We are honored to have the wonderful Ed Griffin with us this week! Sit back and relax while you take a behind the scenes look at Ed and his writing.
Q: What was the turning point in your life when you decided to start writing?
ED: 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.
Isaiah was on scene again, reminding me of the words I read in the seminary:
I have appointed you
to open the eyes of the blind,
to free captives from prison
and those who live in darkness from the dungeon. (Chapter 42, 6)
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.
Q: What is or are the genres of your book or books?
ED: I’m very interested in prison reform. I’ve taught in prison as a volunteer for twenty-three years. It costs about a hundred dollars a day to keep a man in prison. Imagine what great therapy, what great schooling you could do for one hundred dollars a day. Prisons, as most people know, are crime schools. They just warehouse people, they don’t reform them.
I wanted people in prison to be able to write their stories. I felt that change would come that way. I began to teach in prison, first in the maximum-security prison at Waupun in Wisconsin. There I had a student who absorbed every word I said. He turned in work for me to critique, he read books on writing and then he began to write about his environment. His first article was about a guard who ignored a man’s plea for medical help and the man died the same night. When my student’s article was published in an underground newspaper, the prison system sentenced the man to a year in the hole. The hole was twenty-three hours in a cell by himself and one hour in an outdoor cage.
But the man kept writing. Another article in the underground paper and the man got another year in the hole. The penalty for punching a guard was three months in the hole, but for writing an article, the penalty was a year.
Finally I went to my student, I, the great revolutionary who wanted men to write about the conditions they lived in. I asked him to stop criticizing the system. He told me, “No, this is who I am. This is my identity. I’m going to keep it up.”
And he did. And the system bit back. He finally got out of prison after twenty-four years, far longer than other men with the same crime.
I’ve also had a lifelong interest in the United Nations. I imagined a woman becoming Secretary General and changing this tired, ineffective organization into a government that can really help people. Thus my novel VETO, (which by the way will be free next weekend, August 24, 25, & 26) (http://www.amazon.com/Veto-ebook/dp/B005ZIT5DK/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1345259965&sr=1-1&keywords=veto )
Q. Do you write about your personal life experiences in your stories?
ED: Yes, we all do, I think.
Q: Do you have any books in the works?
ED: 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.
Q: Who is your favorite character in your book? Why?
ED: In Delaney’s Hope, the book I’m working on now, there is a character named Mandaro, that everyone seems to like right away. Mandaro comes from real life.
I had two amazing men in my prison writing class. Mike was a boxer before he was arrested in Mexico for smuggling drugs. He was a talented writer, who could produce an entertaining story in a week’s time. The guys in the class loved his work. One time I said that many men wrote romances using a female name. The next week he came down to class with “Breach of the Heart,” and he read chapter one aloud. Again the men in the class liked it.
One guy asked, “Mike, how did you do it? How did you get inside that chick’s head?”
I will never forget Mike’s answer, and only he could say it in a prison and get away with it. Mike said, “I just got in touch with the female part of myself.”
But it is the other man that I based a character on. His name was Ricardo. He had a million ideas for TV shows and he wrote a novel about an Italian drug king. (Write what you know, the saying is.) He loved his Italian heritage and his novel was full of characters named Rocco, Alfonso, and Vincenzo. They hung out in a restaurant called La Dolce Vita. He had real talent to promote and to write.
Together the two of them energized my class.
Ricardo got out on parole first. I knew that the first days out of prison are very hard for a man, so I met him for coffee and we chatted. He told me how much he hated prison, and I reminded him that the best thing he could do about that was never go back. It was clear to him that I expected him to go straight, but lurking behind him, I saw the high life he used to live. I knew he had little money and I worried about what he would do to get it.
I set up another coffee the next Saturday at the Starbucks by Science World. He lived downtown and that would be convenient for him. I took the Skytrain from Surrey and I waited a half hour for him. I called his cell and got the answering message. He never showed. He knew what I expected.
The rumors started – he had gone back into crime and Ricardo did nothing in a small way.
Mike got out a year later and he went straight – poor but straight. Today he’s in a great relationship and has his own business. The writing will come back, but earning a living is on his mind now. He told me he’s seen countless crime opportunities, but turned them down. Often he runs into old friends who present him with tempting plans, but he refuses.
