Steven Jay Griffel is the perfect example of a baby boomer who orchestrated his own second act. After working for decades in the world of publishing, he pivoted almost without missing a beat when the Great Recession caused him to lose his corporate job. Quickly realizing that times had changed for post-corporate fiftysomethings, Griffel pulled out his keyboard and began a new career as a novelist. Fast-forward and his debut novel becomes an Amazon ebook Best Seller in just over two years from the date of its publication. Having established his "hero" David Grossman in Forty Years Later (2009), Griffel quickly followed up with The Deadline (2012) and Grand View (2013), as the next books in the series. Now with five years under his belt in his new occupation, Griffel has hit his stride as a novelist with a very loyal following and as a sought-after public speaker. THIRSTY visited with Steven Jay Griffel at his home in Queens to talk about his new life and career.
THIRSTY: Your first novel, Forty Years Later, was published five years ago as an ebook in the very early days of the digital book revolution and it became an Amazon Best Seller. Looking back, how does this journey as an author feel to you and what have you learned?
STEVEN JAY GRIFFEL: My road to success is a story of potholes, stalled traffic, and breakdowns. If I were on a pulpit – or mentoring an audience of high school students – I would sing the praises of persistence. "Try hard…. Try harder…. Never give up!"
But if I were talking to a peer, I would rely more on honesty than homily. First, I would make sure this person knows that I have no advice they can bank on. The only thing I can say with certainty is: Results will vary.
Pressed for some advice, I would turn the table and ask: "What do you want out of writing?" Now, if the Socratic table were turned on me, I would admit that I want it all from writing: the public validation, the private joy of personal discovery, the sharing of myself, the connection to others.
What have I learned? I have learned that if I write the best books I can – as honestly as I can – sticking to the story and keeping my ego in the shadows, there will be plenty readers who will enjoy what I have to say.
THIRSTY: You have spoken before large and small audiences over the years. What is your impression of how people feel about books today? How has reading changed from the physical book era to the electronic one?
STEVEN JAY GRIFFEL: I think people ought to remember that the book is an example of technology, and technology is always changing. Writing scrolls made from papyrus; parchment pages made from animal skins; Gutenberg's invention of movable type – all these were phases in the development of the book. The ebook is just another tick on the timeline. One day, it too will be superseded by a more advanced technology.
I think modern technology has eased the transition from traditional to digital by effectively integrating ebooks with other aspects of peoples' daily lives. Today, people download and sync books to the same e-devices they use for their work, entertainment, and social media. People can read almost any book they want – wherever they are, whenever they please.
People are reading more books than ever in the digital age. People want to be inspired and entertained. They want a good story. It doesn't seem to matter if the story is inked on paper or produced digitally. Good writing captures the imagination.
THIRSTY: Are there additional pressures on the author to connect with a modern audience conditioned to a short attention span by a world filled with many distractions?
STEVEN JAY GRIFFEL: No, I don't think so. A strong narrative should keep readers riveted. Blaring radios…ringing phones…droning TV's…these were the distractions of an earlier age. Today's distractions differ only in the character of their technology. So what if a person takes a break between chapters to check their email or to take picture? If the story is strong, the reader will be drawn back.
THIRSTY: During the past five years, you have written three books in your David Grossman series. Who is David Grossman and how is he dealing with the circumstances of his life?
STEVEN JAY GRIFFEL: David Grossman is the guy next door: a husband and father; a fair-minded, tax-paying citizen; an average guy with some big dreams. He is moral, so long as he doesn't face strong temptation. He is dependably ethical – depending on his mood and circumstance. He will bend but he won't break. He is not looking for trouble, but he is looking for something…which sometimes leads him to pick locked doors, peek under skirts, and pursue paths not often taken. As a middle-aged man, David faces the usual concerns of unemployment, faltering health, fading hopes. Desperate times call for desperate measures.
THIRSTY: In Grand View, your third book (although you suggest it should be the first book read in the series), your protagonist recounts his days at summer camp in the Catskill Mountains during one particular summer vacation in the 1960s. Many customer reviews point out that your story brought back Catskill summer memories to the readers. Did you intend this book to have that kind of nostalgic effect? Are there a lot of people who share the same experiences?
