Griffiths, Niall 1966–
Griffiths, Niall 1966–
ADDRESSES: Home—Aberystwyth, Wales. Agent—David, Miller, Rogers, Coleridge & White, 20 Powis Mews, London W11 1JN, England.
AWARDS, HONORS: Welsh Book of the Year Award, 2004, for Stump.
Grits, Jonathan Cape (London, England), 2000.
Sheepshagger, Jonathan Cape (London, England), 2001, St. Martin's Press/Thomas Dunne Books (New York, NY), 2002.
Kelly + Victor, Jonathan Cape (London, England), 2002, Trafalgar Square Books (North Pomfret, VT), 2004.
Stump, Jonathan Cape (London, England), 2003, Graywolf Press (St. Paul, MN), 2005.
Wreckage, Jonathan Cape (London, England), 2005.
Work represented in anthologies, including Tell Tales: The Anthology of Short Stories, Volume 1, edited by Courttia Newland and Nii Ayikwei Parkes, 2004; Wales Half Welsh, edited by John Williams, 2005; and Urban Welsh, edited by Lewis Davies. Also author of radio plays, travel essays, and restaurant and book reviews.
Author's work has been translated into several languages.
ADAPTATIONS: Grits was adapted as a television film. A feature film of Kelly + Victor was planned.
WORK IN PROGRESS: Runt, a novella; Further Education, a collection of short stories.
SIDELIGHTS: Niall Griffiths is the author of several dark, violent, and often critically praised novels about people on society's lower rungs. "Violence for Niall Griffiths is an expression of the deep rage his characters feel at the futility of human striving," commented Duncan Higgitt in Wales's Western Mail, adding that the author's novels reflect his life to some extent. Born in Liverpool into a working-class Irish-Welsh family, Griffiths dropped out of school at age fifteen, put off by his classmates' snobbishness, and took up drinking, drugs, and small-time crime. He eventually gave up the latter and went to college, although he continued to binge on alcohol and recreational drugs. He considered his indulgence research for his writing, but finally came to value the writing over the research. After "trying to recapture" these experiences for his books, Higgitt noted, Griffiths "has emerged as one of the most talented young novelists writing in English."
Griffiths has said his first novel, Grits, grew directly out of his period of substance abuse. It portrays a group of aimless young people carousing in the western part of Wales; Griffiths, a longtime Wales resident, vividly describes the land's beauty as well as the highs and lows brought about by drink and drugs. This appreciation of the landscape is a hallmark of the author's work, as is the slangy dialect in which his characters speak. Griffiths displays both an "extraordinary ear for idiom" and "a grand mythic strain," remarked Harriet Porter in the Manchester Guardian.
Sheepshagger views "from a darker perspective some of the characters and events of Grits," reported Guardian critic Justine Jordan. Sheepshagger—the title is an insulting term for "hillbilly"—focuses on Ianto, a mentally impaired mountain man who sometimes ac-companies young partier. He starts killing tourists after losing his family home and witnessing its transformation into a vacation retreat. Ianto's murderous rage is an extreme manifestation of the resentment many of the Welsh feel for the upscale English who have bought second homes in Wales; it is perhaps also a reaction to his horrific upbringing. His friends try to analyze Ianto's motives, "making confused stabs at issues of abuse, culpability and nature versus nurture," Jordan related. Their conversations alternate with narratives of the time leading up to the crime and of Ianto's childhood, with each of these threads written in a different style.
Washington Post Book World reviewer James Buchan maintained that in Sheepshagger Griffiths demonstrates a "mismatch between stylistic ambition and moral intelligence," resulting in a novel that, in its sympathy for Ianto, is "politically black-and-white to the point of demagoguery … an ethical shambles." Jordan observed that the "identification of Ianto as a force of nature leads to some dangerous rhetoric of sacrifice," but added: "There is no mythologising glamour in the tortuous detail of his carnage." Sheepshagger, she concluded, "is never less than compelling; the range of Griffiths's achievement is as exhilarating as the reach of his ambition."
Kelly + Victor deals with a young Liverpudlian couple with few opportunities or goals in life who become involved in an ill-fated, sadomasochistic affair. The first half of the book is told from Victor's viewpoint, the second half from Kelly's. Daren King, writing in the Manchester Guardian, felt that the novel suffers as a result of "Griffiths biting off more than he can chew." On the other hand, Times Literary Supplement contributor Carol Birch felt that Kelly + Victor proves that Griffiths "is a skillful writer who delights in attacking the big themes—love, death, pain, consciousness, transcendence and redemption."
Stump depicts one day in the life of both an unnamed one-armed man in a Welsh village and the hit men who have been sent from Liverpool to kill him. Griffiths follows the nameless man, a recovering alcoholic, through his mundane, present-day activities and his recollections of his wild past; meanwhile the threat grows closer, although the criminals prove to be argumentative bumblers. The book's concept "is incredibly simple, unmistakably cinematic," related Toby Litt in the Manchester Guardian, but "Griffiths' sambitions … go well beyond those of even exceptional cinethrillers." Library Journal critic Misha Stone wrote that Stump "loses steam early on, the tension as illusory as a lost limb." Litt, however, termed the book largely effective, with successes that "redeem the failures." Western Mail writer Higgitt added that, "Despite the violence of the story and the language, the novel has the simplicity and innocence of a fairy tale."
