Author Interview: Elly Griffiths

I’m such a big, geeky fan of Elly Griffiths – whose most recent book, The Janus Stone, was on our 2011 favorites list – that I was more than delighted when she agreed to an interview.  Her latest Ruth Galloway novel, The House at Sea’s End, come out this month, with the 5th in the series due in the spring.  There’s a spoiler in the interview if you haven’t read the first novel. Otherwise, enjoy an interview with one of my favorite new authors.

Q: First off, the obvious – why archaeology?  Do you have an expertise, or just an interest?

A: Well, my husband is now an archaeologist although when I met him he worked in the city. About six years ago he decided to give up banking to retrain as an archaeologist and that – indirectly – led to the Ruth Galloway books. But I‘ve always been interested in history, archaeology, myths and legends.

Q: On the same topic, I heard Erin Hart, who also writes about an archaeologist, say she liked the ideas of layers and layers of the past waiting to be discovered.  It made her feel like she had plenty of territory left to mine, so to speak.  Do you feel the same way?

A: Definitely. I do think that archaeology fits very well with crime, after all archaeologists and detectives do very similar jobs. Also I think it helps avoid a crime fiction common trap – you know, the one where a small country village becomes unfeasibly crammed with bodies. There are lots of bodies in Norfolk – it’s just that some of them died hundreds, even thousands, of years ago!

Q: Now, let’s get on to Ruth – she is fabulous!  She is seriously one of the best characters in a recent mystery I have encountered – she is so comfortable in her own skin.  Can you talk about how you came up with her a bit?

A: Thank you so much! I really like writing about Ruth but I’m not quite sure where she comes from! She really just appeared one day out of the mist. She shares some characteristics with me – love of Bruce Springsteen and cats for example – but she is emphatically not me. Perhaps I have also drawn on my two older sisters who are both strong, independent women.

Q: I’m enjoying the arc you are laying out – Ruth discovers her pregnancy, she suffers through it, and now she’s juggling motherhood and a job in a very realistic way.  Sophie Hannah’s recent THE WRONG MOTHER also did a good job with the motherhood juggling act, and I’m enjoying seeing that reflected in mysteries.  I think it’s not a recent trend – you could trace it back to Celia Fremlin’s THE HOURS BEFORE DAWN, which is about living with a newborn – but it’s almost a subversive one.  It’s a part of life not often seriously discussed.  Was this conscious, or a reflection of your own life, or both?

A: I did want to write a book in which a woman got pregnant and had a baby and also had to just get on with her job. After all, this is what most women do. One of my favourite films is ‘Fargo’ and I love the fact that the detective in it is heavily pregnant but this isn’t a ‘plot line’, it’s just part of life. I also wanted to show that it is hard to juggle a baby and a career. You can make childcare arrangements but you still end up feeling guilty most of the time. I had it easier than Ruth because I had a very supportive husband but I also had it harder because I had twins!

Q: Lots of recent British mystery fiction is pretty dark.  I enjoy Val McDermid, Ian Rankin, Denise Mina, Mo Hayder, and S.J. Bolton very much, but they are pretty grim at times.  I like that you are writing books that are not unrelievedly dark.  Can you talk about that a bit?

A: I love Val McDermid and Ian Rankin and I think I actually intended The Crossing Places to be darker than it is. I really don’t know why it didn’t turn out that way…

Q: ,Also, since we’ve discussed Ruth, let’s talk about my other favorite character, Cathbad!  He’s a hoot, but he’s also kind of a spiritual mooring for the books, don’t you feel?  Do you know someone like Cathbad?  What was your inspiration for him?

A: I live in Brighton which is famous for its rather eccentric inhabitants. There are plenty of Cathbads walking about! I also have a friend who is very into alternative spirituality and I think I have drawn on her a little bit. I intended Cathbad to have a walk-on part in The Crossing Places but he refused to stay in the background. I’m now writing Book 5 and he has become an integral part of the books.

Q: And are you going to continue to almost torture Nelson and Ruth?  Cynthia Harrod-Eagles did something similar with her Bill Slider character, to great effect.  That’s another series I really enjoyed.  But the tension keeps it interesting, don’t you think?

A: I don’t know what will happen to Ruth and Nelson but I comfort myself that this is just like life. I think the tension probably does make it more interesting but you have to be careful not to draw things out for the sake of it. However, Ruth and Nelson are now bound together for life and there’s no easy solution for them…

Q: What starts you off when telling a story – narrative, place, or character?  I think your books are strong in all three, and I have to say every time I pick one up, I find myself zipping through the book, which speaks to a narrative expertise.

A: The Crossing Places started with the location. I was walking across a marsh in Norfolk with Andy (my husband) when he mentioned that prehistoric man saw marshland as sacred. Because it’s neither land nor sea, but something in between, they saw it as a kind of bridge to the afterlife – neither land nor sea, neither life nor death. The entire plot came to me in that instant. That has never happened again but, for me, the place has to come first.

Q: How do you work – unwieldy first draft?  An outline?  Notecards?  I’ve heard so many answers to this question, all interesting.

A: I start with a rough handwritten outline, chapter by chapter. I write straight onto the computer and I don’t change much as I go. I don’t have much time in the day to write (I have two children and help look after my elderly mother) so, by the time I get to my desk, that day’s words will have gone round in my head hundreds of times.

Q: Why mysteries?  Was that always what you had in mind?  You reference other crime writers through the books so I’m assuming you’re a fan.

A: I have written other non-crime books under my real name, Domenica de Rosa (I know it sounds made up!). When I started The Crossing Places I wasn’t even aware that it was a mystery. It was my agent who said, ‘This is crime, you need a new name and a new publisher.’

Q: Finally, who are your writing influences?

A: I love Victorian fiction and my favourite writer of all time is Wilkie Collins. I think (I hope!) you can see his influence in my books. I also love the ghost stories of Charles Dickens and M.R James. My favourite modern writers are David Lodge, Alison Lurie and Anne Tyler.