Fourth Grade Journey

A Fourth Grade Teacher's Journey Through the World of Books

Monday, July 18, 2016

An Inside Look #6 (Paul Griffin)

An Inside Look - With Paul Griffin
Author of When Friendship Followed Me Home

*Another summer Monday, means another "inside look" with an author.

*It has been such an honor to connect with authors and "chat" with them about their novel, the characters, and their thoughts about the story.

*I have had such fun connecting with authors and "picking" their brains.

*Here are the links to my first five interviews...

Interview #1 with Elly Swartz (Author of Finding Perfect)

Interview #2 with Jeff Zentner (Author of The Serpent King)

Interview #3 with Nora Raleigh Baskin (Author of Nine, Ten, A September 11 Story)

Interview #4 with Cammie McGovern (Author of Just My Luck)

Interview #5 with Kate Messner (Author of The Seventh Wish)

*I first heard about this novel via Twitter.

*When I saw it at the bookstore, I bought it, brought it home, and read it quite quickly.

*The story was so wonderful and I wanted to know more after finishing it.  I reached out to Paul and he was kind enough to say yes to answering my questions.

*Here are Paul's responses...

When Friendship Followed Me Home by Paul Griffin (Released June 7, 2016) 

How did you come to “know” Ben?  
My wife pointed out to me only after the book came out that Ben Coffin and Paul Griffin sound pretty close, and we are I guess.  I was always a bit of a loner, just always felt more comfortable in peaceful, quiet places.  I read to disappear into dream worlds, different places and times.  Tarzan was always great.  The Time Machine.  Dracula and Frankenstein, Planet of the Apes.

The way Ben meets Flip, a throwaway, is the way most of my dogs come to me.  I like the ones that have been lost or tossed and need a home.  They bring such forgiveness with them.  It gives me hope.

I’ve been working with kids for 27 years now, mostly teens, mostly in trouble.  They inspire me.  I don’t write about them to wallow in their pain.  I write about them to celebrate their resilience.

What do you think is Ben's most admirable quality?
Ben works hard to forgive everyone, especially himself.  I’m 50 now, and I think it’s one of the hardest things we have to learn to do—to forgive.  So much of what we see and hear tells us NOT to give somebody a second chance, or, even harder, to see the world through the eyes of somebody who destroys things.  It isn’t fun at all.  But it’s necessary.  Forgiveness slows everything down and makes everybody take a deep breath.  Ben is a peacemaker. 

Is there anything you wish Ben would have changed or done differently in his story?
He makes mistakes, but his regrets are short-lived.  I think he does the best he can.  He’s at his best when he doesn’t worry, when he focuses on what he can control, which is at the same time very little and a lot.  He can be a good friend to Halley, to Flip.  Worry and regret—they don’t do much to make the world a better place, Ben learns, I think.  Trying to be better the next time—that’s the ticket.  I think Ben learns to cherish his mistakes.  They’re opportunities to grow.

What do you think Ben can offer to other young children and/or adults that are experiencing similar situations to what he went through?  
I work as an EMT with a volunteer ambulance corps.  I’ve been doing it for 13 years.  You learn very quickly to quiet your mind and slow things down—not to let the horror of the moment grab you and make you breathless.  You learn to step back, to size-up where you can be useful.  Anger, fear, self-pity—all of these are absolutely understandable and natural, and it’s good to feel them.  But if you want to help the people in the situation—the people left behind when someone dies, the person who has no home—you focus on helping them breathe.  Seems so simple, right?  Just asking them to slow down a bit and to breathe?  But I’m always amazed at how much this helps.  It’s as if you see this glimmer of wisdom coming into their eyes.  The idea that everything is going to be the way it will be, but that we can control how we feel about it.  Being bitter about his mother’s death only makes Ben feel awful.  Remembering her, cherishing her, sharing stories about some of her lovely acts—these inspire Ben and Halley to do the same, to make the world a little quieter, a little kinder, a little more peaceful, a little more filled with laughter.

How did you “research” Ben and the circumstances he found himself in?
I tend to write about the formative experiences and relationships in my life—my relationships with my wife, neighbors, family, coworkers and friends.  People do things that amaze me.  They might be in a ton of trouble, but they do the best they can.  Sometimes they fail, sometimes they win but most times they just get by.  That’s inspiring—the trying. 

