spears, the clean lines of the swords they wield in endless battle…

To go with it I ferreted out some images of the Gundestrup Cauldron, and two hanging bowls from Sutton Hoo.

A week or two later I got back this concept sketch:

Monochromatic sketch in umbers and oranges of a footed bowl, with escutcheons and engravings, with steam rising from it in te shape of trees and an armed figure mounted on a horse
Concept sketch by Rovina Cai for Spear

I liked the general idea—I’ve always enjoyed the way Cai composes her illustrations, the sense of movement created by how the image leads the eye. On this one my brain starts at the bottom left, moves to midway up the right, then up and over to the left via the tree tops, mounted figure, fort wall, then birds. To me the image itself seemed to move like a flame or a wisp of smoke.

I did have a couple of concerns. One, that it was all shades of umber, not just subdued but sombre. Two—a minor detail—the depiction of what appeared to be crenellated stone walls. I was pretty sure the sombreness was a minor detail too, an artefact of the rough nature of a concept sketch, but it’s always good to check assumptions before they get set in stone. And speaking of stone, the reason I was eager to squelch the notion of crenellated castle walls was that in 6th-century Britain, most fort walls would be made of wood.

I dropped my editor a note and got on with other things.

And lo! Here’s what eventually came back:

Book cover body colour is charcoal, author 'Nicola Griffith' in orange-red, beneath that 'author of Hild' in white and at the bottom, in white, heavy blackletter font spells out 'Spear'. In the centre is the image of a ann irong hangig bowl with silver and bronze inset and engravings and bronze or gold hanging rings. It seethes and smokesk and the rising vapours form images of a woman im the woods, trees, a sword in a stone, a figure armed with a spear on a horse, a gate house and paslisade, and birds rising up. Most of the cauldron/cup and vapour is white, but the figure of the woman is red-orange, and flickers of red hint at flame elsewhere
The first cover

I loved the colours and composition. What I didn’t like was the title typeface.

That kind of heavy gothic blackletter was practically the official script of the Third Reich, and variations of it have been appropriated by white supremacists ever since (and, oddly, newspapers). I had a pretty visceral response.

I pulled together a bunch of images of Late Antique/Early Medieval manuscripts and pondered them, then sent examples of uncial and half-uncial writing and said, There, like that. That’s what I want.


I was so determined to not have that original typeface that I told my editor that, if pushed, I would even cope with the loathsomely twee Rivendell:

Thankfully it didn’t come to that. The cover designer, Christine, futzed about with the images I sent and came up with something which is neither uncial nor half-uncial but with elements of both. Changing the title size and shape, though, meant some other things needed tweaking to balance the composition, so we ended up with this:

A book cover for Spear by Nicola Griffith. The background is charcoal, shading to black at the bottom, with the author's name at the top is orange-red and the title, at the bottom, and 'from the author Hild' in white. The main image is of a great hanging bowl ofblack iron with inlaid figures and great bronze escutcheons for the hanging hooks. It is wreathed about by smoke and flame and steam, and the steam forms images: in white, woods with a woman and a stone and a sword; about the trees, shading to orange, is an figure with a spear on a horse; a fort gate and box palisade, and over all, flying up in the smoke towards the author's name, two birds.

I loved it—but I kept coming back to that P. Something about it nagged at me. It looked out of alignment.

I measured it: it was a smidge too high. So I sent another note, again with an explanatory image:

The finished cover image, except with a line drawn under the title clerly sowing that the bottom of the upper part of the P is out of alignment with the rest of the letters, with a helpful arrow drawn in to show where iti should be moved down a millimetre.of alighnment

In return I got a kind note (the people at Tordotcom are very patient) saying there’s a reason the P is higher, something to do with the way human brains process visual information, but that if I insisted, then, here, this is what the changed cover would look like; they thought it looked weird, but they could live with that because, eh, the difference was so small and subtle no one (but weirdly obsessed authors with nothing better to do) would notice:

And maybe my brain is weird and obsessive because when I saw the new image I was all, Yay! Much better! Unfortunately everyone else—including Kelley—disagreed. I stared and stared at one image then the other until both looked ridiculous and wrong and language itself ceased to have meaning.

There comes a point in every book’s pre-publication cycle—sometimes several points—where you just have to trust the experts. This was such a moment. Fine, I said. Let’s go with the original.

And now that I’ve made my choice, I’m happy. It’s a great cover, just right for the book. Even more excitingly I’ve seen sketches for five interior illustrations (also by Rovina Cai). I am delighted. It’s going to be a beautiful package, just lovely!

