Saturday, June 16, 2012

Bryan Gruley for Authors @ The Teague

When Bryan Gruley appeared for Authors @ The Teague, I introduced him as the award-winning author of the Starvation Lake mystery trilogy. He spent sixteen years with The Wall Street Journal, where he shared in a Pulitzer Prize for the coverage of 9/11. He is now a reporter-at-large for Bloomberg News, writing long features for Bloomberg Businessweek magazine. He responded by thanking me, and then told the audience he thinks of me as a friend. He said being a writer is like throwing a message in a bottle off a beach. Librarians are out there picking them up, and saying, there's a book. He told us that anyone who gets his books in the hands of readers is a friend.

Then, he started his program with a story designed to win the heart of any librarian or book lover. He said he seldom read to the audience, but he was going to read to us from a favorite book. He said, this is The Crisscross Shadow by Franklin W. Dixon, an author you might recognize. This is a Hardy Boys mystery. Bryan highlighted this book as an important book in his life. He grew up in a blue collar suburb of Detroit. He was over at a friend's house, and the friend was going on and on about this book he read, and the villain named Brett. Bryan thought in order to be cool, he'd have to read the book. So, he asked his mom for the book. It was probably the first chapter book he ever read. Bryan was enamored of the Hardy Boys. He even made up his own version, the Anderson twins. He wrote and illustrated them, and then read them to the second grade class. His mother encouraged him to write. She also knew he was a hot dog, and liked to have the attention on him. So, by eight or nine Bryan knew he wanted to write.

When Gruley graduated from Notre Dame in 1979, though, he realized he couldn't just sit around and make things up. He took a detour to journalism, a detour that has lasted for thirty-two years. He's worked all over, and it's been a great detour. Bryan is still having a blast. He enjoys being a reporter, asking people what they do.

Gruley's body of work contains a number of narratives, small versions of stories with an arc, beginning, middle and end. He swore he didn't make up the stories. He still had a longing to be a novelist. He talked about it, dreamt about it. But, he never sat his butt down in a chair and wrote. He was intimidated. He didn't know any authors. Then, a friend, Ken Wells, published his first novel. Bryan worked with Ken. He wasn't intimidating. He thought, if Wells can do it, I can at least try.

So, Bryan wrote 25,000 words. His agent didn't like it, but there was a glimmer of hockey in those 25,000 words. Bryan had played hockey since he was eight. There was a rink in his backyard, and rinks all over the neighborhood. His agent suggested a story about middle-aged guys who play hockey in the middle of the night. Right away, he had an idea, mentioned something really bad that happened, and she said, oh, that's good. It always sells.

Gruley set his book two hundred miles north of Detroit in Starvation Lake. Starvation Lake is a small lake three miles north of Big Twin Lake. There's really no town at Starvation Lake, but he put one there. It took him four years to write the book. He did several drafts. He submitted Starvation Lake in April 2006. He had twenty-six rejections. No one knew what to do with the book. Bryan didn't set out to write a mystery. He doesn't read just mysteries. He reads all sorts of things. He said they were nice rejection letters. Some suggested it might be a mystery. One young editor said it best. He said the book fell between two schools. It's too nuanced to be a genre mystery, but it's not literary. Brian concedes the latter point. It's not literary. But he's baffled by the first. He was on the verge of giving up when Touchstone, division of Simon & Schuster signed him to a three book deal. Then, he realized he had to write the other two books.

Starvation Lake came out in 2009. It deals with the death of a hockey coach relating to a snowmobile accident. Years later, the snowmobile parts who up, in a different lake in which it supposedly went down.

Gus Carpenter is the narrator of Starvation Lake. He played hockey for the great River Rat teams of the '70s, the only teams that had the chance to beat the tough teams from Detroit. He also gave up the goal that cost them their only chance at the state championship. He left Starvation Lake for college, and ended up working as a journalist in Detroit until he was fired. He went back to Starvation Lake with his tail between his legs, where he ended up as associate editor at the local newspaper. He's forced to investigate the story about the snowmobile, and learns things that are not so pleasant.

When Gruley turned in his second book, it was terrible. It didn't even have a title. His editor agreed that it was terrible. He was about to go on tour for Starvation Lake. She told him to go on tour, and got him a seven month extension on the second book. So, he threw away that second book. It had too much plot, and not enough story. Some people think it's the same thing. Plot is the skeletal structure. The story is everything else.

Bryan did like one element of his original story. There was a mystery about a tree filled with shoes, but the story was too disconnected from Gus to matter. So, he threw it away and started over, keeping just a couple scenes. He took the tree.

Once Bryan's characters have names they come to life. He named the victim Gracie McBride. She was found hanging in a shoe tree. Why did it matter to Gus? She was his second cousin. She was also Darlene's best friend. Darlene is Gus' on-again, off-again girlfriend. And, Gracie had been fooling around with Soupy, the greatest hockey player ever to come out of Starvation Lake. He threw his career away on drugs and drinking. He is also Gus' best friend. That became The Hanging Tree, which has been optioned for a movie.

