In The Field: Conversations With Our Contributors–Jeremy Griffin
Tell us about your fiction piece “Where Strays Might Find Comfort” in Volume 22. How did it come to be?
My wife and son and I live in South Carolina. Behind our house is a small duck pond, and beyond that a strip of swampland. A few years ago, an alligator moved into the pond from the swap. He was enormous, six feet easy. We’d watch him patrol the waters and then come up on the banks in the afternoon to sleep in the sun. It was terrifying—I’ve read about those things taking people’s arms off, snatching children and dragging them under—but also fascinating, our proximity to this prehistoric killing machine (I might have been a little more invested than my wife, who was keenly aware that we don’t have a fence in our backyard). I wanted to craft a story around the experience, but as I began developing the characters I realized that one voice wasn’t going to cut it. I liked all of them and wanted to hear what they had to say. So, as an experiment, I wrote the story from multiple POVs. It’s something I don’t see very often in short fiction, but it’s really amazing when writers can pull it off. Whether I’ve managed to do that, I don’t know—that’s up to the reader—but it taught me a lot about voice all the same, and I like to think that if I can come away from a story with a least a little new perspective, that’s a win.
What excites you as a writer? What turns you off, makes you turn away or stop reading a piece of writing?
I’m drawn to characters who are damned in some way. Most of my fiction centers on people who are on the verge of crisis. I love exploring that brief period right before the rug is pulled out from beneath them—I’m probably more interested in that than the crisis itself, especially if I know that it’s the sort of trouble they won’t be able to bounce back from. Maybe I’m just a negative person, but I don’t really want to see them weather the turmoil and come through on the other side. Happy endings never ring true to me. I don’t like excessively sad endings, either, but I do want to see the characters struggle against the certainty of their own downfall. That’s sort of what fiction is, really—characters wrangling with circumstances beyond their control. Amazingly, it took me a long time to realize this; for a long time, I tended to write characters who had things happen to them but never made any major decisions of their own. As I’ve gotten older, however, I’ve become far more interested in watching characters decide things, and I’m especially drawn to characters who make bad decisions. For me, that’s what makes for a cool character, not the way he/she looks or sounds or behaves, but the way they deal with the consequences of their choices, and it’s always more interesting when those choices are misguided.
What was an early experience that led to you becoming a writer?
When I was a kid, my dad went through a Stephen King phase. At the time, I hated reading. It was something that school foisted upon us, and most of what we were required to read either didn’t seem to apply to us or was painfully outdated. (Or baseball. God, there are so many fucking stories about boys playing baseball.) It all seemed so safe. To me, that was what literature was, just a constant rehashing of bland morality tales, so I had little interest in books. That is, until the day that I pulled down from my parents’ shelf a copy of King’s The Wastelands, mainly because I thought the cover was cool. Man, it gripped me like no story ever had. There were gun battles and robots and dimensional portals and loads of curse words. Up until then, I didn’t even know that stories could do these things, not unless there was some lesson to teach. But there was no hidden agenda; this was just an author having a good time. So naturally, that began my own King phase, during which I began experimenting with fiction. It was all terrible, of course, a bunch of pseudo-horror dreck, but the feeling of putting the words on the page, of crafting characters and presenting them with some sort of trouble to deal with—that part was riveting. It helped me to make sense of the world, to place it in some sort of context. So, while I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I got older (though by high school I was fairly certain I was going to be a heavy metal rock star), I did know that I wanted it to involve writing.
What books, writers, art, or artists inspire you and your work? Do–or have–you had any mentors in your writing life?
There are certain books and authors I come back to time and again, particularly when I find myself stuck on a piece. I like Ben Fountain, the stylishness of his prose, and Curtis Sittenfeld’s understanding of character psychology. I’ve also been rereading lately Eric Puchner, Maile Meloy, and Adam Johnson. I’ve received plenty of support from the English departments at Virginia Tech and Coastal Carolina University, but I would consider author Ed Falco a true writing mentor. He was my advisor in grad school and is still a close friend. I think every writer needs someone with more experience than them to be supportive and encouraging, particularly when things aren’t going well writing-wise, and that’s Ed for me. Also, I know I can count on my friends Weston Cutter and Carrie Meadows, both of whom are outstanding writers, to offer honest feedback on my work. They aren’t afraid to let me know when I’m phoning it in, which is something else that every writer needs, a network of other writers who won’t bullshit you. Sometimes it can be hard to take, but we need to get knocked down from time to time, if only to realize that there’s always more to strive for, more to learn about the craft.
Do you practice any other art forms? If so, how do these influence your writing and/or creative process?
I play the guitar and I like to write songs. They definitely inform each other, though to be honest I’m not entirely sure how. All I know is that when I get sick of one, I can usually get some mileage out of the other. I’m not an especially gifted songwriter, but at the very least it gets my mind off of fiction for a time, which makes the writing process much more rewarding when I come back to it.