I’ve also been struck by how smooth and efficient the editorial process has been so far. Publication date is still almost a year away and we already have a finished cover and I’ve turned in my edits of the copyedits. I’m impressed by both Tordotcom’s workflow and how well the editorial collaboration between the two Macmillan imprints—Tordotcom and FSG—has meshed. It’s all been astonishingly pain free.

Next steps for me with Spear: writing the Author’s Note (I think I’ll have fun with that) and Acknowledgements, then proofs (my least favourite part), and then one of the bits I always enjoy: marketing conversations! And then figurig out how I can do the audio narration. When all that’s done, maybe I’ll make a map or draw some wee pictures or something…

Spear cover reveal!

Spear by Nicola Griffith (Tordotcom, April 19, 2022). Cover illustration by Rovina Cai, cover design by Christine Foltzer.

Image description: A book cover for Spear by Nicola Griffith. The background is charcoal, shading to black at the bottom, with the author’s name at the top in orange-red and the title, at the bottom, and ‘from the author Hild,’ in white. The main image is of a great hanging bowl of black iron with inlaid figures and great bronze escutcheons for the hanging hooks. It is wreathed about by smoke and flame and fumes, and the fumes form images: in white, woods with a woman and a stone and a sword; about the trees, shading to orange, is an figure with a spear on a horse; a fort gate and box palisade, and over all, flying up in the smoke towards the author’s name, two birds.

I’m delighted to share the cover for Spear, my sixth-century retelling of Arthurian legend, publishing 19 April, 2022, from Tordotcom:


The girl knows she has a destiny before she even knows her name. She grows up in the wild, in a cave with her mother, but visions of a faraway lake come to her on the spring breeze, and when she hears a traveller speak of Arturus, king at Caer Leon, she knows that her future lies at his court.

And so, brimming with magic and eager to test her strength, she breaks her covenant with her mother and, with a broken hunting spear and mended armour, makes her way on a bony gelding to Caer Leon. On her adventures she will meet great knights and steal the hearts of beautiful women. She will fight warriors and sorcerers. And she will find her love, and the lake, and her fate.

Award-winning author Nicola Griffith returns with Spear, a glorious queer retelling of Arthurian legend, full of dazzling magic and intoxicating adventure.


“As loving as it is fierce, brilliant, and accomplished. To read it felt like a privilege and a gift.” —NPR

“Nicola Griffith is an awe-inspiring visionary . . . I finished the book full of gratitude it exists.” —Dorothy Allison

The cover is luscious, exactly what I wanted, and perfect for the book. The illustration is by Rovina Cai and design by Christine Foltzer.

For my book covers I usually I prefer bright colours, but for Spear I wanted something subtle and atmospheric. I asked for Rovina specifically, and tomorrow I’ll talk more about why, but for now: Spear is a story of wild woods, magic and mystery, of love and lust and fights to the death—it’s all about the feels—and I knew Rovina could do that.

When I was asked about images for the cover, I suggested several things—a spear, a cave, a wooded thicket, and a hanging bowl (or cup—as it’s sometimes called in the book)—all vital to the story. And as you can see we ended up focusing primarily on the cup.

Tomorrow I’ll talk a bit more about that hanging bowl/cup and a lot more about how the cover evolved—a tale involving 6th- and 7th-century manuscripts, Nazis and the Third Reich, and wrestling with millimetres…

But for now, simply enjoy this delicious image and, if you’re so inclined, go listen to me read the first page or two, which I hope will give you a taste of the atmosphere and rhythms of the book.

Beer yesterday, Spear cover reveal tomorrow!

Yesterday Kelley and I went out for a beer and talked to other human beings! My first pint of Guinness for 16 months AND IT WAS AWESOME!!

Foreground entirely taken by pint of Guinness on a beer mat. Background: a sunlit city street.
The first pint in 16 months…

And coming tomorrow, right here, the cover reveal for Spear. THAT TOO IS AWESOME!

Graphic iwth black background. White text at top: The author of Hild returns, tis time to King Arthur's court where her heroine Peretur navigates her calling as a knight magical threat, ad a romance with the sorceress Nimuë. In the centre, in large white letters Spear. Below that in persimmon coloured letters, Nicola Griffith. Below that, in white letters superimposed on a white and persimmon coloured image of a guard house gate, Cover reveal tomorrow.
Coming tomorrow…

So, all in all, this week? Pretty fucking great so far.

