“Slow River now demonstrates that Griffith is the major new voice in the field… In her depiction of a woman struggling for control of her life, Griffith has fashioned a paean to the human spirit, engaging both the mind and heart. It’s fashionable to say such books transcend the genre, as if quality had no place in science fiction. Rather, I think Slow River elevates the genre, joining a select few books that shine as beacons of excellence.” — Seattle Times
Slow River is 25 years old! Actually, the anniversary was earlier this summer, but a 25-year old novel has learnt to be patient and so won’t mind that I’m a little late.
SR was my second novel, but it could have been my first. I wrote the first couple of pages in 1991 when Malcolm Edwards, then editorial director of HarperCollins, asked me if I was working on a novel. I said Why yes I am! (I lied—you can read the whole story here) and quickly wrote a couple of pages of two different novels I’d been thinking about, one set in the far future and one in the near future. He wanted to read both. After pondering for a day or two I started the far-future other-planet one, which became Ammonite. So I didn’t get to the idea that became Slow River until 1993. In fact, I’d just started it when I was at the Lambda literary Awards banquet, sitting next to the Ballantine/Del Rey VP of Sales, Owen (whose last name I’m sorry to report I have forgotten). I won the award for Ammonite, and Owen asked me when Del Rey could have the sequel. I said, ‘Oh, I’m not writing a sequel.’ He said, with a smile, ‘You misunderstand me. I didn’t ask if, I asked when: we have the option on your next novel. And I want a sequel.’ And I smiled back and said, ‘Perhaps you misunderstood me: I’m not writing one.’ He was not happy but I didn’t particularly care.
So where did Slow River comes from? The intersection of two different experiences, both of which changed my perceptions of myself and my place in the world. I wrote a whole essay about it, Writing Slow River. In that essay I also describe why at first I had such a hard time writing the novel and how I came up with the narrative structure that solved my problems.
I wrote the first ten thousand words twice and threw them away. Then wrote the first thirty-five thousand and stared at it, and despaired. It wasn’t working. It wasn’t working at all. The narrative had become hopelessly muddled with flashbacks piggybacking on flashbacks, and dizzily escalating dream and nightmare sequences. Emotionally it was a mess. Each time I sat down to work I felt queasy. The more I tried to consciously wrestle the book into shape, the worse everything got. It wasn’t until I’d given up—or thought I’d given up—that I found the solution.
Kelley came home from work one night and found me sitting in a heap on the living room floor.
“How did your work go today?” she asked.
“It’s crap. I’m crap. I can’t write. I’ve given up. I’ll have to find a job.”
I meant every word; my life, as I understood it, was over. Once Kelley saw that I was utterly serious, that I could not be consoled, she disappeared into the kitchen and after a long moment re-emerged with two frosty Dos Equis.
“Okay,” she said. I looked up. She held out a beer. “This is a magic beer. When you reach the bottom of the bottle everything will be better. You’ll find out how tomorrow.”
“Trust me,” she said. “Just drink the beer. It’s magic.”
I drank the beer. About one swallow from the end, I felt a stray thought break my brain surface and arrow back into my subconscious. I trusted the magic, though, and didn’t pursue it. In the middle of the night I woke up thinking, “Brazzaville Beach!” (Brazzaville Beach is William Boyd’s 1990 novel set in the Congo and written from two different points-of-view—both from the same character, one in first and one in third person.) And the solution lay there, whole and perfect, in my mind. The next day I deleted those thirty-five thousand words and began again.
Instead of two points-of-view I used three, though all were Lore’s. I used first person past tense for the narrative present (A); third person past tense for the immediate narrative past (B); and third person present tense for her childhood (C).
Present tense is the language of dreams, of dissociation and dislocation. It is malleable, the tense of events to be reviewed and interpreted later. It seemed suitable for a childhood that, in comparison to Lore’s present situation, was almost a fairytale—at least on the surface. Let’s call it layer C. Past tense, on the other hand, is much more concrete: this happened. The events described are not open to interpretation—just right for layer B, Lore’s immediate past. I wrote this section in third person because she is looking at it from a little distance; not the same distance as her childhood but no longer quite who she is in the narrative present. The main layer of the novel, though, A—the one with which we begin and end—is in first person. This is the mature Lore, the one who is working out how her childhood, her immediate past, and her present, fit together. This is the voice that decides, the one who chooses, the one with agency.
Slow River is a very deliberately layered book because that is how I have come to view the world. Details of Lore’s character are lacquered one on top of the other, each revelation seeping through to stain the next, each informing the whole. Layering forms not only the narrative structure, but also the predominant image of the novel. Lore knows the different strata of a bioremediation plant because she has, literally, been different people. Lore has been rich and spoiled. She has been a thief and a prostitute. She has been a kidnap victim. She has been a lowly grunt in sewage processing plant. Lore learns the city from a range of perspectives and finds out that the city is like a jungle, each layer having its own predators and prey. She understands where the power in each milieu lies, and how those milieux interact.