I kept hearing of Ricardo’s rise in the crime world. One night he rented a downtown nightclub to have an invitation-only party to announce his engagement. Of course, I wasn’t invited.
The next day I read the papers. On the way to the party a rival gang gunned him down. His fiancé and their six-month old baby were not injured, but were badly shaken.
I went to his funeral where six beefy gang members carried his coffin and the police photographed everyone there. It was a Godfather rerun and this also made me sad, that there was no mention of the artistic side of the man.
I’m writing a novel now about a new kind of prison, one that is about rehabilitation, not punishment. I have a character there named Nino Mandaro. He’s just like Ricardo, used to the high life and making big drug deals. Neither Mike nor Ricardo used drugs, but they dealt them. Mandaro is the same, he doesn’t use, but he deals – and in a big way. In the story he even figures out a way to get drugs into the prison.
Mandaro loves his Italian heritage and he sings Italian songs while he works in the prison.
I tried hard with Ricardo, but failed. Every time I drive by the cemetery where he’s buried, I say hello to him. Tears come to my eyes. Such a creative young man dead in his early thirties.
To handle my grief, I write. I write Nino Mandaro. He is my tribute to Ricardo.
Q. What is your favorite scene in your story?
ED: In my themed autobiography, Once A Priest, I wrote about marching in Selma with Doctor Martin Luther King and the life-changing event that happened to me when I returned to Cleveland, Ohio.
Tom, my fellow priest, and I had no luggage, just our clerical suits and overcoats. The marchers were on one half of the road, with some traffic getting through on the other half. The weather was cold and windy and we were glad we had our coats. At every cross street there were National Guard soldiers with fixed bayonets on their rifles. I couldn’t believe that there had to be armed soldiers in my native country.
In front of us on the march, a group of black people and white people laughed and joked together. They all seemed to know each other. They told us they were from Dr. King’s organization, SCLC, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. They welcomed us to the march and shared some candy bars with us.
Behind us was a short old white man with a full head of white hair. He said he had marched in the thirties for jobs for people and now he was marching so that people could vote.
“Get back in the church, Reverend,” someone on the sidelines behind the guards shouted at Tom and me. “Nigger lovers die tonight,” they cried out.
The wind picked up and it started to rain. There was nothing we could do but walk on. The weather seemed to depress people’s spirits for a while, but then the SCLC group started singing. We sang We shall overcome, and If I had a hammer.
Almost as if the weather responded to singing, the rain stopped, the clouds broke and the sun came out. It got warmer, so we took off our coats and walked along. Cabs were pulling up to the march all afternoon and the crowd got bigger and bigger. The abuse from the sidelines increased too as we neared the city of Montgomery. Tough looking locals promised us death – “If you go to sleep tonight, Pastor, you won’t wake up.”
As evening came, the organizers told us that we would spend the night on the grounds of St. Jude’s mission. This was absolute irony for me, because the little mission box on our kitchen table when I was growing up had been for St. Jude’s in Montgomery, Alabama. The stated purpose on the box was to convert the Negro people to Catholicism. I am sure my mother never intended her mission money to be used to house a bunch of protestors.
That evening a rally was held at St. Jude’s, including singers Harry Belafonte, Tony Bennett, Frankie Laine, Nina Simone, Sammy Davis Jr. and Peter, Paul and Mary. It was a great concert and rally. I felt happy and fulfilled that night. I was with my people – these protestors, black and white, young and old, clergy and lay. The night felt like the high point of my life, more important to my identity than my ordination day.
When the rally was over most people slept outside, but the priests from St. Jude’s insisted that all priests were to sleep in a big roof filled with cots. Nuns from the march stayed in a separate room.
Around noon the next day we walked the remaining distance to the state capital. By now there were about twenty-five thousand people. Of course, Governor Wallace did not come out to greet us.
Dr. King gave a terrific speech that day, encouraging us to struggle on for voting rights. He promised that the struggle would not be long. I don’t know whether he had inside information, but a mere five months later President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
One part of Dr. King’s speech affected me deeply:
Standing there in the sun that day, I felt that my life had reached an apex. Finally I was a Christian. I was working with this saint of a man, Doctor King. I was surrounded by other Christians who were fearless in their determination to bring justice to America.
It was hot, I hadn’t had a shower in days and I was hungry and tired. But I was happy.
If the march was a high point, the opposite happened when I returned to suburban Cleveland.