What craft element challenges you the most in your writing? How do you approach it? What is your quirk as a writer?
I’m more critical about my work than anyone else. I suppose most writers are like this to an extent. There are a few things I think I do fairly well, but I’m always trying to improve. To that end, I find myself making some of the same moves over and over again in a lot of my writing, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it keeps me from developing the confidence to try new things. I’ve always admired writers whose work can span a variety of styles and voices, whatever the story demands. So I’m constantly working to get myself out of that box. And it’s tough! Those habits you develop early on can be hard to break, so I think it’s important to expose oneself to as many different kinds of writing as possible.
As far as quirks go, I really enjoy writing in second-person. I like that it’s something you don’t come across very often. The first time I tried it was on a whim. I’d been struggling for years with a story, trying it from different points of view and different tenses, but nothing felt right. I don’t know how I got the idea to try second-person, maybe just because I was out of ideas, but as soon as I did it just clicked and I was able to finish the piece pretty quickly. Too much of it can get a little gimmicky (once, in an undergrad workshop, this dude wrote 40 single-spaced pages in second-person, which is just too damn much for me), but it’s something I like to experiment with. I appreciate the immediacy of it, the way it places you in the driver’s seat of the story, so to speak.
How does the current political climate influence your art or creative process?
I can’t say I’m a very political writer, at least not consciously. I don’t trust my own opinions enough to weave them into a story. It’s not that I don’t have beliefs—I do, but beliefs are fickle, and too much certainty about them can be dangerous. So I’m always questioning mine, which makes me less inclined to produce anything politically-charged. I do, however, find that issues of violence, particularly gun-related violence, find their way into my work quite often. I was an MFA student at Virginia Tech when the massacre occurred (I was fortunate not to have been on campus at the time), and I remember the fallout when it was discovered that the shooter was from our department, so that’s an experience I come back to a lot. And it’s hard to write about something like that without it becoming political, though I try very hard to lecture or preach in my work. I’ve never been a fan of fiction that tries to sway me on an issue. What I’m interested in is the way arguments like the gun issue are publicly framed. Despite my own skittishness about firearms, I’m way more interested in using fiction to explore commonalities between people instead of exploiting differences.
What are some themes/topics that are important to your writing?
I tend to cycle through various themes. My first book explored notions of sex and intimacy from a number of different perspectives. Of course, that was a while ago; now I’m married and have a kid, and my priorities are different, which means that the themes I invoke are different, too. As I mentioned, I’m interested in violence (which isn’t the same as writing violent stories); I’m curious about the longer-lasting and sometimes harder-to-see effects of violence. Each story is different and has its own agenda, but most of them seem to flirt in some way with the notion of how we harm each other, whether intentional or not. That being said, I’m not always conscious of this when I first begin a piece. Most of the time, I just begin with an image or a character, and as I write the theme develops around it. It’s sort of an automatic process. I don’t really understand it all that well, I just roll with it.
What does your creative process look like? How does the environment you are in shape your work or where do you like to write?
I try to write every day, though with my family and work commitments that isn’t always possible. My process is messy, which I suspect is the case for a lot of writers. I prefer to work in the morning while I’m still fresh, especially if I’m drafting a new piece. Sometimes I work in my home office, though it can get kind of sterile, so I spend a lot of time at coffee shops as well. I’ve heard people talk about productive distractions, and I think there’s something to that, though really it just depends on my mood; sometimes I want to be alone to work, other times I need to be in proximity to others.
One thing that took me some time to accept about myself is that I’m a slow writer; while some pieces can come together in a matter of months, I’ve spent years working on particular stories. I used to think I was just doing it wrong—how was it that some of my favorite writers could churn out books yearly, while it might take me upwards of a year to perfect twenty freaking pages? The weird thing, though, is that once I accepted that I’m just not as fast as those folks, I started cranking out drafts much more quickly. Knowing your process and accepting it can give you confidence, I think. I’m still not as fast as I’d like to be, but I’m comfortable with my own process, and I think that’s way more important than the number of pages you’re able to produce in a given period of time.
What projects or pieces are you working on right now?
I’ve got a novel that I’m shopping around, and I’m working on a new collection of short fiction. I’ve also been dabbling more in poetry and creative nonfiction, neither of which comes naturally to me, so I’m sort of starting from ground up in those departments.
Jeremy Griffin is the author of the story collections A Last Resort for Desperate People: Stories and a Novella from SFA Press and Oceanography from Orison Books. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in such journals as the Alaska Quarterly Review, The Greensboro Review, Indiana Review, and Shenandoah. He has received support from the South Carolina Arts Commission and he teaches at Coastal Carolina University, where he serves as faculty fiction editor of Waccamaw: A Journal of Contemporary Literature. You can learn more about Jeremy Griffin at his website here.