(c) Niall Griffiths

INTERVIEW by by Crystal Jeans

NWR Issue 98

Niall Griffths

NWR: I know you’ve been busy with your latest novel, A Great Big Shining Star, on which you said in an interview with ‘Interview with Niall Griffiths, ‘This one will be better than all the others put together. I have to keep telling myself that.’ So, now that it’s finished, what do you think…?

NG: I think that it’s not as good as the one I’m currently working on. Dissatisfaction, the wanting more: these are not bad emotions for a creative artist. My best book will always be the one I haven’t yet written.

NWR: Your novels could be said to be about a number of things: the working class/under class; Wales; geology; Anglo invasion; drugs; young people, messed up people; violence; destruction, and so on. But is any of this in your mind when you’re writing? Or are you just focusing on getting the words down, the themes popping up organically, subconsciously?

NG: Well, it’s not as if I have a choice… I can’t filter what demands to be written; it just insists that I write it. I write about what moves me. I don’t consciously decide to write about an underclass, say, but if your theme is about the divine spark and dignity in mankind, and there’s a political bent to your writing, then what better to write about than that section of society which we are constantly told is bereft of those things? Nothing is decided on; choice doesn’t come into it. I write about whatever makes my heart beat and teeth grind.

NWR: Does being often compared to Irvine Welsh irritate you? Or do you find it has helped your books find the right readership?

NG: Thankfully, this seems to have tapered off. At first, people saw in my fiction drugs and dialect and, being generally idle and in need of compartments, thought of Irvine’s work. But, several books in, I hope that the themes peculiar to my work are being appreciated. Or at least it seems that way. It didn’t hold me back, but I’m relieved to see it fading.

NWR: Your earlier writing has a tendency to flip between colloquial passages heavy on dialect to more intense epic language, flowery but not pretty (some of the geological description in Sheepshagger, for example, reminded me of Cormac Mccarthy circa Blood Meridian). Is this deliberate? Which bits do you enjoy writing most?

NG: It’s deliberate, yes, one of the reasons being to highlight the fact that my characters often have, if very little else, a certain power with words; demotic speech carries its own poetry, of course. I try to show that, between the two registers, there’s really not a vast difference. Banter and insult and verbal jousting are preferable to a punch in the face but it’s also rapid and entertaining and quick-witted, or can be. That, mixed with Biblical cadence and portent, somehow adds, for me, grandeur and an epic quality to the lives being depicted. And both are joyous to write, in varying ways, though when I’m writing a play, and so cannot go off on hieratic flights, I feel like something’s missing.

NWR: Ever plan to write any poetry?

NG: I keep notebooks full of free-verse poetry. Accentual rants, basically. There’s quite a few published out there, somewhere.

NWR: You write mostly in the present tense. Any reason for this? There are some die hard old-school writers who abhor present tense, especially when it’s coupled with the first person (I’ve even seen some literary magazines whose submissions guidelines for fiction state that they will not accept this combination). What do you think about this?

NG: The reasons for writing in first-person, present tense are to do with immediacy and urgency. But as to a magazine that won’t even consider it, then that’s the inevitable result of blinkered bigotry and is ultimately their loss. The medium’s the message; it’s only one way of telling, no less valid than any of the others. Isn’t fiction supposed to be about communication?

NWR: Let me quote Bill Hicks: ‘I know this is not a very popular idea. You don’t hear it too often any more… but it’s the truth. I have taken drugs before and… I had a real good time. Sorry. Didn’t murder anybody, didn’t rape anybody, didn’t rob anybody, didn’t beat anybody, didn’t lose – hmm – one fucking job, laughed my ass off, and went about my day. Sorry. Now, where’s my commercial?’).Your earlier books with all their drug abuse are pretty grimy and miserable; however, your characters do have fun too. They have some beautiful drug experiences along with the more squalid stuff. Are you trying to represent a balanced view? Do you share Bill Hicks’ view?

NG: Yes. People take drugs and drink to excess because it is tremendous, wonderful, glittering fun. Of course it can also become the opposite, and we should consider the initial desire to annul pain and frustration, but there’s this other side that is ignored. The general structural demands of people’s days are the antithesis to fun, built as they are around order and coercion and sameness. Intoxication is one brief way of experiencing life vividly and richly and authentically. That moment when it all kicks collectively in and the barriers crumble and the tongues and muscles loosen is pure magic, never to be found in the commute or the minutes forever counted down. It is joy.

