Paul Griffin is the award-winning author of middle school and young adult books including Ten Mile River, The Orange Houses, When Friendship Followed Me Home, and Burning Blue. During the twenty year period between graduating from Dartmouth and Penguin Random House publishing Paul’s “first” book he worked several jobs – including as a butler, a bartender, a cook, an EMT, dog trainer and a driver. These and other personal experiences have greatly informed Griffin’s body of work as he draws upon the people and places around him.
Paul’s most difficult and rewarding work was teaching, which he continues to do when he’s not writing. Griffin is passionate about helping young people learn how to tell their personal stories, working with both Behind the Book and Literacy for Incarcerated Teens.
Paul’s latest book Saving Marty was published in September.
Behind the Book: How did you initially get involved with Behind the Book?
Paul: In 2008-09 was at Brooklyn Book Festival and was approached by Jo [Umans] about Behind the Book. I thought it sounded really good. I also was already doing work in schools so the programming at Behind the Book sounded familiar. Since 1989 I worked for the Creative Arts Team out of NYU and I was in the Conflict Resolution Unit. We worked with schools and dealt with issues such as school shootings, HIV, domestic violence, bullying, teen sex, gang reconciliation.
BtB: What does it mean to you to be able to interact with young readers and help them develop a love for reading/writing?
Paul: I am actually less concerned with the reading than I am about storytelling. I tell the kids that it is critical to be able to tell your story I tell kids to “give me you in 2 [minutes]”. You always have to be able to tell your story whether it’s to talk to a judge, when you’re looking for a job, when you’re going to school. I ask them to explain: what is your dream and what inspired your dream. A lot of the boys say basketball and I ask them to show me why you like it—tell me something about your love of basketball that will make me remember you.
BtB: Were you always a reader/writer? Was there a particular person or book that inspired you to love reading/writing?
Paul: I was also really inspired by movies. I remember in 1976 Rocky came out and everyone was so excited—my mother’s side is Italian—because this was an accurate representation of a guy who could be from the block. That was when I was starting writing. I realized that writing can change your life—you can write yourself to freedom. I was writing scenes and made little films with my grandfather. We would have about four minutes of film and I had to figure out how to write a story from the scenes we had, which was a great way to learn. I also learned how to edit from making these little films. I loved Invisible Man – thought it was a revolutionary way to tell a story. I also really liked the Star Wars book based on the movie. I love sports books like Baseball When the Grass Was Real. Also, my father was an English teacher and once and a while he would give me something really good to read.
BtB: What advice would you give to our young students as they work their way to a
Paul: Most important thing is to celebrate everyone’s success—you have to be happy for
anyone in your field who finds success as if it was you. [When you’re writing] don’t put yourself into the book. Write about the story. If you get hit you just have to get back up— if you give it up you’ll never be happy. Don’t focus on the results. Focus on the process. Don’t allow critics to frame what you write—stay off the internet. [Writing] is a zen thing—you have to do it everyday. Write about the people you love. Surrender to the people in your story and let the outcome be what it is. Your editor is always right; they will be with characters as much as you will be so listen to him/her—it’s a team process. Make it less about you, surrender to the characters, listen to your editor and be open hearted about—make it about what the story is.
BtB: What’s a fun fact about yourself? Do you have any interesting or unique hobbies?
Paul: I pole-vaulted in college. I wanted to get a really good education and Dartmouth had the first undergraduate film school and to get in I really wanted to distinguish myself.
BtB: What’s your favorite book/short story that you’ve written and why?
Paul: My favorite things are those that I worked on with an editor—I like to have the company of an editor. They make my writing so much better.
BtB: What authors inspire you and why?
Paul: Current ones: Jacqueline Woodson, I loved her book Feathers. The writing was so
incredibly beautiful—this was a book that proved narrative fiction can be poetic and still be tight and have a fast paced story; Susan Collins—I thought The Hunger Games was amazing in that it created a movement—that book did a lot for young women, it was huge to have a big, big story that feature a young woman and it really changed what books could do; I recently read a debut See You in the Cosmos by Jack Cheng—it had such beautiful writing about a young boy, it didn’t feel like it was written by an adult but wasn’t cutesy; Lauren Wolk—her first book Wolf Hollow was compared to To Kill a Mockingbird – she is such an empathetic person and her new one Beyond the Bright Sea, which came out this spring, is so good it’s timeless; Matt de la Pena’s first book still grabs me – it felt like he was so free and his character Sticky was so engaging and endearing. I read Old Man and the Sea at least once every year.
BtB: How do you narrow down what you’re going to write about? Do have always know before you start or do you figure it out along the way?
Paul: I used to try and think about what story could sell but not anymore. Now I just follow the characters and let the story happen from them. My characters come from the people in my life. I write about people I hang out with and what they all have in common; they are all people that confront challenges and even if they don’t overcome them they can still find hope. I try to focus on my formative relationships. These are the people that you are spending your time with and they will give you the most [inspiration]. I always start with the character and never plan plot out.
BtB: Do you have any kind of writing process?
Paul: I write everyday. I wake up early at 3:15 am and write (I’m usually at my desk by 3:30 am). It’s nothing fancy. But this is the most peaceful part of my day. I like to write in the dark. I usually get about six hours of writing, depending on the rest of my schedule for the day. I always read at night, even if it’s just fifteen minutes.
BtB: Anything new in the works?
My new book came out September 19: Saving Marty. It’s a middle grade novel about a pig that thinks he’s a dog, but it’s really about a kid who needs a friend; he is looking for his father who died before he was born. I also have one coming out in the spring called Skyjacked. It is a YA novel for Scholastic’s Clubs and Fairs, which puts out different versions of books geared towards kids who aren’t big readers—I love working with them.
This guest blog was penned by Sarah Jane Weill, who will graduate from Bowdoin this spring! She spent her summer with us and a bunch of authors, in between playing competitive field hockey.