Deep Dive: Nicola Griffith on Narrative Empathy and World Building

“And so what I had to do was all the research: flora, fauna, building techniques, jewelry, clothes, textile work, etc. And I used all that to essentially build the seventh century. And then I put Hild in and watched how she reacted to it and how she grew. And I basically learned through Hild, how to tell the story. […] I get the reader to create the character inside them, so that they are living the character’s life. They feel what the character feels, they see what she sees, they smell what she smells, because there are some basic human emotions, things like fear, lust, excitement, disgust, that are common to all people everywhere. And so if you can get the reader to feel those things, you are bringing them closer to the character. […] I put Hild in this place, and it also helps the reader understand how the world works, because a child is learning how her own world works.”

In this clip, Nicola Griffith details how she shaped her research of seventh century northern England—and her fictional world building of the seventh century—around the individual perspectives, emotions, and sensory experiences of the novel’s main character, Hild. Watch or read the accompanying transcript to answer the following questions.

Discussion Questions

  1. Griffith’s “slow” world-building process—which centers around a character’s sensory and emotional discoveries—might seem antithetical to the fast-paced, plot-focused expectations many readers have of genre fiction. How do speculative fiction writers like Griffith reconcile this rich, slow-paced world-building with the fast-paced demands of genre? Can you think of any techniques or strategies that might encourage the reader to slow down without realizing they’re slowing down? Moreover, can you think of any specific ways writers can slow down the reader while still maintaining the essence of “genre”—versus “literary”—fiction?

  2. “Narrative empathy” (the concept of encouraging “the reader to create the character inside them”) presents several interesting challenges in terms of audience identification. Do you feel that it’s inherently easier for readers to identify with characters whose experiences resemble their own? For example, do you feel queer readers are more apt to identify with queer characters in ways that cis/straight readers might not be able to? Or, do you think it’s possible for writers to break down personal barriers with precisely honed narrative strategies (that help the reader see the world through someone else’s gaze)?

  3.  As Griffith explains later in the interview, “narrative empathy” can be a powerful tool for “norming the other”: building the book’s world around the main character’s sensation of reality, and thus establishing their sensation of reality as “normal.” Hild is an “other” in the sense that her character is queer, and her desires, relationship priorities, and sense of self don’t necessarily fit with heteronormative ideas. Can you think of any other “others” whose perspectives are underrepresented in popular fiction? Whose voices would you like to hear more frequently (and in more nuanced roles, perhaps)? 

  4. Griffith alludes to the power of appealing to readers with universal human emotions such as “fear, lust, excitement, disgust.” Do you think of these as universal emotions? Can you think of any other universal emotions writers appeal to? 

Writing Exercises

  1. Revisit a piece of writing (written by yourself, or an author you admire) and reconsider the point of view through which it’s framed. Can you imagine what the same story would be like narrated by a different character within the story (a minor character, perhaps)? Write or rewrite a scene from that story that encourages “narrative empathy” with a different character’s perspective. 

  2.  Griffith identifies both the emotions of “fear, lust, excitement, disgust” and Hild’s natural child’s curiosity as vehicles for helping the reader learn about the book’s narrative world. What are some of your own chosen vehicles—or potential vehicles—for helping readers learn about your written worlds? Are there any patterns in your preferred narrative strategies for world-building? 

  3. Try to remember some of your most transformative learning experiences, as a child. Make a list of 5-10 learning experiences and make a timeline of when (and how) they transpired. How might you build a story around this timeline of learning? 

Additional Readings

  •  “Norming the Other: Narrative Empathy Via Focalised Heterotopia” (2017), PhD thesis by Nicola Griffith

  • #Criplit, a 60-75 minute Twitter chat for and about disabled writers run by Nicola Griffith (@nicolaz) and Alice Wong (@DisVisibility)

  • “My Story, Mystery: A Letter to Hild of Whitby” (originally published in the Los Angeles Review of Books, September, 2015), essay by Nicola Griffith

  • Hild: A Novel (2013), novel by Nicola Griffith 

Nicola Griffith is a native of Yorkshire, England, now a dual US/UK citizen. Author of seven novels (Ammonite, Slow River, The Blue Place, Stay, Always, Hild, So Lucky) and a multi-media memoir (And Now We Are Going to Have a Party: Liner notes to a writer’s early life). Co-editor of the Bending the Landscape series of original queer f/sf/h stories. Essayist. Teacher. Blogger. Founder and co-host of #criplit. Winner of two (2) Washington State Book Awards, the Nebula, Tiptree, World Fantasy Awards, and six (6) Lambda Literary Awards. She holds a PhD from Anglia Ruskin University, is a wheelchair boxer, married to Kelley Eskridge, and lives in Seattle. You can keep up with Nicola and learn about her work on her personal website (nicolagriffith.com), TwitterInstagram, and Facebook, and be sure to check out the full SLF interview here (43:40). 

