Saturday, October 25, 2014

"Sucky" a homophobic slur?

From: Victoria

As my journey to be more a sensitive/less hurtful individual continues, I notice that more and more words are offensive to many different marginalized/oppressed groups of individuals. It is easy to ignore these hurtful words if one surrounds themselves with only heteronormative people. Thankfully, I have been introduced to a diverse group of people and had to the chance to engage in dialogues which have made me realize that language is meaningful. I do have to admit, I just read your article "Lame is so gay — a rant." The logic you use to assert that lame is an offensive word makes perfect sense to me. One thing I do not understand, however, is your use of the word "sucky"as a potential synonym for the word "lame" which you say should not be used. This is the second time I have read an article claiming that lame is an offensive word, followed by using "sucky" as an adjective that one should use to describe a situation that they find to be uncool, or whatever. From my understanding, "sucky" is actually a homophobic slur, which originated to debase gay men who performed oral sex…or "sucked" penis. So…sucky is actually just as hurtful of a term. I just wanted to bring that to your attention because I’ve noticed several bloggers arguing against the word lame, while suggesting one swap out that word with another homophobic offensive term. What do you make of this? 
I'm sorry for offending any reader by using sucky in any way that could be construed as homophobic. It was entirely unintentional. But I'll do my best to not make the same mistake again.

What follows is not an excuse—clearly I've upset some people; that's on me; I apologise—but it is an exploration of word use.

I grew up in England, where as a child sucky could refer to, among other things, a bog that sucks you down; an early and mid-20th-C school playtime taunt, "Oh, sucks to you!" which might, in turn, come from either sucking air at the bottom of a glass instead of squash—coming up empty, in other words—or being the runt of the farmyard litter and so sucking on the dirtiest or most inconvenient teat. And so on.

But by the time I was in my teens I understood it also as a reference to fellatio, mainly of the straight variety. Before one of my first radio interviews in this country, in 1995, at an NPR affiliate in Portland, OR, Kelley reminded me: This country has strict rules about certain words (she gave me the usual list) so don't use them! As it would be dumb to use words that would get the interview scrubbed, I agreed. And so when I answered a question about something that, normally, I would describe as "a load of shit" I said, instead, "It sucks." And the interviewer flinched and looked at her producer, who, after a pause, shrugged; Kelley sighed.

We talked about it afterwards. I came away three things. One, you can push the letter of the law where necessary. Two, sometimes it's really not necessary; in the same position now I would use a less inflammatory word, like rubbish. Three, at the time, less than 20 years ago, it sucks, or sucky, was not a queer pejorative.

Obviously language use changes. And, just as obviously, I don't always keep up.

Realising I haven't kept up makes me defensive. When I first read your email I thought, Huh. Just fucking typical: a perfectly gender neutral word is now all about Teh Menz and what they do to each other. Then I laughed at myself for the idiotic response. 

I'm guessing we all go through some version of this, though: to feel vulnerable about being corrected in public and getting cross as a result. It's a human failing. I am absolutely not above it (sigh). But I've been an idiot a lot in my life, and it no longer worries me; I tend to get over it fast. However, understanding of that vulnerable-to-defensive-to-angry reaction is something that informs my own approach when bracing someone about a word that they think is perfectly harmless. It's the reason that I try to speak in informational and impersonal mode rather than being accusatory. (Try being the operative word: I have failed spectacularly on occasion.) Good people tend to feel bad about hurting others through their own ignorance. They also feel bad when they think that someone believes they hurt another knowingly. So I try not to provoke that response. I want people to be their best selves, not their defensive worst.

Having said all that, you did it very nicely: carefully, respectfully, and unapologetically. You're the first person to talk to me about this. I hear you: Some people now, here, today think/feel that sucky is a homophobic slur, and so its use upsets them. Just as lame used as a pejorative pisses me off.

So I'll delete sucky from the list and I'll try to remember not to use it. Please feel free to remind me if I slip—because I probably will; new habits can be hard to integrate. But, again, I apologise to any I've upset by using the term.

