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Writer finds inspiration in family ties

Writer Daniel Griffin, a new transplant to Victoria, told a story about youthful rebelliousness. His own, that is. When the 40-year-old was in Grade 7 or 8, living in Kingston, Ont., he was allowed to have a birthday party.
Author Daniel Griffin's new book, Stopping for Strangers, is a collection of short stories that took him a decade to write. He estimates each story has been rewritten 30 or 40 times over that period.

Writer Daniel Griffin, a new transplant to Victoria, told a story about youthful rebelliousness.

His own, that is.

When the 40-year-old was in Grade 7 or 8, living in Kingston, Ont., he was allowed to have a birthday party. Young Griffin decided to make things interesting.

He advised partygoers to bring booze pilfered from their parents' liquor cabinets. There was to be a screening of the rude teenage movie Porky's. When you're 12 or 13, it doesn't get much better.

Classmates arrived covertly bearing beer and ciggies. And, in the typical way, things went awry. Word of the party had gotten out; too many kids showed up (some knocking in the middle of the night).

Griffin's father found his son and pals drinking and smoking in an alley across the street. Dad grabbed lad. The party was over. He was too embarrassed to tell his parents the whole story.

"So they made me write it out. I had to write out what had happened. I was ashamed," he said.

Griffin just had his first book of short stories published by Esplanade Books. Stopping for Strangers is a collection of 10 tales. Many are about relationships within ordinary families, some fraught with tension. A sister takes a wheelchair-bound brother, her former gymnastics partner, to a pool hall. In a different story, a layabout "borrows" his sister's truck and carelessly knocks over a youngster on a bicycle.

His writing is concise, unembellished and - in the best sense of the word - restrained. Griffin brings to minds short-story masters from the Pacific Northwest such as Tobias Wolfe and Raymond Carver.

Both writers are key influences. "Those were the stories that resonated when I started to read short fiction," he said.

Griffin's stories are rooted in place, especially Canada's West Coast. Local place-names are dropped: Saltspring Island, Galiano Island, Sooke. Griffin mentions artists such as Emily Carr, Jack Shadbolt and Sybil Andrews.

The endless curiousness of real life - replete with those peculiar surprises we all encounter - surfaces in Griffin's stories. In Promise, a brother visits a sibling who is deeply resentful over a failed relationship. By chance, fire engines attend a blaze a block away. The troubled brother callously deems the burning building a "crack house," sparking a physical fight with another man on the street, presumably the tenant.

The effect of this brief incident is odd and jarring. It resonates beautifully with the central narrative.

Griffin's father was a mathematician, his mother a painter. Wanderlust took the writer and his wife, whom he met while teaching in Guatemala, all over the world: France, England, Scotland, New Zealand and the U.S. Before settling in Victoria, Griffin lived in southern India in the city of Chennai, formerly Madras.

By day, he works for an information-technology company founded by his brother. Griffin, who handles sales and marketing for the Calgary-based venture, chose to open an office and live in Victoria for its coastal locale and mild weather.

Stopping for Strangers was written over a decade. Disciplined and determined, Griffin would write for an hour in the morning, and then over his lunch hour.

These stories have been written and rewritten 30 to 40 times, he estimates.

"I call myself not a writer," he joked, " but a rewriter."

He especially loves writing about family relationships. It's partly because Griffin is himself a family man - he and his wife, Kimberly, have three girls: Evelyn, Vivian and Tessa. And it's partly because interactions are heightened and intensified if the characters are, say, brother and sister as opposed to strangers. The stakes are somehow higher.

"They're the closest people to us in the world," he said.

Griffin is, in a way, a late bloomer. He started writing when he was 15. It took years to find his literary voice. Before he discovered Carver and such writers, Griffin imagined fiction was all about lofty ideas conveyed in "flowery prose."

Although he eventually received an MFA in creative writing from the University of British Columbia, Griffin was a mediocre student in grade school. He was slow to learn to read and write. Party of the problem was dyslexia. He remembers being lost in class, having "no idea as to what was going on."

Released in December, Stopping for Strangers has already received favourable notices. The writer Gail Anderson-Dargatz (The Cure for Death by Lightning) wrote: "Here, in Stopping for Strangers, I believe we're witnessing the emergence of a future master."

Griffin is now writing a novel. He doesn't want to talk about it.

Not yet.

"There's a problem with talking about something I'm still working on," he said with a smile. "There's a danger of it becoming the story I'm talking about, rather than what's living on the page."

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