The Whisper of the Infinite: An Interview with Niall Griffiths

In the mid-Seventies, Niall Griffiths — aged 11 — left Toxteth, Liverpool with his family to Australia. His mother was too homesick to become a “Ten Pound Pom“, however, and the family went back to Liverpool only three years later. As a teenager who wanted to write, the future author of Sheepshagger (2001) felt constricted and insulted by the “posh” monopoly on education and literature. He left school for Snowdonia in Wales, where he had ancestral connections and developed a feeling for the landscape. Stump (2003) having won both the Welsh Books Council and the Arts Council of Wales Book of the Year awards, it is often as a Welsh writer that Griffiths is celebrated, although he equally qualifies as Scouse and, as a writer of “progressive fiction” peopled with the dispossessed and the disaffected, he also belongs in a vernacuar Transatlantic tradition. Griffiths eventually graduated from the University of Aberystwyth, where he now lives, having spent many years working with his hands and hopping from the North of England to Wales, traveling across Britain, or beyond.

Niall Griffiths. Source: natgeotraveller.co.uk

Niall Griffiths. Source: natgeotraveller.co.uk

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You seem to make a distinction between Celtic and Anglo-Saxon, not so much in your work but in the way you describe the English (it’s one of the few things that bind people from the former colonies back here with the Celts: hatred of the English). This might sound like a silly question but in the grander scheme of things, from the global perspective, do you think there remains a true cultural difference over and above class?

In some ways, yes, in others, no. . . I mean, this is a united kingdom supposedly but divide and rule has always been in operation, due largely to the entrenched class system. So in opposition to that, I believe that a docker from Swansea should recognise that he has more in common with a docker from say, Hull, than he does with a middle-class professional from Swansea. That said, England still remains the biggest and by far the most powerful country in the UK, and he fact that Wales and Scotland are ruled by London will always be a source of anger for as long as it lasts. It’s the richest country too, and a certain strata of it tends to see Wales and Scotland as its playground. No attention is paid to the different cultures; they’re simply countries where the rich English can holiday in their second homes. This situation is even worse in Cornwall.

How exactly did the middle class make your early life difficult? I’ve always thought part of the reason I became a writer was that I needed to transcend class altogether. Do you think class awareness is important to the literary imagination?

In Britain, yes. I would say that, while much American literature is concerned with loss, much British literature is concerned with class. It’s impossible to get away from. I passed the entrance exam to a grammar school, you see, and was one of the few working class kids there, and the snobbery I encountered was crippling; any aspirations to be a writer were laughed at — you? With your strong accent and council estate upbringing? People like you don’t write; they barely even read. That was the attitude. You’re right in suggesting that literature should transcend class, as it should transcend every other socio-political restriction, but such divisions go very, very deep. And the notion is even worse today, where, in order to get a further education, you must be rich, or at least content with the idea that a degree will put you in debt for the rest of your life. Libraries are closing; university fees have put education beyond the reach of poor children. And all of this brought about by a group of people who are worth many millions and did nothing to earn their money but turn 21, at which age their inheritances became available. It’s deeply political; they don’t want an educated workforce, they want unthinking automatons, bound uncomplaining to their jobs until they die. Honestly; Britain has become a vile place, politically. As Cormac McCarthy says, ‘an education makes the world personal’, and that’s the last thing our government wants. I had to fight against that, as a young aspirant writer, and it’s worsened since then.

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So climbing a mountain—feeling for the landscape, in general—is like being close to God? Tell me about who God is to you, how He manifests Himself, whether or not He exists.

Whether he exists or not I don’t have the first clue, but I’m not talking about a being, but rather Being. The divine spark in everything; the whisper of the infinite in the jumping, crawling, skittering things that live under rocks. God works entirely through the actions of human beings. Many novelists seem to have lost track of the fact that it has always been part of the creative artist’s function and drive to explore, or at least entertain, the notion that there might be a dimension to human existence that science alone cannot measure or calibrate. This is a huge question, and one which I’ll spend the rest of my life examining.

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Talking about finding a good editor-publisher for Grits (2000) despite it being set in “unfashionable west Wales”, you said “it can just be about the writing”. Can publishing ever be just about the writing? And, speaking of that, what does it mean to be a Wales writer? What does it mean to be a Liverpool writer?

Part of publishing, these days, is about marketing, and sometimes that is privileged over the writing, sadly, but my editor is one of that rare breed who believes that good, truthful writing deserves to be read. And Liverpool and Wales give me similar things, as a writer; an irreverence to authority; a consciousness of a tradition; and a marginality. All good weapons in a writer’s arsenal.

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Who are the writers working now that you relate to in the UK and beyond? Do you feel you are part of a movement or a generation or a school of any kind? Less or more as you’ve made your name?

Definitely Alan Warner, in Scotland, and other names who are just starting to make an impression – Jenni Fagan, Kevin Barry, Colin Barrett. All of those are Scottish or Irish. Lots of Americans; Denis Johnson, Donald Ray Pollock, Daniel Woodrell. I’ve never felt part of any school, particularly, or any defining badge, except a man from Liverpool who lives in Wales and writes books. That’s about it.

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How do you connect with the movies? You were talking about Kelly+Victor (book: 2002; film: 2012) enthusiastically. Were you involved in the making of that? Have you written for radio or television? Do you think it’s the fate of literature to either die out or turn into audiovisual expression?

I worked on the script at first but got bored; bored of the characters and the story, bored of going to London to sit in grey offices and talk to grey men in grey suits about money. But the director had his powerful vision and the producer had a terrier-like tenacity and thank God for that. I was very pleased with the film — still am. It deserved its BAFTA. I’ve written for radio on many occasions, but never for TV as yet, although that might change; I’m happy to experiment with medium as much as voice and structure. And no, I don’t think the written, or printed, word, will ever die out; reports of its demise have been repeatedly premature. Reading is a solitary, yet collaborative, act; it is contact, and communication, and a conversation between two people who’ll often never meet, and the end result is a shared truth. And that is quite beautiful.

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What are you working on now and how is it going?

A novel called Broken Ghost which is going superbly, and I’m typing up two decade’s worth of notebook poems, which is an interesting exercise — an archaeological dig through my own psyche. And I’m honorary professor at Wolverhampton University, too, which I’m enjoying hugely.

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