Thanks for letting me know.


Thursday, October 23, 2014

UK Trip II: London

After our whirlwind (and beer-saturated) few days in Yorkshire Kelley and I were feeling a bit used (though pleased with ourselves) by the time we got to London. So the serenity of the hotel in Holborn was a lovely surprise. This was waiting in our room:

The photo is a bit blurry because, well, I was a bit blurry. We were so tired that we just unpacked, tottered down to the restaurant, and then went to bed.

The restaurant was a rather odd but—that night at least—just what we needed. I ate delicious smoked salmon followed by chicken, accompanied by a very reasonable bottle of Rioja. All chosen from something they called their pre-theatre menu. I took this pic of Kelley, who was grinning at something luscious she'd seen on said menu. Or maybe just at the thought of getting to bed at a reasonable hour :)
The next day was an event I'd been looking forward to for an age, at King's College London. (Also a fantastic breakfast featuring mackerel. Oh, I love mackerel.)

King's is one of the two founding colleges of the University of London and—depending which way you squint—possibly the third oldest university in England. (Seriously, there's a whole Wikipedia article on this, "Third-oldest university in England debate." Academics are... Well, before my recent trip I would have said Academics are weird, but it turns out that in some ways I am scarily attuned to their world-view.)

So, anyway, last year I was invited to sit on a round-table discussion about medieval history and fantasy but I couldn't get a plane ticket. This time I was determined to do whatever it took—walk the continental US and swim the Atlantic—to be there. The people who made it happen were Professor Clare Lees (whose name you might recognise from her wonderful collaborative texts about early Anglo-Saxon England, particularly as it pertains to issues of gender, language, and place, many of them written or edited with Gillian Overing, see, for example, Double Agents and A Place to Believe In—both of which I'm proud to say I own), her graduate student Carl Kears (who will soon be Dr Carl) and also Dr Josh Davies. Many, many, thanks to them; they did a bang-up job.

First of all, the event was held in a gorgeous room, the River Room, taller than it was broad or deep (though no dimension was insignificant), with a magnificent view of the Thames. The acoustics were brilliant—if you were singing plainchant. Given that I was planning a dramatic reading of the beginning of Hild, which unfurls quietly and wouldn't benefit from reverb, I used a microphone. The audio was almost wholly academic, a mix of storied Professors, working archaeologists, historians, and students of every stripe, with a smattering of readers from other walks of life.

It was SRO with lots of people having to sit on the floor at the front.

Clare introduced me, then I read, then we talked about a few things—Bede's agenda, for example—then I answered questions. These were mostly about Hild, but also my research, my writing, and (the inevitable) When's the next one?! Then I signed books.

I was there about two hours (there was wine...) then there was a truly marvellous dinner for about ten people. Or maybe it was eight (I'd been talking for about five hours; I was not keeping track of details). The conversation ranged from the cost of education, to politics, to gender and power, to Mandeville's Travels. It was everything I'd hoped for. A truly wonderful evening. I can't wait to do it again.

The next day, we went across the city to Queen Mary University London. QMUL a very different venue from King's, much more recent (Edwardian) and with a different focus. But I enjoyed it just as much. Instead of a huge room with sweeping views, I was in an intimate (seating for 30) cinema with bright pink seats on a serious rake. I sat on a comfy sofa, beer in hand, and chatted with Matt Jacobsen (who organised everything perfectly) about Hild, and Aud, and Ammonite, and more. The audience were students: film students, creative writing students, history students. I had a great time. I felt as though I could really help some of them with issues they were wrestling with.

Matt had prepared very well. It was essentially a staged interview, a very good one. We explored all kinds of things, some of them new to me, but intriguing. I had a good time, and came away thinking a lot about class and education, and how teaching works.

That's the place I was in when we met two friends for dinner, both academics at different points in their career. So as well as the usual personal things, and books, we talked about the UK and US education systems and, again, how teaching works. I find I'm getting more interested in that. One day I probably do something about it. But, hey, as usual today is not that day.

