It’s been twenty-five years this summer since the famous War in the Woods, the epic battle on Vancouver Island between environmentalists and loggers that resulted in one of the largest acts of civil disobedience in Canadian history. In all, over 900 protestors were arrested for attempting to block forestry company Macmillan Bloedal from clear-cutting Clayoquot Sound.
Daniel Griffin’s debut novel, Two Roads Home, reimagines this period of Canadian history, following a small group of environmentalists who aim to take their protest tactics to the next level. Author Steven Price (By Gaslight) says Two Roads Home "is a blistering examination of modern-day radicalism, a society’s collective guilt, and the possibility of redemption. As propulsive as a thriller, with characters so real they draw blood, this is a powerful novel that never lets up.”
Daniel Griffin grew up in Kingston with hippie parents. He went to primary school then high school then university all within sight of each other. When he realized that, he knew he had to get out. He taught in Guatemala where he met his wife. They spent a while teaching and travelling the world then wound up in San Francisco. When their eldest daughter was born, they decided they should move to Canada, but Toronto was an awful place compared to San Francisco. After a year they moved out west. Daniel had lost his green card in an altercation at the border and, well, BC seemed nice. Now Daniel lives in Victoria with his wife and three children. His short story collection, Stopping for Strangers, was a finalist for the Danuta Gleed and ReLit Awards. Two Roads Home is his first novel.
THE CHAT WITH DANIEL GRIFFIN
Trevor Corkum: Two Roads Home imagines a radical environmental protest gone wrong. It comes out close to the 25th anniversary of the massive Clayoquot Sound anti-logging protests back in the 1990s. Why was this an important story for you to write now?
Daniel Griffin: The timing with the 25th anniversary is interesting for sure, but the truth is, I started this book about eight years ago, maybe even nine, and of course never thought it would take this long. In that way there was no thought at the time about the anniversary. It’s a happy coincidence.
In terms of writing about Clayoquot, in the years since 9/11, I had a growing interest in finding a way to write sympathetically about a group of people that turns to violence, takes up radical action. That’s very hard to do today, but I’m old enough to remember a time before terrorism hit home in North America. I started writing about radical environmental activists but soon realized I needed to tie them to a specific, concrete historical event. Clayoquot Sound was an obvious choice. Even though I wasn’t at the protests, it felt to me like a seminal moment for Canada. I guess in some ways I needed my own memories, and our collective memories, of Clayoquot Sound, in order to write sympathetically about an act of terror.
TC: In the novel, a group of idealist environmentalists believe direct action tactics are the only way to achieve their goals. They walk a fine line between conviction and “eco-terrorism,” and you aptly explore the moral grey zone in between. How much was the novel’s trajectory based on real-life examples?
DG: It interested me to consider how people can go from peaceful protest to violent acts, so for sure that moral grey zone was important. But for me the answer to why and how a group of smart, educated young people turn to violence took more imagination and soul searching than it did research.
For me the answer to why and how a group of smart, educated young people turn to violence took more imagination and soul searching than it did research."
With that said, research was important to the book. What I found most helpful in my research was understanding the dynamics of a group like this. We have this idea that people who undertake violent acts for a political cause are well organized, focused, driven, “professional” even. I think that’s often not the case (read Ann Hansen’s bookDirect Action for a fascinating inside look at the Squamish Five, or watch the documentary “If a Tree Falls”). Seeing how chaotic, tense, and undisciplined a group of radicals can be really helped me understand how to write about the group in Two Roads Home.
TC: There’s a community of squatters who play an important role in the novel, living on the edge of Vancouver Island. They reminded me of the squatter community at Sombrio Beach who were evicted in the 1990s. Tell us more about why and how the idea of living off the grid made its way into the book.
DG: My wife, kids, and I moved to Vancouver Island in 2004, long after the squatters were moved from Sombrio, but the idea of living quietly in some corner of the land always fascinated me. That first summer we lived on the island, I met someone who had squatted for years in the forest outside Tofino. I also had a music teacher who lived in the woods while going to school. To a boy from Ontario, all this seemed uniquely and fascinatingly West Coast and I knew I wanted to write about it.
To make this novel work, I had these two things going on—an interest in those who lived off the grid, in a squatter community, and a story about a group of activists that undertakes violent action. What I had to do from there was bring these two pieces together. That was a big part of the work—writing and rewriting to make that a success.
