Monday, November 17, 2014

Happy 1400th anniversary to Hild!

Today is Hild’s 1400th birthday. That is, Hild, who became St Hilda of Whitby, was born 1400 years ago, and November 17th is her feast day, so today seems like a good day for it. Happy Birthday Hild!

How do you say, fourteen hundreth in Latin? I will cheerfully admit that my Latin is rubbish, but I had a go anyway.

My first stab at it was quattourdecenennial, a word Hild would have found decidedly odd. I'm sure she would have been able to figure it out but it's a made-up word, English based on Latin—there's no evidence for anything like it in actual Latin (that I know of). Also, Latin counting would have used one thousand four hundred rather than fourteen hundred. The words we use for such things today, e.g. bicentennial, are formed from analogy to millenial, which is a late-Latin formation on the model of the Classical Latin words biennium and triennium. But according to Annie, a young Latinist I consulted (over beer in a pub), these mean a period lasting x years, and there's no Classical evidence for them having adjectival forms meaning on the second/third anniversary. Apparently, they're in a numerical class of their own. Annie suspects they might be based on the numeral adverbs, rather than the ordinal numbers—the bi- prefix is probably from bis, which means twice rather than two—and the closest you could get to 1400th on this model would be quaterdecienscentennial in English, quaterdecienscentennialis in Latin. 

At this point, the beer ran out. Well, okay, the pub still had beer but our capacity for it —at least as it relates to my making sense of Latin (minimal to begin with)—most definitely came to an end. So after a few days to recover, we switched the conversation to email. Which means that (much to my relief!) I can now quote directly:
If you instead take the late-Latin (in use c. 1250 CE in Britain) millenium or the English word centennial as the model, then quattourdecimcentennial(is) is probably more correct, using the cardinal number fourteen.You could even make an argument for quaternidenicentennial(is), using the distributive. All of these should make a certain amount of sense to an English speaker familiar with Latin. 
If you want something that a native speaker (or scholar of the language) might more readily write, millensimus quadringentensimus is probably close. Livy has mille et quadringentis for the cardinal 1400 (Ad Urbe Condita 26.50), and I'd assume mille(n)simus (et) quadringente(n)simus to be the ordinal equivalent (those 'n's are dropped pretty regularly, and the 'et' is entirely optional.) It would decline as a regular first/second declension adjective on the model of bonus, -a, -um; so 1400th year (nominative) would be millenimus quadringentesimus annus. It's a little trickier if you want to refer to a specific event which has recurred once every year for 1400 years, but you'd probably want to use anniversarius (yearly) in some form: eg, millesima quadringentesima anniversaria lupercalia, the 1400th annual Lupercalia. I really don't know enough about ecclesiastical Latin to say whether there were other conventions for writing numerals by the 7th century, but this would at least make sense when read. You are certainly correct that (written) Latin in Ireland was almost dialectally different—Hisperic Latin is a very strange creature, and I know nothing about that, either, except that the Altus Prosator is often given as the prime example.
And if you want to go deeper than that, feel free to consult Allen and Greenough’s New Latin Grammar and work it out yourself

For now, I declare that this is her fourteen hundredth anniversary: millesima quadringentesima anniversaria. Happy Birthday Hild! I shall raise a glass to you tonight.

Now I just have to figure out Happy Birthday in Old English. Ēadiġ ġebyrddæġ…? 

Monday, September 15, 2014

I am coming to the UK at beginning of October

I'm coming to the UK next month, 1—10 October. I'll be doing a bunch o' stuff to support Hild. If you're a reader of this blog I hope you'll come along and introduce yourself.

If you're in London I'm doing three events: at King's College and Queen Mary University London, and at Forbidden Planet. If you're in the north, I'll be at the Ilkley Literature Festival and central libraries in Halifax and Stockton. 

You have to buy tickets are on sale for two of the events, Ilkley and Stockton, but the others are free.

These events are all variations on a theme: I talk, often in conversation with a knowledgeable interlocutor—e.g. Professor Clare Lees at KCL and Professor Gweno Williams in Ilkley—I read, I answer your questions, I sign books. At one or two events the Q and A is chaired, but mainly it'll be me happily telling long stories in answer to short questions. (See this video of one of my Q and As or a reading.)

Here are the details:

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

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. I love doing this stuff. It will be a blast!

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Latin for fourteen hundredth anniversary?

This year is the 1400th anniversary of Hild's birth. According to Bede.* Given that her feast day is mid-November, and in my novel her birthday is mid-October, I've decided autumn would be a splendid time to celebrate.

My problem? My latin is truly terrible. I don't know the word for fourteen hundredth. If I guess, I come up with quattourdecenennial which looks...messy. So if anyone out there has a better answer I'd love to hear it!

While we're at it, anyone willing to take a stab at fourteen hundredth in Old English?