NWR: I’m not sure about ‘authentically’, but I mostly agree. Shame the magic can turn to crap so quickly though. Talking of authentic, however, I reckon you’re great at writing women. Real, women with plenty of depth, just as smelly as the men but not usually as violent. Virginia Woolf once said that in order to write well, one must write with an androgynous mind, which is ‘resonant and porous... transmits emotion without impediment... is naturally creative, incandescent, and undivided.’ Do you think you have an androgynous mind?

NG: I certainly hope so. I’ve always found women fascinating. I was brought up in a world that separated the sexes. This view was not always without affection and saw women as thwarting male desires and ambitions; sex had to be bribed and bought, women had to be temporarily escaped from so the boys could have fun, that kind of thing. When I realized that, actually, women enjoyed sex and abandon just as much as men, could often instigate and insist on it, it felt like I’d discovered a secret, or stumbled into an astonishing new part of the world that no other feller knew about. It was amazing. Still is. I never feel like I have to negotiate any obstacle when trying to inhabit a female character’s mind.

NWR: Fab: I wish more men would discover that secret! Changing tack again: how do you feel when you write violence?

NG: Usually a bit sick. I often feel like I have to make amends somehow, or at least say ‘I’m sorry’ into the air of the room. But I do feel it incumbent upon non-violent people to study violence, because we can resist its taint and pollution. Bit of a burden, really. But a necessity.

NWR: If nonviolent people are able to resist it, why is there a special need to study it? Surely the other way around, if someone is hampered by their own violence, they need to understand it better? Also, you say ‘non-violent’ people, but they exist? Don’t we all have violence within us?

NG: By ‘non-violent’, I meant not outwardly violent; most of us, of course, harbour dark urges. But if we can control them, or filter them, or alchemise them into something else, then we can keep hold of that sense of objectivity vital to examining something visceral and self-defeating; violence takes as much out of the perpetrator as it does the victim. Or almost as much… it subtracts rather than gives. I’m not talking about, say, the Syrian rebels here, you understand. Have you ever read William T Vollmann’s Rising Up and Rising Down, condensed version? He explains this brilliantly, but it took him 3,000 pages in its original version and twenty-six years to do so.

NWR: I haven’t read Rising Up and Rising Down, but I’ll give it a go. The subject of violence in literature greatly interests me, which is why it’s a treat getting to speak to you. You once said in an interview with Anthony Brockway: ‘The darkness in our hearts needs to be explored.’ OK, but what about the light? My writing is miserable and gross, like yours, but inside I am an optimist. I mostly focus on the violence and misery because it’s more fun to write, in a horrible kind of way, and maybe there are some deep-down reasons too. What are your reasons?

NG: Well, I wouldn’t say writing about violence is entirely fun, but probably the fact that I can, each day, get it down on the page allows me, in person, to be generally chirpy. I suppose; I don’t really know. I’ve suffered from depression all my life but haven’t had an unbearable episode for some years (the medication helps). But alongside the darkness that perpetually lurks has always been a deep joy, a profound and bone-deep ecstasy in being alive. My heart leaps between these two states, as does my writing, which is propitiatory in this way, both a despairing of, and celebration in, the world. Or that’s the idea.

NWR: To refer again to the Americymru, ‘Interview with Niall Griffiths’, you claim there that a writer’s first draft should be ‘always longhand. Probably something to do with being brought up working-class. A proper job gets your hands dirty, even if it is just with smears of ink.’ This makes me think of Buko’, and everything else isn’t necessarily real. I understand this – I’m a care worker and I chose the job specifically because I see it as a ‘Real Job’, but where do you think this reasoning comes from? Do you think sitting on your arse in an office playing with Tippex is not real? Do you think it’s a primitive thing? A man thing? A class thing?

NG: It can’t be delineated in that way. It’s A ‘thing’, that’s all, and it rejects such qualifications. My quote above, I was referencing my upbringing, really, and the desire to live and work in the body as well as the mind, even if the excitement of the mind can produce an extreme effect on the body. I’m no Hemingway needing to kill animals to prove my manhood to myself; that’s not what it’s about for me at all. And Hemingway always had to holster his gun and return to his ‘gay job’, didn’t he?

NWR: Indeed he did. Did you have any input into the making of the film, Kelly + Victor, premiered at the London Film Festival this autumn?

NG: Very little, really; I quickly got bored with the process, and the characters, and the story. Plus the timing meant that I was about to leave the country when the film was being shot. And anyway, it’s not my film; it’s my book being re-mixed. That said, I’m overjoyed with how it’s turned out.

NWR: I look forward to seeing it. One last question, to satisfy my own curiosity – did you have in mind Gollum from Lord of the Rings when you came up with Ianto in Sheepshagger)? {Not sure the chronology works here! Ed

NG: Haha.


previous interview: Tom Anderson
next interview: John Harrison


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