Roy Madison Griffis. Roy for my mom’s father. Madison from my dad’s father. He’s written plays, poetry, short stories, and screenplays.
He was born in deep south, and his birth name was Marion Madison Griffis, but my own father had an inkling such a name might cause me trouble in the growing-up-and-surviving department, so he opted for the middle name. All that being said, most people call me “Griff.” I was in the Coast Guard about 30 seconds before I became Griff for the rest of my life.
Last ten years or so, I drifted into novels. Prior to that, I’d been making the rounds in Hollywood, and gotten really tired of facing the committees of MBAs who gave “notes” on your scripts. The turning point was probably when I’d written a screenplay set in the Korean War, and it had––unsurprisingly for anyone who knows anything about history–– Chinese Communists as antagonists. One MBA said “Hold on, I need to make sure it’s okay to have the Chinese as bad guys.” Dude, it’s the Korean War, about a million Red Chinese soldiers dropped by one winter day to give a .50 caliber raspberry to Doug McArthur and the UN troops.
Oh, then I got good news. I was informed it was okay to have Chinese villains. I stopped trying to schlep my screenplays shortly after that, which was just as well, since people stopped being interested in reading them.
The next couple of years were focused on being Dadman to Adventureboy while grumbling to myself about how I was a failure. One day, I had a a personal epiphany about my writing. It didn’t matter if I was ever “successful.” All that mattered was I’d tried. That seemed like a much more important thing to model to my son than “You’re nothing if people don’t throw money at you for doing it.” I realized I’d rather die thinking “By God, I did my best” than whining “I wish I’d had the guts to try.” (remind me to tell you later how Drama Geek in High School went on to become the 61st USCG Aviation Rescue Swimmer. But that, as they say, is another story…)
Anyway, I just started writing a story one day. It had been a long time since I’d written prose (screenplays are so structured, they have to be kind of planned), but I heard this voice say “Must be kind of lonesome to be George.” That eventually became my first professionally published novel “The Big Bang: Volume One of the Lonesome George Chronicles” which is a jaunty little alternative history that imagines what America would be like if Al Qaeda and their franchisees ever got it together enough to carry out their relio-pathic fantasies and strike the Great Satan at the same time.
I wrote that for myself (no MBA committees in sight). Got a bonus at work one year, and used it to self-publish about 100 copies (this was just before the miracle of Amazon/CreateSpace/Kindle freed the ink-stained Israelites). Co-workers read the novel, and they liked it…or they were just afraid I would key their cars in the parking lot if they didn’t.
Well, with one novel under my belt, I wasn’t sure what I was going to write next. But then that weird, strange alchemy took place (you writer-peeps know that which I am trying to describe): two ideas, two images from conversations that happened over twenty years apart…lined up. They were like those concepts we file away (physically or mentally), the image or the event or even an imagined conversation seems compelling, but, in my case, I wasn’t sure what I’d do with the two of them individually. As I said, one day, they very quietly slipped into place: the oldest idea would be the beginning, and the newer was the end.
So I sat down to write “By the Hands of Men,” which begins in the trenches of France amid the First World War (which was known optimistically as The Great War prior to 1939). I knew where it started and I knew where it was going to conclude and I knew my major theme was (spoiler) the fact that men’s hands can make of the world a heaven or a hell. Knowing all that, I thought it would be a single novel.
Well, I never said I know everything. Book One became “The Old World.” It was followed by “Into the Flames,” and then “The Wrath of a Righteous Man.” I’m working on Book Four now, which I pledge will conclude this part of the story of Lieutenant Robert Fitzgerald and Nurse Charlotte Braninov.
When and why did you start writing?
At age 10, I was sent to my grandparent’s house in Tuscon, Arizona when things were tough at home. I was pretty damn lost, as my grandparents were largely strangers to me. My older brother, a more taciturn type, refused to discuss what was going on.
Fortunately, like so many kids before me, I was rescued by literature. Or, at least, by fiction.
In a tiny used bookstore that was just one block up from a dirt road, I discovered that some good soul had unloaded his entire collection of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ “John Carter of Mars” series in Ballantine Paperback. Moved by some impulse, I spent my RC Cola bottle refund money on the first book, “A Princess of Mars.”