STEVEN JAY GRIFFEL: Everyone remembers their childhood, and summer memories tend to be especially colorful and intense. Perhaps this is because summers are typically a time of change. With fewer school and parental restraints, summer is the time when personal boundaries are likely to be pushed, when life is an experiment, and when character is defined.
I knew other people who had summered in the Jewish Catskills would feel a nostalgic rapport with Grand View. But I didn't write the book only for them. I was always aware of a much larger audience. I think Grand View is a book to be enjoyed by anyone who still feels the static of an emotionally charged childhood.
THIRSTY: In your book The Deadline, your hero struggles with a ticking clock promise to his wife to either succeed as a novelist or return to working "under the corporate lash." Having lost your job at a New York publisher because of the Great Recession, how have you as a baby boomer reinvented your life?
STEVEN JAY GRIFFEL: I lost my last job – VP of a large publishing house – in 2008. At the time I had been in publishing for 35 years.
After the initial shock, I faced a big question. It wasn't exactly sink or swim. I assumed I could find away to earn some money – enough to keep bread on the table and my creditors at bay. But I needed to ask myself: What do I want to do with the rest of my life?
My moment of reckoning was a kind of existential smackdown. I took the measure of my life and found it wanting: I had already done most of my living but still faced some key unrealized goals. Most compelling of these was to write and publish my version of the Great American Novel.
To accomplish this I knew I would need to commit my full-time attention – and for this I would need my wife's support. I asked for her blessing and she gave it to me – with a catch. If after one year I had not succeeded, I had to get another full-time job. I had one year to live my life's dream. This gave me the idea for The Deadline.
So, you see, I didn't really reinvent myself so much as I rededicated myself to the dream of my youth: to live my life as a writer.
I think most baby boomers are likely too busy (or possibly too afraid) to ask themselves: What do I want to do with the rest of my life? It's a valid question. It might be the only question that really matters.
THIRSTY: How important is building a base of fans for an author? What role does word-of-mouth play in propelling a book to success? How important is social media as a vehicle to connect with fans?
STEVEN JAY GRIFFEL: Building a fan base is essential. It's like asking a politician if he thinks having a voter base is important. Without an audience, I'm singing in the dark.
I've learned that an author's fan base is built one reader at a time. There's nothing better than a satisfied customer when it comes to spreading good news. Word of mouth builds on its own momentum. Roll a snowball down a hill and you might cause an avalanche.
I have also learned that there is no voice quite as loud as social media's megaphone. Without it I might open my window and shout – but it's unlikely that the good people of South Africa would hear me. But if I post something on my Facebook page or on a Catskills fan page, or write an article for an online magazine like Stay Thirsty, my voice is heard around the world.
Of course, social media extends beyond the digital world. I am often asked to speak with book clubs, lecture at libraries, or present at various community venues. I enjoy connecting with people who are interested in my books and what I have to say. Having a devoted fan base is one of the most gratifying aspects of being a published author.
THIRSTY: Do you have any advice for aspiring novelists?
STEVEN JAY GRIFFEL: Writing novels is not rocket science. I don't mean to imply that it is a less challenging skill or a less important career. But it does require a very different preparation. For one thing, the training is not empirically based, as it is for most scientists. Basically, an aspiring novelist must develop two non-empirical skills: a command of written English and an understanding of character and plot. The best way to develop these skills is by reading and writing. While there is no definitive reading list to prepare novelists for excellence, I would suggest that aspiring novelists read widely: classic, contemporary – read, read, read. And write. Reading will help build an intuitive understanding of how character and plot are developed. Writing will help aspiring novelists find their unique voice.
THIRSTY: Will we be hearing from David Grossman again?
STEVEN JAY GRIFFEL: David Grossman is an alter-ego of mine. He is like me – but with a higher chutzpah quotient and a larger pair of brass balls. I need him. He is my litmus test, my killing field, my parade ground. He is the dark side of my moon. He is my better angel. David Grossman and I are not yet ready to part ways. In fact, I am almost finished with a new novel and I think this might be the most exciting David Grossman novel yet.