Riding a Corner: Barrelhousing with Siân Griffiths

interview by Kate Finegan

Siân Griffiths lives in Ogden, Utah, where she directs the graduate program in English at Weber State University. Her work has appeared in  The Georgia Review ,  Prairie Schooner ,  Cincinnati Review ,  American Short Fiction  (online),  Indiana Review , and  The Rumpus , among other publications. Her debut novel,  Borrowed Horses  (New Rivers Press), was a semi-finalist for the 2014 VCU Cabell First Novelist Award. Currently, she reads fiction as part of the editorial team at  Barrelhouse . For more information, please visit  sbgriffiths.com .

Siân Griffiths lives in Ogden, Utah, where she directs the graduate program in English at Weber State University. Her work has appeared in The Georgia Review, Prairie Schooner, Cincinnati Review, American Short Fiction (online), Indiana Review, and The Rumpus, among other publications. Her debut novel, Borrowed Horses (New Rivers Press), was a semi-finalist for the 2014 VCU Cabell First Novelist Award. Currently, she reads fiction as part of the editorial team at Barrelhouse. For more information, please visit sbgriffiths.com.

KF: When I started Borrowed Horses, I was immediately swept away by the opening, in which Joannie says, “The trick of jumping a fence—any fence—is to convince yourself that the fence is just an illusion. The jump is just another stride, taken with the same rhythm and tempo as the strides before it and the strides after.” She says it all happens in the corner - that the corners allow you to "both urge and check” your horse; they ask the horse “to condense and collect his power.” So, what are the corners in writing? How do you condense and collect your writing power in preparation for difficult tasks?

SG: Honestly, I think riding taught me how to write in a lot of ways; this is just one. In riding, there are moments, like riding a corner, that seem to have nothing to do with the jump itself or with having a clean round, yet that's where a good ride is made. It's a moment of preparation or a moment of regathering. I'm working on a new book project now, and I've re-written the first chapters at least four times. Each time I started, it felt wrong, like I was trying to rush, until this last draft. I needed to circle back and restart until I found that cadence where the voice and prose and characters all felt strong and balanced and ready to go. Now, I'm about four chapters in, and I'm having another moment of regrouping and circling. Sometimes I think writing needs to move sideways, rather than forward, because it needs to go somewhere unexpected. I'm trying to figure out what sideways, unexpected thing needs to happen. I'm in another corner.

KF: During those moments of regrouping and circling, how do you find your way? Do you research, do freewriting, think a lot? Does it depend on the project? Or is it just a matter of draft after draft until it all clicks? 

SG: A little bit of each. Reading helps a lot, especially if it doesn't seem to have anything to do with my project. I jot down ideas and sentences in my journal because my best writing always starts in my journal. Walking the dog or running helps enormously. I think I do a lot of my best writing when I'm nowhere near a pen or computer—though then I have to try to hang onto the words until I can get them down. I know walking gets blood to the brain, but I also think it frees up parts of the brain to start working that can't work if I'm sitting and *trying* to write. Parts that are blocked. This is all completely unscientific and not research-supported, but it's amazing how many times I'll be stuck and trying to type whatever comes next and so frustrated not to be able to come up with anything, and I'll finally get up and walk across the kitchen to make up a cup of tea or get some pretzels and as soon as I take three steps, I think of something. It might not be the right thing, but it's a thing I didn't have two minutes before and it gets me closer to whatever the right thing is.

KF: Same! I do all my best writing in my notebook. Often, when I'm stuck at the computer, I'll simply switch to my notebook and the story opens up. I definitely feel the same way about walking, too—and then trying to hold on to the idea!

SG: 100% YES. I think the notebook takes the pressure off because it doesn't look like something I'm going to try to publish, and it allows me to pay more attention to the sound and rhythm.

KF: YES! And half the time I can't read what I've just written unless I squint, so it's not staring me in the face quite so much. Okay, I jumped ahead to process because I just reread the opening of Borrowed Horses and was excited - but let's talk about the book itself. Borrowed Horses is so much a novel of place. When did it become so deeply embedded in the Palouse region of Idaho, so closely rooted to its physical geography? Did you ever consider setting it elsewhere?

SG: This novel grew out of longing. I started it while I was in my second year in grad school in the South, and I really missed northern Idaho, where I'd finished high school and went to college. My horse was retired. He was arthritic and out to pasture, though still racking up vet and board bills, which makes trying to stretch a graduate stipend next to impossible. I was broke and desperately nostalgic for being able to ride, and more specifically, for being to ride in Idaho, where at certain times of the year when nothing is growing, you can ride across farmer's fields in any direction as long as you like and follow your own hoof prints home again. The only way for me to get that feeling was to write it, so I did. I wrote the horses I wanted to be riding in the landscape I loved most. I still miss it.

