Daniel Griffin drops in to talk about Stopping For Strangers

One of the best writing decisions I made in the last ten years, was to apply to UBC’s optional residency MFA  Creative Writing program.  And one of the benefits of that program, was the company in which I found myself. I was never in a class with Daniel Griffin whose collection of short stories, Stopping for Strangers, is hot off Vehicule Press.  We may have met briefly during one of the summer programs, but I’ve known his short fiction for quite some time; literary magazines, one of the three featured authors in Coming Attractions (Oberon Books 2008), twice in the Journey Prize anthology and a finalist for that prize in 2009.

A couple of months ago, I had a note from Daniel , saying that some other UBC colleagues had mentioned to him that I did a blog tour when The Boy was published last spring, and he was curious about how that had worked out.  From my perspective, talking books on blogs with great writers can only be a fine experience, and I was delighted when Daniel said he’d like to visit here.  When Stopping for Strangers dropped into my mailbox three weeks ago, I read this beautifully produced collection in about three days, and then sat back and wondered what on earth I could ask about stories so finely wrought.

If I were reviewing Stopping for Strangers, I would talk long about the clean, polished prose, the exquisitely fine brush strokes that paint the characters, the range of voice, the sense of an author moving his characters toward the cliff-edge with tender care.  To engage Daniel Griffin in this conversation, I want to talk about the possibilities of domestic realism, and how the short story form lends itself so well to snapshots that capture both the light and the dark, the positive and the negative.  About diving into the darkness, writing about flawed human beings and the duality of even the most ordinary of people.

Welcome, Daniel Griffin!  What a pleasure to be able to talk with you.

Q.(BJH)  In an interview at Book Club Buddy   you mention one of the things people have remarked about your stories is that is unusual to find domestic fiction, stories about families and relationships written by a man.  In that same interview, you invoke Raymond Carver and Kent Haruf (both favourites of my own) as writers who influenced you.  While I was reading your stories, I found myself also placing you in the American tradition of authors beginning with John Cheevers, then Richard Yates, John Updike and Richard Ford,  who have given us stories about men in crisis in the kind of domestic/suburban territory more common of women writing stories about women.  Do you see a trend in Canadian literature leading in this direction?  Are there Canadian authors who have influenced you in the same way?

A.  (DG)  One of the things about Cheever, Yates, Updike, Ford and Carver is the large number of stories they wrote over their careers.  I think you could say that Cheever and Carver are really best known for their short stories.  There are quite a few American writers of that generation who could be cited as primarily short story writers.  We’ve got Alice Munro and you can’t talk about short stories that touch on domestic life without citing her.  (She’s certainly been an influence on me, but I’d venture to say she’s been an influence on most short story writers.)

Anyway, while it’s true that many of my favourite writers aren’t Canadian and many don’t write short stories, there are a lot of Canadian writers I love and would cite as influences.  To rattle off a few and make a point: David Bergen, Madeleine Thien, Joseph Boyden, Timothy Taylor, Eden Robinson.  Each wrote one great collection of short stories then turned to the novel.

I guess I’m as curious as anyone as to what will come next from some of the short story writers we’ve been seeing on the big prize shortlists recently.  More stories or a novel?

Q. (BJH) In some of the stories in Stopping for Strangers I found myself holding my breath, because I had the sense that you were leading these characters  toward the edge of a cliff.   Or in more than one instance, putting the gun in your character’s hand. But I also get a strong sense of compassion in your portrayal of these people.  These are dark places you’ve explored.  When you begin a story, do you have a strong sense of where it is leading?  Do you ever abandon a story because it is heading into territory you simply do not want to explore?

A.  (DG) That’s an interesting question. I never know where a story is going when I start it, and as I write the first draft, I make a deliberate effort not to think of where it’s heading and what might happen.  I try to keep my mind no more than a couple steps ahead of my pen.  And so where it goes can be a surprise for me as well—a realization more than a surprise I suppose.

So how do so many of these stories skirt darkness or dive right into it?  I suppose some of it I should blame on my subconscious. As I say, the way these stories emerge is often a surprise for me–I don’t think I’m ever consciously directing them down any kind of particular path.

