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:
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:
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:
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.
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!)
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!
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).
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-upand 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.
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.
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!
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.
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:
#CripLit Archives—where you can read the archived Twitter chats about various aspects of disability literature, plus find links to lists of book-length fiction that passes the Fries Test
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.
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:
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.
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:
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:
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.
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.
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.
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. 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
George, even now, can look very young and uncertain.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Every now and again he tries to sneak out disguised as recycling.
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.
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.
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.
 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.
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?
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. 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. I can’t wait for you to read it!
 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.
 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.
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…
Here, on the occasion of his second birthday, is a drawing I made of George.
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.
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:
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…
A week or two later I got back this concept sketch:
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:
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:
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:
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…
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:
A SPELLBINDING AND SUBVERSIVE QUEER RECASTING OF ARTHURIAN MYTH BY THE LEGENDARY AUTHOR OF HILD
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.
PRAISE FOR NICOLA GRIFFITH’S HILD
“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.
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 againstinfection 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.
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.
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.
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.”
Over on Gemæcce I’ve just posted about making my own Hild art—for fun, really, but also perhaps to illustrate maps or make a colouring book or create a calendar. I’m asking for suggestions: what would you like to see? Please leave comments either here or gemæcce.com.
Meanwhile, here’s Cait Sith, adapted from a photograph of a Eurasian lynx by Bernard Landgraf (Wikimedia Commons). Cait Sith is one of the personas Hild acquires in Menewood—when she’s north of the Wall with a small band of terrifying gesiths who becomes known as her Fiercesomes (sic).
Covid — aka Covid-19, an often serious and occasionally fatal illness caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus
SARS-CoV-2 — the novel coronavirus first identified in Wuhan in late 2019 that can cause Covid
asymptomic — being shown to be infected by SARS-CoV-2 but showing no signs of illness, not even mild ones
variant — a genetic variant of SARS-CoV-2 virus, which when it replicates creates one or more mutations which can have varying degrees of impact on how the virus impacts people. The CDC currently lists three classes of SARS-CoV-2 variants: those of Interest, Concern, or High Consequence. But as Variants of Interest have no impact on vaccine effectiveness, and, as of writing this, there are no Variants of High Consequence (that we know of), we’re only going to talk here about Variants of Concern (VoC).
If I were predicting the score of the finals in the Covid vaccine vs virus USL Championship 2021, it would be 9-to-1, a decisive win for Team Vaccine. If the rest of the world were vaccinating at the pace of places like Bhutan, the US, UK, Israel, Chile, and Bahrain I’d just go ahead and declare the vaccine the winner of the 2022 World Championship, and I’d doubt there would be much of a championship in 2026, just local tournaments. Team Virus, including the star variants who get substituted in, simply stands no chance against the superior defence and attack of Team Vaccine.Kelley and I are among the approximately 24% of Americans fully vaccinated against Covid. A large and loud voice inside me is clamouring to go to a pub. I long to sit down, take off my mask, and order a pint. I want to sip Guinness, eat something—something I haven’t planned, shopped for, or cooked—and have a lazy conversation about nothing in particular with another human being, live and in person, while around us the hum of strangers’ conversation rises, and outside on the sidewalk a passerby bumps into someone they know, bends down to pat their dog, and stands, unmasked, to chat for a while. I yearn for it.
But I haven’t done it yet. Why?
Let’s begin with why I’m so convinced Team Vaccine is the winner.
While the Moderna and Pfizer mRNA vaccines (Kelley and I got Moderna) have been shown in trials to be 95% effective, several real-world studies (for example, in Israel) show that even in the wild it is an astounding 91% effective against Covid. Further, and excitingly, it’s been shown that the majority of those vaccinated not only don’t get sick with Covid, they don’t get infected with SARS-CoV-2 at all. In other words, they’re not just asymptomatic, they are wholly virus free and therefore cannot pass the virus on to anyone else, vaccinated or unvaccinated. In the majority of cases, vaccination stops transmission dead. Virus replication inside a host is prevented: a chance for the virus to mutate further is thwarted.
