Interview with Siân Griffiths
As part of the Dixie State University Visiting Writers Series, on March 7, 2017, author Siân Griffiths visited Dr. Armstrong’s class to discuss the craft of Fiction. She later read from her work to students and faculty in the Frank and Alice Holland Center for English Studies Collaborative Lounge. Siân teaches creative writing courses and serves as Director of Creative Writing at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah. She writes novels, poetry, short fiction stories, essays and screenplays. Her first novel Borrowed Horses, was a semi-finalist for the 2014 VCU Cabell First Novelist Award.
-Ashley Imlay and Leslie Twitchell
What inspired you to write your first novel, Borrowed Horses? Do you plan on writing a sequel someday?
My first novel began from a point of longing: my first horse and longtime partner had become too arthritic to ride, and I knew our time was limited. I couldn't afford another horse, and it was killing me not to be able to ride, so I started funneling all that desire into the book, trying to recreate my passion there. There's a lot of Killian in my writing of Foxfire and Zephyr, the two fictional horses in the book. I miss him terribly, but I'm glad to know that a piece of him lives in the book.
Do you have any regrets about that book, now that it is published? Are there any changes you wish you would have made that you didn’t think about until after publication?
No big regrets, but I continue to learn and grow as a writer and there are some scenes I would write differently now than I wrote them then. In particular, writing emotion is difficult, and there are some scenes where my novel's protagonist Joannie is enmeshed in some turmoil that I was never totally happy with. I might take another pass at if given the chance. That said, I also know that, like many people, I tend to be my own worst critic. I dwell on the parts I'd like to write over. When someone points out a scene they like, I'm sometimes surprised to find it's not that bad, that maybe it's even good! I'm so grateful to those readers.
What made you want to study Charles Dickens, and do you teach his work in your classes? What do you think 21st century writers can learn from Dickens?
I've always loved reading Dickens, partly because he's so funny, and partly because he writes with such genuine heart. I must admit, I sometimes get weary of our contemporary distrust of the sentimental. This isn't to say that I want things to be schmoopy, but I worry that we're sometimes willing to accept the darkest views of humanity as unquestionably true while we doubt something sunnier. For example, I look at the way we talk about Cormac McCarthy. He's a truly stunning writer. His prose in Blood Meridian and All the Pretty Horses is some of the best wrought language in American literature. Yet when I watched No Country for Old Men and read The Road, I was really struck by the plot holes—apples still edible in a field years after everything had died off and murderous drug dealers who could miraculously track you down no matter how well you hid. It was all kind of ludicrous, but so many people I knew treated his work as an accurate depiction of our world because it was dark. A writer who was lop-sidedly cheerful would be called naïve—and rightly so. A writer who is relentlessly cheerless is also giving a false portrait of the world, but somehow, we forgive that. Dickens had characters in harrowing circumstances, but he remembers that the world is still funny and that people have the capacity for kindness as well as cruelty. I like that spectrum and the contrasts he creates.
How did it feel when Janet Burroway included your poem in the third edition of Imaginative Writing, knowing that college students all over the country would read your work? Does an awareness that your work may be used as an example or model for aspiring writers change the way you think about what you write?
That was so crazy! Honestly, the email letting me know came out of the blue and I thought at first that it must be a hoax or scam. I'd published a few things here and there, but I was (and still am) very much under anyone's radar. Once the anthology was out, I received some awesome emails from students. One of my favorite said something like, "My professor told us to pick a poem and write about what it means, and I picked yours. Can you tell me, what does it mean?" How could I not love that?
I don't know if the poem being so prominent really changed the way I think about writing, though (the election has, but that's a whole other kettle of fish). I've always been acutely aware of the difference between what I write just for myself, and what I write for an audience. Knowing that my poem was reaching an audience was terrific, but I also think of that fact as very short-lived. Work fades out of people's consciousness, and that's fine. I'd love to be one of those writers whose work sticks around, but I don't think you can game that. You just write the very truest thing you can write and see if it connects. When it does, it's lovely, but knowing that moment is fleeting helps remind me to keep writing, to keep digging for the next truthful thing.
We understand that you write in multiple genres, fiction, poetry, and now, you are also writing for the screen. When you have an experience or idea that you need to write about, how do you choose the genre in which to write it?
I generally feel my way to the genre when I first have the idea. If it comes from an intense image or fragment of language, I tend to write a poem. If it feels like there's a conflict that can be resolved or a voice that wants to tell me something, I lean towards story. If it's a moment from my life that I want to question, I know I have an essay. As you say, I just finished my first screenplay, and when the idea came to me ten or fifteen years ago, I kept thinking "someone should make a movie about this." It took me a long time to realize that maybe I was the person who should start the making.
Have you ever found that an idea or experience you originally wrote about in one genre, actually fit better within another? If so, how did you make that transition from one genre to another with the same idea/experience?
Absolutely. I wrote a poem several years ago called "Idaho" that I really loved. It started with an image, a man riding a chainless bike down a hill. I loved the poem. Honestly, I had more confidence in that poem than I do in most things I write. I kept sending it out and sending it out, but it was rejected and rejected and rejected. Finally, I decided that it must not be as good as I thought it was and let it go back to sitting in my computer. Then last year, I was teaching a class on flash fiction. We read an essay by Steve Almond that argued that sometimes our failed poems are failing because they were meant to be flash. That afternoon, I went home and pulled out the line breaks and tinkered until the story felt complete. "Idaho" was published in Redivider last year, and I have never been so happy to have been wrong.
What are your favorite aspects of each genre? Do you have a favorite?
I love the way novels push me to dwell a long time in the same questions and to know characters deeply. I love the way stories push me to balance narrative elements until they find some kind of harmony. I love the way poems make me focus on fragments of language and sound. I love the way essays ask for a deep dive into questions I can't answer. I love the way screenplays force me to think of how thoughts can be expressed in action. I don't have a favorite. Each are necessary. I can't imagine being a single-genre writer. It strikes me as kind of like being a carpenter who only ever uses a hammer, even if a saw or a screwdriver might be the better tool for the job.
What is a question about writing or your work you wish people would ask but haven’t?
The question no one ever asks is, "Would you ever hit a horse?" and the answer is a firm and resounding "No." I may be like Joannie in a lot of ways, but not that one. And to be fair to her, I don't think she would either under any other circumstances.