behind the desk: paul griffin (full interview)

For the edited interview, please 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 played along. In high school I ended up going into pole vaulting, because my main competition was me. It wasn’t this head to head thing—not as much anyway.

But I was that secret loner kid. I felt best when I was someplace quiet, reading, drawing. After public school through 8th grade, I went to Catholic high school. The chapel was tiny and from another era, the 1920’s, when the school was built. The pews creaked when you sat in them. It was in the top of an out of the way building, and nobody went there. It was so quiet. 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 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, maybe when I was fourteen. My protagonists were always looking for a way out. An escape from the neighborhood. A time travel trip to ancient Greece. A secret D-Day mission that saves the day. When I surrendered to the settings, the characters, I was THERE, with them, in those faraway places. The past was alive, and I was able to shape it a little bit, though I learned later that maybe 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. Pre-Internet, when I started out, when all communication was by snail mail, meeting agents, getting them to read your stories—it was tough. 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, intense, enthralling stories that you do?
Thank you, Anna, for the kind words. They’re unwarranted, but at my age I’m too old to turn down such lovely gifts, so more please!

The stories come together both before and during the writing process. Something moves me—something I’ve seen or lived through with somebody, a family member, friend, neighbor, coworker. 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. For example: “Boy saves dog, girl saves boy, dog saves both, set in Coney Island.” That’ll usually be enough for me to make a short movie in my head, a series of scenes, faces, places. Then over the next few hours, days, months, sometimes years, the characters start talking to each other, to me. I jot down what they say or talk the dialogue into my phone. 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.

Around this time I’ll start visiting the places or people I’m writing about. Sometimes I just go and walk, and sometimes, if I’m feeling a little more social, I’ll start talking with folks. Even when what I’m writing about what happened in the past, I revisit the places, the people, to make what happened a while ago more vivid. After a while I have a bunch of Word documents labeled things like Dog Book Coney outline as of 20120703.docx and Ben Coffin notes as of 20120916.docx and a bunch of audio files I never transcribe. I give myself a few days to try to organize it, and then, after I realize I’ll never be able to make it anything less than a jumble, I say to hell with all of it and never look at it again, and that’s when I start writing the book. The things I wrote down and talked into the phone—they tend to come back while I’m writing the drafts.

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, sometimes as many as six, and once we ended up doing eight. I’d say four is average. Kate Harrison, my editor at Dial Books, is also one of my best friends. Nancy Mercado, who gave me my start in the business with that first “yes,” teamed up with me years later on Adrift. You get to know people, and you trust them. 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. The characters have grown or been killed off. Getting to see your dream world through a great editor’s eyes is a gift.

I was very lucky to get to read the audiobook for this story coming out in June, When Friendship Followed Me Home. The Penguin Random House audio folks were so wonderful to me. My director, Robert Kessler, showed me so many things I’d missed. Working with a great artist like Robert, you get to see the story in a whole new way; the characters keep growing. The direction, the editorial—that’s the fun stuff, the good stuff.

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. How do you facilitate slavery and human trafficking, for instance? How do you live in a mansion built by paying your workers as little as you can? 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 or a bit of it 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, trying to keep this whole thing going, life on Earth. Yet people do try—and most people I think.

I guess those triers—those are the people that grab me most. They come from the formative relationships, my marriage and friendships, my relationships with my neighbors, coworkers, family members. I’m selective about the company I keep. I tend to hang out with folks who refuse to let things stand pat, who want to be creative in a world that rewards destruction—and to do that, you have to battle a bit. You have to stand up to the destroyer, usually with kindness, compassion, and always with a refusal to be demeaned.

When I see people win—I mean 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, where they’re most vulnerable. She was a refugee who went home to post-Hiroshima/Nagasaki 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 that left her hemiplegic. 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.

As someone who admittedly prefers the physical world to the online one, 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? What advice do you have for similarly reserved writers, particularly since so many 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, I think you have to identify where you feel you can be real, 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 working with larger groups too when I feel I can be useful, 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 can relate to that, and maybe I can help them find ways to support each other as they chase those dreams. I love those kids, the ones with the big dreams, 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. That feels good. People can tell when you’re being real, right? I see people be real online too, and when that works—beautiful! John Green makes the world a little kinder and wiser every time he Tweets. Matt delaPeña 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.

Chances like this, where I get to mull over beautiful, thoughtful questions written by a person I know well, a person I greatly admire for the way she lives her life—then I’m all in for an online discussion.

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. You’ll go back to the first one, and the second and third. 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, of who the characters want to be. Sometimes after the break, the story doesn’t move you anymore. Then you let it go. It might come back to you down the line, when you’re in a different spiritual place maybe. It may never come back, and that just leaves you more time to dive into the story that excites you now.

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’s so generous. He lays out for you the way he does drives a story through the drafts, and his approach makes the dream seem so possible. That you really can live a beautiful life through the writing. 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)?
I only know what I see, and it’s inspiring. BTB, Literacy for Incarcerated Teens—these folks are the most beautiful human beings. You see the kids wake up to the fact that if they can’t read, they’re dead. You see them begin to realize that they can use reading in different ways: to escape, sure, but also and maybe more importantly to make money, to make friends.

There has been a lot of talk the last few years about reducing incarceration rates. Definitely a much needed discussion. The focus also has to be on reducing recidivism. A guy does ten years in jail, millions 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 and about 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—to 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 than not 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. There are a limited number of spots in the alternative programs. Government funding for these programs isn’t as robust as funding for incarceration—again, turning swords into plowshares requires a dramatic shift in thinking, right? 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—the push for a different kind of literacy. Bringing the alternative approach into high schools too, can keep kids out of jail. And here’s the approach we shoot for in BTB and LIT: 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, what they learned about themselves as they confronted these challenges), middles (the step-by-step plans that will take them from where they are now to where they want to be), and their ends (how it will all feel, when they’re living their dreams, 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 practice. 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’ writing. It’s so empowering for them, to see their work presented in a professional way. Here’s a recent publication: http://www.behindthebook.org/programs/gallery-of-student-work/dreams-and-stories/

So I think exposure is critical: If policy makers can see Behind The Book and Literacy For Incarcerated Teens in action, they might smell money. By that I mean, they’ll 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.

Today I was reading a story KJ Dell’Antonia wrote for NY Times, about summer vacation and where it leaves three-quarters of American children: “Most kids lose math skills over the summer, but low income children also lose, on average, more than two months of reading skills — and they don’t gain them back. That puts them nearly three years behind higher income peers by the end of fifth grade.”

So there you have it: a disaster that’s only going to continue to metastasize without intervention. Sixty-four people were shot in Chicago over Memorial Day weekend. How do you mitigate that kind of destruction? Well, common sense gun control laws are part of the solution, but just as important is making literacy a top policy priority, and that happens when we support groups like BTB and LIT.

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’m grateful for your kindness, Anna, but I’m a very undisciplined reader. I like everything. 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. Wind, Sand and Stars by Saint-Ex. It just transports me. 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. I’ll be rereading it for sure. 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. Lauren Wolk’s Wolf Hollow just came out, but I’ve read it twice, and I’ll reread it soon. The book is perfect. Same way with Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens. 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. I’m reading Pax—I’ll be rereading it for sure. Beautiful. 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. Patty’s writing is as beautiful as Patty. 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. Okay, that was a scan of the half bookcase to my right. I’d love to think about why I reread the many others, but I’ll stop there.

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.