Pfizer vaccines well over 90% effective against variants

Two small vaccine vials against a blue-grey background

Photo by Spencer Davis on Unsplash

From the New England Journal of Medicine, a truly astonishing and encouraging analysis of the real-world effectiveness of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine against variants of concern in Qatar.

The main points:

  • In Qatar during the study period (February 23 – March 18), 50.0% of documented cases of Covid-19 were caused by B.1.351 and 44.5% by B.1.1.7.
  • 14 or more days after the second dose, estimated effectiveness of the vaccine against infection with the B.1.1.7 variant was 89.5% and against the B.1.351 variant was 75.0%
  • Vaccine effectiveness against severe, critical, or fatal disease due to any variety of SARS-CoV-2 was 97.4%

The study doesn’t address P.1—the Brazilian variant—but I’m not aware of evidence that P.1 is significantly more infectious or more deadly than B.1.351. Certainly its escape from naturally-acquired neutralising antibodies in lab tests is similar to that of B.1.351 (both have the Eek mutation) and, equally certainly, as of mid-March this year P.1 was not outcompeting B.1.1.7 and B.1.351 variants in Qatar. So right now I’m cautiously optimistic that the Pfizer vaccine is overwhelmingly effective against variants in the real world.

Given that the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines use essentially the same mechanism, and that their efficacy in trials were so similar, I’m confident that both mRNA vaccines are equally effective.

So, take a moment. Absorb this news: Once you’re fully vaccinated with a Moderna or Pfizer vaccine you have a not-far-from-100% guarantee that you won’t end up in hospital or die with Covid-19.

Take another moment and just fucking marvel! This might be the closest thing to a miracle any of us will ever experience.

Given the latest report from the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) this miracle comes not a moment too soon. IHMA estimates that the real number of Covid-19 deaths vastly outnumber official figures:

  • 6.9m deaths worldwide
  • 905,000 deaths in the US
  • 655,000 deaths in India (nearly triple the official number)

The pandemic is far from over. Only a tiny percentage of the world’s population has been vaccinated, cases are accelerating, and therefore the chance is increasing that a variant will emerge that does evade the current vaccines. Here in the US, the richest and most privileged country on earth, many people are not yet vaccinated—in addition, so many fools are refusing vaccination that their communities will very likely become breeding grounds of infection and therefore variants.* Who knows, perhaps it will be that pretty little town of apple and cherry orchards and smiling tourists that will become ground zero not only of a new variant of concern but a variant of high consequence. That’s when the story changes.

So go get your jabs, people. Then venture out in the bright wide world and laugh and play for a while. We are lucky.

* Here in Washington State the vast majority of current cases (over 75%) are now B.1.1.7 variant, with P.1 variant increasing particularly among younger adults, a demographic who only recently became eligible for vaccination.

Hild’s bynames: an occasional series

Over on Gemæcce, my research blog, I’m starting an occasional series of posts about Hild’s bynames—the additional names she is known by by different people in different times and places. In Hild she was freemartin, hætes, butcherbird, and light of the world. In Menewood, she acquires a few more.

But first, one of her earliest such names: Freemartin.

New Books to Look For

Four books covers in a row. From left to right: Sorrowland by Rivers Solomon, in shades of blue. Things We Lost to the Water by Eric Nguyen, also in blues. Golem Girl by Riva Lehrer, mostly blue with a figure wearing a tomato-red sweater. One, Two, three by Laurie Frankel, mostly in greens.

I had planned to write a long and rambling post about all the delicious books I’ve read over the last few months, but in the end decided to focus on just four: three coming out very soon (next week! next month!) and one that was published late last year just as Covid was surging, election-related horrors were gearing up, and everyone and everything was embittered, embattled, and battened down tight.

Golem Girl, Riva Lehrer (Oct 6 2020)

I’ll going to start with the book that’s already published: a debut, a memoir by friend, fellow crip, and portrait artist Riva Lehrer. First-time authors did not always fare well in the time of Covid, and October/November last year were a particular horror show, so I wanted to give this important book another shoutout. (Also, it gives me a chance to gloat and croon yet again over the marvellous portrait Riva made of me ten years ago as part of her Mirror Shards series.)

Riva is an artist with a particular focus on portraits, more particularly on portraits of disabled artists: writers, painters, sculptors, choreographers, dancers and more. Her work is brilliant. Her canvases hang all over the world, including the National Portrait Gallery at the Smithsonian.