The next day, Thursday, Kelley and I went to the offices of my esteemed publisher, Blackfriars. (At least they are esteemed by me; they're very new—Hild was their first hardback—so there simply hasn't been time to become esteemed by the rest of the world, yet.) Blackfriars are part of Little, Brown, with spiffy offices on the Embankment. There was Champagne, decent stuff, which I happily sucked down while talked to a bunch of editorial, managerial, web, print, and production people who all said very nice things about Hild. My biggest surprise was how startlingly young everyone was. I mean, really really young. I'm so used to having business conversations with people in their forties and fifties that it was quite odd to talk about it with those in their 20s. I'm not sure I did a very good job of getting over my startlement, though to be fair by this stage I was getting very, very tired, and I had two more things to do that day.

The first was my signing at Forbidden Planet. I'd never been there before and wasn't entirely sure what to expect. Here there was no beer or wine, but there was tea and biscuits, which is what I needed at that point so it worked out perfectly. A zillion people showed up, lugging tons and tons of books, including some I'd never seen before, like the Polish versions of Warhammer stories. Wow. It was very cool. Anyway, I talked and talked. One sadness: I didn't get time to talk to everyone who showed up to the extent I would have liked.

Then it was on to another dinner, this time with two people we'd never met (and who had not met each other) but whom we'd worked with in various capacities over the web and to whom we felt very kindly disposed. We had a great time, sadly cut short by each them having to run for different trains, and us having to get to bed.

We did, finally, get to bed—but had to be up at 4:45 am to pack and make the early Heathrow to Seattle flight. The fight was an interesting experience in and of itself in which we ended up being given a bottle of Taittinger by a cabin attendant for doing a favour for her and a fellow passenger. We got no sleep, of course, and I couldn't really eat the food, so by the time we got back to Seattle I was a bit out of it. We had time to have a cup of tea, eat some chicken, and change into fresh (ish) clothes and hoof it to the Washington State Book Awards.

I won, and made a half delirious speech referencing the Four Yorkshiremen sketch, specifically: Getting up before anyone else had gone to bed... By the time we finally got to bed I'd been up 27 hours on top of a cumulative sleep deficit. I'm still recovering.

It was a great trip. I'd do it again in a hot second. Just not, y'know, for a while. Except, oh...


Wednesday, October 22, 2014

In six days: Hild paperback!

The paperback of Hild is out on Tuesday, 28 October. You can pre-order it from a variety of places. I urge you to support your local independent book shop wherever that might be (see this handy international list of independent book shops recommended by readers) but if you can't or won't, there's always Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and IndieBound.

It's a delicious-looking book, much friendlier to the hand than the hardcover and exactly the same inside. Even the single copy-editing error.
Six days, people. Just six days! And not long after that I begin the paperback tour


Friday, October 17, 2014

UK Trip I: The North

A couple of years ago I was at a party with a few Clarion West students, several of whom—amazingly, delightfully—were from the north of England. We all instantly (if very temporarily, in the way of parties) bonded: lasses from the north. We grinned at each other and swapped stories of effete southerners, and northern culture. We talked of how we knew were were heading home when we we driving up from Heathrow and/or London and saw those motorways signs that say The North.

This trip was no different. Kelley and I were tired and bleary from jet-lag but I saw that sign and my heart opened like a flower.

The next day was my birthday. We spent it with my family—Dad, two sisters, sister's sweetie—first at a Yorkshire lunch at a pub carvery (meat! vegetables! beer!) then tea and tasty squashy things sitting in the sunshine overlooking the lake at Roundhay Park (I had flapjacks, made Yorkshire style, with treacle). Lovely.

The next day, work started. First, the Central Library at Stockton-on-Tees, which is a 90-minute drive north from Leeds. I didn't know what to expect; I'd never done a UK library event before. I knew the organisers had worked hard to get an audience but I also knew they were a bit worried about low attendance numbers. So I decided that as long as there were more than 10 people, they'd get the whole thing (but not the Full Monty which, er, has taken on very particular meaning these days...): two readings, lots of chat, full Q&A. Meanwhile, I sat back and gazed at North Yorkshire as we drove through it.