*In his Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation, or History of the English Church and People, or... Well, there are many translators who have interpreted the title slightly differently. Pick your poison.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Anglo-Saxon ethnic origin stories

I've been waiting for someone to ask me about the Yffings' origin story in Hild.

Her lips went numb, and then the drug was coursing through her, cold as a cataract. Her tendons tightened and flattened against her bones. She trembled as she walked alone between the flames. 
The corridor was high-walled and lidded by nothing but a now-lurid sunset. The king and Osric had vanished, gone ahead around the curve, and Hild walked, alone—they all walked alone—along the inwardly spiralling path painted with tales, the characters from songs she had heard in hall all her life, songs of music and magic and might, of heroes and beginnings. The story of the Yffings. As she walked their eyes stared from cunningly painted knotholes in the elm, the prows of their ships gleamed along its ridged grain: the three ships of long ago, filled with land-hungry lords and their men in old-fashioned helmets and hammered armour. She shivered, standing between the narrow wooden walls—and shivered as her ship's keel ground up the pebbles and coarse sand of the beach in Thanet. Her throat bobbled as she leapt with her men from their ship, roaring. Ravens fought over broken bodies, Britons knelt bareheaded... 
For a heartbeat she was Hild again. Huge, vivid scenes of great faces and blood-spattered swords, all outlined in black, loomed from the curving walls. Everything stank of wood tar. Then she was in the forest, running through the mist to the pounding beat beat beat of her heart, driving the sinews of her forefather as he howled and ran, tireless, through the ferns and brambles, leaping the stream, pounding through the heather, burning out the Britons, sweeping the ghosts of the slain to the hills, taking their gold.
In the novel, Hild herself believes the cultural myth that generations before mighty Anglisc heroes arrived in Britain from across the water and killed all who stood in their way; they took the land in one fell swoop1, they were destined to do so; that the Anglisc are distinct from the native British in all ways; and their kings are descended from gods.

This, of course, is nonsense. It's partly a story the Angles told themselves in order to forge a common bond, a group identity around which they partied, a banner under which they fought and formed alliances—a way to belong. But at this stage the Yffings have turned it to their advantage as political propaganda: they claim they are special, better because they are descended from gods; it's natural that they rule.


It was a challenge to set aside the most recent hypotheses about the ethnogenesis of the English and write purely from Hild's experience, her cultural perspective. At one point—not long after the above scene where Hild and all her people take part in the post-harvest ceremony in the wooden (sort of) temple—I couldn't resist having Fursey scoff at Hild's naïveté (and assumptions) and tell her how it had really happened. In the end, though, it just felt like the author showing off, so I held my (his) tongue and tossed out the scene.

I'm actually rather fond of the temple scene—and proud of coming up with a picture of how some parts of Anglo-Saxon beliefs might have worked—but I know it's most likely not true. It's a relief to have figured out how, in the next book, to help Hild past her family propaganda to a glimpse of the truth.


But what is the truth?2 Opinion is divided.

I've been reading Britons in Anglo-Saxon England, edited by N.J. Higham (Boydell Press, 2007). It's stuffed with chewy appraisals of evidence—ranging from textiles to law codes to grave finds—by a fascinating array of academics. I'd already read a couple of the individual articles (a particular shoutout to Alex Woolf whose "Apartheid and Economics" I've discussed before and I think is brilliant) but I was struck by several passages from articles new to me. Take this quote from Edward Said:3

Stories become the method colonised people use to assert their own identity and the existence of their own history. The main battle in imperialism is over land, of course; but when it came to who owned the land, who had the right to settle and work on it, who kept it going, who won it back, and who now plans its future—these issues were reflected, contested, and even for a time decided in narrative. As one critic has suggested, nations themselves are narrations.
In other words, as I've been saying for a long time (not just about history but everything ranging from recipes to politics to corporate missions), it's all about story.

Later in the book (I'm only halfway through) I found myself nodding at Damien J. Tyler's conclusion that in the mid-seventh century, certainly in the Mercian hegemony (think: the whole mid-section of England), non-ethnic forms of group identity were more important than whether you were British or Anglo-Saxon. That is, privileged elites were more like each other than like other classes of their own ethnic group; they formed a new identity based on "shared elite status and outlook, common aims and enemies, and shared economic and patronage elements."4

In other words, being 'one of us' is all about class, which of course is about power and access—not only to resources but to messaging. The elite control the stories.


There are many theories (historians tend to call them theories even though in the real world I'd label them hypotheses) about why the English don't all speak Welsh.


Some still believe in the biological replacement theory: that the Anglo-Saxons arrived in boats and either killed the inhabitants or drove them into the west (whence they either settled or migrated to what became Brittany). In a subset of the replacement theory, some think the land was already somewhat depopulated, though their reasons for that vary (and this seems to be a minority opinion). 