Golem Girl is an artist’s memoir. It was shortlisted for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Autobiography. Riva is a disabled artist. Golem Girl was the inaugural winner of the Barbellion Prize, a new book prize “dedicated to the furtherance of ill and disabled voices in writing.” The prize will be given every year to “an author whose work has best represented the experience of chronic illness and/or disability.” That description doesn’t specifically demand that the writing be Own Voices so I’ll be interested to see how the prize and its prize culture develops. This year the judges and prize advisors were a stellar crew including Tom Shakespeare, Stevie Marsters, and Shahd Alshammari. Let’s hope they continue to set ambitious goals.

Here’s what I said a year ago:
“With deft painter’s prose, Riva Lehrer helps us discover what it is to be human when others see us as broken. Lehrer gives us the gift, at long last, of our own crip beauty.”

I meant every word. Disabled people are rarely portrayed as beautiful in and of ourselves; Riva absolutely smashes that box. Buy it here.

Things We Lost to the Water, Eric Nguyen (out May 4)

Eric was one of the Emerging Voices Fellows in my Fiction Workshop when I taught for Lambda Literary 11 years ago. He was very young—not nearly old enough to drink—but even then his talent was startling. People often talk of prose that so sharp it glitters, or limpid prose (I seriously hate the word limpid), but Eric’s prose is so clear and clean and candid that as you read you barely notice it—only to put the book down at the end and find you understand the world differently. I am filled with pride that I helped to make work like this possible.

This is not autobiography but it is a work of fiction written from an understanding of the queer experience,  Vietnamese immigrant experience, and how it is to feel different in the world.

Here’s what I said about it:

“In Things We Lost to the Water, Eric Nguyen not only uses water to great effect but the prose itself feels like water: clear, powerful, and life-giving. While reading we believe that being loved and being flawed are not incompatible, nor belonging and being estranged. Nguyen helps us understand that we can all float if we let go of having to swim the same way to the same rhythm—we will find our own level in our own time. This is a beautiful book!” Buy it here.

Sorrowland, Rivers Solomon (out May 4)

I’ve never met Rivers, but I know of their work (An Unkindness of Ghosts, The Deep), and was delighted when their latest book was acquired by FSG, my publisher. I agreed to read the novel without having a clue what it was about, or even what genre. I was expecting anything—and even so I was surprised, delighted, and amazed by it. If you ever want to see what it looks like for a woman, with everything in life arrayed against her, simply blow through obstacles like a hurricane through a drift of spores, then you should read this book. It will give you confidence that whatever life throws at you there’s always a way to handle it and find the joy.

Here’s what I said about it:

Sorrowland is a raw, powerful, and visceral read. With Vern, Rivers Solomon has created a woman who simply side-steps her damage, and level after level of difficulty―young, Black, queer, blind, alone in the woods with two newborns and pursued by monstrous government agents―to assume her own power. Nature, joy, science, belonging, human metamorphosis, generational oppression, strength, and sheer lust for life: if Toni Morrison, M. Night Shyamalan, and Marge Piercy got together they might, if they were lucky, produce something with the unstoppable exhilaration of this novel. Sorrowland is sui generis.” Buy it here.

One Two Three, Laurie Frankel (out June 8)

Laurie is a writer right here in Seattle. We’ve known of each other for a while—it’s a small city that way—but we had never met when I got email from her out of the blue one day in 2019. She offered to buy me lunch in exchange for picking my brains about something. We met, had a wonderful conversation about disability, norming the Other, representation and pity porn, and after that met up every month or two for lunch until Covid shut everything down—at which point we swapped to Zoom Happy Hour. Laurie is smart, warm, generous, and a very, very good writer with a particular flair for characters who feel simultaneously real, different, and unexpected. (If you haven’t yet read This Is How It Always Is, you should.) Her latest novel is One, Two, Three, a tale of ecology, adversity, capitalism and greed, disability, and triumph. There are no miracle cures; there are no suicides; there is no pity or inspiration porn. I read a very early draft and then the final draft. Here’s what I had to say:

One Two Three is a powerful and nuanced novel about hope, human frailty, and love. Laurie Frankel takes a clear-eyed look at the mess we make of the world when we privilege profits over people and, brilliantly, without flinching from the truth, allows no hint of contempt, disgust, or hatred to enter the conversation. Three sisters, Mab, Monday, and Mirabel, understand that you can’t fight old problems with traditional tools. Their gifts and differences and love for each other help them to understand that their mother―and by extension our mothers―can’t make the change the world needs. It’s up to the daughters to act, to move us forward, to tell a different story. It is the daughters who will save us. One Two Three is the blueprint for a true revolution.”

Watch for an event with me and Laurie for Brookline Booksmith sometime in summer. Meanwhile buy it here.

Happy reading.