The Unshakeable Image: A Conversation with Siân Griffiths

Lindsay Tigue: Thanks so much for taking the time to answer some questions. I really enjoyed “Sk8r,” and I particularly admired the way you portrayed the protagonist Ilsa’s treatment of Angie. Twelve-year-old Ilsa is a very relatable young protagonist and you allow her to act badly—even meanly—to ten-year-old Angie. Can you talk a little bit about that dynamic?

Siân Griffiths: Absolutely. When I was in graduate school, a professor advised me not to use children or teenagers as point-of-view characters because they were more appropriate for young adult rather than literary fiction. Since then, I’ve heard other writers and writing teachers echo the sentiment, and I have thought a lot about the assumptions informing this advice. I think what’s underneath the well-intended tip is the notion that children have not lived long enough to experience real pain—and, perhaps more important, that they themselves don’t act in response to complex emotions. It’s easy to fall into Romantic ideas about childhood, as if children were pure and their lives simple, as if they are all “trailing clouds of glory,” but my mother was a social worker. I grew up with stories of children enduring worse abuses than many adults will ever have to suffer. Looking at my own childhood, which was pretty happy, I can remember times I did and said things that haunt me to this day. I suspect I’m not alone. It became clear to me fairly early on in writing this story that I wanted to explore how violence is infectious, how pain from one child’s life can be transmitted to another’s, and how we make certain individuals dumping grounds for our grief and pain when they don’t deserve it. I wanted to be honest about childhood and about the moments when we stop being children and show our humanity—and our inhumanity.

LT: One of the most haunting images in this story is the decapitated puppy head Ilsa finds on the hill where she can look out on the overpass and watch the boys skateboarding. It’s an image that will stick with me, and I admired the way it tied together the themes of violence and innocence that you’re talking about. I also admire Ilsa’s emotional intelligence in that moment and the way you have her interrogate the reasons she wants to, but ultimately does not, share her horrific find with the boys: “No, she thought, the dead puppy wasn’t a way to buy friends, but a kind of poison. Spreading it might bind them, but in a way that would only fester and corrupt.” Throughout the story, Ilsa is positioned as an intense and solitary observer, with lucid (if sometimes unkind) insights into the lives and motivations of those around her. Are you particularly drawn to creating characters like this one?

SG: You know, the puppy head is a detail stolen from my own childhood; I found it on a hill by a post, just as Ilsa does. One of my very favorite stories is Callan Wink’s “The Breatharians,” which, among other things, is about a boy who is charged with the task of killing cats in a barn. Wink has commented that the story grew from seeing a dead cat in a manure spreader when he was a child, a mental picture he wasn’t able to shake. He said he wrote the story to make sense of the image. When I read that comment, I took it as a challenge to try to do something beautiful with the gruesome image from my own childhood. I still have no idea how the puppy head got on that hill, but even as a child, I knew that a person must have been behind its presence there, and though I am mostly an optimistic person, that knowledge tempers my optimism.

But none of this answers your question, which is about Ilsa’s emotional perception in that moment. I tend to read widely and admire many writing styles. One kind of writing that I admire in particular tends to examine the surprises, inconsistencies, and insights that arise as a character faces difficult moments. I’m thinking of writers such as Louise Erdrich and Ben Fountain and Alice McDermott. They can take an intense scene and slow it down to really get at its complexities and relevance—both for the character and, if the scene works, for its reader.

If the puppy head appeared in the story only as something passingly gross, then I don’t think the image would earn its place. It would be titillating, perhaps, but nothing more. I wanted, instead, to really think about what that encounter meant for Ilsa and why it would haunt her—which might be different than why my own encounter haunts me. Her realization that she could use such a gruesome thing to connect with the boys, that she might see it as a way to buy her entrance into their group, showed me just how desperate she is to be loved. This kind of discovery is why I write. I want to chase traumatic moments and slow them down so that I can turn them over in my head—not to make sense of them, but to explore their nuances.

LT: I’m glad you brought up Ilsa’s desire for love, which is detailed so vividly in the story. She even cuts her expensive jeans to try to fit into this group of skater boys. Her craving to belong reminded me of your novel Borrowed Horses, which focuses on a woman immersed in the world of competitive horseback riding. Can you talk a little about these various cultures of belonging as motif in your writing?

SG: First of all, thank you so much for reading Borrowed Horses. That’s a wonderful connection to make, and one I haven’t thought about before.