For the small minority of vaccinated people who do become ill, the illness is very much reduced: among the vaccinated—particularly those 75 and over—hospitalisations have plummeted.
However, while being fully vaccinated is amazing it does not provide perfect protection. There are occasional breakthrough infections.
Here in Washington State, as of 14 April, 1.7 million people have been fully vaccinated. Of those 1.7 million, 217, or 0.013%, have had breakthrough infections. Many of those 217, if not most—it’s unclear from the press release—had either no symptoms of Covid or mild symptoms. However, 5 of the 217 died. (All were aged 67-94, frail, and dealing with multiple underlying conditions.)
The takeaway: of all those vaccinated in Washington State, only 0.003% actually died of Covid.
It’s Not Done to compare statistical apples and oranges but indulge me for a couple of paragraphs.
In Washington State over the entire course of the pandemic, of the total WA population of about 7,615,000 people, 5,415 total have died of Covid, that is, 5,410 unvaccinated people: 0.071%.
If you compare those two rates of death-by-Covid, the vaccinated dying at a rate of 0.071% and the unvaccinated at 0.003%, then you see that fully-vaccinated people have 0.42% of the chance of death that unvaccinated people do. That is, unvaccinated people are more than 200 times as likely to die of Covid than those who got their shots.
If you run those sets of calculations for the US as a whole, you end up with vaccinated residents having 0.57% the chance of dying as the unvaccinated, a little less than 200 times as likely to die.
If you compound statistical heresies and take the simple mean of unweighted-for-population WA and USA results, you essentially get 0.5%. If you are unvaccinated you are 200 times more likely to die that your fully-vaccinated neighbour.
As I’ve said, you really, seriously would not want to take those numbers to the bank. But even if we imagine they’re off by a factor of ten, by my back-of-the-envelope mathunvaccinated folk are twenty times more likely to die of Covid than vaccinated folk.
Those are pretty persuasive odds. So if you’re dithering, go make an appointment right now to get your shot. I’ll wait.
Ah, you say, but how effective are the vaccines against those flashy superstar variant players? To answer that, let’s first take a quick detour into how vaccines work. And along the way I’ll swap metaphors.
I’ve seen several people on social media asking why a 90 lb woman gets exactly the same dose of, say, Moderna vaccine as a 250 lb man. The answer is that vaccines aren’t drugs or toxins (like opiates, or alcohol) that act directly on the body; their action is not weight dependant. Moderna’s mRNA vaccine is a blueprint of instructions for our bodies to read and follow in order to make something the immune system can be trained to recognise as an enemy and so defend against if we encounter it in the wild. In the case of Moderna, the instructions are for making a particular piece of the protein found in the part of the SARS-CoV-2 virus called spike. The spike is what helps makes SARS-CoV-2 so transmisslble: it’s what latches onto specific parts of a cell’s membrane, the ACE2 receptor, and allows the virus to invade individual cells where it then coopts the cell machinery and replicates.
Think of the vaccine as an instruction sheet that shows your body how to put together a bunch of giant cardboard cutouts of a recognisable bad guy, let’s say Thanos—slide tab A into slot B, fold along dotted line C—which, when you’ve put it together, become silhouette targets to train apprentice superheroes on a gun range. In itself the cardboard cutout isn’t dangerous; all it does is sit there and be recognisable as a target, to say, in effect, This is what the enemy looks like! If you ever see anything remotely resembling me in the future, swarm, attack, kill!
After two doses/training sessions, two different squads of your immune system, B lymphocytes and T lymphocytes, will recognise that Thanos/SARS-CoV-2 spike protein on sight; they are now alert, on patrol, and loaded for bear (while the original Thanos cardboard targets just dissolve and get flushed away). If the body encounters Thanos/spike in the wild, the B lymphocytes’ job is to latch onto the spike and prevent the virus from attaching to and infiltrating any of your individual cells, and T lymphocytes’ job is to annihilate via suicide attack any individual cell that does get invaded.
It’s a very clever and efficient system—unless for some reason the immune system doesn’t recognise Thanos/SARS-CoV-2 spike and so doesn’t spring into action against it.
