The unspoken spaces

By Amy Reiswig, December 2011

In his new book, Daniel Griffin offers up disturbing and fascinating stories about impulse and control.

At the end of Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, with one ear still ringing from setting off fireworks of dubious quality, Victoria writer Daniel Griffin somewhat magically appears, conjured out of the ether from India via the grainy screen of Skype. As I laugh nervously over the foreignness of a headset with volume I can’t manage to adjust—it’s my first time—the relaxed and expressive Griffin is patient and mercifully unmocking. Compassion, I learned even before asking him a question, is a big part of his anchoring stance in the world.

Having lived in Guatemala, New Zealand, England, Scotland, France, the US and, temporarily, in India for his day job (development and sales for tech company Userful), Griffin takes things in stride with an observer’s combination of detachment, skepticism and wonder. Of India, for instance, he simply says, “It’s a disturbing place as well as a fascinating place.” Which is an apt description of the world he creates in his first book, Stopping for Strangers (Véhicule Press, October 2011).

These ten seemingly straightforward stories are set across North America—BC, San Francisco, various parts of Ontario—but the places are secondary to the people and the pitted, mountainous emotional landscapes they traverse in their relationships: sons and parents, brothers and sisters, husbands and wives. Ultimately, the title relates as much to making time to understand family as it applies to other people one meets along the way. 

In sparse, unemotional, documentary realism, Griffin approaches the disturbing and fascinating places all around and within us, touching on issues such as domestic violence, suicide, terminal illness, crippling and even deadly accidents. It is not a happy book, and readers should be prepared to meet unsympathetic and somewhat unsavoury characters. However, these are characters with a lot to learn—and teach. Which leads me back to Griffin’s compassion. 

He admits that when recently reviewing the galleys, the somewhat misogynistic line “You’re just like her. You should have been born a woman,” in a story about domestic violence jumped out at him. It’s one I underlined too, wondering if he worried about alienating audience. “A writer’s job is to look at the world and everyone in it with a compassionate eye,” Griffin says, reflectively. “These people exist. You’ve met them. I’ve met them. I’ve loved them; I’ve hated them. If you come to the world with judgements, you’re going to be in trouble.”

These are stories about impulse and control, including the way people try to control one another, and of dreams and lives cut short. But they are also about the change woken up in people as a result—change alluded to but never actually shown, change we must have faith in.

In fact, much of the book’s power resides in what Griffin doesn’t give us, and as a reviewer it’s difficult to cite passages that do justice to what lies in the stories’ unspoken spaces. In “The last Great Works of Alvin Cale,” for example—a finalist for the 2009 Journey Prize— an artist visits his estranged, dying son and discovers a series of startling paintings. A still life that hangs on the wall becomes a telling metaphor for lives frozen by emotional distance. It’s also a useful image for trying to describe the book: just as a still life is about so much more than the apple or pear or sunflowers on the canvas, these stories are about so much more than what is on the page. 

It’s not surprising, then, that an earlier manuscript version of the collection was shortlisted for the 2008-2009 Metcalf-Rooke Award or that Griffin’s publication credits span the country’s literary journals: The Antigonish Review, The New Quarterly, Geist, Prairie Fire, Event, The Dalhousie Review, Grain, Mark Anthony Jarman’s Coming Attractions (2008) and The Journey Prize Stories. 

Griffin attributes his success to exacting rewriting. “If you finish a draft and think, ‘I’m a genius,’ you’re wrong. But if you look at a draft and say, ‘This is crap,’ then you’re on the right track.” Such is the boiled-down advice he says he offers students in his Camosun continuing education classes, noting that his own stories often go through 30 drafts in a year. “Mind you, if you’re on draft 30 and think you’re a genius, you’re not wrong; you’re just conceited,” he quips. 

In the interview, Griffin revealed himself to be a hilarious, tangent-taking storyteller, and I can easily imagine him on stage as a raconteur bringing audiences to tears of laughter—or tears of pathos, the tone frequently taken in this book. 

Raised in Kingston, Ontario by a professor father and artist mother, Griffin says he and his two brothers experienced none of the book’s familial darkness. “We were different,” he notes. “Other families took trips to the amusement park. We were taken to a cottage to learn Reiki level 1.” Now, at a very youthful 40, Griffin is a family man in his own right with a wife and three daughters (ages 5, 7 and 11). In fact, in a more tender balance to his gritty fiction, Griffin also writes for Island Parent magazine. “Having kids has no doubt changed the way I view things,” he says. “Writing for Island Parent forces me to document the family life, and that’s really special.” 

Returning to Victoria at the end of December, Griffin will be working on a novel and on his online MFA at UBC. “After six years, it’s got to be the longest MFA in history,” he sighs.

Until he’s back on the Island, though, launching Stopping for Strangers will involve a lot more Skype. “It’s a world-wide virtual tour!” he exclaims, comfortable in cyberspace after his travels and his experience as the virtual writer-in-residence for the Victoria Writers Association in 2010. “Technology means there are so many ways to communicate and collaborate,” he notes.

I for one look forward to an in-person launch where I can watch him engage an audience and lead them safely through his disturbing and fascinating world. It’s one which you just might recognize from your own life and learn to judge less harshly.

Writer and editor Amy Reiswig is reassured to know that thinking she’s not a genius means she might be doing something right.