On the other side there's the cultural absorption theory/elite emulation theory (depending on whether you think about it as culture/language spreading upwards or downwards, class-and-numbers-wise): that the British just adopted Anglo-Saxon culture. That is, their language, clothes, weapons, outlook gradually changed and became indistinguishable from their neighbours.

There are outliers, subsets, and combinations of both theories. 
It's complicated, the material and documentary evidence contradictory. 
Perhaps wergeld laws tilted the balance of economic power towards those who looked and sounded English rather than British5 but perhaps what we think of as English is a fusion identity, a new über-fashion/practise came into being formed from both so-called British and so-called Anglo-Saxon cultures but belonging wholly to neither—or even started to some degree before some of whom we think of as Anglo-Saxons set foot on insular territory.But the more we learn from material culture/archaeology and the more we let go of assumptions and myths instilled in us by early writers with very particular agendas, the more it seems clear that what changed in Britain was culture/language, not just population genetics. Native Britons (whether you consider them Roman or British or both) started to speak a variety of what we now know as Old English; they followed what we think of as Anglo-Saxon fashions in clothes and burial practise. 

In the end, though, all I think we can probably say is that the native Britons didn’t go anywhere; they just changed. They are us.

1 We can lay some of the blame for this at the feet of writers with particular, though dissimilar, agendas, e.g. Gildas and Bede. And it was an easy story to get behind: why, for example, do we the English speak a Germanic rather than Romance language? But ask yourself why the Welsh don't speak a Romance language, either, then consider Tyler's point about elites.

2 When it comes to history, I don't believe there is such a thing as truth, just stories. Even physical evidence and science data have to be interpreted and a story told about them. What is a theory/hypothesis but a story? Also, you'll just have to wait to find out how Hild figures it out.
3 Quoted by Higham on p. 72 but what's represented here is not taken directly from the text but my notes on same, so apologies for inevitable minor inaccuracies.
4 I'm mostly paraphrasing from notes; I don't have the book to hand.
5 And how could you tell the difference? Fashion? You can change your clothes. Language? Learn another. Accent? Change it. Religion? Pretend. When a lot of money was at stake, people will do almost anything. Having said that, I can see that if one prominent land owner whom everyone knows is culturally British gets into it with a landowning neighbour who is culturally Anglisc, we all know how that will end...
6 Yep, it's possible. As I say, it's complicated.

Monday, July 14, 2014

HILD out in the UK on Thursday 24th July


From Blackfriars/Little, Brown — 24th June

Hild will be out in the UK on Thursday July 24. The first UK notices are beginning to appear. I'm particularly proud of two. One from Alex Woolf at University of St Andrews, and smart, smart author of many fabulous papers and books on Early Medieval Britain. The other from Max Adams, author of King in the North (which I really wish had been available five years ago; it would have saved me so much work!).
  • "It is the best fictional attempt to recreate Dark Age Britain that I have ever read. Alex Woolf
  • "I was impressed—as a fellow-writer and a Northumbrian archaeologist. It's a great piece of work."  Max Adams
You can buy it in hardback or ebook in the UK (see links above), and paperback or ebook in the rest of the English-speaking Commonwealth (see links below).

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Hild's first religious foundation

A paper kindly sent to me by Al Newham who heard of Hild via Max Adams
I'm now into Hild II (working title Menewood) and I've started to wonder about the location of Hild's first religious foundation. Aidan, when he recruited Hild to the Church in AD 647, gave her a single hide of land on which to live for a year. Bede tells us only that this land was "ad septentrionalem plagam Viuri fluminis." (1)

This is generally translated as "on the north bank of the Wear" (Rob Latham in his 1968 revision of Leo Shirley-Price's original translation) or "on the north side of the river Wear" (by Roy M Liuzza in 2006). But the other day a reader from South Shields, Al Newham, sent me a paper from the late nineteenth century, "Abbess Hilda's First Religious House," by the Rev. Henry Edwin Savage (2), at the time Vicar of St Hilda's church, South Shields, and later Dean of Lichfield Cathedral, which makes me wonder if it's (just) possible those translations are misguided.

Rev. Savage believed that the original gift of land was where St Hilda's church was (and still is). That is, just a few minutes' walk from Arbeia, the Roman fort that supplied the troops, auxiliary and regular, along Hadrian's Wall. Which is on the south bank of the Tyne. So how do we get from what is usually translated as the north bank of the Wear to a place that's essentially on the south bank of the Tyne? The two rivers, as you see below, are about seven miles apart.
Present-day St Hilda's marked; shaded area shown in greater detail below
Savage asserts, and supports this assertion with what seems to me (mostly) sound reasoning*, that plaga, when Bede uses it in conjunction with fluminis, means a tract or whole district related to a river: a much, much broader swathe of land than a river's bank. (See, for example, "quintus Æduini rex Nordanhymbrorum gentis, id est, eius quæ ad borealem Humbræ fluminis plagam inhabitat." (3)) And that district, he then goes on to explain, could reasonably be expected to cover the tract between two rivers. He, then, would translate Bede's phrase to "the district north of the Wear," and that probably meant, to Bede, everything between the rivers Tyne and Wear.