Which brings us back to variants.
We are now closing in on 600,000 deaths in the US, and 3m worldwide. Globally, the pandemic is accelerating and vaccines have not yet reached, never mind been administered in, a huge proportion of countries. As a result, the virus is replicating madly and variants—strains of virus whose genetic code has mutated—are springing up faster than we can keep track of them. (The more virus there is out there, and the more often it replicates, the more often it will mutate.) The greater the variance of a virus—the less it looks like the original Thanos target—the more likely it is to be able to escape recognition.
There are many variants—with more appearing everyday. What matters here, though, are Variants of Concern (VoC). According to the CDC these are variants that demonstrate:
Evidence of impact on diagnostics, treatments, and vaccines
Evidence of increased transmissibility
Evidence of increased disease severity
The first VoC I was aware of was B.1.1.7. First identified in the UK, it is by some estimates 50-70% more transmissible than the original strain of SARS-CoV-2 (it’s spike is more efficient at grabbing ACE2—it still looks like Thanos but just has stronger hands). It’s now the most widely found strain in the US and many other countries. There is some disagreement about whether B.1.1.7 is also more deadly—those infected tend to carry higher viral loads—though the most recent study suggests that it is not. Whether that convinces you or not (and my jury is out), what does seem to be clear is that this super successful variant is not vaccine resistant in the real world.
Then there are the so-called South African (B.1.351) and Brazilian (B.1.1.28) variants. These, like B.1.1.7 are more efficient at grabbing ACE2 but they also have a mutation, E484K (often called Eek), also in the spike protein—that acts as a partial disguise. So now Thanos not only has stronger hands, he’s also wearing a funny red hat that from some angles changes his silhouette. This means a certain number of defending lymphocytes might not recognise this variant as an enemy. But only a certain number. In vaccinated people there are still way more—way, way more, many multiples more—defenders than attackers. So even if some of them don’t recognise the enemy, the enemy is still easily overwhelmed.
We know this because in the lab—where they pit antibodies and virus variants in test tubes and petri dishes, in vitro—you can see clearly that you need more antibodies to neutralise the virus. But as far as I’m aware there is no real-world evidence that, in the wild, that is, in vivo—in real living bodies—any variant shows the ability to evade the Moderna or Pzfizer vaccine.
Variants continue to spring up spontaneously. Just last month Oregon produced its own homegrown Eek mutation from the B.1.1.7 variant. However, given the pace of vaccination in this country it’s pretty unlikely there’ll be enough virus replication to produce enough wildly different mutations for one to emerge that might fool Team Vaccine’s recognition systems; it’s just gong to be variations on the funny hat and false moustache playbook. One caveat: most of the population needs to be immunised. Right now only 70% of American plan to get vaccinated. I have hope for one group: those those who for various good reasons–a history of their commuity being lied to and abused by government and medical professionals–are showing willingness to listen to their own community leaders who are generally doing a good job of persuading people that, this time, in this one way, they can trust. The other group, though, the so-called vaccine resisters–obstinate right-wing conspiracy theorists, mostly straight white Republican men–are not going to get over themselves until the mRNA vaccines are fully approved by the FDA (as opposed to their current emergency-use status). Once that happens, legally more entities (whether government, business, education, community) can start requring vaccination as a condition of entry and/or participation. And that, I hope, will be more persuasive than appealing to the greater good (which the white right-wing men already, demonstrably, don’t give a shit about).
If we could get the vaccination rate up to 90% I doubt residents in this country would need booster vaccinations tweaked to combat variants.
The rest of the world, well, if we want Team Vaccine to be victorious in 2022 and again in 2026 we need to get the vaccine in billions of arms globally and reduce the mutation feedstock. If we don’t get more people vaccinated, we not only will need those annual or semi-annual booster shots talked up by the Pfizer CEO, we might have to build a whole new vaccine desiged to recognise some other part of SARS-CoV-2.
I can’t imagine anyone—not even Big Pharma—wants that. (The former scenario, the booster shots? Oh yep; they want to make money. The latter? No. You can’t make money if all your customers are dead.)
