Story last updated at 4/23/2014 - 2:31 pm
Danél F. Griffin can pinpoint a few clear moments when his life changed.
In one, he was knee-deep in Oregon dirt, working on a friend's farm, when he received a call from the company that wanted to publish his first book.
In another, he overheard a conversation between two parishioners - an old man and a child - at a church in which he preached. It made him realize he wanted to apply principles of literary criticism to the Bible. Soon after that, he stopped believing. He stopped preaching. He got divorced.
Both moments were seminal ones for his writing.
Griffin, a Juneau resident and University of Alaska Southeast graduate, just published his second book, "Spiral's Edge." The first is "Ellipses." Both are parts of a trilogy.
He began "Ellipses" days after graduating from UAS, soon after he lost his faith.
"For me I was a very personal reflection," he said. "I was trying to work through 'What do I believe now?'"
Griffin grew up in a fundamentalist Christian family. Like his father, Griffin was a Southern Baptist minister. His grandfather, Felton Griffin, started the Alaska Baptist convention in the 1940s.
"It's very difficult to be a student of literature, and also be, in my experience, a very legalistic (doctrinistic) religious person," he said. "The Bible is a good, important perspective, but it's not the only one. ... I wrote 'Ellipses' trying to figure out what my foundation was. I found myself coming back to literature, and reading, and writing, and the process of exploring and entering into that conversation."
In study groups at church, he began asking questions, wondering if he and others were interpreting parts of the Bible wrong. That questioning wasn't well-received.
It was also around the time of the Iraq invasion.
"I remember thinking 'Jesus would want us to forgive,'" he said. "I started preaching that, and I met with a lot of resistance. ... That was the turning point for me."
Now, he calls himself "mostly just a nihilistic pantheist."
He wrote the first draft of "Ellipses" over that summer, inspired by a dream in which he received a letter from his dying mother. In the dream, he was told to never open the letter.
The desire to open the letter - to discover the mystery - versus the reluctance to do something against his mother's wishes is, he said, at the heart of the first book.
He describes "Ellipses," which focuses on a long conversation between two strangers, as "a love letter to all the great literature I'd ever read."
"There's an openness and a frankness between strangers that cannot be replicated among friends," he said. "When you're on the road, you meet strangers you never will meet again, so there's no veil. You can just be whoever it is you are or project whatever sort of persona you want. There's a freedom to that."
"Spiral's Edge" fleshes out one of the minor characters in "Ellipses" as he searches for the protagonist of the first book, six years after the story ended.
Griffin said he's proud of that first book.
"I think that if you're going to be a writer, I would say always to be an aspiring writer. There's so much more to learn about ... craft, and how you want to improve," he said.
Conversations Griffin had with his four siblings also helped inspire his writings.
"You grow up and these people are rivals," he said. "'There are cookie crumbs in my bed again!' Then they grow up to be the most interesting people when you don't notice."
It's no coincidence that the premise of the trilogy involves a road trip: that's how Griffin lived most of his life.
"I just remember growing up and going to little churches all over the country," Griffin said.
His father, he said, would try to think of ways to revive the religious life of the places they stopped. Music. Ministry. Outreach.
"The longest we ever stayed in a place was four years, and then we'd just keep moving," he said.
Those moves took him from Tennessee, to Florida, to Ohio, to Russia. He lived in Anchorage until he was six.
When he decided to switch out of his private Christian college, he thought of the "serene stillness and peacefulness" of his Alaska memories, and applied at UAS.
Now, Griffin is also pursuing his Master of Arts through Alaska Pacific University, doing an independent study about the process by which real life people become monsters or saints in the popular imagination. How does St. Nicholas become Santa Claus? How does Vlad the Impaler become Dracula?
He hopes to travel to Eastern Europe to include a travelogue with his analysis.
"I still feel like a novice about how the publishing world works," he said. "A lot of it is just luck. You hope that people will read it and that it will catch on. You do everything you can to let people know it's available."
"Spiral's Edge" and "Ellipses" are available at Hearthside Books, as well as on Amazon, Griffin said. They're not yet available in digital form.
He's working with friend and poet Jessica Lorenz on the third book in the series, called "Tea with the Dark Side." It's half her poetry and half his narrative.
"It's very experimental, but boy, it's fun," he said.
"Spiral's Edge" Excerpt:
It was me that done it.
When God was dealing out the cards, this was the cards He dealt me. You don't get to pick your hand, and you don't get to question why they got shuffled the way they did. Well, that ain't true, I guess - and you can question all you want. But you don' get to hear the answers. That's why I done it, I suppose. I got tired of waiting for a sign.
I think that's what he taught me more than anything, Andy. How to deal with waiting, sitting there at the table and gripping an impossible hand.
Whatever else happens in these pages, Andy, I want you to know that I didn't tell you this story to justify what I done. And I'll get to that, I swear I will. But that ain't why I'm writing this. I'm writing this letter so you could know what made me, you, and the man I hope you will become.
I want to shine the light as much light as there is. These days, I wonder if there's much. I don't see much, anyway. But here's mine, as dim as it is and as best as I can shine it.