(As an aside, some of Savage's explanation--the geographical separateness of this area: a chunk of rich land between rivers which could have been built for transport and trade, and bounded on the east by the sea and west by magnesian limestone outcrops--ties in with my difficulty pinning down the boundary between Deira and Bernicia. I know that many people think the boundary line is the R. Tees but, well, I've always wrestled with that. If you think of rivers as barriers, rather than routes of communication then the R. Tyne makes much more sense to me. But that's a big if. Given that I suspect demarcation zones between the two polities moved north and south depending on which was ascendant at the time, a whole area acting as a kind of accepted buffer zone makes sense.)

In addition to raising perfectly reasonable doubts about the traditional interpretation of Bede, Savage brings up the fact that ambitious early Anglo-Saxon kings with eager bishops liked to use the proximity of Roman buildings to imbue their own religious foundations with added authority and meaning, for example the churches Paulinus built in York, Catterick, and Leeds/Camponodum.

Then he points out that, in addition, the Northumbrian church had a fondness for a particular kind of landscape. They liked to semi-isolate their religious foundations with water, but also keep them close to communication routes, and very close to centres of secular power (think of Lindisfarne). If you throw in Romanitas it's difficult to avoid agreeing that South Shields would be a perfect place for Hild to begin.

The mouth of the Tyne, long ago, looked different. With the help of people on Twitter and Facebook** I hunted down old maps and even older descriptions. My best guess is that in Hild's day, South Shields was essentially an island, separated from the rest of the district by a narrow southern channel of the Tyne which in turn was spanned by sturdy Roman bridges.

Here's a guess at how it might have been:
In 7th C, Arbeia was on what was essentially an island
So, for now, that's where I think Hild will go when she leaves East Anglia at the behest of Aidan, right next door to that house she hated when it belonged to Osric: Arbeia. But at this point (AD 647) was the house owned by Oswine or Oswiu? Decisions, decisions...
--
1. HE IV 23
2. Archaeologica Aeiliana, Vol. XIX, 1896. This paper was, I think, all the rage back in the day. Generally now scholars don't give it much credence but as far as I know there's no physical evidence to disprove Savage's essential thesis.
3. HE II 5. There are many such examples.
--
*Bear in mind that my Latin is pitiful and, as a novelist, I might look at things just a little differently than professional historians. I only need to know that something can't be disproved. As Newham points out, "The paper was also read early on by Professor Bright of Christ Church Oxford in 1897 and because Rev. Savage conflates two episodes from Bede: the hide of land given to Hild by Bishop Aiden in The Life of Hild Bk IV ch.23 and the monastery referred to his Life of Cuthbert ch's. III and XXXV, Bright argues that it is clear from Bede that Hilda's first 'house' was not a 'double monastery' but a very small nunnery, whereas the 'house' not far from Tynemouth was occupied by 'a distinguished company of monks' some time before St. Aiden's death in 651, and not by nuns until afterwards, the identification proposed appears chronologically untenable." [Personal email] But one mistake doesn't invalidate the entire argument. And if this is possible, it's fair game.
** Many thanks to, among others, @Glossaria, @AlexJCraven and @chickdastardly.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Getting Medieval on "To the Best of Our Knowledge"

On To the Best of Our Knowledge I'm "Getting Medieval" with fellow writers George R.R. Martin, Karen Joy Fowler, and Bruce Holsinger, weapons expert Kelly DeVries, and more! To coincide with this weekend's premier of Game of Thrones Season 4, it's a whole hour of conversation about why we're so interested in the Middle Ages.

However, if you're in a hurry you could just listen (stream or download for later) my 11-minute segment about Hild.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The UK cover of HILD

Original art by Anna and Elena Balbusso, original design by Charlotte Strick, UK design by Sian Wilson
Blackfriars, the UK and Commonwealth publisher of Hild, is a brand new literary imprint of Little, Brown. Hild will be their first ever hardback.

After some thought, they decided that for their audience the cover would look more attractive without representation of Hild herself. I agree. What do you think?

This version will be on sale in the UK on April 10 (digital) and July 24 (hardback and paperback). The audio edition is already available.

Also, in case you missed it, I did a TV interview on PBS (a bit like BBC 1). And coming soon is a radio interview on NPR (the equivalent of, hmmm, Radio 4)*. That's not due out til April 6 so to whet your appetite, here's the NPR review of Hild.

