An excuse to talk about HILD…
My research blog Gemæcca began in 2008 with a medievalist blogger’s meme game about favourite historical characters. I desperately wanted to talk about Hild, the main character of the novel I was working on but I had no blog. So I built one.
It is oddly satisfying to get tagged five years later for another meme just after I finished working on the copyedits of that novel, Hild.
I was tagged by the fantastic Karen Joy Fowler who talked about her new book, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, which I’m most definitely looking forward to. Karen was tagged by Ruth Ozeki, whose A Tale for the Time Being I’ve already started (it’s excellent).
So here are the ten meme questions (I admit I edited some of them, just a bit) and my answers, followed by links to two other writers I’m tagging.
1. What is the working title of your book?
The final title is Hild. But it began as Beneath (I wanted to turn over all the early medieval stones and look at what was wriggling on the underside). As I progressed the working title morphed from Light of the World to God in the Nettles to Butcher Bird to As It Must. But in the end my agent said, “Why don’t you just call it Hild?” And I couldn’t find a good answer: the book, after all, is about the formation and rise of Hild, a child and then woman with a matchless mind who was at the heart of the changes that made England.
2. What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
From my publisher’s catalogue copy: “A brilliant, lush, sweeping historical novel about the rise of the most powerful woman of the Early Middle Ages: Hild.”
But I started off with this: “In a time of warlords and kings, when might is right, the three year-old Hild, along with her mother and sister, is homeless, hunted, and without material resources. Yet by the end of her life she is the first great abbess of the north, teacher of bishops and counsellor to kings: universally revered. This is how she did it.” In other words, I built the seventh century then grew Hild inside it to see what would happen. That’s what I do: write to find out.
3. Where did the idea come from?
On some level I’ve been working towards this since I began my very first novel. Hild is the sum and summit of all I know—in terms of writing and life. But I can tell you the exact moment I became aware of Hild’s existence.
In my early twenties, I was living in Hull, a depressed (and depressing) industrialised city on the river Humber (the southern boundry line of Deira, which became part of Northumbria). For a break, my partner and I went north up the coast, to Whitby.
The first thing I saw at Whitby was the ruined abbey on the north cliff. It’s an astoundingly gothic silhouette, mesmerising. I didn’t wait to unpack but climbed the hundred and ninety-nine steps with my gear on my back. It’s difficult to describe how I felt when I first stepped across the threshold of the ruin abbey. It was as though the history of the place punched up through the turf and coursed through me. I knew my life had changed, I just didn’t know how.
After that, every year, sometimes twice a year, I visited Whitby. I walked the coastline. I roamed the moors. I spent hours at the abbey. I started picking up brochures and leaflets and imagining how it might have been long, long ago. Even after I moved to the US and started work on what would become my first novel, I came back once a year.
On one visit to England, I picked up a battered 1959 Pelican paperback edition of Trevelyan’s A Shortened History of England. I started reading it on the plane on the way back. I read about the Synod of Whitby in 664 and, frankly, don’t remember the rest of the flight. This, I thought. This Synod was a pivot point in English history.
Two or three years later, I stumbled across Frank Stenton’s Anglo-Saxon England. And I was off. For the last ten years I’ve been groping my way through ever more modern scholarship. I’ve been reading bilingual versions of Old English and Old Welsh poetry, absorbing the latest translations of Isidore’s Etymologies, thumbing through translations of Bede, thinking, thinking, dreaming in the rich rolling rhythms of another time and place.
4. How long did it take you to write the first draft?
Three or four years.
5. Who or what inspired this book?
Hild herself. Plus I was born about three miles from where I imagine Hild was born. I grew up where she grew up—in what was Elmet, a part of Yorkshire. As a child I might have walked the hills she walked, climbed trees in the same valleys, poked sticks in the same streams, watched the same shaped clouds, listened to the same seas on the same coast. It felt inevitable.
6. What genre is it?
Literary fiction. Epic page-turner. Historical fiction. Bildungsroman. Political thriller.