When I got out of school I was broke and living on people’s couches, working odd jobs, living out of a suitcase, this old army duffle.  Everything I owned was in that bag.  Then one night the boyfriend of the person whose couch I was crashing decided I needed to go, and threw my bag out the window of the sixth floor of an apartment building.  I walked around until a church opened up and I slept there in the back until a cop woke me and actually bought me a coffee.  I’ll never forget that.  A few days—and a long story—later, I was living in a construction site, a brownstone this guy was renovating.  The pipes weren’t even in.  The place was beams—the sheetrock wasn’t up yet.  The guy liked me and hired me to do some construction work for him, and he was a writer too, a screenwriter, doing well, and he remembered being broke when he started out and said I could crash in the site to save up enough money for an apartment.  I lived in a sleeping bag for six months.  I went in there in July, but by October I was freezing—no heat.  No friends, rough block, lots of noise, nasty noise, folks being mean to one another.  I felt so alone.  These cats used to come into the yard and I’d feed them and try to get them to come inside, but they wouldn’t.  They’d only stay with me if I stayed outside.  By the New Year I had enough money saved to rent an apartment, but I’ll never forget those six months.  Not having a home—it was awful.  I like the quiet, but that was too quiet.

Do you and Ben share any similarities?  
I think he’s the person I want to be.  He just has this sense of calm that sees him through.  The things he does—hanging out in the library, training the dog—these were and are among my favorite things to do.  Halley is the artist—the writer, the rapper—but maybe Ben’s art is patience.  I try to be patient the way Ben is.  Someday, when I grow up, maybe I’ll be as big-hearted as Ben.

What was the hardest scene to write about Ben?
I started the book in 2011 and finished in 2015.  I can’t remember a bad day working on this story.  My editor Kate Harrison is one of the most generous people I know.  She just kept encouraging me to keep digging, to keep trying different storylines, different characters.  We went through several drafts of the book.  If I looked at the first draft, I’d bet that very, very little of what’s there made it into the final book.  The characters grew, and sometimes grew right out of the story.  New characters came in over the years, new storylines.  Even the sad scenes, writing them—it was all time so well spent.  I got to disappear into my dreams for a while, every time I sat down to work on this story.  And sure, I was angry with the characters when they were in some unjust situation, and sad with them when they were sad, laughed when they did—but none of that felt hard.  It was a gift.

Who do you think was Ben’s biggest supporter and why?
Ben has a lot of supporters.  Some of them come into his life and then leave.  Some are able to stay.  I think he learns that friendship is a possibility in many places, and that we can experience different kinds of friendship.  His friendship with Flip, the dog, is built on total mutual devotion.  His friendship with Halley’s dad, the party magician, is one of teacher-student.  Ben and Halley connect through storytelling—they push each other to write this novella together.  All of these friendships feed him and help him learn that he’s a strong young man, that he’s capable of helping people—and dogs—feel the joy in life, the warmth that comes with deep friendship.  So I think he learns that you take all the support you can get, from wherever, whomever, and you do your best to be supportive where you can be.

Why do you think young people have to struggle with the loss of a parent, friend, or pet and do you think they sometimes handle it better than adults do?  
Goodbyes are awful.  The ones I’ve had to say anyway.  I think the only thing that makes me feel better is remembering the beauty of the family member, friend, pet.  The kindness in him or her.  The smiles.  The times they made me laugh.  Young people are so strong, so open.  They’re my heroes.  When we get older, we can become bitter—young people don’t do that, not as much.  I think they’re more grateful for the beauty in what’s happening right now.  Their dreams are big, and they focus on how to make them come true.  They tend to use what’s in front of them to help them get closer to realizing their dreams.  So the death of a loved one, while painful, is also a learning experience.  A chance to remember this person or pet’s life.  What did s/he do that made me feel wonderful, made me laugh?  Well, maybe I’ll do that, and keep them alive that way.  Young people are more resilient than we older folks are.  I think this is why I like to write for middle grade readers.  When you commit to writing truthfully, you have to take on the characters’ personalities, have to become them in a way.  It’s a gift to go back there, to remember when I was more resilient.  Sometimes I remember to be that way now—try to be.

What do you think Ben is doing as the present time?  
I hope he’s working hard in school.  I hope he and Flip are working their magic shows with Mercurious.  I hope he’s working with the kids, helping them gain confidence as they read to Flip.  I hope he and Chucky aren’t getting roughed up too much by the bullies.  I hope he’s into what he’s reading, his sci fi, his engineering stuff.  I hope most of all that he and Flip get down to the beach and just sit and take in the sun as it bounces off the ocean and remember Halley and her smile, and in that way keep her with them forever. 

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