Enjoy!

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Dragons for Christmas!

Over on my personal blog I've followed my annual tradition of filming the destruction of our Christmas tree. However, I thought photon torpedoes might not be the thing for medievalists. So here's something just for you:



Have a wonderful Christmas and a happy New Year.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Some news

Two pieces of news.

On Wednesday, the twentieth anniversary of our first (not legal) wedding, Kelley and I got married in the eyes of the US government.

Some more nifty blurbs for Hild:

"You will never think of them as the Dark Ages again. Griffith's command of the era is worn lightly and delivered as a deeply engaging plot. Her insight into human nature and eye for telling detail is as keen as that of the extraordinary Hild herself. The novel resonates to many of the same chords as Beowulf, the legends of King Arthur, Lord of the Rings, and Game of Thrones—to the extent that Hild begins to feel like the classic on which those books are based."
 — Neal Stephenson
"A book that deserves a place alongside T.H. White, to say nothing of Ellis Peters. Elegantly written—and with room for a sequel."
 — Kirkus
"You could describe Hild as being like Game of Thrones without the dragons, but this is so much deeper than that, so much richer. A glorious, rich, intensely passionate walk through an entirely real landscape, Hild leads us into the dark ages and makes them light, and tense, and edgy and deeply moving. The research is pitch perfect, the characters fully alive. If it wasn't like this, it should have beenand I'm sure that it was!
 — Manda Scott
Publication is getting closer...though still two months away. I'll have more news on appearances, etc. soon.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Some advance praise for Hild...


I've been posting chunks of early reviews etc. on the Hild page of my main blog but thought I'd include a few snippets here to whet your appetite:
"What a fabulous book! ... I fell into this world completely and was sorry to come out. Truly, truly remarkable." — Karen Joy Fowler
"Vivid, vital, and visceral, Hild's history reads like a thriller." — Val McDermid
"The historical setting feels so real that it seemed that I was walking across the living landscape of seventh-century Britain... Brilliant stuff!" — Tim Clarkson
"Hild is not just one of the best historical novels I have ever read—I think it's one of the best novels, period." — Dorothy Allison
"Griffith goes boldly into the territory, lingering over landscape, indulging the senses...in a sweeping panorama of peasants working, women weaving, children at play, and soldiers in battle." — Publishers Weekly
It won't be out in the US until 12 November 2013 (that's 11.12.13 for those who like that sort of thing). But it's available for pre-order. If you follow the link, you'll see I've built a huge list of independent stores in the US, UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. But I'd love to get more suggestions for bookshops outside the US.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Shoutout to favourite bloggers in an interview about writing Hild

Here's a long and meaty conversation between me and my editor Sean McDonald (VP and Executive Editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux) about the making of Hild. I talk about going to Whitby for the first time, years ago, and having the fundamental realisation that shaped my writing career and made Hild inevitable:
History, I realised, was real. Built by real people with their own dreams, disappointments, and dailyness. Not at all like the stories I’d read growing up in which people behaved as though they knew they were part of momentous events.
And later in the interview, I explain why I was afraid to begin this book I knew I'd been aiming for my whole life:
I didn’t want to write about the restrictions of gender. Domesticity makes me claustrophobic. Hearth and home are all very well, but I love an epic canvas: gold and glory, politics and plotting.

To avoid that, I was tempted to take the easy way out and make Hild so singular that the restrictions didn’t apply to her. I tried everything I could think of; at one point I even had her learn and use a sword...  
It didn’t work: History is made by real people; the rules always apply. I despaired of being able to reconcile that reality with what I wanted, what somewhere inside I knew was possible.

In the end I did what any good Anglo-Saxon would: I got drunk, laughed in the face of fear, and charged. And I discovered what poets have known for millennia, that constraint is freeing. I had nothing to lose, so I committed. The words came. It felt like magic. It was Hild’s voice.
Also, I give a shoutout to some of my favourite medieval websites and blogs, including The Heroic Age, The Medieval Garden Enclosed, Unlocked Wordhoard, Heavenfield, A Corner of Tenth-Century EuropeSenchus, Magistra et Mater and Carla Nayland.

Enjoy.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Who wants a free reading copy of HILD?

-- This is a cross-post from my personal blog, Ask Nicola --

My box of Hild ARCs* arrived on Friday.

Many of them are already spoken for but I have a handful extra. So who wants one?

If you're a loyal reader, I'll be doing a random giveaway later just for you, just because. I'm saving two copies for that purpose. But the rest of the non-earmarked ARCs are for Influential Book People: reviewers, book and feature editors, producers, booksellers, librarians and professional readers with a blog and/or big following on some a book-friendly social media platform. Sorry to be blunt but these puppies are expensive to produce and I've promised to distribute wisely.