Novels are somewhat linear and so it’s easy to think they’re written that way. Beginning, middle and end, but for me they’re much more chaotic. This novel had many shapes and forms before it took this one. I can get a draft down quickly but rewriting for me feels never-ending and often dangerous as well. It’s like a forge that turns the story back to a molten form and all the work you’ve put in to date can be gone in an instant as you start the work of rewriting. Everything is so interconnected in a novel. Nothing is easy. It takes faith. You’ve got to put it back into the forge again and again and risk all you’ve done to date to ensure the book lives up to its potential and is the best it can be. I’m doing that now for another novel. It’s hard work.
TC: You mention in the acknowledgements your struggle to complete the novel. Can you share more about your process with this particular book?
DG: Here’s how it works on a mechanical level for me. I write a draft or part of a draft, (doesn’t need to be the beginning, just a part—some piece that’s important or of interest) then I work on that a while, editing and rewriting it, then I move on to the next part. Work on that a while then connect the two pieces I have, and work on them together. Eventually I set that aside and move on to another part and on it goes.
The danger there is that it’s like building a bridge from both sides. You may end up with a structure that doesn’t join. That’s what I was referring to with the strain between the story of the squatters and that of the “eco-terrorists.” I had to completely rewrite the book several times to figure out how that really worked and the true connections. That’s what I mean by the forge: if something’s wrong in a novel, you can’t just tinker with it, you need to put the whole novel back in and rework it.
I say again and again that I’m not a writer, I’m a re-writer. I think that’s an important truth to share—the writing isn’t as important as the rewriting. On top of that I have a full time job and a family so I only get so much done in a day. It’s a fact I’m a slow writer.
I say again and again that I’m not a writer, I’m a re-writer. I think that’s an important truth to share—the writing isn’t as important as the rewriting."
TC: Finally, imagine you’re at a multi-day protest alone with one of the main characters. Whom would you want as your protest partner, and why?
DG: That’s a funny question, Trevor. One of the aspects that occupied me when figuring out the eco-terrorists, their characters, and their arc, was the question of certainty versus doubt.
On a personal level, I’m much more interested in doubt than in certainty, but I think those with unwavering certainty can have a hypnotic charm, they can be a kind of whirlwind that pulls in those around them. Art has that sort of certainty. I guess all four in the group do at different times and in different ways, but this novel is the story of that certainty unravelling.
Art’s certainty would make him an interesting person to be with on a multi-day protest, but I like to think I’ve got the skepticism and doubt needed to avoid being sucked in...
Excerpt from Two Roads Home
The ferry’s lower vehicle deck smelled of diesel and salt air. Rain had splashed in through oval portals and now lay in pools around the tires of semi-trucks and delivery vans. As he made his way out to the ship’s wall, Pete Osborne passed a squat motorhome and then a car with a U-Haul trailer. The air held a chill here where portals gave a view over the straits to low-lying islands. He zipped up his jacket and set his hands in his pockets.
They’d parked the station wagon midship and close to the rail. Fay Anderson sat on the passenger side, head down, hands in her lap, one cupped over the other.
Pete watched her as he stepped around and opened the driver’s side door.
“You want to go up on deck for some air?” he said. “Maybe get a coffee.”
“I don’t need another coffee. It’ll give me the jitters.”
“A walk might help, a bit of fresh air. I can keep an eye on things here.”
“We’re nearly there. Not much point now.”
Pete squeezed the steering wheel. Even after his walk around the passenger deck, he still felt nervous. He flexed his wrists, turned his hands in and out. A faint bituminous smell laced the air. Pete had noticed it the moment he’d pulled the car door closed, a thin scent that caught in his throat, and now he twisted about and looked into the back. A tartan blanket covered most of the crates.
“You notice that smell? Like tar or something.”
He started to lower the driver’s side window but Fay touched his arm. “It’s better we just keep it inside.” Her fingers lingered there above his wrist, and as Pete rolled the window up, his whole arm warmed to her touch.
“It’ll be a relief to get back on the island,” Pete said. “To have this part done.”
“The end of the beginning,” she said.
Excerpt from Two Roads Home by Daniel Griffin. Copyright © 2017 Daniel Griffin. Published by Freehand Books. Reproduced with permission from the publisher. All rights reserved.