Sunday, February 12, 2012

Daniel Griffin makes long stories short

The Victoria writer Daniel Griffin spent a decade polishing the finely-crafted stories gathered in his debut collection, Stopping for StrangersChad Hipolito photographs for the Globe and Mail.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
January 16, 2012


The short story is said to be an endangered species, a literary form once as ubiquitous as buffalo on the prairie now doomed to become the purview of an elite few.

The format blossomed a century ago, its popularity enhanced by publication in magazines with mass readership. Every newsstand carried posters advertising a magazine’s serialized novel, or a popular writer’s latest short story. Fiction was a staple of the popular magazine.

Alas, today the short story seems more likely to be found in a journal produced by a literary press associated with a university. Reviews are rare, shelf space at the bookstore limited.

One place in which the genre thrives is Victoria, which counts among its practitioners such accomplished writers as John Gould, Bill Gaston, Yasuko Thanh, and M.A.C. Farrant, among others. The late Carol Shields made her home here, as did the peerless Alice Munro, who lives in Ontario in the summer and in Comox in winter.

Another brave scribbler unwilling to abandon the form is Daniel Griffin, 40, whose first collection, Stopping for Strangers, was recently published by Esplanade Books, the fiction imprint of VĂ©hicule Press of Montreal.

“The stories are about families in crisis,” he said. “Family under pressure. People trying to connect. About young people who may have become parents earlier than they would have chosen. People who are struggling to do the right thing under the circumstances.

“People talk about these stories being dark. I don’t see them the same way. I hope I’m taking a compassionate look at the darker corners of our lives in this time.”

In the opening story, “Promise,” the protagonist detours to visit his brother’s estranged wife. She has been beaten and is in grave danger. A subtle reference made in passing to a street name — Helmcken, rendered here as Helmken — places the story on Vancouver Island.

(Dr. John S. Helmcken was a surgeon with the Hudson’s Bay Co. His house still stands on its original site next to the Royal B.C. Museum.)

“Helmken borders forest,” Mr. Griffin writes. “Deep dark stands of cedar climb a gentle slope on one side of the street and tower over the bungalows opposite. Here people lived on the cleaned-up corners of the land. Wilderness begins at the end of every street. Two steps off the paved road the world turns raw and wild.”

Mr. Griffin’s stories turn on suicide, violence, infidelity, lingering hospital deaths, but those events happen on the periphery. The writer is more interested in relationships and missed connections.

“Difficult things happen in these stories,” he said “The characters aren’t always the most lovable. But those people exist out there.”

Mr. Griffin’s work has been compared to that of Raymond Carver, a writer whom he cites as an inspiration. Joel Yanofsky in the Montreal Review of Books praised Griffin’s “economical, unadorned prose.”

Such spare work is the result more of rewriting then writing. He is a stern editor, revising and reworking his own work again an again. “When the writing is in red ink, it looks like blood, all over the margins and onto the backside,” he said.

A decade of winnowing has resulted in the 10 crystalline stories found in this collection, including “The Last Great Works of Alvin Cale,” a finalist for the Journey Prize in 2009, which was won that year by Ms. Thanh. (At $10,000, the Journey is the 6/49 of short-story awards.)

Mr. Griffin was born in Kingston, Ont., where his father, Malcolm, is now emeritus professor of mathematics, while his mother, Sharon Thompson, is an accomplished painter. One of three brothers, he grew up in a home of serious purpose — no television, and classical music on the turntable. Non-fiction trumped fiction. Novels were regarded as “a nice escape,” he recalls, “but a little indulgent.”

While working as a blacksmith at Fort George, a national historic site, fellow workers introduced him to Canadian literature, and he devoured Timothy Findley and Robertson Davies.

Mr. Griffin spends two hours every day — in the morning and at lunchtime — working on his writing, a disciplined habit he maintained even in the chaos of a year spent in Chennai (formerly Madras), India. He moved there with his wife, Kim, and their daughters Evelyn, Tessa and Vivian, now aged 6 to 11. He helped open an office for his brother’s tech company. The family returned to Victoria a fortnight ago.

“You’ve got to let the characters live on the page,” said Mr. Griffin, who has been a writing instructor. “If you discover you’re in charge of the characters something is wrong. If they’re in charge of the story, then you’re on the right track.”

His characters are memorable ones, their dilemmas familiar, their judgments and actions not always for the best. Mr. Griffin’s writing deserves a wide audience.

Daniel Griffin is joined by his wife Kim and their three daughters on the porch of the family home in Victoria, providing a happy domestic scene not likely to be found in his spare, memorable short stories.

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