Talking to Strangers - Charlotte Harrison interviews Daniel Griffin
We don't tend to think of short story collections as page-turners; in fact, one of the beautiful things about books of short stories is that you can pick them up whenever you have a few minutes to spare, and then put them down for weeks without having to re-read. But when Kim lent me her copy of Stopping for Strangers by Daniel Griffin, it didn't leave my hands for two days. The individual stories were satisfying as stand-alones, but I was so caught up in the authenticity and uniqueness of his characters that I had to read the next one, and the next, and the next...Not only that, but each story was really saying something--about family, about love and loss, and about how we treat each other. And then there's the drama: my personal favourite, "The Leap", actually made me gasp out loud. I won't ruin it for you, but the scene is so carefully orchestrated that even when you know what's going to happen, you don't want to believe it (and you almost cover your eyes to spare the character from what's about to happen to him).
As part of his virtual book tour, I had a chance to ask Daniel a few questions about the collection and his writing process. If you'd like to hear him read from "Martin and Lisa," a story from the collection that we first published in TNQ #105, click here >
You wrote a blog post about writing ten short stories and getting one good one. Did you choose the stories in this collection purely because you considered them to be the best short stories you had written over the past ten years, or did you try to find stories with a binding thread (and how much of that was your decision vs your editor's)? Do short stories in a collection need a common theme?
I think these are the ten best stories I've written over the past dozen or more years. With that said, you're right that there's a binding thread—families on the edge of a crisis, strained domestic ties, people struggling to do the right thing etc. However thinking back, most of the stories that didn't make it into this collection probably related to these themes. These were just the things I was writing about these past years, I suppose. So I didn't need to make what would have been a tough choice: do you include a good story that doesn't fit?
I think at the end of the day my preference as a reader is to read the author's best stories, but when putting a collection together, you do need to think of whether it works as a book, whether the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. That's important, and it's likely on the editor's mind more than the average reader's mind: A story that's jarringly different or out of place with those around it can throw the collection off.
Several stories in this book go out with a bang—a dramatic event that the reader doesn’t get to see play out. How do you draw the line between leaving a reader thinking and leaving him feeling unfulfilled with a cliffhanger ending? How do you know when you've reached the end when writing a story?
Some of finding the right ending is a gut instinct. You know when you've found it. If you don't know, and I mean, Really Know—well, then you haven't found it. I know what you mean by leaving the reader feeling unfulfilled, and I hope I never do that. I certainly think that some good endings are a bit like a ball cast in the air. You see its trajectory and by understanding the force behind it you can know roughly where it will land—even if you don't see the landing itself. So much of short stories is about their endings. A novel you can read and love regardless of whether the ending works for you. That's far less likely with a short story, and so of course there's lots that can be said about stories and their endings. For me there is something appealing in an ending that allows a degree of ambiguity. Another thing I like in an ending is something that sets the reader thinking back on the story, an ending that somehow reflects on what's already passed, maybe even shifts the readers perception of what's passed.
Almost all of the stories in this collection (excluding “The Leap” and “Lucky Streak”) were previously published in literary magazines. Can you talk a bit about how this process of working with different editors for different publications shaped the stories? Do you consider publishing in a magazine to be an important precursor to publishing in a collection?
I remember how excited I was in the spring of 1996 when I came back from spending a year in Latin America. I'd been writing fiction seriously while away, but felt very much on my own in doing that. Within days of returning to Canada, I went to the library to see what they had on their periodical shelves. It was like discovering a new world. I'd been writing short stories on my own, and here in these literary magazines I found this place filled with others who were also writing short stories. I didn't publish my first short story for another three years, but I loved the possibility, that there was this community I might somehow join. I think for a short story writer—maybe for any kind of writer—literary magazines are a proving ground, a place to put your writing out in the world, test it against the expectations and aesthetics of editorial boards. And publishing these stories individually certainly helped build and shape the collection.
While I don't think it's necessary to publish individual stories in advance of a collection, I couldn't imagine starting any other way. As a young writer I didn't always know what was good and what wasn't. Working with magazines, and with editors helped with that—not that an editor or editorial board always gets it right—but writing is such a solitary activity, and the fact there were magazines out there that would read, consider, respond to, and sometimes publish my work was a great help.
Interactions with strangers play an important role in several of the stories, whether it be trying to impress strangers, compete against them or offer them a drive home. Why are strangers so intriguing?
An interviewer recently noted that while the title mentions strangers, most of the stories are really about family, and about people who are the opposite of strangers—they know each other well and share a long history. I thought that was an interesting take on the title, but you're right, there are also encounters with strangers in several of the stories. I think as a writer, when you've got a few characters who know each other well—siblings, parents etc—I think something interesting happens when you through a stranger into the mix. Now, nothing in these stories is as deliberate as that. When I write, things rise up subconsciously, but I do think a stranger can send a story in a new direction, can offer tension and opportunity to a writer. I think that's one of the reasons they show up in these stories several times. They are the unknown element and full of potential. And that intrigues me as a writer. Where is this going to go now...