'I got down on one knee for him' – author Sarah Maria Griffin on why she chose to elope
It’s the afternoon before the launch of Sarah Maria Griffin’s new book, Other Words For Smoke, and she’s feeling the tension. While she is unfailingly polite in person – a bluster of hurried apologies and thank yous – there is a bit of an edge too: she informs the photographer she wants us to use particular photos, for instance, and asks me to discount some interesting answers she gives, because she wants to write about the subject herself later.
It’s all understandable, perhaps: Other Words For Smoke is the latest book that she will deliver as part of her publishing deal, following on from her previous work – 2016’s science fiction Spare and Found Parts. So, as for any emerging author, a lot is riding on the success of this latest work, a distinctively contemporary novel, with supernatural elements and Griffin’s trademark gorgeous lyricism. It deftly interweaves fantasy and reality for a thrillingly dark fairy tale.
“The work that I make is me trying to answer questions I’ve always had about the world but the answers don’t necessarily come in a way that is straightforward, sometimes they come in surprising shapes,” she explains. “Other Words For Smoke is full of answers that I didn’t think I’d get, but I got anyway.
“I like pushing and bending the rules of things. It and the other novel I’m writing now are set very much where we live. The genre has a name – it’s called speculative fiction and the work I read in that genre speaks to me most clearly.”
In her dramatic phrasings (fictions ‘speak’ to her, people ‘come into their power’) there is something of another Sarah, the protagonist in the 1980s children film Labyrinth, with which she was (and, by the looks of her Twitter timeline, is still) obsessed.
Unlike her bookish fictional namesake, this Sarah spent much of her youth playing video games, however. She grew up in the Kilbarrack/Raheny area of Dublin. She was an outsider, “a weird kid”, she says and definitely “not a very intellectual teenager”. She composed her own stories but did not absorb literature the way most writers do in their formative years.
“I did eventually get back into reading but there were plenty of wilderness years where I was just playing video games and writing but not reading,” she explains. “That might be unusual.”
Now 31, she was part of that unlucky generation of young people who came of age just as the worst of the recession was beginning to bite. She moved to Galway to study, because the rent was cheaper there and pondered escape from Ireland.
The opportunity for that came when her then-boyfriend got a job in San Francisco. He went over, and three months later she followed, soon bemoaning the city’s “tech decadence”, even while her boyfriend worked for Facebook.
In San Francisco she threw herself into the arts scene in the city and documented her experience in the well-received memoir Not Lost: A Story About Leaving Home.
“People treated me with fascination and I felt lucky because you can see in the news how they treat immigrants from other countries,” she recalls. “Irish class means nothing to them. We [she and her boyfriend] went over and we barely knew each other. What an incredible way to get to know someone. It was such a dice throw. We had such a mad time; it was a conspiracy of two.”
She worked a variety of jobs there, including in a bookstore, and minding a pet rabbit.
“It was for this couple who had to go to LA for a magicians’ conference every so often. One of the rabbits had cancer and had a tumour in its face the size of a boiled egg. I had to catch him three times a day and feed him with a syringe,” she says, laughing.
She enjoyed smoking weed in San Francisco, where it is now legal. “It’s quite strong but it’s regulated – it’s not like drinking wine from a bottle marked wine question mark,” she says. “But it is something that is part of the experience and the time. I stopped when I came home. I’ve never worked under the influence, I need to be 100pc here.”
She says that 2013 was a big year for her. She signed her first publishing deal – and “eloped” with her boyfriend.
“I took the head off him,” she explains. “When you know, you know. I got the ring made and I was carrying it around in my bag. I took him outside and I got down on one knee. We sat down together on the floor and we got up and we were going to get married.”
The ceremony itself was conducted at San Francisco’s City Hall. She wore a pink Champagne-coloured dress that cost $70 in a thrift store, and her grandmother’s earrings. The honeymoon was in Disneyland.
“We never read our vows,” she says. “They are on a piece of paper in a jar on the bookshelf. I can’t remember what they were. I would recommend it as a marriage approach – just bail.”
She came home from San Francisco in 2015 – her husband and friends threw a huge roller-skate party at a deconsecrated church for her. She brought elements of the accent (she still uptones? A lot?), and a lingering disgust with Dublin’s own tech decadence with her. At times after she came home she found the lonely furrow of writing difficult, and at one point thought of giving up.
“Other Words For Smoke took a long time to write and for a long time wasn’t working,” but it was her partner’s support which helped her through an urge to pack it in entirely. “I’m not being dramatic about it but all the pleasure was gone and I didn’t think I’d find it again. He told me I would.”
She suffers from depression and anxiety but has been in therapy for three years. “I go to therapy every week and I’m very fortunate to be able to do so. I find talk therapy incredibly helpful. I’ve never taken any medication, because I don’t respond very well to not being clear of mind, but I wouldn’t rule it out; I think it saves lives. I walk a lot. I’ve walked the Camino.”
She says she works under a feeling of fear and dread but this ties into the writing she produces.
“I’m very interested in horror and things that push the boundaries of the world we live in and the unknown. Of course we all have heartache and pain – we make art – we have to have some sort of lived experience in order to be able to write well about it. They’re not nice as they’re happening but they’re part of the human condition.
“Depression is something different though. It’s the absence of feeling, it’s numbness and inertia, a place where no art can happen. Productivity is an ugly word but depression means you can’t participate. I’m not ashamed of it, and I’m not governed by it.”
She and her husband want to buy a house but she concedes that this is, in the current economic climate, a “hilarious” aspiration. Not that she needs property to be happy.
“Love sets you free,” she tells me. “When you’re just at home with somebody you really love you are completely yourself. You can be exactly who you are. Relationships are messy, but you find the right person and you stick to them.”
She says she is at her happiest when writing every day, even if it is “a crawl forward”, and insists on writing 1,000 words per day.
“I’ve been off my game for a minute now,” she says. The hustle of promoting and putting herself out there, career-wise, can get her down.
“It’s a bit of a weird time. Working all the time is bad for you. I’ve crested and crashed through burnout and now, I would say, I’m back on the shore, learning to walk.”
‘Other Words For Smoke’ by Sarah Maria Griffin is published by Titan books
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