Street Talk

Siân Griffiths

Siân Griffiths lives in Ogden, Utah, where she directs the Creative Writing Program at Weber State University. Her work is forthcoming in Fifth Wednesday Journal and has appeared in Ninth Letter, Quarterly West, Cave Wall, River Teeth, Versal, The Rumpus, and many other publications. Versal nominated her story “What Is Solid” for a Pushcart Prize, and Janet Burroway included her poem, “Fistful,” in the third edition of Imaginative Writing. Her first novel, Borrowed Horses (New Rivers Press), was a semi-finalist for the 2014 VCU Cabell First Novelist Award.

Work Horse: An Interview with Siân Griffiths, author of Borrowed Horses


Interview conducted by Braddock Avenue Books community relations assistant, Jean O'Neill.


Braddock Avenue Books: Your first novel, Borrowed Horses, clearly indicates that you have a very special relationship with horses, that you’ve spent a lot of time with them. It’s more than just a love; it’s like the horse is part of you. How does this kind of relationship develop? How did this relationship become so important to who you are?

Siân Griffiths: This may sound strange, but I honestly think I was born with a love of horses. I can’t remember not wanting to ride. Riding is a dangerous and expensive sport. You have to want to ride with every part of your being to make it worth the costs. For me, it was. I was perfectly happy to trade stall cleaning for a room in the back of someone’s house so that I could afford horse board or to work young horses in exchange for a lesson from the trainer. In return, horses gave me a world where the only language exists in the body, in shifts of weight and muscle.

In jumping, they say “if you throw your heart over the fence, the horse will follow,” and that stuck with me. What advice could be better for a writer? I throw my heart into stories and poems and essays and novels and then chuck them at a fence. Most of the time, my heart smacks right into the obstacle. So you train, right? You put in the time. You keep throwing your heart and throwing your heart and eventually someone says, “yes, we want your story” or “yes, let our press publish your book.”

BAB: Many of us have someone or something in our lives that we love deeply, and we can never seem to do enough for them. Throughout the story, there is a recurring line, “Foxfire deserves better than that.” Can you discuss this line and what it means to you?

SG:  What a great insight! Readers often see so much more in a novel than the writer does—at least, if the writing is doing its job. I don’t think I knew until you mentioned it that I repeated that line, though I remember writing it; and as you point out, it’s very much part of the emotional core of the book.

While I was writing and endlessly revising this novel, I was watching my own horse, Killian, age, and eventually I had to make the decision to put him down. It ripped me in two. On the one hand, I didn’t want to let him go. I loved him profoundly and couldn’t imagine not having him as a part of my life. On the other hand, I knew he was in more and more pain from arthritis and Navicular Disease. Complicating things further was the knowledge that putting him down would ease a huge financial strain on my family. I can’t even tell you how much guilt is tied up in that knowledge.

Ultimately, I gave him the best life possible for as long as his life was comfortable, but there were tense moments. Trying to balance horse bills with grad school and a family is not something I would ever recommend. Still, I wasn’t going to give him less than the total love and fidelity I owed him. I suspect a lot of that turmoil is feeding the book in general and that line in particular, even though Joannie’s struggles are different.

BAB: There is an interesting interplay between Joannie, Foxfire, and Zephyr, and how they not only mirror Joannie’s struggles with herself, her desires, and needs, but how both horses also seem to represent a little bit of everyone in the story. The metaphor is organic which gives the writing even more authority.   

SG: That’s really astute—you’re a fantastic reader. I was especially aware of Zephyr’s hostility being motivated by self-preservation. As an abused horse, she’s learned that it’s best to strike first. This makes her a difficult horse to work with, but ultimately, it’s why she and Joannie understand one another. Joannie also protects herself and, more so, protects her Olympic bid. When her mother’s MS gets worse, Joannie sacrifices her shot of being a catch rider for the U.S. team by coming home to Idaho—and with that move, she finds herself opening the door to other love relationships as well. Is there anything more terrifying for a self-protective person than falling in love?

BAB: Fiction writing can be very complicated, especially with regard to character development. Your characters are very true to life, full of raw honesty and emotion; and the tensions they each bring to the story provide incredible richness and texture to your novel. As you imagine your characters, how do you get to know them, develop their backstories, and keep track of the details and decisions they make in your story?

SG: The characters took a long time to develop. Joannie is the closest to me, so she was the easiest to conceive. She’s prettier than I am and more stand-offish and more goal-oriented, but we have enough in common that I could get into her head fairly easily. Even so, for roughly a year, she went un-named. One benefit of the first person narrative is that your protagonist can be “I” for as long as you need. Finally, though, I had to know her name—not knowing was driving me nuts. I realized that unless I knew her parents, then I couldn’t know what they would name her, so I wrote character sketches. At the time, I thought it was just an exercise, but I absolutely fell in love with her parents as soon as I wrote them, so those sketches ended up going in the book and her mom and dad appear frequently. Once I knew that her parents were Catholic, I knew she would be named after a Catholic saint: Joan for Joan of Arc, a good fighting woman. The book’s structure is borrowed from Jane Eyre, and I wanted to tip my hat there too, so I kept the initials J.E. Edson is for Edward Rochester (Ed’s son), whose plot line she follows. All those pieces helped me keep developing her.