So, vaccines are awesome, Team Vaccine are the champs. So why am I not going to go to the pub right now, this afternoon? After all, if I’m right—and I think I am—my odds of dying of Covid are vanishingly small, less than my odds of being struck by lightning.
Well, because. For one thing, I don’t want to sit in a pub with a mask on, pulling it to the side only to take a drink then putting it back on—it sort of spoils the point. And right now I’d feel obliged to do that because I’m guessing most of the servers haven’t had their jabs and frankly it would feel Ugly American of me to assume that kind of risk privilege. Then there are the other customers who might glare if I don’t wear a mask because they have to. And then there’s the fact that I haven’t been unmasked in public for 14 months; I haven’t been in a crowded room for 14 months; I haven’t been among strangers for 14 months. It will take some getting used to.
So, to begin with, I might sit outside in a beer garden unmasked. And I most likely will invite other fully-vaccinated folk, two by two, to the house for dinner. And by the time I’ve done that a few times, and then invited six people at once, I’ll be desensitised to crowds, the odds of the servers having been vaccinated will be pretty good, and perhaps as much of 65% of those customers in the pub will also be vaccinated. At that point, I’ll venture out.
And, oh, I’m looking forward to that day!
 The numbers are constantly changing. See the CDC’s data tracker for the most recent data.
 In the early days of the pandemic medical professionals had no experience of dealing with acute cases; there was no standard of care; the most effective therapies had not yet been determined. best therapies had not been determined. Add to that the fact that the most vulnerable—those 75 and older—the ones most likely to die, were vaccinated first. Add to that the unseparated vaccinated and unvaccinated totals. And that’s just for starters. But we have to start somewhere, so I choose here.
Right now many people are examining their culture—their workplace, their classroom, their creative writing workshop, their boardroom, their police force, their government entity, or their nonprofit—in order to make it more diverse, inclusive, and equitable. This is good. This is important. This is necessary.
In the last month I’ve talked—unpaid—to three literary organisations about some of their barriers to DEI as I see it. I spent time and energy I don’t really have, and don’t begrudge it, because—it’s worth repeating—it’s good, important, necessary work.
That is, I didn’t begrudge the time, effort and energy until I began to get the earnest (and to some degree self-congratulatory) follow-up emails from the organisations. They explain at length just how, after lengthy, expensive, weighty consultation, they’re going to go about improving their DEI efforts with regard to race, class, gender, and sexual orientation.
Great! Wonderful! All those things matter to me; they matter a great deal; I agree with every single category on the list. But every time—EVERY FUCKING TIME—one extremely important factor is missing from the list of traditionally marginalised people: disability.
Disabled writers matter. Disabled voices matter. Crip voices are the most—not one of the most, but the absolute MOST—ignored, devalued, and unheard on the fucking planet. (Read my Op-Ed in the New York Times.)* Disabled students (and teachers) are still—in 20-fucking-21—not able to properly attend many writing workshops, bookstores, classes, conferences, and festivals. We are shut out. Not only are we not offered places, we aren’t offered grants, we aren’t offered scholarships, we aren’t offered accommodations, and our applications aren’t offered the courtesy of being read by disabled readers. AND EVEN WHEN WE TALK OURSELVES BLUE IN THE FACE TO WELL-PAID DIVERSITY CONSULTANTS OUR POINTS OF VIEW ARE NOT FUCKING DEEMED WORTHY OF EVEN BEING LISTED IN THE SUMMARY DOCUMENTS.
So I’m done. You want my opinion on anything that’s not my own work? Pay me my weight in gold and expect to get an earful. Or better yet just fuck off into the sun.
*We’re also the demographic most abused at home; the most murdered by caregivers; the most badly paid; the most discriminated against by employers; the most laughed at in public; the poorest; the most refused transport on buses, trains, and planes; the least educated; and the most killed by law enforcement. We are 25% of the fucking population. This post isn’t a game of My Oppression is Worse Than Yours but I want to be super fucking clear that a) we’re not talking about one or two minor examples of discrimination here, and b) it doesn’t affect just a handful of people. ETA: Yes, there are data. No, I’m not going to do the unpaid work of providing them to you. Find them yourself.