Griffiths's novel Wreckage focuses on two young Liverpool thugs just after they have beaten up an elderly woman; it explores the factors that have made them what they are. The book is a "tragicomic lament," that "leaps back and forward in time, to show these boy children as the product of history and education," observed Stevie Davies in the Guardian, the critic summing up the protagonists as "children of dispossession and the Celtic diaspora."
Looking at Griffiths's overall career, some critics have described his writing as distinctive and compelling. "He is an epic and, at moments, visionary writer," remarked Litt, while Higgitt commented: "Griffiths never condemns or condescends to his creations. However ugly their actions, he treats them with the sympathy that comes from understanding their hurts and needs…. And all of the books are punctuated by passages of lyrical intensity, which are sometimes breathtaking in their beauty."
Griffiths told CA: "Mine was a bookless household, largely, but it was full of stories, mainly from my grandparents; stories of war and ghosts and hardship and of the old countries (it was a Celt-in-exile upbringing). I've been writing ever since I could, since my motor functions were developed enough to hold a pen. The world made sense when I wrote, and it still does; the wonder and pain of our condition can, in however small a way, be contained. It's best, really, not to question where the words come from, and to just accept the miracle. They flow. I can't stop it, even if I wanted to.
"Everything influences me—the entire world that man moves among. A novel can be found in rain, on a mountaintop, in a busy pub, on a football terrace, under a stone with the whiskery, slimy things. But some specific names: Wales, Liverpool, Nick Cave, Joe Strummer (Rest in peace), alcohol, the Bible, Elizabe-than tragedians … many American authors, alive and dead; Hubert Selby, Jr., Denis Johnson, Cormac McCarthy, James Lee Burke. I could go on for ever, really; no-one writes in a vacuum—indeed we absorb as much of the world as we possibly can, even if ironically we seek to jettison it when we write so that our individual style remains as pure and incorrupt as possible. Not all influences are literary ones, of course….
"There's no routine for my writing process, really; I get out of bed fairly early, read some poetry or philosophy for an hour or two, then write until I feel I should stop, which can be at any point between two and ten hours, although the mean average is four. To complete my first novel, I holed myself up in a remote cottage on a mountain top for a week and just wrote madly; I spoke to no-one but the buzzards. It was wonderful. I have no need to do that anymore, living as I do in a fairly quiet village on the outskirts of a fairly large town (relatively speaking). It's odd; it seems that what I do mostly is lie on my sofa and read and smoke too much, and every year a novel just appears with my name on it. Having said that, I make certain to write something every day, even if it's only a journal entry or a five-line free verse poem; I feel utterly wretched if I don't, a blemish on the earth. So it is a compulsion, most definitely.
"The most surprising thing I have learned as a writer is that the well of words is inexhaustible. And that more people than I ever thought possible feel the same way as I do about the planet we live on; a mixture, of almost equal parts, of absolute wonder and total horror. I say 'almost;' the wonder just about comes out on top, mostly.
"Of my books, my favorite is my first, Grits. It's not my most technically accomplished book by any means but it is autobiographical and, in many ways, helped to save me from myself. After it was published—or, no, after I started writing it—my life changed, and for the better. It was very much my own personal Twelve-Step program. Being the mellower person that I now am, if I were to write it now, I would not be so extreme; I certainly wouldn't render the character's accents in such a dense and difficult-to-decipher way. Which is why I'm glad that I wrote it then…. It's like my tattoos; a permanent reminder of my younger, angrier, louder self. I was proud and lost, then; now, at thirty-eight, I'm becoming humble and found. Which me do I prefer? I don't know, yet. But there's nothing I can do about it, is there? I want to die at a ripe old age, my fingers rigor-mortising around a pen."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Booklist, May 15, 2002, Brendan Dowling, review of Sheepshagger, p. 1575.
Guardian (Manchester, England), February 3, 2001, Justine Jordan, "Last Exit to Aberystwyth," Saturday Pages section, p. 10; February 24, 2001, Harriet Porter, review of Grits, Saturday Pages section, p. 11; April 27, 2002, Daren King, "Love Hurts," Saturday Pages section, p. 10; June 21, 2003, Toby Litt, "First the Thirst, Then the Horror," Saturday Pages section, p. 26; February 26, 2005, Stevie Davies, "A Scouse Elegy," Saturday Pages section, p. 27.
Kirkus Reviews, April 1, 2002, review of Sheepshagger, p. 442; November 15, 2003, review of Kelly + Victor, p. 1329; January 15, 2005, review of Stump, p. 72.
Library Journal, June 1, 2002, Andrea Kempf, review of Sheepshagger, p. 194; January, 2004, Prudence Peiffer, review of Kelly + Victor, p. 156; January 1, 2005, Misha Stone, review of Stump, p. 95.
Minneapolis Star Tribune, February 27, 2005, Emily Carter, review of Stump.
New York Times Book Review, July 28, 2002, Andrew Santella, review of Sheepshagger, p. 17.
Publishers Weekly, June 17, 2004, review of Sheepshagger, p. 45.
Washington Post Book World, August 25, 2002, James Buchan, "Wild and Wooly," p. 12.
Western Mail, June 28, 2004, Duncan Higgitt, "Paperback Writer."
British Broadcasting Corporation Web site, http://www.bbc.co.uk/ (March 29, 2005), "On Show Profiles Welsh Author Niall Griffiths."
Disturb.org, http://www.disturb.org/ (March 29, 2005), J. P. Coillard, "Niall Griffiths: Don't Kill the Wales."
Transcript: European Internet Review of Books and Writing, http://www.transcript-review.org/ (March 29, 2005), "From Caradog Pritchard to Niall Griffiths."