What’s your writing background? When did you begin writing and what inspired you?
In my book, Once A Priest, I talked about when I started to write in earnest.
In 1983, my wife and I opened a mom and pop commercial greenhouse. Our greenhouse business was prospering, but something was wrong. My life was planting seeds, growing tiny plants and selling vegetables and garden plants in the spring. I was becoming what I grew – a cabbage or maybe a petunia. My mind was dying and I knew it.
I started playing around with writing. After supper every night, I would go out to my ‘office,’ a little added-on room between our house and the garage. It had windows to the front and back and a space heater that was adequate for spring and fall, but not winter. I would sit down at the typewriter and follow my creative muse. Whole worlds opened to me. I wrote about the area behind my childhood garage where I practiced pitching and dreamed of reaching the major leagues. I wrote a short story about a group of prisoners on an island. I wrote a poem about getting along with the Russians. Hours passed. Suddenly, as I wrote, an alarm would ring in the house. The alarm meant I hadn’t turned the heat on in the greenhouses. I had to shut the door on the vibrant world that grew on the paper in front of me and hurry to the greenhouses to start the furnaces.
An hour later, I’d be back at the typewriter, type a sentence, stop, look at it, realize it wasn’t quite true and then search deeper. Layers of middle-aged half-truths disappeared, the comfortable maxims I had surrounded myself with – “Business is good. Don’t make any changes” and “Relax. You’re getting older.” The fires of my youth burned again – civil rights, world peace, a place in the sun for every person. The idealism that had lain dormant sparked back into life.
As I wrote, I dug; I searched always deeper, trying to reach the truth. It might be easy to speak a lie, but it wasn’t easy to write one. I started to unravel the tangled skein that was me. These revelations came, not from writing philosophy or self-help dictums, but from writing fiction. Put a man and a woman in a fictional situation. What does the woman really think? What does the man think? Is this real? Is this how people are? Where do I get my ideas? What is human nature all about? Who am I?
What a wonderful gift this was.
How often do you write? And how do you manage to fit in writing among other commitments?
I teach creative writing in the community and in prison and I’ve been doing so for over twenty years. People come to me with all manner of questions. Of course, I can’t review every story or novel that comes my way, but at least I can direct my students to places that will help them.
All of this takes time. I have to fight for my writing time. I guess if I were more of a profession writer, I would sit down first thing in the morning, shut off the phone, and especially the email, and write.
But I don’t do that. I go with the flow.
In which genre do you most enjoy writing?
Creative non-fiction and novels that have a theme, but the theme is hidden. I hate preaching and I try to get every bit of it out of my writing. In reality most of my work is promoting prison reform, but I hope my readers will never say, “This guy is for prison reform.” No. I want the reader to put a book down, think about it and then say, “You know that guy’s got a point.”
What draws you to write in that genre?
I teach in a federal prison and I’m upset by the lack of the arts in prison — not just writing, but music, theater, drawing and painting. The success rate in prison — I mean those going back to prison — is more than half. What if a doctor said, “I help half my patients, only half. As I mentioned before, prison is a warehouse. Certainly, our society can do better. But if I want to use the novel as a vehicle for my opinions, I have to respect the genre of the novel, the rules as it were. Show, don’t tell and all that.
Can you tell me about your current project(s)?
I’m writing a book now that is pushing my abilities to their limits. I’ve heard it said that you should always be writing something that is scaring the hell out of you. This new book, called Delaney’s Hope is sure doing that for me. I wrote a blog that explains how the book came about.
The book came to me this way:
“You’re against prison, Griffin. So what’s your answer?” Over and over, I’ve heard that question from people I know. Sometimes it isn’t direct, but they hinted at it, like they’ll tell me about a horrific crime and wait for my reaction.
Yes, I’m against prison. I’ve taught in prisons for twenty-three years, first in a maximum-security prison in Wisconsin and now in a high medium- security prison in British Columbia, Canada.
“Hey, Jake, I heard you busted into an ATM machine. Tell me how. I want to learn.” That’s a conversation I overheard in prison. Like people say, it’s a crime school. Young cons learn from older cons. It reminds me of the prison saying, “I came to jail with a masters in marijuana and left with a doctorate in heroin.”
And it’s a warehouse. Old Alex is in his early seventies. His job is to sweep the walkway every day. He loves to stop you as you’re walking by and chat. He’s such a pleasant old man; I asked an inmate why he was here. “I don’t know what he did, but he had a small bit, maybe seven years. First, he broke parole. Then when he got to minimum, he heard his daughter was in the hospital, so he just took off. This happened a couple of times. The last time I think it was dementia. He was in minimum, walked out the gate, bought an ice cream at the local store and walked back to the prison. They put him back in high security and extended his sentence.
Prison is a taxpayer rip-off. If politicians could find their way to libraries, they would discover in section 364, criminology, that prison doesn’t work as a way to stop crime. Even wardens will admit that only fifteen to twenty percent of the inmates in their prisons need to be there. Yet the prison-industrial-complex cries for more prisons and longer sentences.
“So, Griffin, you’re against prison. What’s your answer?” Do I give a lecture every time I meet someone? No. I write. First, I wrote Prisoners of the Williwaw, a novel about three hundred hardened inmates and their families on a terrible island in the Aleutians. The hero tries to build a decent society. Then I wrote a non-fiction book with an inmate, called Dystopia. We both tell our stories of prison, mine of teaching there, his of two years in a Mexican prison and eight years in a Canadian one. You’d be surprised which one he liked better.
Currently, I’m trying to show in novel form what a future prison might look like and I don’t allow one preaching word to enter the story. I just show what happens if we were to set up a ‘humane’ prison. It’s called Delaney’s Hope and I’m on the final edit.
It scares me because I have to be in Delaney’s shoes – I have to know what to do with each of these inmates. It’s me, as much as Delaney, on the cutting edge of prison reform.
What are your writing plans for the future?
I want to keep teaching and writing. Both of these activities help me be a better writer.
Where can people find out more about you?
E mail: email@example.com