An Interview with Terri Griffith – Author of So Much Better
CP: Could you talk a little about what your process for writing this book was like? How long were you working on So Much Better? How did you “discover” the characters? And really, what’s up with a credit union?
TG: So Much Better is my third stab at trying to write about a story I read in the Seattle Times, or maybe it was the Post-Intelligencer. It was about a woman, a middle class, white woman, wearing nice department store clothes and high-end make-up, who was found dead in a hotel room. She had committed suicide and had been dead a few days before they found her. The thing about the article that struck me was what the detective said. He said that about once a year, woman just like her turned up dead. A woman who by all outward measure wouldn’t be considered disenfranchised, but somehow was. A woman who was never reported missing. This is the idea that plagued me. How do you live in this world and arrive at a place where no one would know you are gone? What about work or family? Oddly, I still haven’t written this particular story. But certainly my protagonist Liz knows exactly what it means to have no ties. The Credit Union? My girlfriend worked for a credit union. She was a really bad teller because her drawer never balanced at the end of the day. Just off by a penny or two, but they don’t care in banking. It didn’t matter that she blew everyone out of the water on the Federal regulation tests. At the end of the day, your drawer has to balance. Credit Unions are really popular in The Pacific Northwest. I’ve been a Credit Union member for twenty years. Actually, I still do all my banking at my college Credit Union. I am crazy obsessed with people’s job. I love to listen to people’s work stories. Work is like our second family, and for some people it’s their first. There needs to be more stories about office life. Netflix tells me my favorite shows are “witty workplace comedies.” There are a few books that I really love that I consider in the same vein as So Much Better. Something Happened, by Joseph Heller. Death of the Author, by Gilbert Adair. Also Julie Hecht’s Do the Window’s Open? They are all empty books, with isolated protagonists who are tied to their work.
CP: Is So Much Better a typical example of your writing process?
TG: So Much Better is a tighter, more closed story than anything else I’ve ever written. My writing is usually larger and lopier. Funnier, too. Though I really think of So Much Better as a dark comedy, like the show Black Books. Though most of the rejections I got on this book, didn’t think it was so funny.
CP: I know that you also collaborate in your writing…how does that work for you?
TG: My former professor Carol Anshaw called me up one day and said, “I’ve got this guy in my class who writes just like you.” So the two of us swapped manuscripts and had a blind writer’s date. It was crazy to read someone’s novel that felt so much like my own. That’s how Nicholas Alexander Hayes and I started writing together. We’ve rewritten the Greek Myths, but they’re set in a contemporary dystopic Chigcao. It’s really interesting to write with someone else. If you want to get anything done, you have to park your ego at the door. At first it was like, “May I please change this one word in the third paragraph on the second page?” By the end we both felt free to rewrite anything, cut anything. You just have to let it go. It’s certainly made me a better writer.
CP: While I’m not sure if this is entirely true, I feel like you often incorporate violence into your work–certainly there is the moment in So Much Better where a young girl is slapped, but I was also thinking about a story I read of yours in a journal a while ago; it was one of your Greek myth strories. How do you related to violence in your work; is it an aesthetic gesture? or….
TG: The Greek Myth collection is extremely violent, but so are the Greek Myths. In order to make that kind of violence make sense in the modern world, we had to construct a reality in which violence was its own form of logic. But that’s not the case in So Much Better. Liz is an office lady, repressed, and a woman. I tried to imagine what “snapping” would look like for a woman like her. For Liz slapping a person would be the ultimate expression of loss of control.
CP: Kind of going off that last question also–how does morality play out in So Much Better? I mean, in one way, I feel like I could approach the book with a sort of traditional-societal-perspective, and think about how Liz makes “dubious” decisions because she is unhappy; however, that seems a little simplistic to me. Like I feel she’s maybe mean to people because she’s unhappy, but for instance, her relationship to sex might point to something else…I don’t know exactly what I’m looking for; I feel this question is not entirely clear…I can re-phrase it…
TG: No lie, Liz is unhappy. But I do think there is more to it than that. When I was writing Liz, I thought of her mostly as angry. Someone like her wouldn’t transgress gender roles or traditional expectations of middle-class, educated, professional women. I tried to imagine how someone like her would express that anger. It wouldn’t be by bringing a gun to the office place, or beating her partner. For the most part, that’s a male expression. Liz would express her anger by cheating on her partner or slapping someone she thinks of as weaker than herself.
CP: How did you decide to name your characters? (I’m always fascinated by this question–I feel like names sort of point to a world…right? Anyway).
TG: I name all of my protagonists some form of Elizabeth. It makes a connection between all of my (unpublished) novels. The idea that one woman given a particular set of circumstances could be anyone. Liz, Betsy, Betty, Elsbeth. They’re all the same girl.
CP: Lastly, what was it like having this book finished? And what are you doing now?
TG: Right now I’m writing a collection of essays entitled Nostalgia, Mad Men, and the Myth of Happier Days all about nostalgia, television, food, and popular culture in general I’m having a great time. The essays are fun and I love to look critically at America’s romance with TV. Also, it lets me watch hours of TV all in the name of research.