I think what struck me was how these books were possessed of magic: they were able to transport me far from this dusty land of relatives who I didn’t know and relatives who pretended not to know me to another dusty land of adventure, heroism, nobility, and even love. It was the first magic I’d encountered that wasn’t a patent fraud, and when I closed the stiff paperback with the lurid images on the cover, I decided it was the kind of magic I wanted to dedicate the rest of my life to mastering. And, thus, I was saved. Since then, I’ve never looked back.
What inspires your writing?
Usually, a question. “What if…” takes me down a lot of roads. What if Al Qaeda had a coordinated attack on the US? What would happen to the country? What would happen to our social/political structure? What would have happened to the people who’d spent their careers pooh-poohing the stated aims of that group? How would they react? How would regular people react?
How would you define creativity?
At its best, I think it is the ability to reframe reality in a way that gives us a new appreciation or understanding of our own or others’ experiences. I say “at its best” because like any other good thing, creativity can be abused. In one striking week, I saw the movies “Pulp Fiction” and “Babe.” It was an abject lesson in the ability of art to debase (PF is utter garbage) and to uplift (hard to do better than “Babe”).
Do you have any writing rituals to get you in the mood for writing?
Rituals, not so much. Routines and requirements, yeah.
Ideally, some coffee. Some decent soundtrack music. A cat or two.
If you could, what would you go back and tell yourself as a writer starting out?
More important to be a good person than a famous author. Ernest Hemingway was famous. He was also a complete, ego-driven tool.
What do you believe make for great writing?
For me, as a reader (and I think that’s where we all start, as readers), a book that immerses you in the world the author created…fictive, near-real, or completely imaginary. And it’s not merely the details of the world, but the emotional resonance that feels real. If it doesn’t take me on an emotional journey, I’m not interested.
Which writers have influenced your writing?
Richard Adams. “Watership Down” took rabbits…rabbits…and made me laugh and gasp and weep. A culture of rabbits, with their own mythology and history and heroes. Amazing work of imagination.
Richard Matheson. My 7th grade English teacher dismissed his “I Am Legend” as trash, but, again, he wrote in a way that made you feel like you were right damn there.
Larry McMurtry does the same thing in “The Last Picture Show” and “Lonesome Dove.”
There are non-fiction authors who I admire greatly. Gary Kinder (“Ship of Gold in the Blue Ocean”), Robert Kurson (“Shadow Divers”). Eugene Sledge (“With the Old Breed”).
How do you measure success as a writer?
Believe me, it’s changed. When I was younger and certifiably dumber, it would have been material success up to and including a house in Hollywood with starlets rubbing coconut oil on me.
Now (and bless the Internet and email and ebooks), it’s when I a get an email or review from someone who doesn’t know me from Adam that says, in essence “Son of a bitch, I couldn’t put this down.”
Have you ever hated something you wrote?
Yup, back in the screenwriter days, a work for hire. One of the nice things about doing this because I love it and not because I’m afraid of being a failure is that I don’t write a damn thing I don’t want to. It does require a day job to keep me from being a burden to society, but everything costs.
What’s your biggest fear as a writer?
That I’m fooling myself. That I’ve nothing valuable or entertaining to say.
What traits do you feel make a great writer?
Personally? People who write the immersive and emotionally involving novels mentioned above, which must contain hope.
I loathe books that are “oh, the world is horrible and people are terrible and we’re all victims.”
Bullshit. Unless you’re chained to the wall in a North Korean prison camp, you’ve got choices, so don’t waste my time with post-modernist whining about how we’re all captives of the heteronormative patriarchal capitalist industrial complex or some such crap.
Everything costs (somebody had to pay for Salvation, even if it’s free to us). Only infants believe in “everything should be free for everybody.”
Figure out what you want, figure out what it will cost to get it, and pay the fee. You want to be a parent? The fee could be as simple as running on reduced sleep for about ten years or as complex as putting your career on hold until that kid is up and out. You want to be a novelist and a good parent? It might mean getting up at 4am to write before work, and then jamming an extra cup of coffee on yourself in the late afternoon so you have some energy to play with that little kid who needs and deserves your time and attention.
