Çaturday with Charlie

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

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

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

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

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

Expect more random sketches in the future.

Happy Çaturday!

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

George is 2

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

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

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

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

More on the Spear cover

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And lo! Here’s what eventually came back:

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spear cover reveal!

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beer yesterday, Spear cover reveal tomorrow!

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

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

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

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

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

Pfizer vaccines well over 90% effective against variants

Two small vaccine vials against a blue-grey background

Photo by Spencer Davis on Unsplash

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

The main points:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hild’s bynames: an occasional series

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

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

New Books to Look For

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

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

Golem Girl, Riva Lehrer (Oct 6 2020)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s what I said about it:

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

Sorrowland, Rivers Solomon (out May 4)

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

Here’s what I said about it:

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

One Two Three, Laurie Frankel (out June 8)

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

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

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

Happy reading.

Happy Lesbian Visibility Day!

Lesbian Visibility Day began in the UK. This photo of me and Carol was taken at the first UK Lesbian Conference, April 1981, almost exactly 40 years ago. It’s now part of the Visible Girls series, Corbin’s photos of ’80s women’s subcultures.

It seemed like a good day to repost it.

Two young women standing in close contact in front of a mica-flecked black wall. It's clear they are lovers. Both are wearing school ties, pale shirts, and jeans. Both only wear one earring each in the right ear. Carol, on the left, has short dark hair and a green, surplus army jacket. Nicola, on the right, has short fair hair, glasses, and a school blazer; she is wearing a double women's-sign pin as a tie clip. Their pupils are very slightly dilated.
Carol and Nicola in the Tabernacle, April 1981. Photo by Anita Corbin.

Hild art

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).

Black and white sketch of the head and shoulders of a big Iberian lynx with tufted ears, facing towards the viewer
Cait Sith — a lynx (adapted from a Wikimedia Commons photo by Bernard Landgraf)

Tell me what you want to see!

Vaccinated: Now What?

Photo by CDC on Unsplash

Definition of terms in this post:

  • 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.[1] 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[2] 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 math unvaccinated 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).[3] 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!

[1] The numbers are constantly changing. See the CDC’s data tracker for the most recent data.

[2] 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.

[3] The CDC has a good explanation of various variant classifications along with tables of which variants have mutated how

Fuck off into the sun: I’m done with being excluded

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.

Helena + Nicola = A Whole Psychopath

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.

Black and white photo of mother, infant, and toddler on the beach
Filey beach

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).

Black a white photo of a late 60s car parked in front of a holiday bungalow and three girls aged 14, 7, and 3
Hunmanby Gap

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…

Black and white [photo of two girls standing in a river looking straight at the camera
Bolton Abbey (or maybe Fountains Abbey)

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.

Colour photo of people oi 70s clothes attending a first holy communion
St Paul’s church hall, Leeds

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.

Colour photo of two sisters,both with blonde hair and blue eyes, against a professional hot background—aged 10 and aged 7
St Paul’s school, Leeds

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.

Colour photo of three girls on a beach, two in black swimsuits looking at each other, a third, in bikini staring at the horizon
Somewhere in Somerset or Cornwall

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.

black and white photo of a teenage girl in glasses smoking a cigarette and staring at the camera
Place unknown

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.

black and white photo of two sisters, one with short hair and one with long hair, in a park rolling cigarettes
Pearson Park, Hull

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…

Black and white photo of a long haired teenaged girl in glasses about to throw a football
Pearson Park, Hull

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.

Black and white photo if a teenage girl with long hair and glasses with a beer can at her feet sitting in a park rolling a cigarette
Pearson Park, Hull

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.

I miss her still.

Hild through others’ eyes

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.

Photomontage by Elena M.P. Cajal

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.

Catching up

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

A 3-minute video reading from Spear

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…

Workshop: Character through setting, Monday March 15

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Menewood progress

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Queer Early Medieval: LGBTQ+ History Month

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

About the event

From M-Shed:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to Register

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

A Good Feeling

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kitten Report #17: Songbird Fever

Spoiler: the kitties are fine, better than fine.

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

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

Nope, wasn’t me

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

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

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

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

Tabby cat sitting on the carpet looking up, woebegone

George feels woebegone

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Figuring out if he can reach the skylight

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

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

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

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

There are days when they are obviously twins— 

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

Conjoined twins

Two tabby cats on a kitchen windowsill

Window twins

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

Tabby cat on the top shelf of a kitty condo

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

—and days when Charlie in particular looks old.

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

Charlie’s ennui is soothed only with a massage

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

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

Rewriting is so tiring

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

Tabby cat blissing out on his back

George finds his bliss

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

Tabby cat looking fat and happy and almost glowing with contentment

George glows with contentment

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

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


A is for Abattoir: Five words for 2021 so far

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

Word #1: Abattoir.

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

Word #2: Rewrite.

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

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

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

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

Word #3: Insurrection.

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

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

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

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

Word #4: Reading.

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

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

Word #5: No.

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

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

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

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


2020 Adieu

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

Charlie and George bid 2020 adieu

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

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

2021: A Look Ahead

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2020: An unusual year

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

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

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

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

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

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

George grows and blisses out

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At least the front garden looked good

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

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

Not Alcatraz but…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kelley at 60

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

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

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

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

Wine at 60

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

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

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

A monster is born…

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

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

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

Brandy Bramble

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

Two cats sitting in respectful meatloaf position with heads lowered

A moment of silence for RBG

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

Demon Kitty and the Confused

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

A slow grey manatee just hanging still in blue water

Photo by Maegan Luckiesh on Unsplash

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

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

Photo of a super fancy espresso machine with beans and mugs

The secret of my success?

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

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

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

Cover illustration by Rovina Cai

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

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