A Writer's Story
Susan Signe Morrison
Susan Signe Morrison
1. What inspired you to write about Grendel's Mother?
For years I have taught the Old English poem, Beowulf. It’s a heroic tale from a manuscript written about the year 1000, filled with monsters, dragons, and heroic warriors. There are also women: peace-weaving brides in doomed unions, victims of slavery, and even a monstrous mother. That mother really intrigued me. Why should she be condemned for avenging her son’s death, when the so-called heroic warriors do the same thing and are celebrated for it? Although I’ve written many scholarly articles and books, something about Grendel’s Mother drew my imagination. I wanted to fill in her backstory, feel her emotions, and ponder her interior landscape. That meant I had to write a historical novel. And I’m so glad I have! It’s been a long but satisfying journey.
2. What is your typical writing routine?
I might add that when I first started this book, I would repair to a local university library to write. My daughter was 2 at the time (now she’s in college) and, though she had a babysitter, she wanted to watch me write. As anyone who tries to write with a two-year-old looking on, the writing never gets done! Here’s a photo of my Roget’s Thesaurus, well-thumbed since I used it frequently while crafting my text.
3. Who are your favorite authors and books?
A key book for me is A. S. Byatt’s Possession—as it is for so many writers and readers, I imagine. It’s got romance, history, and mystery—who could ask for anything more? I’ve loved Charles Dickens and Jane Austen—writers of novels you just lose yourself in and become more real than so-called “reality.” And I love mysteries by Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, and Patricia Wentworth. As for medieval books, after Beowulf, I highly recommend two books by medieval women. First, the 12th century Marie de France whose short romances called lais are indispensable for anyone who loves romance today. She even has a werewolf story. And Christine de Pizan’s The Book of the City of Ladies is as revolutionary for women’s rights today as when it was written—in 1405-1405. You can read about these medieval women in another book of mine, A Medieval Woman’s Companion: Women Lives in the European Middle Ages (Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2016). Finally, Geoffrey Chaucer, whose irony and humor continually astound me, even on the twentieth reading.
In the original poem, Grendel's Mother only appears well into the action. Her son, Grendel, is depicted as a cannibal and monster, wrecking havoc in the mead hall where the warriors gather. After he is killed by Beowulf, Grendel's Mother steals into the hall at night to retrieve her slaughtered son's severed arm and to kill in return. She takes his body back to her cave under the water, where Beowulf shows up. They have a violent battle, and she dies. For well over a century, she has been viewed as monstrous and beyond compassion. But more recently feminist views have seen her actions as understandable. Who wouldn't have sympathy for a distraught mother? There has been a popular novel by John Gardner telling Grendel's point of view called Grendel. This is where I come in. Why couldn't we see, I thought, the story from her perspective? As a feminist, I am used to seeing stories and culture from alternative points of view. So how might we see her tale with compassion and empathy? I built a backstory for her and even gave her a name, emotions, and past. By doing so, I hope I have shown how even the most rejected need to be seen from their own perspective.
5. What things do you like to do outside of reading and writing?
I love to travel. My family and I lived in London for two years and that was a fabulous experience for the children and my husband and me, especially going to the theatre and museums. I have lived in Germany off and on for about four years. Turner Classic Movies has a great fan in me--I love black and white films, including silent films. And I am a lap swimmer--any kind of swimming really. I love to walk and chat and cook with my family. The solitary nature of writing is appealing, but only if I can offset it with social conviviality.
6. Any advice or suggestions for future writers?
Stick to it! I started Grendel's Mother in 1998 and it was published in 2015. I worked on it off and off, sometimes abandoning it for years while other projects interrupted it. I also recommend writing down immediately whatever scrap of prose or verse that enters your mind. If you wake up in the middle of the night with the perfect line, you really won't remember it in the morning. It's worth jotting it down right away. And keep plugging away! It took my book almost twenty years to go from initial conception to publication. Like a plant, it took root, managed to hang on, and finally has born fruit--a novel I am proud of.