Like Gruley's earlier books, The Skeleton Box began with an image. Brian picked up a little book at a package store in Michigan. It was by a Traverse City author, and it was called Ghost Towns in Michigan. It was about towns that had once thrived and then gone away. One of those towns, Isadore, still exists. In 1907, a nun disappeared in the Polish Catholic parish there. The townspeople searched for her, and never found her. Five or six years later, a woman who worked there at Holy Rosary Church went to confession and confessed she murdered the nun, and buried her bones under the church. That should have remained a secret since it was told in the confessional, but it got out, as so many secrets do. The diocese was now building a new church on the site, and they contacted the church there, and told them to get the bones out, and bury them elsewhere. They got caught. That resulted in the longest trial in Michigan's history. The woman who had confessed pleaded not guilty. There was a nonfiction book written about it called Isadore's Secret. It was published by the University of Michigan Press.

This image got Bryan going. The Skeleton Box, his latest book, is set in March 2000. Starvation Lake was set in 1998, and The Hanging Tree in 1999. This book starts with a series of burglaries. The newspaper calls them "Bingo Night Break-Ins" because someone knew the people would be out playing bingo. What was odd is that they didn't take anything, but went through the houses, as if looking for something. There were four or five burglaries, and then one burglary went bad. Darlene's mother was murdered. She was the best friend of Gus' mother, Bea. Darlene's mother died in Bea's house, and Gus has to look into it.

Gus already has problems. He's on the outs with Darlene. His future at the newspaper is iffy since he's on shaky ground with the suits in Traverse. His mother is losing her memory, and has a hard time keeping her story straight.

However, the River Rats hockey team is doing better. They have a great new player. There's also a new Evangelical Christian camp over by the lake, and the man in charge is starting to get involved in the town. His name is Brett, the same as the bad guy in The Crisscross Shadow. That's Gruley's homage to that Hardy Boys book. In fact, at one point, Soupy asks, "What is this, a Hardy Boys mystery?"

In this book, Gus has a distant connection to the disappearance of a young nun from St. Valentine's Church.

Does it get any easier? No. All the books are difficult in their own way. And, if you're ambitious, and want to get better, it doesn't get easier.Just because you continue to do something, that doesn't mean it gets easier. Bryan plays golf, so he knows it's not true that it gets easier. It doesn't necessarily get better.

When he turned in The Skeleton Box, his editor asked him questions he couldn't answer. But, she was patient, and stayed with him. The book covers decades, the 30s, 40s, and 50s, leading up to 2000. He had events in every decade, but hadn't done the boring work of building it up. He needed to see things, so he did a 20-25 page outline, beginning in 1903 with the birth of a future priest. Then, he could see it all. He needed to understand it, and see the cause and effect in order to keep it straight. So, he took seven weeks off last summer to finish The Skeleton Box.

Is the Starvation Lake series a trilogy like Tolkien's Middle Earth trilogy or George Lucas' Star Wars trilogy? It wasn't planned as a trilogy. But, Gruley is resolving issues that spanned all three books. One is the relationship between Gus and his mother. Bryan's readers email him and tell them they love Bea, but they're frustrated by her. She doesn't give up everything she knows.Gus and Bea have a similar mother-son relationship as Bryan did with his mother.

Bryan's characters are entities of their own. They're not based on real people. Saying that, Gus has some of Bryan in him, and so does Soupy. And, there are things in the relationship between Gus and his mother that Bryan had with his mother.

The Skeleton Box is Bryan's favorite of the three books. He's not sure what he's doing next. And, then he ended his formal presentation by reading the end of The Crisscross Shadow.

The first question from the audience involved characters who take over. Bryan said Gus doesn't tell him what to do. However, brains are always working. Usually, Gruley goes by gut instinct. Everything he sees influences him.

Would he ever quit his job, and write just fiction? His wife doesn't want to life in a tent. His journalism pays the bills.

Who are his favorite authors? J.D. Salinger for his short stories; Hemingway. He loves Thomas Harris' Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs. He's rereading Dennis Lehane's Mystic River. He just finished Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried. That's art. It's harrowing, funny, absurd. It's written as a collection of short stories, but it's actually a memoir about men at war.

And, he ended by answering a question about his Starvation Lake tee shirt. It features a goalie, which is great, but the person who picked the number 76 must be the only person in Canada who doesn't watch hockey because no goalies have 76 as a number. All goalies have low numbers.

Bryan Gruley's website is

The Skeleton Box by Bryan Gruley. Touchstone. 2012. ISBN 9781416563662 (hardcover), 336p.


Rosemary said...

Very interesting Lesa - not the sort of book I usually read, but I'll look out for these now. So encouraging to read about someone who got rejections but carried on to success - and also really helpful that he shared the reasons for those rejections, so that we can all learn from them.

Is Mr Gruley incredibly tall, or are you very petite?! Great photo - you always look so happy, very cheering on this wet and windy day in East Lothian!


Lesa said...

Thank yuo, Rosemary. He was honest about the reasons for his rejections, wasn't he?

A combination of both. Bryan is tall, and I'm only 4'11. Wait until you see tomorrow's picture with me between Bryan and Robert Dugoni. I do look really tiny, there.

Thanks! I just love hosting authors & being in their company. Over and over again, I've said they're my rock stars. I'm glad it's one thing on what sounds like a dreary day!

Janet said...

The Skeleton Box is my favorite, too. Of course, I've said that about all three books. I really hope there are more books to come.

Lesa said...

We'll see, Janet. Bryan isn't sure since he's finished the arc about Gus and his mother.