An ethnography of the seventh century/ethnogenesis of the English.*
7. What other books would you compare yours to?
I was born in Yorkshire in the twentieth century, but as a teenager I rode the stony slopes of Mary Renault’s Macedon in winter and gazed out over the fjords of Sigrid Undset’s Norway in summer. Alongside Alexander I led bronze-age cavalry and clashed with my father; with Kristin Lavransdatter I managed a fourteenth-century household and refused to behave. I lived their story as deeply as I lived my own; their lessons were my lessons. And from the moment I realised I would write about Hild, I wanted her story to be as powerful to readers as Alexander’s and Kristen’s had been for me. I wanted readers to live and breathe the seventh century, to reach the end of the book and nod: Yes, that’s how it was.
8. Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
The book is represented by Stephanie Cabot of the Gernert Company and will be published November 12th by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. (In hardcover for $28—according the very nifty app isbn.nu—and, I assume, in a variety of digital formats. No info yet on audio or foreign editions.) Publishing-wise, this has been the best experience of my life so far. At FSG I feel part of a smart, agile, committed team. Everyone is behind the book. It’s deeply exciting. This is how publishing should be.
9. Which actor would you choose to play your character in the movie?
I haven’t a clue. Several actors would be needed to play Hild. The book opens when she’s three and closes when she’s nineteen. But—and it’s probably heresy to say this—I think the novel is too long for a movie. It might make for a splendid premier cable series though: murder, intrigue, starvation, religion, war, sex, love, betrayal, lust, ambition, change…
10. What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
Here’s my hope: that Hild will do for Saint Hild and seventh-century Britain what Hilary Mantel did for Cromwell, and Mary Renault did for Alexander—bring a whole world to life for the reader through the lens of a singular character who changed history, one who did so by acting at the very limits of the constraints of her time.
Also, I like to think admirers of British nature writers—Roger Deakin, Rupert Macfarlane, Richard Mabey—might find something to enjoy.
A handful of people have already read it:
“Nicola Griffith is an awe-inspiring visionary, and I am telling everyone to snatch this book up as soon as it is published. Hild is not just one of the best historical novels I have ever read—I think it’s one of the best novels, period. It sings with pitch perfect emotional resonance and I damn well believe in this woman and every one she engages. I finished the book full of gratitude that it exists, and longing for more.” — Dorothy Allison
“An enthralling tale from an extraordinarily talented writer. It drew me into the volatile, dangerous world inhabited by the real Saint Hild fourteen centuries ago. The historical setting feels so real that it seemed that I was walking across the living landscape of seventh-century Britain. The characters are utterly believable in their time and place. Historical accuracy alone would make this novel a remarkable achievement, but the author has given us a thrilling story, too. Brilliant stuff!” — Tim Clarkson, author of The Picts (2010), Columba (2012) and other works.
“What a fabulous book! Although finely detailed, with complex characters and a beautiful evocation of the natural world, the tensions of the gathering plot made Hild feel like a quick read. Too quick! I fell into this world completely and was sorry to come out.” — Karen Joy Fowler
When I pondered whom to tag in return, I asked women: I’ve taken the Russ Pledge to promote and support women writers. But all the writers I considered were out of the country/unavailable to check with, had already played, were wilting under deadlines, didn’t know who to tag in turn, or didn’t want to for other complicated reasons. And given that I’ve already been dilatory (so many things to do in support of Hild, even at this stage) I turned to men.*** And I’m delighted to report that two are willing to take up the challenge:
- Dennis Mahoney, aka @Giganticide, whom I met on Twitter just a few days ago. We bonded over Patrick O’Brian’s 21 Aubrey/Maturin books which, as I’ve said before, is basically one long novel—a novel that begins to thin out a bit around book 15 but, until then, is practically perfect. Anyone who likes O’Brian probably writes stuff I’d enjoy reading, so I’m looking forward to reading his new novel, Fellow Mortals, just out from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
- Matt Ruff, aka @byMattRuff, my friend and author of Tiptree-winning Set This House in Order, and the bad-girl-who-isn’t-entirely-what-she-seems thriller Bad Monkeys (recently optioned by Fox to be a TV series). Matt’s most recent novel is The Mirage which come out last year but is just out in paperback last week from HarperCollins.
** advance reading copy These are essentially private editions of the book printed for reviewers, booksellers, etc. It’s a publicity tool.
*** There’s a phrase you won’t see me use often.