Mary Anne Mohanraj 

I think part of what makes this book so remarkable is the pacing of it. You build this world in tremendous detail, with such an immersion in nature and the environment, that I think that’s perhaps the thing I found most unusual about the book.  And I think in genre fiction, we often have such a focus on pacing, such a sort of commercial sense of, oh, you must keep the eyeball kicks coming, you have to like have something dramatic happening on every page. So the reader keeps turning the pages. I never wanted to stop turning pages, right? So even though in some sense, the pacing was very slow. So could you talk a little about how you decided to write the book in this way and that pacing in particular, and maybe the sense of nature and immersion?

Nicola Griffith 

Yes. I did a lot of research for this book, mainly because I fell in love with the notion of the seventh century and trying to figure out who Hild was, how, in what was used to be called the Dark Ages, people have this vision of the Dark Ages as very primitive, where might was right. And women were basically chattels and all rape toys. They were just playthings of powerful men. And yet there is an abbey in the north of England, that Hild founded in the seventh century. And she’s still known for that. So those two pictures of this era, they just didn’t fit together. And so I had to figure out how this woman could become, who she became, how she could become so powerful that even 1400 years later, she was well known. And I wasn’t sure how to do that. And so what I had to do was all the research: flora, fauna, building techniques, jewelry, clothes, textile work, etc. And I used all that to essentially build the seventh century. And then I put Hild in and watched how she reacted to it and how she grew. And I basically learned through Hild, how to tell the story. And I always begin with nature. I love nature, and setting is my primary joy as a writer. And how do you tell? Do you want me to get … 

Mary Anne Mohanraj 

Oh, that’s really interesting.

Mary Anne Mohanraj 

As much as you like.

Nicola Griffith 

OK. What my work basically does, in Hild in particular, is, I call it “norming the other,” and I do that through creating narrative empathy. And I do that using focalized heterotopia, that is to say, to take my focalizing character and create a world for them that is a heterotopia for them. So, for example, Hild is queer, but she never, ever has any stress, harrassment, punishment for being queer. So for her, from the queer perspective is heterotypical.

Nicola Griffith  

I actually wrote my PhD thesis on this, I can send you a copy. 

Mary Anne Mohanraj 

I’d love to see a copy. 

Nicola Griffith  

So nature is a big part of that, because one of the ways to create empathy is to essentially immerse the reader inside this character, except it’s actually the other way around: what I do is I get the reader to create the character inside them, so that they are living the character’s life. They feel what the character feels, they see what she sees, they smell what she smells, because there are some basic human emotions, things like fear, lust, excitement, disgust, that are common to all people everywhere. And so if you can get the reader to feel those things, you are bringing them closer to the character. And so I use nature to do that. I put Hild in this place, and it also helps the reader understand how the world works, because a child is learning how her own world works. The way all children do. So it was necessarily kind of stateliness. And it was easy for me to do that with this book. Because it was not a genre book. So it’s published as a literary novel by a literary press, and slightly different. 

Mary Anne Mohanraj 

That’s right. 

Nicola Griffith 

And as it was, they actually crunched down the apparent page count. I mean, they didn’t crunch down the amount of words, but they used thinner paper and smaller typesetting because they were terrified of it looking like a big fat fantasy. Because there’s actually no fantasy in it, even though it really feels like it’s fantastic.

Mary Anne Mohanraj 

It does feel fantastical. And I think partly, part of the feel is the sort of ways in which she convinces people she’s a seer. But I think more than that, you know, a lot of the joy that people get out of reading fantasy and science fiction has often to do with the world-building, with being taken to a different place and immersed in that; and that comes across so strongly here, right? So it’s really effective, I think.

Nicola Griffith 

And I loved it. I loved writing that book. I had the best time.

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