Today would have been the 57th birthday of my little sister, Helena. She died at the age of 24. She had had a history of drug use, abuse, and dependency (heroin, hash, meth), had been in trouble with the police from age 13, and been diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder. In 1988 she died in Australia after stealing a car and doctor’s bag and being flung through the windscreen at speed during a police chase.
She was three and half years younger than me. We were both much younger than our other sisters and were, functionally, a different pod; in that sense I was very much the older sister—almost a mother to Helena. We were very close; she shared many parts of my life that no one else ever knew. When she died in 1988 there was no longer anyone in the world who knew those things about me; it felt as though a huge part of me had died with her.
So today for no other reason than that I’d like to see them all in one place, here are some photos of her and me.
The first is taken on the beach at Filey, Yorkshire; my mother is holding Helena who is probably four months old. I’m three, almost four.
This one’s taken outside the bungalow we rented every year for two weeks in summer, in Hunmanby Gap—just a few miles from Filey. Standing by the old Ford Zephyr is my second-eldest sister, Carolyn, with me sitting on a football wearing shades, and Helena with her bucket and spades, ready to get to the beach. I’m guessing she’s three and I’m six. Carolyn would have been about fourteen—just before she started having psychotic episodes (most of my sisters have, or have had, serious emotional and psychological struggles—Carolyn, too, died young).
This is just a couple of years later. Helena (front) and I are in the river at either Bolton Abbey or Fountains abbey. Bolton Abbey was the setting for the very first novel I tried to write, aged nine, about a girl who discovered a Ouija board in an Olde Curisoity Shoppe and ends up travelling back in time to the abbey’s heyday. (It was built in the 12th century but at that age I just knew it was a Long Time Ago.) I remembered writing very carefully and specifically about the stepping stones across the river…
Here Helena has just take her first Holy Communion: she’s the one looking like a perfect little angel (she was not) looking at the camera, aged seven. Standing behind her are my eldest sister Anne, my mother, me, and my third sister Julie. I’m ten. I’m always struck by this photo, and how protective I am of Helena; that is, although I always knew I was protective, I had no idea it showed so clearly.
And here we are in a school photo taken just a few months later. I love this photo; it captures how I like to remember her, how close we were, how we were everything to each other.
This one—I’m…well, I’m not sure how old I am. Younger, I think, than I look. Twelve or perhaps thirteen, which means Julie (back to camera) is either 18 or 19 and Helena is either nine or ten. By this she time had already started to show a few disturbing tendencies—pulling the legs off spiders and watching them struggle, stealing things—but no one else had noticed and I was still pretending there was nothing wrong.
By this time it was super clear there was something wrong: she was already using a variety of drugs, shoplifting, and had left home and school the first time at age 15. Here she’s 16, I think; I don’t know who took the photo; I was living in another city.
All the above photos came to me after my father died a couple of years ago. The three below were taken by Heidi Griffiths, my friend (no relation), and Helena’s lover, in Hull, in 1981. She gave them to me some time after Helena’s death. They’re the most recent photos I have of Helena because after she died my mother—crazy with grief—demanded I give her every single photo of Helena I had. I did. I never go them back.
In this photo I’m twenty, she’s seventeen—during a brief hiatus in the long, horrible descent into horror: Helena had come back home, was temporarily off drugs, and trying hard to be what she considered normal. But neither she nor I were ever ‘normal,’ so, well, it was never going to work. One of the essays in my memoir is titled, “A Whole Psychopath,” about how between us Helena and I displayed the classic Macdonald Triad of psychopathy symptoms. To be clear, I think that theory does not hold up, but it’s always been an easy shorthand to explain our childhood. However much credence you give the idea, I seemed to have turned out okay but Helena did not get the chance.
