Over his twenty-plus year baseball career, Hall of Famer Ken Griffey Jr. caused a lot of jealousy in the Major Leagues because seemingly everything on the ballfield came easy to him. In the midst of demoralizing batting slumps, Griffey’s opponents occasionally tried to downplay his skills—one of them is hilariously quoted as saying “I’d be an All Star too, if I had his swing.”
We’re reminded that one of the surest ways to get under the skin of a talented writer is to insinuate that they don’t need to work very hard. As if beautiful prose simply flows from the pen the second it meets paper. We know better.
This week’s Face Off features an interview with an immensely talented writer who readily admits to bleeding on paper, and then bleeding some more. She considers good writing to be a privilege but then says, “for me it’s not just work, but very slow work, fuss fuss, much experimenting and staring for long moments at individual words, phrases, the whole verbal physiology of the thing I’m trying to compose. I’m told that my prose moves at a clip, which I’m also glad to hear—it belies the tinkering behind its assembly.”
Meet Terry Griggs, the author of The Iconoclast’s Journal (Biblioasis), which was reviewed in the pages of Foreword’s May/June issue by Linda Thorlakson. As you’ll see in her questions, Linda’s all but obsessed with understanding how Terry performs her magic on the page.
How might you describe The Iconoclast’s Journal to potential readers should conventional jargon (regarding plot, character-development, and genre) risk deceiving those who only want more of what they’ve already experienced (while failing to rouse those craving the opposite)?
With my books there’s often a bit of grappling for definition in the critical response because they’re more generically inclusive than most. One reviewer has described The Iconoclast’s Journal as “a picaresque anti-romance, a comic and ironically inverted version of Homer’s Odyssey, with Penelope in charge.” That’s pretty close, I’d say. The story does involve the riotous first months of a newly married and completely incompatible couple—a kind of honeymoon hazing—and features wayfaring misadventure of, at times, an Odyssean nature. Set in 1898, during a socially tumultuous time not unlike our own, it’s also historical fiction that has, I think, instances of surprisingly current relevance. There’s a dash of the fantastical (though not entirely improbable), flickers of satire, and a fond acquaintance with the absurd … all in all, perhaps not easy to pin down, but definitely readable.
How would you define an iconoclast and to what degree (if any) does that definition describe the story, its author, prose, and/or intent?
Iconoclasm is central to the novel, as one might suspect given its title. My definition takes in the range, including the destructive activities of the early iconoclasts, one in particular who operated professionally during the Civil War in England, a Puritan hired to destroy the iconography in churches and private chapels considered to be papist. This man left behind a fascinating journal in which he describes the statuary and other religious objects he destroyed and how much he was paid for each. I adapted some of this document for the novel and it becomes a kind of touchstone or talisman for the central characters as it passes from hand to hand, usually by theft. It comes to mean different things to them, but overall it invokes a questioning of institutions and conventions that dictate, for good or ill, how we are to live our lives.
This was very much a part of the period in which the book is set. There were plenty of disruptive ideas floating around, old certainties breaking down, people moving in droves to cities, new inventions and freedoms. The bicycle, for example, was a boon for women, allowing them a liberty never before experienced. So while iconoclasm has its roots in an abhorrent intolerance, its more evolved meaning suggests, to me at least, the importance of having a critical mind. Not necessarily rejecting the strictures that govern us, but ever keeping a thoughtful eye on them and on those who promote them.
To what (if anything) do you attribute your seemingly effortless facility at bringing people, faces, places, and objects to life through metaphor and conjectured back-story?
Ah, am so glad to hear that I do! “Seemingly,” I suppose, is the giveaway word here, for while the phrase nothing is as it seems has been described as the plot stimulant behind much fiction, it might also be said to describe the writing process. I can’t speak for other writers, of course, but in reading a smoothly crafted piece of prose I know from experience how much labour has gone into it. The ease with which one might read it is what often seduces, and then confuses, those who likewise want to write and go for it. Not to moan and groan, because I find that writing is a privilege and one of life’s reliable pleasures, but for me it’s not just work, but very slow work, fuss fuss, much experimenting and staring for long moments at individual words, phrases, the whole verbal physiology of the thing I’m trying to compose. I’m told that my prose moves at a clip, which I’m also glad to hear—it belies the tinkering behind its assembly. A little sleight of hand, very useful in the writing trade.
How grounded in research or plausibility (in terms of time and place) are the syntax, clothing, customs, situations, and objects employed throughout The Iconoclast’s Journal (a place where characters and circumstances seem to continually totter beyond the brink of believability without ever toppling over the edge)?
It’s funny that some things in the book that might appear to be too far-out for belief are in fact the fruit of my research into the late 19th century. A small example would be when the footloose young husband, spying through people’s windows, observes a woman doing her daily chores wearing a trout around her neck tied with a red ribbon, and later a man eating a newspaper, strip by strip, while blood dripped out of his nose into a basin. These were both suggested cures of the day for sore throat and nosebleed respectively. Now, whether or not people did try these, I don’t know, but when you think of some of our own more suspect wellness practices, I wouldn’t be surprised if they had.