I’m glad you see the compassion in them.  I certainly try and write with no judgement and an open heart.  For me that’s important. More than important. Vital.  Especially when writing about characters who are unsympathetic or unappealing.  I guess for me any character that’s going to be laid out and exposed at the point of crisis deserves a compassionate and caring portrayal!

I have abandoned lots of stories, but most of them were abandoned due to DNA level problems with the story itself–something flayed I couldn’t overcome.  Most stories that I start, I finish and rewrite or polish to some extent.  With that said, I have had stories that veered into territory that disturbed me to the extent I didn’t see the appeal in spending 100 hours or whatever it was going to take to realize a finished product.

Since becoming a parent there certainly are areas I don’t want to think about or explore.  Not many, but a few.  I used to love difficult, dark and challenging films.  Shortly after our first daughter was born, I watched Requiem for a Dream and came out of the theatre telling my wife that I now understood why Disney existed: there are some things a parent just doesn’t want to think about, and some times, soft and rosy entertainment is all we need.

Q. (BJH) The short story seems to be having a resurgence in popularity in the past two or three years with some gorgeous collections appearing on the shortlists for major prizes. And yet, it seems to me that there is still the belief that short fiction is a training ground for novelists.  You have demonstrated such talent and craft in this collection, that I hope there are more short stories to come. But…  is there other work – novel, poetry, non-fiction–  that is equally compelling to you?   What’s next?

A.  (DG) I spent a lot of years writing these stories (and the stories before them that were a training ground for the pieces that appear in this collection).  By the time I was writing the last few stories in this book, I was ready for a change.  I found myself writing on a bigger canvass, the stories stretched further over time etc. And it was like my writing really wanted to do something bigger, something different.  I felt the need to change it up.  At the same time I wanted to tackle a novel. I think I’d always known I wanted to do this. In truth, I’d written a couple of novels that never really got off the ground.  I spent years working on them, but eventually abandoned both.

With all that said, I love short stories. I love writing them, I love reading them and am happy to see an increased level of attention to the short story form and, like you say, seeing some deserving collections getting nominations for the largest prizes.  That’s as it should be.

To answer your question more directly: I’m working on a novel at the moment, and figure I’m maybe a year from having it ready in some form.  I expect that over this coming year I’ll share it with some friends and fellow writers and when that happens I’ll have some decisions to make.  I’m a compulsive writer.  I write every day and really have to or I won’t be a very pleasant person for my family to live with.  And so before I pass this novel off for anyone to look at, I’ll have to figure out what I’m writing next….

Q.  (BJH)  I realize this is somewhat akin to asking if you have a favourite, child, but is there a story in this collection that has been of particular importance to you for whatever reason?

A. (DG) I’ll take the “particular importance” angle rather than favourite.  I think the earliest story in this book is “Mercedes Buyer’s Guide.”  For a while that was even a contender for a title for the book.  This story opened up new doors for me in terms of how to write a story and how to tell a story.  It was the first time I played with point of view, it was the first time I wrote from the perspective of a father (I was about to become a father myself) and I felt like in writing it I’d stumbled upon something compelling in the ordinary lives of ordinary people.  The stories in this book are quite varied and I’m not sure a reader would see any other story in here as following in the footsteps of “Mercedes”, but as a writer, I felt like it was the start of something.  For that it holds a special place in my heart.

Q. (BJH) I know you have three daughters, Daniel, and I’m always curious about what families read.  What books are your daughters’ favourites?

A. (DG) I love reading aloud to the family.  Unfortunately the kids often prefer to read alone.  Our two eldest kids have both had phases where they seem to constantly have a book glued to their hands.

Before we had kids and a TV, my wife and I read aloud to each other every night.  We  don’t do it as often now.  I think Cormac McCarthy’s The Road was the last one we read aloud to each other—talk about dark!

Anyway, I have managed to create a bit of a read aloud tradition with the kids, and we just finished reading the Harry Potter series.  I’m now reading them The Incredibly Ordinary Danny Chandelier which is a wonderful novel for young adults written by a fellow UBC MFA Grad Laura Trunkey.

More about Stopping for Strangers and Daniel Griffin at:  http://www.danielgriffin.ca/

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