Writer’s Block With Sarah Maria Griffin

SOPHIE GRENHAM talks to author SARAH MARIA GRIFFIN about emigrating to SAN FRANCISCO, CULLING TECHNOLOGY and being a WRITER-IN-RESIDENCE

Photograph by Brid O’Donovan

Sarah Maria Griffin is surfing high on the crest wave of Ireland’s young, dynamic literary talent. After the publication of her illuminating first book, Not Lost: A Story About Leaving Home (2013, New Island), it was only a matter of time before she rose again. Not Lost started off as several articles in The Irish Times, about the highs and lows of emigrating to San Francisco, before growing into a work that perfectly encapsulates the zeitgeist of her generation. Sarah is widely known on the Irish poetry and spoken word scene. Follies, her first collection, was published by Lapwing in 2011. Her non-fiction has appeared in The Rumpus, Guts and Winter Pages.

Sarah’s debut novel, Spare and Found Parts, is one of the more eagerly-awaited titles to land in shops this year. Her post-apocalyptic Dublin tale raises many important questions, as we get an eerie glimpse into a regressed society where computers are banned. Her ground-breaking vision and beautifully built narrative has garnered praise from some of Ireland’s most respected authors. Kevin Barry has said, “This is a writer of such natural vivacity and spark, such eloquence and invention.”

Sarah studied English, Media and Cultural Studies at Dún Laoghaire IADT, and later did a Masters in Creative Writing at NUI Galway. She was recently a Writer-In-Residence at NUI Maynooth, and received the European Science Fiction Awards Chrysalis Award in 2017.  

Sarah Maria Griffin lives in Dublin with her husband Ceri and their cat, Moriarty. Her second novel is out next year and she is currently working on her third.

Spare and Found Parts (€12.60) is published by Titan Books and available from all good bookshops.

On home

I live in Ringsend, which is where my mother is from. After I moved back from San Francisco in 2015, the economic climate in Dublin had started to rise again and rent was getting ugly: I was fortunate to land a little house six weeks after getting home. I adore Ringsend, but there’s no reasonable world in which I’d ever be able to buy a house here, which breaks my heart. There’s water on all sides, the Dodder and the ocean – there’s a little café in the village called The Bridge which does by a country mile the best breakfast rolls in Ireland, and it’s a half an hour walk to town. I love it here, but it isn’t forever. I worked from the house for most of 2017 after a back injury, at my kitchen table or in my living room – which wasn’t sustainable in the long-term. Writers need quiet, but this was miles too quiet. This year, I’ve changed my daily routine around my favourite place in the whole city, The National Library. That’s where I spend most of my days now, buried in work, happy out.

On roots

I’m from the northside, a quiet green estate between Raheny and Kilbarrack. Pure hushed suburbia – it always strikes me when I’m back there how peaceful it is. I spent a lot of my childhood in my grandmother’s house, which is very near my parents place – and for me the real sensory experience of home is made of details from there. Sandwiches cut into triangles in little wicker baskets, nested in kitchen paper. Cold 7up. VHS tapes of Cabaret and Hello Dolly played on repeat. Nana was a dressmaker so my indoors-world was one of endless costume and fabric and music, up until when I was six and my sister was born and I was at home with my parents more. After that it’s a very stereotypical 90’s Dublin childhood – there were flocks of kids my age in the estate so I was either outdoors moving in a pack of other children and playing huge, convoluted games in which we were spies and investigators, or rainy days at home wired to a Nintendo or with my nose in a book. I’m a stone cold stereotype of a quiet suburban childhood.

On creating

I’m really particular about the spaces I work in, and how the energy of the place affects me. I’ve fully used up all the magic in my house after a year of being indoors far too much, wrecked with my back – so I work in the library now. I worked at the kitchen table for a long time, under a rickety little skylight, but that spot is useless now from just spending too long there. In the library, I work at a big old desk under a dome – surrounded by silent, busy people, and have been a lot more productive. I really believe in that Elizabeth Gilbert theory of showing up for the work – getting dressed, attending the page with the same integrity as you would any other job. In terms of talismans, I like squared or yellow paper, fine point Sharpies (an affectation I picked up in the states, but sadly can’t use in the library – pencils only) – I like having a candle burning when I’m at home. In the library I have a particular spot I try to sit in every day. I listen to music that has no lyrics, that’s kind of a must. I drink a lot of tea, which is a stereotype, I suppose. When I’m working from home the cat tends to sit with me: he’s very large, so there isn’t always a lot of room for him on my desk, but he finds space somehow. His presence is deeply comforting on long silent days: I adopted him in San Francisco in 2012 and he lives here with us now.

On bookshops

I used to work in an indie in San Francisco called The Booksmith, which was a remarkable time in my life and I loved being a bookseller in a gorgeous, heart-filled place. It was very colourful, and the staff there really care about the kind of books they keep on the shelves. It was a haven of major readers, you know? In Dublin, I love The Gutter in Temple Bar – they’ve always really supported my work, ever since I was only starting out. I always send people there, it’s a gorgeous shop full of good vibes. Booksellers as a kind of people are truly my people, though, so to be honest as long as folks are buying and reading books and keeping the bookshops open, I’m grateful.