I did a fair bit of research into the period aiming for accuracy, yet didn’t want to weigh the novel down with it, making it seem merely like a vehicle for cool historical information. My aim was to select detail that would give the era, and characters, presence and vitality, to make it come alive and offer it as a colorful reality rather than as a quaint olden time, fusty and sepia-toned. As well, being a transitional period, I also wanted to make our connection with it—the advent of the modern world—palpably felt. Which is one reason why Avice, my forward-looking female character, is delighted to discover a copy of Vogue magazine while in Detroit. I was delighted myself when I discovered that the magazine existed in 1898. Who knew?
What inspired, fueled, and/or guided the Iconoclast’s Journal’s characters, relationships, pacing, and tragicomic journey?
One of the initial inspirations took years to gestate for I was researching another book at the time. This was a reference I ran across to an unusual antiquity, the iconoclast’s journal mentioned above. My interest in it was keen, so I searched it out and eventually acquired a Xerox copy of it from the Society of Antiquaries in London, England. Another source that also hung around in my head for ages, I chanced upon in a newspaper article about globe lightning.
It referred briefly to what I found to be a wonderfully zany occurrence: Diane de Poitiers, mistress of Henry II of France, was reportedly chased around her bedroom by a ball of lightning on her wedding night. A fascinating phenomenon in itself and an incident rich with narrative possibility. Besides those imaginative spurs, other interests of mine find their way into the novel: Great Lakes’ shipwrecks (I grew up on Manitoulin Island in Lake Huron), those early magical films of Georges Melies, insects, old hotels, lots of stuff. And thematically, the subject of freedom, how much is possible, or desirable, for an individual, a relationship, a society, a country. A subject that often comes up in my work, too, is what might be called “the male-female divide,” how it’s negotiated, or not. The main characters in my novel struggle with this question throughout.
Do you ever hope readers’ experience and understanding of life may expand or change through reading your books and stories?
Honestly, I wouldn’t want to presume. My only hope is to give readers an enjoyable reading experience, perhaps stimulate a little serotonin uplift. In preparation for writing longer works I always keep a notebook of words, ideas, this and that, and in the one for The Iconoclast’s Journal, I penned a quote on the first page taken from the 16th century diarist, John Manningham, that sums up my publishing expectations: “Goe little booke, I envy not thy lott,/ Though thou shalt goe where my selfe cannot.”
How do you craft such vivid, bizarre, memorable metaphors without allowing them to appear contrived or diminish what they’re describing by pulling readers out of the story to admire their genius? How can you offer so many memorable metaphors within a single book without emptying the well of what might otherwise have been available for future books?
I’m delighted that you find the metaphors striking! They may be a result of how I go about this mad writing biz. I don’t get much down on paper in a day (yes, paper before screen), so what I come up with tends to be somewhat concentrated. And since writing is an art, which is easy enough to forget given our everyday use of it, that’s my intention. To be artful. To give the writing a reach, to invoke the unexpected, to articulate the unspoken. Also, because I’m drawn to humor, which operates on incongruities, I’m given to forging odd or surprising connections between things. My brain just seems to work that way. I am a bit of a language freak, too—crow-like, in that words are my stolen shiny objects. Not that I speak other languages. I did study French and Latin in school, but am hopelessly unilingual. Nonetheless, I suppose my writing could be regarded as a kind of translation … from English into English.
Since some of the most compelling characters appear only briefly, is it possible that you don’t decide how large a role they will play until after they’ve been well enough developed to influence that decision?
It’s a great idea, sensible, rational, to plan everything out ahead of time, get all the details nailed down before putting pen to paper, but that system doesn’t work for me. I’d only sit idling and staring into the dark. Composition for me is a more organic process, very much in the spirit of Theodore Roethke’s: “I learn by going where I have to go.” I’ve learned to have faith in fortuitous arrivals, and some minor characters arrive the way people do in real life, fully themselves however brief their time with us might be.
Have you ever found it to be advantageous to write under a name which doesn’t automatically identify you by gender?
You know, I’ve never thought of my name as having any impact at all. The photo on the back flap (the first place a reader looks I expect) would quickly settle the male-female question. A male name, of course, also has a marketing advantage, and while some writers do choose pseudonyms that work both ways, I’d go for one that’s unambiguously male for the sheer fun of inhabiting an other self. It’s funny that in fiction characters called Terry are usually male and women get the feminized Terri version. Regardless of the spelling, I’ve noticed that both tend to receive a condescending treatment—lower class, thuggish if male, flaky if female, etc.—as if the name comes with a character deficit. Well, writers, like schoolyard bullies, do make use of this sort of nominal shorthand all the time.