WHAT IS BEHIND THE DESK?
Behind the Desk is a new series in which I interview amazing published authors, librarians, teachers, book designers, etc. so that we can learn more about the intricacies, struggles, and excitement that goes on in the world of books and literature. Feel free to contact me with suggestions for future interviewees!
BEHIND THE DESK: PAUL GRIFFIN (edited INTERVIEW)
Before I ever knew Paul, I read Ten Mile River and was so blown away by his writing, his intensity, his ability to look vulnerability in the eye and somehow leave the reader feeling stronger, that I knew I had to meet him. In person, Paul is one of the most warm-hearted individuals I have ever come across and I'm thrilled he agreed to be interviewed for Behind the Desk. His new book, When Friendship Followed Me Home, is out today (June 7), and is already being hailed as one of the best summer reads! (For the longer, unedited interview, click here.)
What made you start writing, and why did you want to become a full-time writer? What does writing give you, emotionally and mentally?
Reading, especially for pleasure, just wasn’t a cool thing to do in my neighborhood. Reading was for girls. If you were a boy, you didn’t walk around with a book. You played sports, a lot of stickball, which I liked, street football (less so), street hockey (not so much). But I was that secret loner kid. I felt best when I was someplace quiet, reading, drawing.
After public school, I went to Catholic high school. The chapel was tiny and from another era. The pews creaked when you sat in them. It was in an out of the way building, and nobody went there. You’d hear the wind, the clinking of the heat pipes. Free periods, I’d go read stories that took me to another place and, even better, another time. I remember reading Catcher in the Rye and Invisible Man around the same time. Two very different takes on the prep school experience, but I related to the two protagonists, as different as they were; their predicament. The alienation they felt. The conclusion that they were most at peace when they were alone. I started writing seriously around that time. My protagonists were always looking for a way out. The past was alive, and I was able to shape it a little bit, though I learned later that the most rewarding writing experiences came when I’d give up control of the plot and let the characters tell me where to go.
I knew early on that I was not going to feel right in a job where I was surrounded by people. The idea that I could make a living quietly, escaping to my dream world every day—that was my idea of heaven. My “first” book was published twenty years to the day after I graduated college. They were lean years, those in between years, but I always had the writing to transport me. When I was writing, I was all right.
Do your stories come together before or during the writing process? What fuels your desire to write the moving, enthralling stories that you do?
The stories come together both before and during the writing process. Something moves me—something I’ve seen or lived through with somebody. It’s usually a display of resilience, compassion, kindness or extreme malevolence. Something that shakes me with its beauty, its terror. I’ll usually jot a few things down, the basic story. Then over the next few hours, days, months, sometimes years, the characters start talking to each other, to me. Ideas for scenes and settings become more detailed, and the world becomes a bit more colorful, and the scents and sounds start to come in.
I’ve leaned very hard on my editors. I like to play. I love the notes. My editors have been ridiculously generous. They never rush me as we take the book through the drafts. Nancy Mercado, who gave me my start in the business with that first “yes,” teamed up with me years later on Adrift. You’re willing to take bigger risks, because you know they’ll do everything they can to protect the characters and give them a place to become who they are or at least let them try to become who they want to be. By the time we’re done, the stories are completely different. Getting to see your dream world through a great editor’s eyes is a gift.
Your books often focus on those who usually get spoken at rather than with (teenage refugees, working class teens, foster kids, high school dropouts). Where does that voice come from that allows you to get to the heart of these characters without ever sounding patronizing or insincere? Have any of your characters stuck in your head, even years later?
I knew early on that some people can be very destructive. Some people think nothing of using others for personal gain. I’ve worked for some very destructive people. I’ve worked with some incredibly creative people, too. I see them struggle to make the world better for the folks who live there. The destroyers, though, their work seems to spread at a much faster rate. Graham Greene wrote a polite but very dark story about evil in The Destructors. The protagonists were kids, but as I was reading it, I wondered what they’d be like when they grew up. They’d be a disgrace. They are a disgrace. They live amongst us, or we live in the world they try to shape to suit themselves. We’re up against a lot. Yet people do try—and most people, I think.
When I see people really and truly just make something beautiful—that makes me commit to that person’s dream, and I guess I write about these dreams to give myself hope. My mother-in-law was orphaned at ten near the end of WWII. She endured the horrors orphaned children will in a war-torn area (Hiroshima/Nagasaki in Japan). She came to the US despised for her heritage, not knowing English, and somehow still managed to start up the first Japanese restaurant in Suffolk County on Long Island, all while raising three kids as single mom. In 2001, she suffered a stroke. Formerly a righty, she learned to paint lefty. Then Parkinson’s crept in. I’ve rarely seen her cry for herself, and she never complains. She just loves life too much not to be grateful. She’s in a lot of my characters. Her resilience. So as much as Mom is in my heart, all of the characters in the stories—they’re in my heart, too. At the same time, you have to let the characters go and grow in the minds of readers. It’s terrifying, letting your characters out into the world. They’ll get beat up, but they’ll make a few friends too.
How do you reconcile being a typically introverted author who lives in a world that often demands more of you than you'd like to give? As someone who prefers the physical world to the online one, what advice do you have for writers who are constantly told to "get online"?
