A Conversation with Author Steven Jay Griffel
Steven Jay Griffel was a 56-year-old baby boomer swept up by the tidal wave of the Great Recession and yet he found a way to rise to the surface and prosper as an author and sought-after public speaker. Now, with four successful novels to his credit, including an Amazon #1 Best Seller, he is an example of how great storytelling and fine writing can build an audience and permit a writer to do what he loves to do. A beneficiary of the eBook revolution and one of its pioneering novelists, the public has blessed his work and encouraged him to keep going. His latest book, Grossman's Castle, was recently released and marks a quartet in his David Grossman series. Stay Thirsty Magazine was pleased to visit with Steven Jay Griffel at his home in Queens for this Conversation.
STAY THIRSTY: Your fourth book in the David Grossman series, Grossman's Castle, was released in March of 2015 and it deals with a youthful period in Grossman's adult life. Who is David Grossman and how did you develop him?
STEVEN JAY GRIFFEL: David Grossman is my best-known fictional character, an alter-ego I use to explore my ideas, feelings, and fantasies most directly.
Grossman's Castle tells the story of David, floundering in life and love. Not yet thirty, he has already worked himself into and out of significant careers and relationships. He is smart and passionate but diffuse—unable to find meaning and satisfaction. To shake him up, to sensitize him, I needed to remove him from his familiar haunts so he could discover his true self and grow. For a proving ground, I decided on something fantastical: an ancient German castle with a ghoulish history and a love-hungry wraith—among other amorous interests….
As you noted, Grossman's Castle is my fourth David Grossman book. About twenty years ago I wrote my first, a novel called Grand View that tells the story of life in a Jewish Catskills bungalow colony in the early sixties. The story is told by fifty-year-old David Grossman, looking back on his younger self. This summertime saga features David during a critical time in his life: the painful cusp known as adolescence.
When I wrote Grand View I had no inkling there would be another David Grossman book. But the Jewish Catskills continued to call to me. Twenty years after writing Grand View I reconnected with a woman I had known as a young teen during my bungalow colony days. This person had also become a writer—a screenwriter—and had a big hit movie. Our serendipitous meeting reignited my creative passion and led to my writing Forty Years Later and The Deadline, both of which feature David Grossman as a sixty-year-old, struggling with unemployment, career change, a dying mother, and other challenges of boomer life.
STAY THIRSTY: Amazon reviews have frequently commented on how David Grossman is an "everyman" whose experiences are typical of so many baby boomers during their own lives. Did you intend for Grossman to make such a connection when you conceived him?
STEVEN JAY GRIFFEL: Yes. My favorite characters in literature have a wide range of expression and many points of vulnerability. In choosing the name "David Grossman" I had in mind a kind of composite human: a handsome, psalm-writing, warrior king and an uncouth, impulse–driven, regular Joe. I imagined an "everyman" in whom all potential feelings and frailties are contained.
STAY THIRSTY: Forty Years Later, your debut novel, was published six years ago. At that time you were an unknown writer and today you are an Amazon best-selling author and a seasoned public speaker. What has that journey been like for you?
STEVEN JAY GRIFFEL: It's been a remarkable journey: like watching the unfurling of my own Fate. You see, for many years I had visualized my success—and privately prophesied it would one day materialize. In this, David Grossman is very much like me. From Grossman's Castle: "Not surprising, their offer of kingship was irresistible. In accepting the offer, David felt he was following Fate, which had marked him for some special greatness."
David awakes the morning after his coronation to the realization that he is king—and wonders how this knowledge will transform his reality. When I awake, each and every morning, I think: "I am a published and successful novelist." Whatever else happens, I have written and published. This is very meaningful to me.
STAY THIRSTY: During the past six years you have worked with other best-selling authors, from Warren Adler to Jerome Charyn to Thomas Cook to Robert Olen Butler. Are there any common traits that such highly acclaimed authors have? Are there any common processes or habits that stand out?
STEVEN JAY GRIFFEL: Each of these writers is in his seventies or beyond (except for Cook, who is close), but none rests on his laurels. As far as I know, each maintains very regular work habits. I get the feeling that each writer believes he's still on top of his game; that his best work is yet to come.
Lesson to younger writers: You never know when you have written your last sentence. Don't write tomorrow what you can write today.
STAY THIRSTY: What have you learned about developing a base of loyal fans for your work?
STEVEN JAY GRIFFEL: I didn't start off with a nationally recognizable name. I wasn't a famous person, like Andre Agassi, who writes a book, counting on a large fan base for a surge of initial support. I had to develop a fan base from scratch, and the task was daunting. Readers have millions of books to choose from, thousands published every month. How to get some of them to choose mine? I learned early on that there are no tricks or shortcuts. Basically, I had to find stumps I could stand on—and then I had to sell myself. The early going was the hardest. But once I had earned a few notable successes—some book clubs, major NYC library support—I was able to press my case more effectively.
Building a fan base is an on-going process. I still make calls, write emails, post on Facebook, and press the flesh. To build a loyal fan base, you have to win one reader at a time. That's the secret.
STAY THIRSTY: When you speak at book clubs, libraries, and before special-interest groups, what questions come up the most?