On my first Sunday back in Holy Family, I walked up to Pete as he was directing traffic between masses. This lanky man was one of the pastor’s old-time friends. When the lines of cars had zoomed out of the parking lot, he turned to me.
“Say, Father Griffin, you don’t much care about us, do you?”
“What do you mean, Pete?”
“This Selma business. I heard people say stuff I never heard them say about a priest.”
“Like they’s gonna kill you. That’s what one guy said, I ain’t kiddin’ you. And you know, don’t you, that a delegation went to see the pastor?”
“No, I didn’t know that. What did they say?” I wondered if Pete was part of the delegation.
“They said, ‘Either you get rid of that nigger-loving young priest, or we’ll never give you another dime. You can leave your new church as just a foundation.’”
“Those words, Pete? Nigger-loving young priest?”
“I’m telling you, Father.”
“And was there any mention from the pulpit about prayers for my safety?”
Pete gave me a look like I was crazy. “Listen, Father, I got get these cars lined up for the next mass. If I was you, I’d be careful.”
A threat? I didn’t know.
Another assistant priest told me later that the pastor went to the bishop and the bishop wanted to see me two days hence.
When I went to see the bishop, his first words were, “Well, Father Griffin, you have certainly raised a lot of trouble out there in Parma, people saying they’re going to kill you and refusing to pay for the pastor’s new church.”
“I am just trying to -”
“You had no permission to go on this march. You have embarrassed the church out there and you have caused your pastor a lot of grief. You know he’s not a well man. You understand, Father, our custom is to leave a young priest in a parish for five years. All your classmates are doing fine in their parishes. What happened to you?”
“It’s about racial justice, Bishop, I mean Your Excellency, I was just -”
The bishop waved his hand to stop me.
“You’re interested in the inner city, aren’t you, Father? And the colored people?”
“Yes, but it’s important to stand up against racism. John XXIII said in “Pacem in Terris that -”
“Don’t lecture me, young man. I know you’ve only been in Parma for three years, but based on your interest, I’m moving you to Saint Aloysius in Cleveland’s ghetto. Report there in two weeks. Good day, Father.”
I was crushed. I went back to the parish and told my fellow priest what the bishop had said.
“I’m sorry, Ed. We’ll miss you here. Especially the young people and the CFM couples. Some would say you’ve committed ecclesiastical suicide, but you can repair things. Just keep your mouth shut and do your job at St. Al’s.”
I thanked him and drove out to the country. I stopped at a park and sat in my car. Never in my life had I felt so alone. I wanted someone to be with me, someone to hold my hand, someone to tell me I’d done the right thing.
There was no one.
That night was the beginning of the end of my priesthood.
Q: Is there any part in writing you don’t like?
ED: I don’t like marketing, but I know I have to do it. I think my negative attitude comes from all those years of following the rules and sending query letters to agents and editors. One agent sent me a rejection for a book I didn’t write, another sent a rejection three years after my query. Rejection after rejection. The last one was great in a way, because it was a personal response. “My assistant read your book and absolutely loved it, but I’m rejecting it because I didn’t like the opening.”
After that I decided to work only in the E-book market.
Q: If you would have time travel abilities and could meet anyone from the past, who would it be?
ED: I would like to meet Joseph Campbell, the famous mythologist, who studied myths from all over the world. His work that interests writers is best found in Christopher Vogler’s book, The Writer’s Journey. But my interest in him goes far beyond writing. His study of mythology teaches about the hero’s journey and even teaches us how to read the Bible, how to look at life and so many other things. He died in the 1980s so maybe I’ll see him in the next life. However, I know what he would say, “Heaven is NOW” – “so thanks, Joseph. I have trouble understanding some of your books, but I really appreciate the knowledge you’ve given me.”
Find Ed online at
Personal Blog http://edgriffin.net/
Writer’s Write Daily Blog http://writerswritedaily.wordpress.com/
Prison Uncensored Blog http://prisonuncensored.wordpress.com/
Ed’s website is: www.edgriffin.net
Ed Griffin teaches creative writing in his community and in a federal prison in Canada. He’s written five books, three novels and two works of nonfiction. He’s an ex-everything, ex-politician, ex-businessman and ex-Catholic priest. He believes with Aristotle that “Art releases unconscious tensions and purges the soul.”