But I digress.
Describe your latest book to our readers
“The Wrath of a Righteous Man” is the third book in the aforementioned “By the Hands of Men” series. One reviewer called the entire series my “Star-Crossed Armageddon,” as it follows English Lieutenant Robert Fitzgerald and Russian immigré nurse Charlotte Braninov from the time they meet less than a mile from the front lines during the Great War and through their separate travels across the shattered world and social order that resulted from that War. In a sense, it’s the story of Charlotte’s fight for survival, and Robert’s fight for his soul, which covers about 20 years and ranges across several continents.
What would you like readers to take away from your writing?
That every day we get to decide to be God’s hands and feet in the world, to be the miracle He promised, to make Him real in the world. That the choice is ours, every damn day. (see rant above)
Do you have any tips for aspiring writers?
The first was given to me by Harlan Ellison (likely another influence, given how evocative his best writing can be…look for his “Hitler Painted Roses” an insane, absolutely incredible and moving work of fantasy). I once did a favor for him (another long story from my yute), and I asked him the same thing. He said “Write.”
The second is one that was supposedly used by old (1930s era) Hollywood screenwriters. “Seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.” Also pretty simple, and really effective. I found the longer I wrote, the more consistently I put in the time, the more the words were available, even when it “felt” like they wouldn’t be.
Can you give our audience a writing prompt to help get them writing?
Take a second to ask yourself “What are you afraid of writing?” Whatever comes to mind…WRITE THAT.
What’s next for you?
I get off Graveyard shift in one week (and boy, writing at odd hours easier when I was a young single guy, even when I was doing midwatch on a Coast Guard cutter). Once back on day shift, I’ll get back to my regular routine of working for three hours before starting the paycheck job. I’m 142 pages into Book Four of “By the Hands of Men,” and I really want to get that done by November. I have all my research materials at hand, and I know how it ends (which is handy in its own way).
Book Two of the Lonesome George Chronicles, “Bringing the Fire” will be published in December or January, and I need to begin revising Book Three of that series, “The Broken Return” for a possible June publication. And then I’ll begin working on Book Four of that series.
So, I’ve got a bit of work to keep me busy for a while. After that, who knows?
These are the first three books in a four-volume Historical Fiction series (Book Three released in May), called “By the Hands of Men.” The series begins in the trenches of France during The Great War, and will conclude in California in the mid-thirties.
Lieutenant Robert Fitzgerald has managed to retain his sanity, his humanity, and his honor during the hell of WWI’s trench warfare. Charlotte Braninov fled the shifting storm of the impending Russian Revolution for the less-threatening world of field camp medicine, serving as a nurse in the most hopeless of fronts. Their friendship creates a sanctuary both could cling to in the most desperate of times. Historical fiction about life, loss, and love, By the Hands of Men explores the power that lies within each of us to harm – or to heal – all those we touch. (263 pages, 82,000 words. Published November 4, 2013)
Charlotte Braninov, traumatized by loss and her service as a frontline nurse, returns to war-torn Russia to find her family. Captured by the Red Army, she exchanges one hell for another. Her still-loyal Lieutenant, Robert Fitzgerald, believing the woman he loves is dead, struggles to recover from the ravages of combat and typhus. In a desperate bid to rediscover himself, he commits to serve his country as a pawn in distant Shanghai. Forging their destinies in a world reeling after The Great War, Charlotte and Robert will learn anew the horror and the beauty the hands of men can create when they descend into the flames. (440 pages, 161,000 words. Published November 15, 2015)
Continuing the epic story of the “By Hands of Men” series, a man and a woman, torn apart by fate, forge their own destinies in the world after the Great War. Escaping her enslavement in Russia, Charlotte Braninov fights to build a new life in London while the shadow of modern fanaticism looms over Europe. Robert Fitzgerald faithfully serves the Crown in Africa until honor compels him to risk everything to overcome an ancient evil, only to discover that the greatest war rages within himself. (324 pages, 120,000 words. Published May 16, 2016)