From the first line of Nicola Griffith's latest novel, Always, it's clear that the reader is about to go on a potentially lethal — but exhilarating — journey: "If you walk into a bar and there's a man with a knife, what do you do?" The answer, according to the book's narrator, Aud Torvingen, is: "Walk out again. If you can."
Always is Griffith's third novel about Aud, a wealthy, well-connected lesbian from Norway and former Atlanta cop. The Village Voice described Aud, who first appeared in Griffith's 1998 novel The Blue Place, as "a woman who loses herself in the beauty and balletic control of pure violence yet seeks salvation," but what they neglected to mention was that Aud is just plain sexy.
Griffith recalled: "I remember when my agent — the first time she read The Blue Place — she's a straight woman with a husband and two or three kids — she said, 'Oh my God, Nicola, I would throw my knickers at her! I would give up my husband for Aud.'"
Born in Yorkshire, England, Griffith left home at 18 and did all the things a young dyke might do: fronted a band, learned karate, hung out in bars. After she experienced a violent assault one night, she also learned that knowing martial arts wasn't enough. She took self-defense lessons, then began to teach it herself. While teaching, she began to write, eventually traveling to Michigan for Clarion, a six-week writers' workshop where she met her partner, author Kelley Eskridge. The two will celebrate their 19th anniversary in June.
In the first two Aud novels, The Blue Place and Stay (2002), Aud investigated crimes in the dense heat of Atlanta and the cooler climes of Norway, but Griffith doesn't think that her books necessarily fit into the crime fiction genre. "I really think of [them] as novels of change," said Griffith, "about this woman who's learning to be human and kind of becoming a hero in her own way."
In Always, Aud travels to Seattle to check up on one of her real estate investments, and soon becomes embroiled in investigating a poisoning on the set of a TV show being filmed at a warehouse she owns. She is also instantly attracted to the production's caterer, a former stuntwoman named Kick. In a parallel story line set in Atlanta, Aud teaches self-defense to a group of women — an endeavor that brings up a whole host of issues about power and women's roles that Aud never expected.
The two strands of the novel come together in the end, but the process of writing Always was not a smooth ride for Griffith."I've written this book three times," she said. "The two-strand [version] is the fruit of about three years' work."
Griffith at first wrote the novel with only the Seattle story line, then in a second version added in two additional threads — including the Atlanta-set one — and ultimately wound up with the third, published, version. "Every time I write a book like this I think, OK, this time there's gonna be the big chart," Griffith said of her writing process. "In fact, I made a chart. I put a chart on the wall, and then I never put anything on it. I'm basically incredibly lazy. … I just trundle along and keep my fingers crossed."
Some of the most vivid scenes in Always involve Aud's visits to the set of a television show, but Griffith said that she has never visited one. "I've never been on a film set in my life," she admitted. "I just made s— up! I love any research I can do at home, but I hate going out to do research. I don't know why. I like to use my imagination. That's one of the joys of writing for me, is going to play in places where nobody's ever been."
Before writing the Aud novels, Griffith wrote two science fiction novels: the Lambda and Tiptree Award-winning Ammonite (1993), and the Nebula Award-winning Slow River (1995). "I really like to help people visit slightly different worlds, even this world, just to see the world differently," she said. But the process of writing science fiction does differ from writing the Aud books.
"For example, writing Ammonite … you have to explain how things work without bringing … the narrative to a screeching halt," she explained. In Always, writing the self-defense portions was also challenging. "I did my best to explain exactly what was going on without making it an instruction manual."
Her efforts paid off: The self-defense chapters are among the most evocative and suspenseful ones in Always. "Writing the self-defense was in fact so much more exciting than I thought it would be," Griffith said. "I had the best time."