It was early evening, and the sun was setting in a mostly clear sky. Dales on one side, the edge of the Yorkshire moors on the other. Green valleys falling away to the horizon in the west, cow-specked hills in the east, lines of drystone walls hundreds of years old—all drenched in the golden slanting light peculiar to northern latitudes. I could have stared for hours. I was just lost, so lost I forgot to take any pictures. Kelley got one, towards the end of the journey but it doesn't really capture the heart-stopping view.

The event was fabulous. A gorgeous room—lots of windows, brightly-coloured and comfortable furniture, a good sound system—and a great audience: forty or fifty readers, all smart, all terrifically well-informed and fiercely proud of their northern heritage. And there was wine. Plus—and this part was definitely the cherry on top—two nuns, Sisters of St Hilda no less. What followed was long, passionate conversation on culture, history, language, bias, religion, gender. I'll remember it for a long time. The nuns, who had shown up looking for a fight (I was messing with their saint, and they hated the US cover with that mail coif) ended up thoroughly approving—we bonded over Bede's various biases—drinking a lot of wine, and buying a book. In fact, I sold a lot of books (the organisers told Kelley it was the most hardcovers they had ever sold at one event) so everyone was very happy. Also, we got back to the hotel just in time for last-orders with my UK editor, who had driven up from London. All in all, a brilliant evening.

The next day was the Calderdale Central Library, in Halifax. Again there was wine—yay! I approve of this UK trend—and again I liked the audience, but there were fewer of them, about 20 I think, and they were less forthcoming. I suspect much of their unwillingness to open up in public was a direct result of the room: a low-ceilinged basement. The organisers had worked very hard to make a great evening, though, and the people themselves were very chatty as individuals afterwards. High point for me: my niece was there, which was lovely. And I sold some hardbacks—so it was pretty cool. Also, there were many representatives of reading groups there, which bodes well for the paperback.

Then it was an editorial lunch followed by a sisterly night on the town during which Kelley ate something called Yorkshire Blue, a cheese, and I drank Ilkley Black, a beer:

Another family lunch. Then a wonderful, many-hours-many-beers-many-conversations party at my sister's house. I felt a wee bit fragile the next day but had no time to dwell on it because it was time for my big event, the Ilkley Literature Festival.

The whole trip would have been worth it just for that. For the official account see the write-up in the festival blog. I'll just say my family—a lot of family; I have an aunt who lives in Ilkley—took up most of the front row and they beamed during the whole thing. It was first time my father has even seen me perform and he told me he was very proud indeed.

Then one last dinner on the way back to Leeds, and one last morning coffee with my family before heading down to London for the next set of people and events: King's College London, Queen Mary University London, and Forbidden Planet.

To Be Continued...


Monday, October 13, 2014

HILD paperback!

Hild will be out in paperback 28 October from Picador. I just spent a very satisfying ten minutes trying to decide where to put the Washington State Book Award sticker.

It's a lovely-looking thing. I admit to being impressed by myself when I looked at all the quotes and the back cover copy. I'm grinning all over again...

This one deserves a good home. I'll send it to the reader who suggests the best review quote that isn't on the book. (You can find lots of same—but not all; I got a bit overwhelmed—here if you need inspiration. But the quote doesn't have to be here for you to use it.)

Or, hey, awards make me feel generous: I'll also send a copy to the reader who has the best idea of where to put that sticker. (Where to put it on the book. Just behave...)


Saturday, October 11, 2014

HILD wins the Washington State Book Award

photo of WSBA finalists by Vicki Platts-Brown
Last night Hild won the Washington State Book Award for Fiction. Here's a photo of me with other finalists and winners of Poetry and History/Non-Fiction and Biography/Memoir, plus the Scandiuzzi Children's Book Awards. Winners are the ones with the red ribbons added to this badges. You can't see mine because it's clipped to the bottom of my sweater (under my right hand) but I was definitely wearing it. (Finalist and winner info here.)