STEVEN JAY GRIFFEL: Questions differ, depending on the venue and the nature of my presentation. During the beginning of a book club or reading group discussion, members are most likely to tell me what they liked best about the book. These statements always inspire others to agree or disagree—and this incites the first round of questions.
Because many people know (or assume) my alter-ego connection to David Grossman, they feel free to ask which parts of my books are mostly true and which are mostly fictional. This is a slippery slope for me. I make it very clear that my works are entirely fictional, even though I occasionally base a scene or a character on a place or person I have experienced.
Sometimes readers have questions about plot issues. In some books I do not neatly tie off each and every plot thread. Sometimes a reader will question me about an unresolved issue: Did Jill really murder that guy? Did Michael die? Does the mob come for the café? Does David marry Esther? Because such questions are beyond the scope of the novels, I usually turn the table and ask: What do you think happened? Why?
After a book has been thoroughly discussed, I'm usually asked more general questions: Do you write every day? How did you get the book published? Do you do your own marketing? How many copies have you sold? Have you sold the film rights to Hollywood? Which of your novels is your personal favorite? How does your wife feel about these books?
When I do a presentation that is not book specific, the audience usually begins with questions about my theme: I often speak about Woodstock, past and revisited; the Golden Age of the Jewish Catskills; growing up in the Bronx; the Digital Revolution; technology in education, etc. My biography and writing career are interweaved into all these discussions, and so I field questions on many overlapping issues.
STAY THIRSTY: Your personal story is typical of baby boomers who lost their jobs in the Great Recession. How difficult was it for you to reinvent yourself? How did your family feel about your change in careers?
STEVEN JAY GRIFFEL: It is not easy to reinvent oneself. Especially when one is older. Especially when there are bills to be paid. Even so, my decision to become a full-time novelist was not as dramatically daring as some might imagine. I had some safety nets in place. My wife was working, and I had the ability to do some freelance editing to bring in a few extra dollars. Also, my wife and I did not face the pressure of steep debt. When it came to spending money, we had led sensible, cautious lives. Our mortgage was nearly paid. We were not over-extended on credit or on the hook for student loans. We didn't own a vacation home, a boat—or even a new car. Declaring myself a novelist was more of a psychological challenge than a financial one. No more would I be judged by the success of a product line or the profitability of some service I had helped to create. As a novelist, I would be judged much more personally: Am I good storyteller? Am I a talented writer? These questions were terrifying. They went to the core of my sense of self. In becoming a novelist I risked much more than the loss of my executive salary.
STAY THIRSTY: Authors must learn to live with both praise and criticism. How do you deal with the positives and the negatives about your books?
STEVEN JAY GRIFFEL: The first time I received a bad Amazon review my publisher had to talk me off the ledge. Never mind that 90% of my other reviews were very positive, the public slam seemed to me a personal affront. I felt a little better after my publisher explained to me the new publishing landscape: No longer did newspaper reviews shape readership. In the digital age, the online review—especially on Amazon, by far the world's largest book distributor—carries the greatest influence. But, he explained, this new phenomenon has its own rules: its own blessings and its own perils.
Online reviews are a stark exercise in democracy. Anyone who buys a book can post a review, and the reviewer can choose to remain anonymous or sign their review with a pseudonym, protecting themselves against revenge or lawsuit should they write anything especially hurtful or libelous.
While such an open forum undoubtedly attracts crazies, by and large it attracts well-meaning readers who want to share their honest thoughts. Many readers I know place more trust in the consensus opinions of Amazon reviewers than in the erudite assessment of a single New York Times book reviewer.
Personally, I read all my reviews. I revel in the great ones, which brighten my day, and despair (for a minute or two) over the negative ones—and then get on with my life.
STAY THIRSTY: Completing four popular, well-received novels in six years shows both determination and discipline. What advice do you have for young writers?
STEVEN JAY GRIFFEL: As writing advice goes, there's no more helpful axiom than Write what you know. I meet a lot of young writers who are hell-bent on describing the Galaxy Quark but unable to freshly describe their kitchen. Rather than get hung up on complicated plots, I think burgeoning writers should write about themselves and the world around them in order to discover—and master—their natural voice. Everyone's voice is different. Henry James wrote with a stately, classical phrasing. Elmore Leonard writes a tough-guy, colloquial prose. With the discovery of one's natural voice comes confidence. With confidence, the writer is better able to meet the demands of his or her imagination.
STAY THIRSTY: What is your next project?
STEVEN JAY GRIFFEL: I am not yet done with David Grossman. Why should I be? How can I be? It is widely known that he is my fictional alter-ego. Proust expressed himself through the perspective of Marcel; Kafka had his "K"; I have David.
In some important ways Grossman's Castle was a big change for me. My earlier narratives were related through David Grossman's first-person voice. But Grossman's Castle provided a special challenge: a four-person ensemble cast. David Grossman is still the star, so to speak, the first among equals; but I needed direct access into the hearts and minds of all four characters to tell this tale—thus the third-person point of view. With this limitless, free-ranging scope, there's no telling where David Grossman will lead me next.