The greatest challenge for me, technically, was to layer these narratives in such a way that they reinforced each other emotionally, while also situating the reader, making sure they always knew what part of Lore’s life they were in, emotionally, timeline-wise, and geographically. To help with that I built a formal pattern that I knew a reader’s subconscious would recognise: a recurring ABA C ABA C ABA… The readers’ brain, I reasoned, would learn to expect various time and perspective shifts, and relax.
I wrote each viewpoint in chronological order. I don’t remember how long it took me to actually write. Not long, I suspect. I was moving through an ecstatic dream. Then I printed it and chopped everything up (literally—when it comes to think kind of work physical paper works better for me than screens), spreading it out all over the living room, dining room and hall floors, then splicing it all back together. Undoing. Redoing. That took two solid weeks of twelve hour days accompanied by curses at playful cats and petulant glares at Kelley when she told me it was time to eat. (And one particularly horrible day when she flung open the front door, announced, “Honey, I’m home!” and set a whirlwind loose on my carefully arranged piles of paper, destroying all the work I’d done so far.) But eventually I had it all arranged to my satisfaction: emotional chords and plot lines harmonised, character development and reader movement through the book followed pleasing peaks and troughs.
I printed the final draft. Gave it to Kelley. She read it, burst into tears, and told me it was brilliant. I beamed and told her she gave good beer. “Oh, god,” she said, “I was so scared that day, I didn’t know what to do, I’d never seen you like that before. The magic beer thing was sheer desperation.”
Many critics of course did not recognise the structural schema (see, for example, the New York Times review) which surprised me because I’d worked so hard to make it clear. But I shrugged because, eh, you can’t win them all.
One problem I did anticipate and wrote a pre-emptive Author’s Note to address:
There is a disturbing tendency among readers—particularly critics—to assume that any woman who writes about abuse, no matter how peripherally, must be speaking from her own experience. This is, in Joanna Russ’s terms a denial of the writer’s imagination.
Should anyone be tempted to assume otherwise, let me be explicit: Slow River is fiction, not autobiography. I made it up.
Predictably, it made little difference—lots of people still assumed I was writing about my life. (Just as they made that assumption about So Lucky.) Again, I shrugged: you can’t please everyone and if you try you’ll drive yourself to despair. Also, it just didn’t matter: enough people liked the book that it won awards (Lambda Literary, Nebula, Spectrum) and was nominated for others (Seiun). It’s been translated into many languages, two editions, and many reprints. I still get royalty cheques twice a year.
Right after I finished the draft of Slow River I wrote a fantasy novella, ‘Yaguara,’ which might at first seem to bear no resemblance to the novel—but in reality was another perspective on the whole notion of layers, which can apply to cities, to ecosystems, to meaning, to class and privilege… So many things.
And as a result of recognising those similarities I wrote another essay, ‘Layered Cities,’ which I’ll revise (I cannibalised some of it for ‘Writing Slow River’) and post here some day. But today is not that day.
And as a result of that, and of the critical takes on Slow River, I also wrote a very short polemical piece about the gendered nature of Hard vs Soft Science Fiction, Hard Takes Soft, Still.
So you can see, Slow River forms a large part of my personal and professional career in SF. I’m very fond of the book. It was a tough one to write but I just reread some of it for this post and I think it holds up, so I’m happy. If you’d like to read a bit for free, here are the first two chapters. My one as-yet-unfulfilled hope for the novel is to turn it into an audiobook. Some day I’ll get to that. Meanwhile, I’ve found this old recording of me reading a bit from near the beginning.
 Now I know that this despair is just part of my writing process for about half my novels: Slow River and Stay and Always. Not for Ammonite or The Blue Place or Hild or So Lucky. It doesn’t seem to happen with stories, and it didn’t with my memoir. Why? No idea.
 It sounds weirdly high-pitched and fast for me. I can’t remember when I recorded it, or what hardware or software I used, so it could be that in some conversion or other it got pitch-shifted, or perhaps it just that I was just much younger and more energetic when I read it.
6 thoughts on “Slow River is 25”
Oh! This gives me hope! Some stories try and try to be told and I simply despair—I will never get it right, I do not have the skill, I am wasting everyone’s time—thank you. Maybe I am wrong. Certainly you were when you despaired. Thank goodness for magic beer!
I remember that author’s note so well, all those years later, that elegant simplicity of “I made it up.” I’ve always remembered it. It was helpful to me whenever I was tempted to hesitate about putting something into a story for fear someone would assume I was being self-revelatory. I also remember thinking, when I read it, “Well, I believe her, but I wonder if other readers will?” Saddened but not really surprised to hear that some readers reacted that way.
Congratulations on the anniversary. It’s truly a book worthy of celebration.
Peg Thak you! I wrote that note after watching the way critics reviewed Susan Palwick’s Flying in Place. I get so tired of women novelists being treated as memoirists.
Jan Beer, even ordinary beer, can be magic :) It’s magic I need on a regular basis with some books—other books not so much. I’ve never really figured out why.
Very likely (still) the only SF novel set in a sewage-treatment plant. Lots of cool sanitary-engineering details. I liked it a lot. Held up to a reread.
Gosh, 25 years! My, how time flies.
I just finished reading Slow River. I never saw the end coming which is a rare treat for me. My niece was right, your book was excellent. I will read more. Thank you, writing is a gift you share with your readers!
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