At the point where this photo was taken I'd been up for 24 hours straight and things were getting a wee bit surreal.

Kelley and I had woken up in London at 4:45 a.m. UK time, packed, got on a plane, flown to the US, eaten something, changed into mostly clean clothes, then I'd won an award, read a bit of the book to the packed Microsoft Auditorium, signed a bunch of hardcovers and galleys and paperbacks* and programmes, met some lovely people and talked to a zillion more, and drunk two beers. I'm smiling here but an hour later I was beginning to see two of everything.

It was a long, strange, occasionally marvellous (and sometimes seriously hard) kind of day. Kelley and I were given a bottle of Taittinger on the plane by a cabin attendant for doing a favour for her and a fellow passenger but were too out of it to drink it after the awards. It's chilling in the fridge right now.

Expect a more meaty blog post early next week about our amazing (and amazingly busy) UK trip. Right now I'm not entirely sure which way is up...though I do know it's all wonderful.

* A box of Hild paperbacks was waiting for me on the doorstep when I got home—they hit the shelves October 28. And I have to say, they look fabulous. More about that next week.


Thursday, October 9, 2014

Tonight: Forbidden Planet

Tonight's the last gig in the UK, at Forbidden Planet. Come and get your book signed and say hello.

Thursday 9th October
Forbidden Planet London Megastore
179 Shaftesbury Ave, London WC2H 8JR
6:00 - 7:00 pm


Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Tonight: Queen Mary University London

Last night I was at KCL, talking about Hild, history, and gender. Tonight it's Queen Mary University, only it will Hild, history, and genre. So come on down...

Wednesday 8th October
Queen Mary University London, School of History
Arts Two Building, Mile End Road, Rm 4.14, E1 4NS
5:00 - 7:00 pm


Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Tonight: King's College London

This is something I've been looking forward to for an age. Last year I was invited to a roundtable discussion but couldn't get a last-minute flight. This time, it's all set.

I'll be in conversation with Professor Claire Lees about Hild, history, and gender. I might also read the first bit of HILD II—and it's free! So do join us.

Tuesday 7th October
King's College London
River Room, Strand Campus
6:00 - 8:00 pm


Monday, October 6, 2014

This week: London!

After a fab time in Yorkshire Kelley and I will be spending the next few days in London. I have three events:

Tuesday 7th October
King's College London
River Room, Strand Campus
6:00 - 8:00 pm

Wednesday 8th October
Queen Mary University London, School of History
Arts Two Building, Mile End Road, Rm 4.14, E1 4NS
5:00 - 7:00 pm

Thursday 9th October
Forbidden Planet London Megastore
179 Shaftesbury Ave, London WC2H 8JR
6:00 - 7:00 pm

I hope to see you there. Bring your questions, your comments, your books. There will be lots of opportunity for chat and signing. Bring your friends—bring everyone! The more the merrier. It will be a blast!


Sunday, October 5, 2014

Tonight: Ilkley

This afternoon/evening I'll be in Ilkley at the fabulous Literature Festival. I'll be talking to Gweno Williams about Hild. I think the event is just about sold out, but if you interested, it might be worth checking just in case.

Sunday 5th October
Ilkley Literature Festival
St Margaret's Hall, Ilkley LS29 9QL 
4:30 - 5:30 pm


Saturday, October 4, 2014

Feeling my roots and loving it

I took this photo yesterday afternoon, tootling about in Leeds. It is beautiful. I wish I'd got a photo on Wednesday evening driving north to Stockton-on-Tees. The sun was setting over the valleys of Yorkshire--Hild's native heath, and mine. It was golden hour; cows and pasture and stone walls lit like like honey.

In Hild's time there wouldn't have been tarmac'd roads. The cows would have been smaller, and fewer, the walls non-existent--probably. But the rise and fall of the land would have been the same.

And the Stockton Central Library was lovely: a sunlit room, bright comfy chairs, and wine! There were plenty of smart, engaged readers, two of whom were nuns, Sisters of St Hilda.