This was taken the same day. Helena and I were both annoyingly fit and sporty even though we smoked and drank and took drugs a lot. In fact, if I recall correctly I had a terrible hangover that day…
And here’s a closeup of Helena using my tobacco to roll her own cigarette. Even then, living in different cities, what was mine was hers, and what was hers was mine. (We even traded lovers a couple of times.) This is the last image of her I have, and this is how I prefer to remember her, before she grew rail thin, and hard, and paranoid enough to keep—and use—a machete by the front door.
I often wonder whether, if she had not been killed in that car crash, she might have managed to survive into her thirties. I’ve known, and worked with, many users and former users, and sometimes if you can just get past your early thirties the odds of survival go up. But I’ll never know.
What would she be like at age 57? I’ll never know that, either.
Over the last few years I’ve seen a lot of art inspired by my novel—collected here—but the image below was made by Elena M.P. Cajal, a Spanish photographer, based not on the novel itself but on my blog posts about the novel.* Elena has kindly given me permission to use it here.
It’s part of an exhibition, Mujeres Poderosas, “Powerful Women: Forgotten by history and religion,” a series of large historical photomontages currently on display at the Palacio de la Isla (Cáceres, western Spain), with images of women like Hild, Hatshepsut, Wu Zetian and Sappho.
This image of Hild, of course, owes a great deal to later legends (that ammonite, for example, is based on the later medieval story of Hild turning all the local snakes to stone). The background image of Whitby shows the ruins of the stone abbey rebuilt in the 13th century, and the harbour, improved many times over the centuries—the first stone pier went up in the 17th century, and its final form took shape towards the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th. One image I would like to have seen added to the montage is a seagull soaring over the abbey: an acknowledgement of another legend that seagulls dip their wings in honour of Hild whenever they fly over the cliffs. There again there’s the quill pen, so perhaps that’s close enough.
Whitby is one of the few spots in Britain where you can watch the sun both rise and set over the sea (the cliff faces north) but that is not its only magic. If you ever get the chance to visit, do; perhaps you’ll feel the same rush of history fisting up through the turf that I did, a feeling so strong it drove me write about the woman who made the place famous.
*Why? Because Hild does not have a Spanish translation. Why? Because it’s very long, and as well as having to turn modern English into Spanish, the translator would also have to tackle Latin, Old English, Brythonic (that is, my approximation of same based on Old Welsh and bits of Cumbric) and Old Irish. And so far no Spanish publisher has considered it worth the risk.
I’ve been meaning to do a post for a while but keep forgetting. Then today I got yet another Hey, you haven’t blogged for a while, are you okay? ping and realised it really has been a while.
So. What’s going on? Many things, none of them particularly terrible or wonderful. But since I turned in two books at once, then did a series of edits, I’ve just been loafing about. And it turns out that loafing becomes addictive; I’ve found I just can’t be bothered to do much of anything.
Having said all that, of course, it’s not the whole story. Part of the reason I can’t be bothered with stuff is that I’m extremely tired. This is the result of a combination of factors.
First of all, the vaccine. I am now more than a month past my second Moderna shot and, coincidentally (or not—channel Leonard Nimoy), after the first shot my energy levels dropped noticeably. After the second, they crashed. I also developed shocking muscle weakness that is only just now beginning to fade, and—O Joy!—suffered the Very Special Migraine* that usually hits me only once every two or three years. This time, though, I had 2 bouts in 10 days. By Very Special I mean I become temporarily blind, confused, and aphasic; that phase lasts about 40 minutes. It’s terrifying, because usually I have them so rarely I forget their existence and it takes a while to recognise what’s going on. So I’m in the middle of a conversation, or just getting myself a cup of tea, or taking a Zoom call, or some damn thing, and suddenly a sparkling, spiky anemone appears in the middle of someone’s face, the screen seems to burn from the top right corner, and I’m thinking, Wait, what? and just as I realise what’s happening I lose the power of coherent speech and can’t even tell people that, hey, I can’t see and words have no meaning. The second time it happened this time I recognised it instantly, had time to say, Sorry, migraine, gotta go and find the End Meeting button before I was stuck, unable to see or speak, on my office chair for half an hour while Charlie yowled and wanted to know where his food was. Then second phase is the headache and noise and ight sensitivity which lasts about four hours, followed by the third phase, which is at least 18 hours of exhaustion. No one really knows what causes them—the usual list of suspects includes bright light, caffeine, lack of sleep, weather, stress, and ‘some medications’—but given that I’ve never before had 2 of them in 10 days, or 2 jabs in 28 days, and then got them both at the same time, then, well, screw Correlation Is Not Causation: I blame the jab.