Perhaps because I have moved around a lot, I tend to feel like an outsider wherever I am. “Where are you from?” is a trick question that I never know how to answer. Each place has shaped me. I am from all of them and none of them. Maybe the subcultures created around shared passions have special relevance for me because they reflect the cultures we choose to be a part of rather than the one we’re born into.

Also, though, I’m fascinated by the blur between body and mind, how one affects and shapes the other. I perceive my mind through words and my body through action. There’s a language to motion that is untranslatable.

Beyond that, Joannie’s obsession with riding is, in part, an escape from her mother’s illness and from longstanding and unresolved grief and guilt over her friend’s death. On a physical level, Joannie’s horse gives her the power to fly away from these things. But she’s constantly facing obstacles, both in her emotional life and on horseback, and the fences don’t disappear just because she’s cleared them. In “Sk8r,” Ilsa is desperate to be accepted by a group, but ultimately it’s not the group but the feeling of the wheels themselves that she wants, the feeling of the world rolling under her. She wants to ride over the events in her life, to not be tethered to the world. I understand that desire on a physical and emotional level, and that helps me understand something about Ilsa herself.

LT: That shift in Ilsa’s desire is nicely illustrated by the structure of this story, by the way it starts with Ilsa in the police car waiting for social services. The reader doesn’t yet know Ilsa’s surprising emotional arc, but knows the story will have to loop back to that beginning, which created such effective tension. We also know something is going to come of the gun Ilsa finds early on in her mother’s drawer. At what stage of the writing process did this structure become clear to you? Did you know early on you would frame the story in this way?

SG: You have picked up on one of my greatest struggles with this particular story. The short answer is, no, I had no idea how to structure it when I started.

Here’s the long answer: The story started with a bunch of notes I wanted to hit. I knew I wanted to write about skaters (I owe a debt of inspiration here to Bret Anthony Johnson), I knew I was going to lay Chekhov’s gun on the mantel and let it go off, and I knew I would set the story in Riverside in 1985. I started to write chronologically, and the more I wrote, the more frustrated I got. I tried to soldier on, but I knew what I had wasn’t working. The story was dynamic in my mind but boring on the page. My husband is also a writer and we sometimes make writing dates at the local coffee shop. I was maybe five or seven pages into the story and deeply depressed about it when, walking home from one of these sessions, I thought I might be able to manipulate the chronology and get some tension going that way. The next day, I ripped apart everything I had and put it back together, and immediately I felt better about it and was able to finish writing the draft. I’m so glad it worked for you as well.

LT: Place seems very important in this story, and Ilsa’s reality often seems reflected in the landscape—particularly the unfinished suburban housing development which becomes the setting for some key scenes. Is place generally important to you as a writer? Is it something you determine early on when you’re drafting a story?

SG: Setting is one of the first things I need to know. My family moved around a lot when I was young, from Ohio to Arizona to California to Idaho. Since then, I’ve also lived in New Jersey, Georgia, and Utah. Each place has its own distinct culture and climate and geography and architecture. They also have different ethnic make-ups and belief systems and economic pressures. People are shaped by place and by the culture of a place—even when they are reacting against that culture. For me, place creates character and character creates plot.

In this case, I put Ilsa in my own childhood home. The construction site was a real place, as was the drainage ditch and the hill looming over the intersection. I remember seeing a man shooting pigeons that roosted in his palm trees and the smell of chlorine and orange blossoms in the air. I knew this story would expose something dark, and it seemed appropriate to place darkness in the brightest landscape I knew. It felt true to that place and to the story.

I hope it doesn’t sound unimaginative to talk about some of the images I incorporated from my life. There seems to be a big debate over whether one should write what they know or what they don’t know. For me, fiction always does both. A known place helps me imagine my way into an unknown mind and situation. That physical landscape helped me find my way an emotional landscape that I didn’t directly experience, which at least in this story was precisely the terra incognito I wanted to explore.

 

Lindsay Tigue won the Iowa Poetry Prize for her first book, System of Ghosts (University of Iowa Press, 2016). She writes poetry and prose and her work appears in Prairie Schooner, Indiana Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and elsewhere. Tigue, a Sewanee Writers’ Conference scholar and Vermont Studio Center fellow, holds an MFA from Iowa State University and is currently a PhD student in creative writing at the University of Georgia.