We had a great evening. We talked about Bede, and gender, and politics, and hagiography, about how and why I chose to write about Hild, about the historical socio-economic divide between North and South.

Northern identity is becoming a clear theme of these events. It was true at the Calderdale Central Library in Halifax, too. I find that about half an hour into the evening the slight American overly evaporates from my accent and I become quite Yorkshire.

Tomorrow I'm in Ilkley at the Literature Festival--more Yorkshire. And last night I was in a bar drinking Ilkley beer, and Kelley ate Yorkshire Blue cheese. I am feeling my roots, and loving it.


Thursday, October 2, 2014

Tonight: Halifax

If you happen to be close to Halifax tonight I'm at the Calderdale central library. Join us—and bring everyone you've ever met! It will be a fine evening.

Thursday 2nd October
Calderdale Library
Central Library, Northgate, Halifax HX1 1UN 
7:00 - 8:00 pm


Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Tonight: Stockton-on-Tees!

Tonight I'm at the central library in Stockton-on-Tees. Come on down!

Wednesday 1st October
Stockton-on-Tees Library
Church Rd, Stockton-on-Tees TS18 1TU
7:30 - 8:30 pm


Monday, September 29, 2014

This week: Yorkshire!

This week I'm in Yorkshire and Teeside. I'll be spending most of my time with family and friends. But I'm also doing some business, and three events. So if you're in the north, take a look:

Wednesday 1st October
Stockton-on-Tees Library
Church Rd, Stockton-on-Tees TS18 1TU
7:30 - 8:30 pm

Thursday 2nd October
Calderdale Library
Central Library, Northgate, Halifax HX1 1UN 
7:00 - 8:00 pm

Sunday 5th October
Ilkley Literature Festival
St Margaret's Hall, Ilkley LS29 9QL 
4:30 - 5:30 pm

I love doing these things. I hope you'll join me.


Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Don't experiment on guests

A conversation we had in our house many years ago:

"I think I'll try that brand new recipe when so-and-so and such-and-such come over tomorrow." 
"Only if we cook it for ourselves today. Because it's rude to experiments on guests."
Don't experiment on guests. If you have invited someone into your space for an evening, make sure you know what you're doing and can steer them safely through it. This applies tenfold if you've never met them before.

If you are inviting people, you are the host. Being host comes with certain responsibilities. One of those responsibilities is to be alert: to how your guests feel, how your experiment is landing. When you invite guests it's about them, not you. If, for example, we're talking about dinner, and people have toyed with it, pushed it to one side, talked loudly about the wine, then the thing to do is to laugh, say, Well, that didn't work! apologise, and order takeaway. Because if your guests have arrived hungry, you need to feed them. Or they will go away annoyed.

Alternatively, ask their permission. Say, I've never done this before is it okay if I try it on you? There are times when your guests will say, Sure! And there are times when your guests will say, Y'know, our workload is currently hellish, now is not a good time. If you surprise people with something half-baked, you are not respecting their time and energy and you are fucking with their expectations. No one likes to have their time wasted, particularly after a hard day.

When I teach writing, I often use the host metaphor. The reader wants to trust you. As a writer, it's your job to help them. So welcome them, set context, let them know what to expect. Make them comfortable, make sure they feel as though you know what you're doing. Once they know they're in good hands, they relax. When the reader relaxes you can do what you want with them, take them places they've never been in ways they'd never considered—because you have made it clear you know where you're going and they trust you.

So here's a personal, professional, and creative tip: do not experiment on guests. This applies to dinner, workshops, meetings, and artwork or performance that involves an investment of more than half an hour or $5. Just don't.


Monday, September 22, 2014

Grief and its anniversaries

Today is the 26th anniversary of my little sister Helena's death. This is a repost from four years ago.
Nicola and Helena, Hull, 1982
Just over a week ago it was the 22nd anniversary of my little sister Helena's death. I forgot. I have mixed feelings about this. On one hand, I'm glad that grief—this grief; I have others—is no longer front-and-centre in my life. On the other, well, I forgot. And she was my sister, knit through my life for 24 years, the one I went to the ends of the earth to protect and, in the end, failed.