But here’s the thing: DESPITE MY REACTION I WOULD TOTALLY GET THE JAB AGAIN. Migraine sucks, and exhaustion sucks, but death sucks harder. And perhaps being responsible for a loved one’s death would suck hardest of all. All this reaction shit passes; death does not. So if you’re dithering, stop it; go get your shot.
So, yeah, anyway, there’s that.
The second factor is something that occurs to some degree every year at this time: tree pollen and its attendant allergies. Some years are worse than others. To be clear, when I talk about allergies in this context I don’t mean itchy eyes or runny nose—though of course I get those too—I mean a serious system upset. My blood oxygen can fall (92 is not unusual), my heartbeat becomes disordered (I can faint). My blood pressure doesn’t seem to know whether it should shoot up or fall down, or, hey, maybe both in the space of 15 seconds. I can’t regulate my body temperature. Over the years and after a series of doctors, the most likely explanation is that my histamine/mast cell response mechanisms don’t work properly. Most of the time it’s just irritating, inconvenient, and immiserating, but, with care and attention, mostly controllable. Occasionally, though, it’s disabling. And this year, of course, a very high pollen count just happened to coincide with vaccine season.
So, yeah, there’s that.
The third factor is a whole bunch of family stuff but that’s not my story to tell, except to say I’m feeling a bit worn down.
And yet: The sun is shining! Birds are singing! Charlie and George are in fine form! (I’ll probably do a post about their birthday next month.) I cashed a very tasty option cheque a week or two ago! (I can’t talk about that, though.) The fridge is groaning with delicious food, the counter is loaded with wine, we (still, mostly) have grownups in charge of the country! (Y’know, when they’re allowed to get anything done, of course—but, oh, don’t get me started on that.)
When you combine those with the fact that both Kelley and I are fully vaccinated and in this part of the country at least vaccination is accelerating, I am feeling hopeful that we could be on track to something resembling normal life by autumn. (I’ll be writing about that soon, too.)
Basically, right now is pretty fabulous in many ways, I’m just not focused on talking to the outside world.
So what have I been doing? Well, I haven’t been writing, and it feels odd. But I’m beginning to consider two projects (which, again, I might talk about soon in another blog post).
I’ve been doing the occasional appearance/reading/authorly thing, most recently at ICFA where I read from Spear. I’ve already posted a tiny snippet of one reading, and at some point I’ll get around to uploading and captioning the rest of it, plus another, longer reading. Again, that will be another blog post.
One thing I’ve started to do is experiment with various image and art apps, and I’ve been playing around with making some Hild-related images. That, too, will be a future blog post.
And finally I’ve been reading. Mostly it’s been research that I couldn’t get to during my galloping productivity last year, but also some fiction. And that will be yet another blog post: a handful of books to look for in the next month.
So basically: I’ve been tired, I’m feeling better, and lots of blog posts will be coming soon.
*Migraine with Brainstem Aura, formerly known as Basilar Artery Migraines
In which I read the first 3 minutes of my new (my first!) fantasy, Spear
If it weren’t for this pandemic, next week I’d be in Florida for the 42nd annual International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts. Instead, I’ve uploaded a two-part reading from Spear—a little bit from the beginning and a longer scene from the middle of the book in which Peretur, with her stolen and mended armour, bony gelding, and broken sword, faces the Red Knight.
Those who have registered for the conference will be able to see the whole thing, already recorded and uploaded, plus the live Q&A on Saturday at 3pm Eastern hosted by E. Lily Yu and featuring me and fellow readers Karen Joy Fowler, Molly Tanzer, and Rachel Steiger-Meister.
Come and ask questions! I’m dying to talk about this book…