Timothy, her love interest, took the longest to know. He was half Welsh and half Coeur d’Alene Indian from the start, but I really had trouble understanding him, perhaps because I had made him from a culture so far from my own. Plus I had Sherman Alexie’s poem “How to Write the Great American Indian Novel” in my head, and I kept thinking, “don’t fuck this up and offend Sherman Alexie”—not that he’ll ever read this, but I dream big, right? I was very sensitive to getting the culture right and not letting Timothy be stereotypical. Eventually, I realized that I hadn’t fallen in love with him, and if I didn’t, then how could Joannie? How could the reader? So I chopped off his hair, gave him a tattoo and a love of chemistry and of The Clash, and rewrote the novel. Those bits were enough to let me know him as a human, if that makes sense. He was so much better in revision. Soooooo much. He wasn’t a cliché for me any more. He was a man I would love.

BAB: Endings are often difficult to write, especially when your characters have a decision to make. As with any good novel, the climax of Borrowed Horses is truly unexpected and heart-wrenching. What kind of process did you go through in order to achieve the ending this novel needed? (No spoilers!)

SG: I’m so, so glad to hear you say it’s heart wrenching. That’s wonderful to hear. It certainly wrenched my heart to write it, but creating that effect for a reader is another thing altogether. I can’t think of any parts of the book I re-wrote as often as those ending scenes. Even so, it was hard to make the plot points earn the emotion.

As I said, I’m really indebted to Charlotte Brontë, and the structure of the novel borrows from Jane Eyre. I had an hour-long commute at the time, and whenever I was stuck revising a scene I couldn’t make work, I’d slip in the audio version of Jane Eyre. Brontë always had the answer.

BAB: Your work has appeared in many highly regarded literary journals, and has been nominated for several awards, like the Pushcart Prize and the VCU Cabell First Novel Award. Many authors and writers experience a period of drought when trying to get published. How did you stay motivated? What advice could you give to a struggling or aspiring writer?

SG: I ask myself that same question all the time. Why am I doing this? It hurts, right? And it doesn’t pay much if anything. And I could be playing with my kids, or finally learning how to ride a skateboard, or cleaning the back of my refrigerator—anything. For each prize I’ve been nominated for, I’ve been rejected a thousand times. And yet I keep coming back.

I tell my students that, if you write every day for at least ten minutes, you can always call yourself a writer, and it will be true. Publication, when it comes, is a fringe benefit. I believe that deeply. When I’m having my daily bout of insecurity or inadequacy, it always comes back to that fact: if I write, then I’m a writer.

I also know this: every day I’ve written has made me a better writer. There was a Malcolm Gladwell article in the New Yorker about late bloomers a few years back, and a bunch of my friends sent me that link. I was maybe thirty-five years old at the time and two years deep into novel revisions. The first time the link appeared, I thought, yeah, good article. By the fifth time, I started thinking, what are they trying to tell me? Is this some sort of coded message? It reminded me of all those “most improved” awards I’d get in school when really I just wanted to be the best. Most improved was the consolation prize for being not very good. It took me a little while to see the article as the hope it represented. I wasn’t at my peak. I had no idea where my peak would be. Who knows when I’ll hit it—not for a while I hope. I want to keep writing and getting better at writing my whole life. “Best” doesn’t have the opportunity that “most improved” has.

BAB: Writers all have their rituals, like making the house spotless before we begin. (Some may call this ritual “procrastinating.”) What are some of your writing rituals?

SG: I’m not sure I have many. I can write anywhere under any circumstance as long as I have access to a means to capture the words, whether its pen and paper or my laptop. Being a mom taught me that. There was no longer the option of waiting for the opportune moment. A long red light might be just enough time to jot down some scene details.

I do like to write with a hot beverage—tea, a latte, chai, whatever. Warm beverages are comforting. Sometimes, when you’re down in the emotional trenches, that’s a good thing. It’s like a rope ladder to a world where everything will be OK.

BAB: Having a family and a full-time job is a struggle all in itself. How do you manage to balance your writing schedule with your family and teaching obligations?

SG: What makes me most productive is this: scheduling time in the day that is writing time. For me, it’s best if this happens early. I read in a running magazine that if there was something optional that you wanted to do, it was best to do it early. We’ll always find time for the things we have to do, but the things we want to do easily slide. For me, that’s certainly true. If the day is otherwise full, then I wake up at 5:00 and write before anyone else wakes up. If I can block time after the kids go to school, then I get a little extra sleep. If neither happens, then I’m writing at night just to make sure writing gets in there somewhere—even if only for the ten minutes I owe myself so I can keep calling myself a writer.

BAB: Lastly, and certainly not least, what is a “poor man’s mocha” and where can I get one?

SG: Oooooh! You have to come over to my house!

OK, OK…since that may be difficult, I suppose I can give up my one trade secret. The poor man’s mocha is half coffee, half milk, and a couple tablespoons of my special blend: roughly two thirds hot cocoa mix and one third unsweetened baking cocoa. Of course, the real secret of the poor man’s mocha is that it must be earned. You only get your mocha if you’re up at 5:00 AM and writing. They taste best then anyway.