In Stay, Aud says, "Grief changes everything. It's a brutal metamorphosis." And it does, it is. Helena's death taught me that. When I heard the news of her death I felt as though someone had torn off my skin, just yanked it off like a glove. I felt red raw. Everything—other people, sound, breath—felt like sharp salt. For a while, I think I understood what it meant to be mad.

So. I forgot. And yet, physically, I knew I should be paying attention to something. For several days that week I was emotionally labile: what Kelley, kindly, labels mercurial and what others, less politely, call being a moody bastard. For days I felt irritable, morose, jumpy. I felt unmoored. I had no idea what was going on. No idea why I felt so tense. Someone suggested that perhaps turning fifty was a bigger deal than I'd thought. I shook my head; I knew it wasn't that. Fifty is just a number.

Then I realised: it's the anniversary that counts. And then I understood what anniversary I'd missed—consciously. My body knew. Our bodies always know. We remember, deep down, on the cellular level, what happened long ago on an almost-autumn day, when the air looked and felt the same, when the sun was slanting at that angle, when the leaves rustled with just that still-green-but-beginning-to-dry whisper. We feel uneasy. We know something wicked this way comes. And, yes, this anniversary is bound up with my birthday.

Here's an excerpt from my memoir, And Now We Are Going to Have a Party: Liner notes to a writer's early life. It's 1988, September. Kelley and I had recently met at Clarion and then had to part.  Kelley was back in Georgia and I had returned to Hull, England (to the house in Stepney Lane I shared with my partner, Carol), half mad already with missing her. Carol knew, of course, but none of my family did. It was too private. So, one afternoon on my 28th birthday, love, grief, and birthday got melded forever. This is how it happened.
On Kelley's birthday, just nine days before mine, I phoned her for the first time and for five precious minutes, all I could afford, I clutched my grey plastic phone to the bones of skull and jaw and listened to the marvel of the pressure of her breath on the handset microphone membrane, of her hand repositioning itself on the receiver. 
The next day, on the same grey plastic phone, I listened to my mother tell me Helena was dead.

It was about dinner time. Carol answered the phone. She passed it to me silently. 
As my mother spoke I felt a vast internal shudder. This was not the soft shock of falling in love, but a much more brutal metamorphosis. My bedrock shifted, and the world was poised to fall on my head. I took a breath—I remember that breath, every slow-motion swell and stretch of muscle and expansion of cartilage—and stepped to one side.

She's dead, I told myself. Cope.

So I coped. I switched to automatic pilot—very calm, very reasonable; I told Mum I'd be with them the next afternoon. In the morning I went to work, and negotiated time off, and took a train to Leeds, where I began the process of phoning relatives, and helping to bring Helena's body back from Australia, and mediating the sudden deadly family squabble about whether she should be buried or burnt.

Two days later, the autopilot failed. I felt as though someone had ripped my skin off: red raw, so exposed I couldn't bear light, noise, smells, people.

Helena was woven into my earliest memories. I couldn't understand a world without her in it. Helena would never read my first novel. She would never meet Kelley. She would never see America. Everything I ever did from now on would be less real in a particular way because she wasn't there to share it. My life in England felt even more dreamlike now because Helena, the only one in the world with whom I'd shared much of it, had vanished.

I had already felt as though I were living in a strange double-printed story. Now I felt unmoored, lost between worlds.

Kelley was farther away than ever. I wrote to her, told her about Helena, but I knew she wouldn't get the letter for about ten days; her world strode on without me at her side.

On my birthday, my entire family showed up at Stepney Lane to celebrate, to prove that life goes on. I let them in our seating-for-four living room. I made tea. I sat on the carpet in a daze.

The phone rang. Everyone—Mum, Dad, Anne, Carolyn, Julie, Carol—looked at the phone, looked at me: Who was this outsider disturbing our grief? I answered.