So if the Influential Book Person label fits you, and if for some reason you don't plan to get hold of an ARC through the usual channels, i.e. Farrar, Straus and Giroux's sales and marketing department, my agent (Stephanie Cabot, The Gernert Company), or my publicist (Kathy Daneman, FSG), read on.

Please fill in the nifty Google Docs form below. There are only eight questions. (All responses will come directly to me and will be completely confidential; you won't be added to any lists.) I'll let you know in a week or ten days if you're going to get an ARC.


And as a reward for filling in the form, or as consolation for not being eligible at this time**, enjoy these photos.
Hild spread
Hild tower
Hild henge!
If I'd had more time—and books—I'd have tried a whole henge. Though perhaps that's something for the sturdy hardcover. Meanwhile, hey, a mastaba is probably doable...

* Advance reader's copy. The text hasn't been proofread, it lacks a map, Author's Note, and Acknowledgements, but it's essentially the same novel you'll get in the final edition.
** But everybody will be eligible for the giveaway in a few weeks. And I mean everybody. I'll pay for shipping to Russia, or China, or Australia—though it might travel slowly, and if you're on the International Space Station we'll have to get creative...

Thursday, March 7, 2013

The cover of HILD

Coming 11.12.13

 
This is the cover of my novel, Hild (available for pre-order) which will be published in the US on 12 November 2013 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. (When I know UK and other publication dates I'll post them.)

I love it. It's not perfect.

First, what I love. As this is a JPEG, the colours are not entirely reliable. But the physical object will be stunning: uncoated, textured coverstock with the main title in gleaming gold. Drop-dead gorgeous. The artists, twin Italian sisters called Anna and Elena Balbusso, have done some award-winning covers for classics by writers such as Pushkin and Atwood.

I love the way Hild looks directly at her audience, utterly self-contained. I particularly admire the Botticelli-like face, and her hair, which is the exact shade of chestnut I'd imagined.


The artists have captured the face of a girl-woman with a thousand-yard stare, who has faced death and made terrible decisions since the age of eight, who looks out with the clarity of one who knows life is an undiscovered country full of joy and patterns to be understood. Hild is born in difficult circumstances and survives because she has an extraordinary mind and a will of adamant. She lives at the very edges of the constraints of her time—but is still constrained.

So, as I say, I love it. I do have two quibbles. The seax should hang horizontally, parallel to her belt. And I'm pretty sure there weren't any chainmail coifs in early seventh-century Britain. (Even if there were, Hild would not have worn one. Constrained, remember?)

What do you think?

Monday, March 4, 2013

Ten questions and answers about Hild

detail from the cover of Hild *
This blog began in 2008 with a medievalist blogger's meme game about favourite historical characters. (I was tagged by Michelle of Heavenfield.) I desperately wanted to talk about Hild, the main character of the novel I was working on at the time. But I had no blog. I built one.

So it was oddly satisfying to get tagged five years later for another meme just after I finished working on the copyedits of that novel, Hild.

Here are the ten meme questions and my answers.

1. What is the working title of your book?
The final title is Hild. But it began as Beneath (I wanted to turn over all the early medieval stones and look at what was wriggling on the underside). As I progressed the working title morphed from Light of the World to God in the Nettles to Butcher Bird to As It Must. But in the end my agent said, "Why don't you just call it Hild?" And I couldn't find a good answer: the book, after all, is about the formation and rise of Hild, a child and then woman with a matchless mind who was at the heart of the changes that made England.

2. What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
From my publisher's catalogue copy: "A brilliant, lush, sweeping historical novel about the rise of the most powerful woman of the Early Middle Ages: Hild."

But I started off with a question: "In a time of warlords and kings, when might is right, the three year-old Hild, along with her mother and sister, is homeless, hunted, and without material resources. Yet by the end of her life she is the first great abbess of the north, teacher of bishops and counsellor to kings: universally revered. How did she do it?" In other words, I built the seventh century then grew Hild inside to see what would happen. That's what I do: I write to find out.

3. Where did the idea come from?
On some level I've been working towards this since I began my very first novel. Hild is the sum and summit of all I know—in terms of writing and life. But I can tell you the exact moment I became aware of Hild's existence.

In my early twenties, I was living in Hull, a depressed (and depressing) industrialised city on the river Humber (the southern boundry line of Deira, which became part of Northumbria). For a break, my partner and I went north up the coast, to Whitby.

The first thing I saw at Whitby was the ruined abbey on the north cliff. It's an astoundingly gothic silhouette, mesmerising. I didn't wait to unpack but climbed the hundred and ninety-nine steps with my gear on my back. It's difficult to describe how I felt when I first stepped across the threshold of the ruin abbey. It was as though the history of the place punched up through the turf and coursed through me. I knew my life had changed, I just didn't know how.

