susan griffin is a poet, playwright, and the author of seven nonfiction books, including A Chorus of Stones, which was a finalist for both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Award, and was also a NY Times Notable Book of the Year. In 2009 she was awarded a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship and has been the recipient of a one year Macarthur Grant for Peace and International Cooperation. Utne Reader has named her one of a hundred important visionaries for the new millennium. Her most recent work is a collection she co-edited with Kairn Carrington called Transforming Terror, Remembering the Soul of the World.
Front Porch: The subjects about which you’ve written—democracy, the environment, and women’s issues—can be seen as political in nature, but they can also be seen as philosophical. How do you think about or classify your work, or do you bother with classification?
Susan Griffin: Well, I think that classification is actually one of the problems in the culture. I think disciplines are applied in a way that tends to suppress certain kinds of knowledge. On the one hand you have to have terms that help you discern one way of looking at the world from another—one phenomenon from another—but if you say philosophers can only worry about logic, or ontology, and they can’t write in a poetic style, then you not only leave out some major philosophers like Nietzsche, but you leave out whole parts of the truth, of the discussion. That happens very frequently with any subject regarding women. Women’s lives can’t be understood unless you do it in a cross-disciplinary way.
FP: In other interviews, you’ve spoken about the importance of empathy in human interactions. Would you talk about how empathy plays a part in your writing?
SG: Well, to be frank, I don’t think of it in that way, but I suppose it is going on all the time. When you’re writing, you place yourself in the situation you’re writing about. You place yourself in a character’s shoes—or the person that you’re writing about, if it’s a historical person—and that is a basic empathetic response. And it’s a basic capacity of human nature. It’s not just something that belongs to saints or “good people.” When somebody doesn’t have that capacity, they really have brain damage, and they often have difficulty learning that goes along with it.
FP: As well as books, you’ve written poetry, essays, screenplays, and stage plays. Does the subject matter of a particular work dictate its presentation?
SG: Very much so. Sometimes what happens is that the beginning of something comes to me in the form that it will take. I’m writing a book now about global warming, a novel. But I didn’t think, “Oh, I’m going to write a novel about global warming.” It came to me as a story. It’s a fictional story, and it was clearly going to be a novel. The character in the story came to me before I understood what the theme was. I do analytical work, and I can proceed that way, and have proceeded that way in a lot of my work, but what I like better is proceeding the way a poet proceeds. It’s almost as if you receive some sort of a sign from a deeper part of your consciousness. It’s a way to begin to know more than you thought you knew. Your field of knowledge becomes much larger and deeper, and you surprise yourself with what you’re writing. This all sounds very far-out and edgy, but it’s not. Any creative writer will say the same thing, if they’re serious writers and not hacks or something else, but instead really more interested in what is authentic. You have things come to you and you don’t know where they came from. You follow them and you’re either following the language or you’re following the metaphor, or you’re following the motivations of the character with whom you’re empathizing, almost like an actor playing the role of that character. Or you’re following patterns and sequences and aesthetic structure of a novel or short story, and suddenly you come upon something, some understanding or insight that you didn’t know was just around the corner. That’s why I write. That’s what I love the best.
FP: Though you have a very rich prose style, the language doesn’t take center stage. It supports the stories or ideas in your work, rather than dominating them. Can you talk a little bit about your relationship with language and how important it is to what you do?
SG: I love beautiful language, I love experimental works. When I was young I loved Gerard Manley Hopkins, I loved Joyce, and Virginia Woolf. And I turned out to be that kind of writer. But clarity is also very important to me.
FP: What would you say to a beginning writer who struggles with language or perhaps feels the mechanics of it are less important than story or concept?
SG: I would say that you’re missing out on perhaps the best part of writing if you ignore the mechanics of it, because the mechanics aren’t just mechanics, they’re magic. There are centuries of human wisdom in forms—and natural wisdom, by the way, because literary forms mimic natural beauty—in the stylistic considerations, even in the structure of a sentence. When you’re attending to those things, that’s the path of the writer. You discover things you didn’t know before—at least not consciously—through creating beauty. And the way to create beauty is not that different from what a carpenter does when he or she builds a beautiful table. You know you can’t just throw some legs on a board and neglect to sand them and plane them and get them straight and polish them and varnish them. All these details are what make a fine piece of furniture and it’s the same with writing. Through that process you discover, better, what you’re actually doing. The work comes into being in a fuller way.
FP: Many of your books, such as The Book of the Courtesans, obviously required an enormous amount of research. That book includes a very long list of acknowledgments, and a bibliography containing hundreds of references. How do you maintain your momentum and enthusiasm for a project when faced with years of necessary research?
SG: That’s never a problem for me. When I take on a subject, it takes over my consciousness completely. I’m always thinking about it. On vacation, that’s the reading I do. If there’s any film that has anything to do with that subject matter, I go see it. The Courtesans was a wonderful sort of challenge because at the time there wasn’t a lot of writing about courtesans in English. There were a few books that had fallen out of print. Since then, two of those books have come back into print. There were a lot of books in French, and I did read some of those. But there’s no book that I know of that’s like mine, that covers a wide range of courtesans over a wide range of time. I just never lost interest in them, and I’m still interested in them. I give lectures about them, and I continue to do research in this area. Those women were extraordinary. Each one is a key into a whole world. There was a way in which I understood a whole period of French history better through the courtesans.
FP: Do you begin writing while you are still in the research phase of a novel or other project, or do you gather most of the information you need before you begin your first draft?
SG: I think if I did it the second way I would just get overwhelmed. I begin writing while I’m researching. There’s a certain amount of basic information I have to have before I can begin of course. But I often write the introduction to a work after the work is finished, which I think most writers do. With the Courtesans, after I decided to write about one virtue at a time , I began to look for the courtesans that exemplified that virtue and learn more about them.
FP: Finally, your work in the Civil Rights movement, as a pioneer of the feminist movement, and as an environmentalist is inspiring, and the writing you’ve done on these subjects has been influential. Can you offer a word of encouragement to the present and future generations of writers who want affect social or political change through their writing?
SG: That’s a great question. It’s very grim right now. I just want to acknowledge that. Recently I saw some footage about World War Two, and it looked pretty grim then, too. What we’re experiencing today certainly can’t be worse than having the Nazi army practically on your doorstep, but it is another thing altogether when you’re looking at the possibility of the ecosystem being destroyed so that it cannot support life as we know it on this planet. And of course we’re looking at the economy falling apart, and we don’t have the cohesion in the* community that we need to respond to that. Throughout my lifetime, movements have sprung up that I myself believed in, but was nevertheless surprised that they became so large, and so popular. That was true with the free speech movement we started in Berkeley, that was true with the feminist movement, the gay movement, and the ecology movement. My advice would be to have the courage of your opinions and speak out. Yes, you’ll pay a cost—I think I’m still paying the cost for speaking out—but you’ll have a much richer life that way. You know, things are unpredictable. We don’t know what will happen. It’s not only terrifying things like hurricanes and tornadoes and droughts that are unpredictable, but positive social movements are unpredictable, too, and can grow in size very rapidly.
* this interview was conducted before the occupy Wall Street Movement, which Griffin says that she strongly supports, began.
—E. D. Watson