On her TBR pile

My To Be Read pile is shameful. A tower. But, my short-term list is the last two books in the Southern Reach trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer, I’m halfway through Authority right now and properly deep in it. Next, as a reprieve from deep science fiction I’m going to read Riders by Jilly Cooper, because it’s almost summer and I feel like I’m basically the only person I know who hasn’t read it. By the time that’s done, The Recovering by Leslie Jamison will be out and I’m going to set two days aside to read it wherein I lock myself in a room and just eat it alive. I have a tower of other books staring at me, too, but that’s my plan for the next while.

On escapes

One of my best friends on this planet’s family live down on Valentia Island, off the coast of Kerry. They’re gorgeous and generous and let me come and scribble away: every year I spend a little time down there with them, and I produce more work in a week than I ever could up here. The air is different, the sky is different – I’m different there. This sounds like a real city-person thing to say, but I just feel better out there, and that pours down into the work. Not that everything has to be about the work, but realistically, everything is about the work – even the escape. Maybe especially the escape.

On San Francisco

I did enjoy it, and I didn’t at once – with more distance from having lived there I realise it was one of the hardest periods of my life. I’m almost home as long as I was gone, now. What I loved was the anonymity, the freshness of starting over, the self-definition that emigration permits. I loved how anything feels possible there. How anything that happens to you is a story, because it happened in America. I miss Boogaloos, on Valencia and 22nd Street, which was closed down for two years and just recently reopened – their bottomless coffee and egg sandwiches. I miss how rapidly the city changes around you, how each block feels different, how the neighbourhoods have such distinct identity and history and culture of their own. I don’t miss feeling like a space alien. I do miss the friends I made, but barely any of them live in the Bay Area anymore – the city is very expensive and pushes people out. I was very safe in America, when you think about how the state generally treats immigrants, but I was always an outsider, too. I am still working out how to talk about it. Anybody who goes there I send to my old bookshop, The Booksmith. To drink, Martunis, the piano bar, or El Rio, which was kind of our local. To look out at the city, Bernal Hill. The grid at night from there is beautiful.

On Spare And Found Parts

The world of the book isn’t necessarily based on a genuine fear of how things might turn out for us – rather a query about a worst-case-scenario. I like futures that don’t feature the internet, that make use of analogue systems of living rather than digital. I wanted to work out what the world would be like without the internet, and what would have to happen to take it away from us – what would happen if the internet was a sacred, long lost realm, and the artificial intelligences that lived there were like gods that nobody spoke of. Code is blasphemy. The world came together slowly, around the characters and scenes – there is a lot ticking away behind the story of the novel. From Clontarf out to the Phoenix Park and up beyond Heuston towards Clondalkin, the city is there, it’s my city, even if it is a shadow of the one I live in now. Spare and Found Parts is a loveletter to Dublin, for sure – even if the Dublin in the story isn’t quite what we see today.

On culling technology

Oh man. I don’t think I’d stop or discard anything, necessarily, but, while I’m aware of how wild this sounds – I’m uncomfortable with our movement toward the singularity, toward image and video altering software that leaves false pictures impossible to separate from authentic media. Google Glass was very disquieting to me, too. I do my best to use technology and not let it use me, like. I think the internet is the Wild West, you know – it’s this new landscape and new world that humans aren’t quite sure how to behave in just yet. I’d rather be a spectator than a competitor in all that. I go through big digital detox bursts, which have left me with a healthy respect for airplane mode and an intense dislike for WhatsApp – but I also recognise the necessity of the internet, too. It’s important to stay curious and stay alert to it, not to let it just creep in and become too much a part of your internal life.

On writing life

I very much recognise that I’m really junior in writing. I’m only really starting out, even though I’ve been at this all of my adult life. Every single job I’ve had has been in service to buying time to write – I’m kind of myopic. That’s tough sometimes. There’s no time off, for me – and that’s the hardest part, especially as I’ve gotten a little older. I like the idea of just, weekends, you know? I was at a party a while back and was listening to some people I half-know talk about loving weekends and loving Fridays, and I realised I had no idea what that felt like. There’s always something to be written, or read, or researched – life is contract to contract, there’s no security whatsoever. The hard part is feeling like if you stop for a second, it’ll all crumble: but then again, that’s the Millennial condition isn’t it? I mean, these aren’t problems – I’m doing what I love, and I’m aware of the huge amount of privilege I have managed to accrue through securing a full-time writing life – but there are losses there too. The highs are gorgeous, though they’re fleeting. Seeing the book on a shelf in a shop, to be honest, is pretty special. The thing that makes me happiest is feeling word count move under my hands – and feeling like I’m not so much in the world anymore. That’s the thing.

On being a Writer-In-Residence

The residency was gorgeous, and has drawn to a close now. It was a great year – I had classes every week with students from the university, and taught workshops in three libraries around Kildare, as well as organising events and talks in Maynooth with visiting writers. I love facilitating workshops and feeling a class of people sink into their work, it’s a really human thing. It’s the opposite of sitting alone and writing, and is really truly energising work: it keeps you on your toes and connected to the world. I loved it.

@SophieGrenham

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