After that, every year, sometimes twice a year, I visited Whitby. I walked the coastline. I roamed the moors. I spent hours at the abbey. I started picking up brochures and leaflets and imagining how it might have been long, long ago. Even after I moved to the US and started work on what would become my first novel, I came back once a year.

On one visit to England, I picked up a battered 1959 Pelican paperback edition of Trevelyan's A Shortened History of England. I started reading it on the plane on the way back. I read about the Synod of Whitby in 664 and, frankly, don't remember the rest of the flight. This, I thought. This Synod was a pivot point in English history.

Two or three years later, I stumbled across Frank Stenton's Anglo-Saxon England. And I was off. For the last twelve years I've been groping my way through ever more modern scholarship. I've been reading bilingual versions of Old English and Old Welsh poetry, absorbing the latest translations of Isidore's Etymologies, thumbing through translations of Bede, thinking, thinking, dreaming in the rich rolling rhythms of another time and place.

4. How long did it take you to write the first draft?
Three or four years.

5. Who or what inspired this book?
Hild herself. Plus I was born about three miles from where I imagine Hild spent her very early childhood. I grew up where she grew up—in what was Elmet, a part of Yorkshire. As a child I might have walked the hills she walked, climbed trees in the same valleys, poked sticks in the same streams, watched the same shaped clouds, listened to the same seas on the same coast. It felt inevitable.

6. What genre is it?
Literary fiction. Epic page-turner. Historical fiction. Bildungsroman. Political thriller. An ethnography of the seventh century/ethnogenesis of the English.**

7. What other books would you compare yours to?
I was born in Yorkshire in the twentieth century, but as a teenager I rode the stony slopes of Mary Renault's Macedon in winter and gazed out over the fjords of Sigrid Undset's Norway in summer. Alongside Alexander I led bronze-age cavalry and clashed with my father; with Kristin Lavransdatter I managed a fourteenth-century household and refused to behave. I lived their story as deeply as I lived my own; their lessons were my lessons. And from the moment I realised I would write about Hild, I wanted her story to be as powerful to readers as Alexander's and Kristen's had been for me. I wanted readers to live and breathe the seventh century, to reach the end of the book and nod: Yes, that's how it was.

8. Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
The book is represented by Stephanie Cabot of the Gernert Company and will be published November 12th by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. (In hardcover for $28—according the very nifty app isbn.nu—and, I assume, in a variety of digital formats. No info yet on audio or foreign editions.) Publishing-wise, this has been the best experience of my life so far. At FSG I feel part of a smart, agile, committed team. Everyone is behind the book. It's deeply exciting. This is how publishing should be.

9. Which actor would you choose to play your character in the movie?
I haven't a clue. Several actors would be needed to play Hild. The book opens when she's three and closes when she's nineteen. But—and it's probably heresy to say this—I think the novel is too long for a movie. It might make for a splendid premier cable series though: murder, intrigue, starvation, religion, war, sex, love, betrayal, lust, ambition, change...

10. What else about your book might pique the reader's interest?
Here's my hope: that Hild will do for Saint Hild and seventh-century Britain what Hilary Mantel did for Cromwell, and Mary Renault did for Alexander—bring a whole world to life for the reader through the lens of a singular character who changed history, one who did so by acting at the very limits of the constraints of her time.

Also, I like to think admirers of British nature writers—Roger Deakin, Rupert Macfarlane, Richard Mabey—might find something to enjoy.

A handful of people have already read it:
"Nicola Griffith is an awe-inspiring visionary, and I am telling everyone to snatch this book up as soon as it is published. Hild is not just one of the best historical novels I have ever read—I think it's one of the best novels, period. It sings with pitch perfect emotional resonance and I damn well believe in this woman and every one she engages. I finished the book full of gratitude that it exists, and longing for more." — Dorothy Allison, author of Bastard Out of Carolina and Cavedweller
"An enthralling tale from an extraordinarily talented writer. It drew me into the volatile, dangerous world inhabited by the real Saint Hild fourteen centuries ago. The historical setting feels so real that it seemed that I was walking across the living landscape of seventh-century Britain. The characters are utterly believable in their time and place. Historical accuracy alone would make this novel a remarkable achievement, but the author has given us a thrilling story, too. Brilliant stuff!" — Tim Clarkson, author of The Picts (2010), Columba (2012) and other works. 
"What a fabulous book! Hild has all the joys of historical fiction—transportation into a strange, finely detailed world—along with complex characters and a beautiful evocation of the natural world. But the tensions of the gathering plot make Hild feel like a quick read—too quick! I fell into this world completely and was sorry to come out. Truly, truly remarkable." — Karen Joy Fowler, author of The Jane Austen Book Club
The book is available for pre-order.