KF: Your description of riding in that region makes *me* miss it, and I've never even experienced it. I think that love for horses, the experience of riding, and the landscape of Idaho comes through very clearly. Did writing from a place of longing—and anticipatory grief, I would imagine—ever pose challenges?

SG: For sure. There's a lot of emotion roiling under this whole book, and I really had to watch the slide towards melodrama.

KF: I think you managed to avoid that pitfall. I wonder if channeling strong emotions through characters can provide some distance for the writer while also allowing us to explore our depths in a way that doesn't come across as melodramatic, and that adds depth to the characters.

SG: The grief of not being able to ride and of knowing that I was going to have to put my horse down was definitely a driving force in the writing, but it was also its pitfall. I didn't want Killian, my horse, to die, and yet I knew that I would be financially much more stable when he did, which was an awful place to be. When the time came, putting down a horse is a terrible business. The ground shook when he fell.

There was a lot of emotion behind the book but I didn’t want that to read as forced or contrived or false. My hope was that, if I could make Joannie's situation feel real, the emotion would feel earned, so in that sense, the characters help but the action and images do a lot of heavy lifting.

KF: Your experiences surely allowed you to make Joannie and her perspective very real. Speaking of getting into characters' heads, I was so interested in the men in this novel. You mentioned in an interview with Braddock Ave Books that you had to fall in love with Timothy to understand why Joannie would, and as a reader, it was *very* easy for me to fall in love with him, too. But you also had to establish Joannie's love for Dave, and Dave is such a slippery character—from romantic interest in an epic meet-cute to the novel's antagonist. How did you get into his head and make him real?

SG: The guys were the part of the writing that I struggled with the most. They were in rough shape in the early drafts—to the point that Judith Cofer suggested I cut every male character from the book. That felt like the wrong solution to me, but she'd gotten the problem exactly right. Timothy and Dave weren't fully fleshed out. Timothy in particular was too nice. Reg McKnight told me he "needed more pepper," and that was exactly right. I completely re-wrote Timothy, making him the kind of skate punk I would have fallen for, while still preserving his wisdom and kindness.

Dave was maybe even more of a struggle and the one I always feared I wouldn't get complex enough. I didn't want him to be too evil. I needed him to be attractive to Joannie, though her attraction is also in part an outgrowth of failure to achieve what she'd set out to do and a desperation to find new purpose. Still, that wasn't enough. Tapping into his own humanity and desperation, his own failed goals, helped a lot. Joannie and Dave are very much alike, which I think is what attracts them to one another even though the attraction isn't healthy. I firmly believe that even smart people can be stupid at love—or at least, that's what I tell myself when I need to forgive my own dumb choices.

KF: I kept falling in and out of love with Dave.

SG: And then there's John Rivers... Now, if this really were a Brontë novel, he should be the love interest.

KF: True! How did you settle on Jane Eyre as a model?

SG: When I had started writing this book, it was pretty plotless. I had to stop for a year while I was studying for comps—I had over 150 books to read in a year before the test and I am a super slow reader. I had three areas: the craft of writing, Victorian literature, and a special topic on Charles Dickens, so some of those books were weighing in around 800 pages or more. I was desperate to write, but all I could do was read, read, read. Though, like I said before, sometimes you can get a lot of writing done when you’re nowhere near a pen or a computer, and I think that’s what happened that year. I re-read Jane Eyre and I kept thinking how much I loved that book, how Brontë knew how to write a plot, etc. I kept thinking, why can't I write *this* book? And then I started thinking, well, if I flipped the genders, gave Joannie the plot line for Mr. Rochester while keeping a good dose of Jane, maybe? It started to take shape from there. It was really helpful to have that kind of plot outline. Every time I got stuck, I could look back to the book to see what Brontë did.

KF: What can you tell us about your two upcoming books? And what drinks should we pair with them?

 SG: So, the first is a chapbook coming out with Bull City Press called The Drum, Like the Heart, Keeps Faulty Time and I am ridiculously proud of it. It's mostly flash with two slightly longer (8- and 12-page) stories. All of them are takes on genre fiction. There's a clockwork girl and a dragon and clowns and a super hero reality TV show and aliens. Drink pairing: The Maker's Heart.

The second is a novel called Scrapple, coming out from Braddock Ave Books. It's about a 15-year-old kid named Robert Flannigan who moves from Oregon to Philadelphia with his mother so that they can be close to his older brother Sean and Sean's twin babies. Only, when Robert and his mother arrive, they find the babies abandoned in the crib and no word to explain where Sean has gone. Robert looks for him while he's figuring out how to live in a city and negotiate life at an urban school. Drink pairing: The Brother's Keeper.

And for Borrowed Horses, in honor of the horse who inspired it, an ice cold Killian's Irish Red.