"Hi, honey," Kelley said. "I love you, Happy Birthday! How..."

"Stop," I said. "Wait. Helena's dead."

A moment of satellite-bounce silence. "Dead? Oh my god. Are you—"

"Everyone's here." None of them even knew who the stranger on the phone was. She wasn't real. But they were all looking up from their tea: they had heard the tone of my voice. Something was happening. "I can't talk."

"I love you," she said.

"Yes," I said. "Oh, yes."

Carol put down her tea and left the room.

"Everyone's here. I have to go."

I put the phone down and met the Griffith family basilisk stare. I stared right back. It had now been seven weeks since I'd last seen Kelley--longer than the time I'd spent with her at Clarion.
When I remember the anniversary of Helena's death consciously I can label and identify the weirdnesses, I can take into account what's connected to the here-and-now and what is being reflected through that emotional wormhole to the past. When I forget, it's much harder. I don't think I'll forget again.


Sunday, September 21, 2014

Birthdays and webs

Today is as brilliant as any in early summer. But the air has that sharp clarity of autumn, and the spiders are not fooled, they know what time of year it is.

It's Kelley's birthday. We have a magnificent Bordeaux awaiting our attention...


Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Miscellaneous links

Three things:

  • Two juicy reviews:

  • The Critical Flame:
    "Virginia Woolf’s Mistress Joan, on the pilgrimage to the shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham, becomes absorbed in the details of her surroundings and in the “strange, merry stories” her fellow pilgrims have to tell. But as she approaches the statue of the Virgin at the top of the hill, Joan’s mind becomes filled “with an image that was so large and so white that no other thought had room there.” Christianity, it would appear, whites out the detail. This totalizing energy becomes the root of the tension between Hild and Paulinus: between Hild’s feminine attention to detail and the Crow’s single-minded masculine devotion to an idea—the conversion of Britain to the master narrative of Christianity. Hild’s power, based on observation and interpretation of a multiplicity of details, threatens to subvert the Crow’s authority, which is based on enforcing a single dominant ideology."

    Armarium Magnum:
    "Like the Beowulf-Poet, Griffith evokes a world that is hard, harsh, rich and elaborate. Edwin's royal hall at Yeavering is brought to life with descriptions with more than a touch of Hrothgar's Heorot in Beowulf. The kings warriors - the gesithas of his retinue and the core of his warband - glitter with arm rings, rich belt fittings and ring-hilted swords. And Edwin wears a garnet ring that evokes the rich garnet decorations from Sutton Hoo. There a no trolls and dragons (though there are dangers and terrors enough in Hild's world), but this novel is has the worlds of both Beowulfand Sutton Hoo as its backdrop and its recreation of this culture is intricate and effective as a result."

  • Goodly sized chunks of my Locus interview are now available outside the paywall for your delectation and delight: "A lot of my work is about the body, and how we feel, and how the world works on our bodies and our bodies work on the world. Setting is my primary joy as a writer: the world and the body in it. I think story comes from that interface, where body meets world. Sort of the way some people think mind is born at the interface of world and brain. Whether you want to call it the problem, or the circumstance, or the situation, or the setup, the place a story begins is the world."

  • A reminder that I'm in the UK at the beginning of October: events in the North (mostly but not entirely Yorkshire) and three in London. I'll probably read a snippet of Hild II at some point so come and listen.


Monday, September 15, 2014

Teaching HILD

I've been hearing about colleges in the US and UK that are teaching Hild from a variety of perspectives: history of English, gender and history, landscape history, and so on. This pleases me enormously. 

I'm a big fan of what in the corporate world are called communities of practice, so if you're teaching Hild please let me know, and if you like I can two things:

  • Put you in touch with others doing the same
  • Answer any questions you might have about the book
Or I could just beam to myself, and hug the notion of this thing I made from a few stray thoughts being out in the world and taught.

Many of my other books have been taught, too, but for some reason this one is special. Perhaps because St Hilda herself is so associated with education. It just feels right. So thank you.