By Anna Heslop
Jay Griffiths is one of my heroes. She is an incredible author of fiction and non-fiction whose passion and personality flow across the pages like poetry or song. She has written Pip Pip (on time), Wild (on wildness) and Kith (on childhood), to name a few. We sat in the sunny courtyard at the V&A in London for a chat about her career, her writing and her thoughts.
On the common theme throughout her work. She said, “If there’s one thing that has really connected thus far everything that I’ve done, it’s the theme of enclosure. And partly that’s with a reference to historical enclosures. Since the enclosures, the basic ability to be peasants and survive has been taken away.”
Your travels have been central to a lot of your writing. How did the idea for that seven-year journey for Wild come about and how did it grow?
I didn’t plan to make a seven-year journey – and I didn’t make a seven-year journey. I knew that I wanted to write about wildness and I knew from very early on that I wanted it to be a portrait of the world within a book, so I knew I wanted some very different landscapes. What I ended up doing was taking seven years on the book as a whole but that included research, travel and writing, so it was a seven-year project.
You must have spent quite a lot of time on that trip outside your comfort zone. How did that feel, and is there anything that still scares you now?
Hahaha yes I did! Hmm… bullying scares me. Loneliness scares me. Depression scares me. I think in terms of travelling, I think it’d be fair to say that big cities scare me. What I’m much less scared by is that sense of going off the beaten track when I feel I can find people, and I can trust people. To me that’s the wisest and loveliest way to travel – to let your path be guided by the people who are there.
You have written about having depression. Do you think you’d happily delete that part of yourself or is it inseparable from the rest of you?
Erm, no I don’t think I could take it away, but it’s a really interesting philosophical question. I think most people who have manic depression would answer the same. There’s a really good documentary which Stephen Fry did on manic depression, and he talked to a lot of people who have it. He asked them all the same question – if there was a button you could just press that said ‘delete’, would you? And just about everybody said no. No matter the horror, no matter the hardship. There was one person who said she would and what was interesting about her was that she didn’t talk about herself as being creative in any way. And I thought maybe if she had been – or if she’d let herself be – then she would be able to see what was positive about it.
You write so freely and passionately about emotion. It seems like a lot of people identify with that in their teens, but start to lose that passion as they get older. What do you think about that?
I really don’t agree with that. I think that self-surprised rebelliousness is a feature of being a teenager. But passion persists if we let it. We live in a very strange age which seems in so many ways to demean and crush the human spirit. It’s as if we are told that you can get away with spiritedness as a teenager and not afterwards, and that’s not true! If you hang out with people who are middle aged, they haven’t lost their passion, mostly. Well, some of them have and they wear beige and that’s really sad, and I’m sorry about that.
I feel like you are part philosopher, especially in the original sense, a “lover of wisdom”. Has philosophy played a role in your life?
I think my philosophy is the wisdom of language. It’s the wisest thing I know.
I used to be interested in philosophy but I felt so put off by the sense that I couldn’t find enough philosophers who got beyond terminology. They were so hung up on exactly the definitions of the terms they were using that they couldn’t speak with those terms. Then there are philosophers who I absolutely adore like Gaston Bachelard – absolutely top philosopher because he’s got such a sense of beauty, such a sense of the potential of ideas, and the poetry of ideas.
You’ve obviously had a lot of amazing successes. Have you had any failures that you feel were important?
Oooh I like that! The very first book that I wrote didn’t ever get published, that was a very important failure because it was a private failure so it was not humiliating, it was eye-opening to realise that something I had so badly wanted to get published actually wasn’t going to be. And not getting published was the better option. And also because I learned so much! I think especially when you’re a young writer (or in fact a young anything), to have that shelter of privacy and time to learn your craft is really helpful.
You published Kith in 2013. What are up to now and what are your plans for the future?
My editor asked me if I wanted to write a book about manic-depression. Normally I haven’t wanted to write books all about me. But this book about madness, my editor thought it should be very direct, very short, very personal. So I’ve just done it and sent it to him the day before yesterday.
I have also been working on a piece about Frida Khalo for the Greenwich & Docklands Festival. I wrote the script for a 45 min extravaganza – a spectacle for a story about her life. The best way to describe it is that it’s to do with the transforming power of art. It was an absolute joy to work on, and with the team. The festival is on 1-4th July, and it’s free.
What’s next… one lovely thing this year is the Hay Festival, a literary festival that started in Hay-on-Wye and spread internationally. This year, I’m their Festival Fellow, so they send me to their festivals at different sites around the world. That involves Spain, and Ireland, and Bangladesh… and Wales.
I’m very interested in looking again at writing about climate change because I feel compelled to and at the same time very unsure as to exactly how I would do it, so that’s a real possibility. But there are loads of things! I also want to write about home and ideas of home. And I’ve often thought I’d like to write about prisons and this weird sense of punishment that we’ve somehow got used to without realising quite how strange it is.
Have you ever had a proper job?
[Hearty laughter] I’m so glad you asked that! I was talking to a friend about this recently because she is living in a shed (and I’ve lived in a shed and the winters are brutal). We agreed that we’d endure anything rather than give ourselves over to The Man and get a proper job.