I think you have to remember that when someone says she will publish your book, she is committing to your characters and to trying to get them out into the world. You have to commit to that, too. As you try to figure out where you can be most helpful in the marketing process, you have to identify where you feel you can be yourself. I find I’m most effective in one-on-one situations or with small groups, though I do find myself having a good time with larger groups, e.g., the kids are from a place where there’s not a lot of money or time available to support their more artistic dreams. I love those kids, the ones who are willing to fight to overcome disadvantages to see those dream made real. So my publishers know this about me and tend to ask me to work in these environments.
I see people be real online, too. John Green makes the world a little kinder and wiser every time he tweets. Matt de la Peña lets his huge heart and good humor come out online. I think the online deal is one of those things where if it feels good, you really should do it. But if it doesn’t, you definitely shouldn’t. It won’t help sell the book, and you’ll be miserable.
What's some of the best (and worst, if applicable) writing advice you've ever received?
I let the bad stuff go—I try not to keep any of that stuff cluttering up my soul. But the best advice was the old “write every day.” Keeping that flow going is so important. If you’re stuck on one story, work on another, and another. Taking a few hours, weeks, years sometimes away from a story—it can be great. If after the break the passion for the story is still there, then you’re going to dive back in with clarity and a better sense of the big picture.
Liz Gilbert’s book Big Magic was wonderful. It reminded me why I got into writing—to escape, to believe in magic. Stephen King’s On Writing was also wonderful. He lays out for you the way he drives a story through the drafts, and his approach makes the dream seem so possible. I love his emphasis on reading. Everybody says that: The best way to learn how to write is to read. But read what? Stephen King keeps it simple: read what feels right. Jon Scieszka has done a lot of wonderful work to get kids to do exactly that—to read stories that grab them, no matter what they are.
You've done some incredible work with Behind the Book. How would you like to see organizations and policy makers rethink institutional reading (in prisons, juvenile detention centers, schools)?
There has been a lot of talk the last few years about reducing incarceration rates. The focus also has to be on reducing recidivism. A guy does ten years in jail, millions [of dollars] spent to house, feed, guard him, and then, on his way out the door, we give him a hundred bucks and a good luck. His only shot at staying out is a decent job, and for that he needs solid literacy. I can’t imagine that legislators don’t know these things. Yet how do you re-make a whole industry—and incarceration is a major industry—focus on rehab instead of punishment? I guess you realize it won’t happen overnight, and you push for change where you can.
In New York, we’re starting to push alternative programs over prison, particularly with teens. A kid who gets into an alternative program, where there’s a major push toward literacy, has a better chance of never returning to jail. The kid who doesn’t get into that program will most likely be in and out of jail for the rest of his life. Government funding isn’t as robust as funding for incarceration. It also requires a lot of retraining. Guards have to become counselors, prison administrators have to become lobbyists and fundraisers.
So one interim idea might be bringing alternative program ideas into the jails and high schools. And here’s the approach we shoot for in BTB and Literacy for Incarcerated Teens: We help the kids understand that being able to read is critical, yes, but they also have to be great storytellers. They have to be able to articulate their beginnings (the challenges they faced), middles (what will take them from where they are now to where they want to be), and their ends (how it will feel reaching out to the people they’re able to help now that they themselves are successful). How do you get to be a solid storyteller? You take in as many stories as you can, use them as models for your story—you read. And you write. BTB publishes the kids’ writings. It’s so empowering for them, to see their work presented in a professional way.
If policy makers can see Behind The Book and Literacy For Incarcerated Teens in action, they might see the cost savings that these programs bring about: less people locked up, less unemployment. They’ll see ways they can save taxpayers money. That will get any politician excited.
Not only are you a sharp writer, but you're a sharp reader and have recommended some great books to me. What authors and/or titles do you return to time and time again, and why?
I love The Shining, because it reminds me that maybe it’s not always the best idea to hide yourself away from the world to write. I love The Godfather because Puzo reminds me never to judge my characters, to let them be who they are, some destroyers, others creators, and all of them a little bit of both. The Exorcist, because it’s ultimately an epic love story, a mother’s love for her daughter, and so beautifully written. Scott Smith’s A Simple Plan—it’s the thriller writer’s bible with its perfect pacing. Coe Booth’s Tyrell for voice—pitch perfect. Barry Lyga has a book coming out next year: Bang. The characters are so rich and real. I love Travels With Charley—I reread it every year or so for Steinbeck’s humor and compassion.
When I want my heart broken, I reread Of Mice and Men. Winn Dixie, Old Yeller—to remind myself dogs really are better than people. Harry Potter to remember that love is life’s greatest magic. The Poet, by Michael Connelly. I love him—he never lets the writing get in the way of the story. The Shawshank Redemption, when I want to remember that we really do have the power to forgive ourselves. No Country For Old Men for amazing dialogue. Goodbye Stranger—Rebecca Stead should be President of The World. Everything she writes is absolutely true. Patty McCormick’s Sold when I want to remember that the first thing I should think every morning is: thank you. Every word is loaded with empathy. She’s electrifying. James Frey’s Bright Shiny Morning knocks me out for its sense of place. Jackie Woodson’s Feathers—again, for voice and empathy.
If you could write anywhere on earth, where would it be? What would this place look like?
I love this question. In an abandoned Nepalese monastery built on a largely inaccessible mountaintop, nowhere near a city so I could see the stars. I’d need a few dogs to keep me company, and if you threw in a case of beer, I wouldn’t complain.