*  More on the cover later this week.
** My editor and publicist turn pale when I say this. 

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Hild: 12 November 2013


This is the seventh draft of Hild. It is the version you will read (after some copyediting). It will be published in the US on 12th November by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

At this stage I don't know when it will be published in the UK, or by whom. I'm guessing I'll have a notion of that in three or four months. Stay tuned.

Hild is a big book: 207,000 words. Depending on book design and typeface that could translate to anything from 650 to 800 bound pages. Just the thing to curl up with before the fire and lose yourself in Hild's world as the wind howls and the hail beats on the window. That's my goal: an immersive read that is so physically, emotionally, and intellectually convincing that you feel as though you've lived another's life alongside your own.

I can't wait to get it into your hands. I'll keep you updated every step of the way.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Hild's grave


After discovering the Corpus of Anglo-Saxon Stone Sculpture I've been playing with Photoshop, imagining what Hild's grave marker might look like. (This is just a first pass. It will end up looking much better when I've futzed with it.) This is adaptated from the Hildithryth stone found at St Hilda's in Hartlepool.

My dream is that one day someone will find Hild's grave. That, using shotgun proteomics, we can find out how she died (my guess: malaria). Using strontium analysis we can figure out where she was born, where she spent various stages of her life. (I don't think she spent any time in Gaul--or Gwynedd, or Ireland--but what if she had?)

I wonder if she'd be buried with jewellery (which raises the possibility of mineralised textiles), or perhaps a book? (That would be amazing.)

I'll just have to keep dreaming...

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Old Irish update

I've got all the help I need right now with my pitiful Old Irish, thank you all so much. When I've finalised the passage I'll repost it here.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Can anyone help with some Old Irish vocabulary?


In terms of writing fiction, Irish has been the bane of my life. It's my own fault; I'm lazy--or perhaps impatient is a better word--when in the grip of the work.

Twenty years ago, when I was writing Ammonite, I created an isolated tribe based on the Mongols. I was hot on the trail of the story, and used placeholder proper nouns based on Gaelic vocabulary. I meant to do the necessary research later and swap out the placeholders for the real words.

But here's the thing about fiction. It doesn't always work according to plan. The characters took on the attributes of their names. I couldn't change the Echraidhe to, say, the Buriyads, or Uaithne for, oh I don't know, Miroslava. It was too late.

Reading through Hild again, I've discovered I'm about to commit the same mistake. Early on in the book, when Hild is about ten, she encounters an old and damaged Irishman who speaks very little Anglisc (Old English). In a cursory online search I couldn't find the Old Irish I needed so I scooped up a hodge-podge of Irish words of dubious provenance, plunked them down, and surged on.

Here's how that passage reads:

The water slapped, the canes rattled, and man, girl, and dog all looked at the sky--clouds piling together, no longer tin but lead--then each other. Hild, encouraged, stood, came closer--oh, her shoes were more mudcake than leather now--and pointed at the willow man, at his white crinkly hair, and said one of the Irish words she knew, "Bán."
And he laughed toothlessly, then loosed a torrent of Irish at her. His accent was strange. She understood three words of it, cailín, maid, Sasanach, Anglisc, and ocrach, hungry, and shook her head. "Go mall," she said, slowly, and "le do thoil," please, and he said it all again. "Go mall," she said again, "lo do thoil." And Madra tilted his head and whined, and then Bán spoke one more time in a jumbled Anglisc/British/Irish mix, and Hild listened with her whole skin, the way she listened to rooks in the field or wind in the trees. She understood, she thought. He was asking her if she was hungry.
She sat in the mud--Onnen would scold her raw--offered a fist to Madra, the first dog she had allowed near her since she watched Od eat the guts of Osric's man, and repeated back to Bán as well as she could, with the words he had used, that she, the Anglisc maid, whose name was Hild, was hungry, a little, but that when she returned she would be very well provided for. And he nodded, but shook his fingers dismissively in that Irish way, just like Fursey, and tutted, and unfastened the sack at his waist and offered her half his cheese and a bite of onion, and a dip in the coarse grey salt collected in the seam of his sack.
So now I'm throwing myself on the mercy of the internets. Do you know Old Irish? Will you check/correct this for me? Or point me to a decent Old Irish glossary/phrase list?

In return I can promise my thanks--and an acknowledgement in the final copy (whether or not the passage above is cut).

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Leeds

Just got back from a lightning visit to the UK. I spent a lot of time here:


Those of you who travel to conferences will probably recognise it. If I could have delayed my trip by ten days or so, I could have met some of you.

It'll happen one day. Really. Perhaps next year? Or, hmmn, damn, I'm Guest of Honour at a venerable SF convention over that weekend next year. Gaaargh!! It'll have to be 2014 then. But it'll happen. It'll most definitely happen.