Michael Gruber Interview by Malcolm Hillgartner
MALCOLM HILLGARTNER: Welcome to Downpour.com’s interview series. I’m Malcolm Hillgartner, and today it’s my pleasure to be speaking with Michael Gruber. Gruber is the New York Times bestselling author of such critically acclaimed thrillers as The Good Son, The Book of Air and Shadows, Tropic of Night, and the award-winning young adult novel The Witch’s Boy, among others. His work also includes ghostwriting the first fifteen books of the Robert K. Tanenbaum Butch Karp series and political speechwriting. Gruber is a former marine biologist, restaurant cook, and federal government official for the Jimmy Carter administration and the United States Environmental Protection Agency. Blackstone Audio published the audio format of Michael Gruber’s latest novel, The Return, narrated by Jonathan Davis, simultaneously with the hardcover on September 3, 2013. Welcome, Michael. Thanks for joining us today.
MICHAEL GRUBER: Thanks for having me.
MH: Congratulations on the release of The Return. Tell us a little bit about the main character, Richard Marder, and how he came about.
MG: The plot is lifted from a book that I was reading at a time when I really needed to have a book. I’d written a book that didn’t work, I was behind on my contract, and I was reading Carlos Fuentes’s The Old Gringo. I said: “This is a terrific story. I think I’ll use it.” This is something that happens all the time. There aren’t very many plots. The idea of an American who fears the burden of death. He’s got a bad diagnosis—and it’s indeterminate. It could happen any time. Rather than go through the usual American way of death—the hospitals and the mourning, the relatives and the rest of it—he decides that he’s going to finish his life in Mexico, where he went thirty years earlier and where he met his wife. This is a guy who essentially considers himself, at least spiritually, a Mexican, even though he’s a native-born American. That’s the basic driver of the plot. We don’t know at the beginning of the plot what the unfinished business is that Marder has in Mexico. But we have this idea that here’s a guy who’s going to go down by himself and finish his life in some way that is connected with the violence, the narco violence in Mexico. Just as in the original, The Old Gringo, it’s a man modeled on the writer Ambrose Bierce who goes down to Mexico and participates in the Mexican Revolution. It’s a man who has essentially given up his life and as a result has no fear. He’s accepted his own death. So he goes down there thinking he’s going to be on his own. It turns out he’s not on his own. He pulls with him the great currents of his life. One is his friendship with this really awful guy he met in Vietnam during the war, this guy named Skelly who is a character of obscure background and great violence. And also his daughter, who is concerned about him and who has the skills and the drive to go find him. So that’s the situation of the novel, and the novel works out from those givens.
MH: This story is huge in terms of its themes. Not just in terms of being a thriller, but the personal ones as well, which I think is what makes your writing so special. Once you came up with this idea, obviously the setting with the narco violence in Mexico, how did you research that? Did you go down to Mexico and go undercover?
MG: I was just struck by the news stories I read about this La Familia Michoacana, a fearsome drug gang based in that area who had messianic pretentions. I’m always interested in messianic pretentions. It just adds another layer of flavor to it. Apparently, this drug gang, La Familia, had just broken up into rival factions, and they were having a war. I thought I would set the novel in the midst of that war. What happens in the novel is that Marder finds himself on this estate that he’s bought down there, surrounded by people who had fled to the estate to escape the violence and to build a little life for themselves as squatters on this disused property. The original owner had been killed by the narcos because they wanted this property. Marder moving in there of course makes him a target. But Marder is not a pushover. In addition, he has with him an enormously dangerous and skillful Special Forces soldier, his friend, Skelly. It turns out that the original mission of the Special Forces was to organize ordinary people into a military force in order to resist aggression. In most cases Special Forces doesn’t do that because of American policy. We tend to use them as elite infantry. But during the Vietnam War, there was one chapter that is relatively unknown, in which the Special Forces actually did that with respect to the Hmong people in the Laos Ocean Highlands. They helped the Hmong defend themselves against the Vietnamese. Of course, when the war collapsed, they deserted these people, with really sorry, almost genocidal results. So Skelly and Marder sort of get a second chance here to see if they can form a resistance to the overwhelming horror of these narco gangs. What’s remarkable is in the last few weeks there have been stories coming out of Mexico suggesting that people are doing just that—forming vigilante groups and chasing the narcos out of their towns. It gives me the sense that I wasn’t being entirely crazy. Life follows art. So I wanted to explore the whole idea of how you do this, how you make people stand up for themselves. Of course, this is also very deeply in the tradition of Mexico. People in Michoacán have been doing this for a long time. They did it in 1910. Zapata was very strong in Michoacán, and so they remember this in their cultural DNA. I thought there was a good story. It’s a good tale, and it pulls in a lot of things I wanted to talk about. I wanted to talk about Mexico, a country I find endlessly fascinating and which is typically ill-considered in the United States. When we think of Mexico, we think of gardeners and nannies and the border—dusty cactuses and so on. Mexico isn’t like that. It’s a huge country. Within the middle of it, the biggest city in the world. A city that has no intrusion on the consciences of most Americans. So I wanted to talk about that too. I wanted to talk about the social structures of Mexico, which are quite different than ours, and the relationships between different levels of Mexican culture to American culture, and how Mexicans of a certain class regard Americans, and all of these other issues that sort of bring our culture into tighter focus because that’s how you do it. You contrast yours with another. I did that in The Good Son with respect to Pakistan and Muslim culture in general. Here I try to do very much the same thing with Mexico.
MH: On your blog you talk about developing characters that deal with social issues and also how that affects you as a writer. I particularly noticed, one blog post, I think called, “I Racist.” What struck me about it was how much you were analyzing the mindset, and it was very much in the same way an actor prepares to take on a role. I was wondering if there’s any theatre in your background?
MG: Actually there is. When I was an undergraduate, I took a course with Alan Schneider, who was a very great director at the time. He was the man who brought Beckett to the United States. The original productions of Godot and other Beckett plays were all directed by him. We hit it off and I worked with him for a relatively short time. I was going to go into the theatre as a director and an actor, but I didn’t do it. It was just one of these alternate lives that I walked away from. You have to have a certain kind of very, very strong ego structure to survive in the theatre in New York. And when I looked inside myself, I compared myself to the people who were my rivals, I just found I didn’t have it. I didn’t want it with that all-encompassing, total-life dedication fury. If you don’t have that there’s no point in trying because you’re not going to succeed. So that’s why I didn’t do that. Instead I did a whole bunch of other things and then eventually became a novelist.
MH: It’s interesting. Your bio talks about how you were trained as a marine biologist, you’ve been a cook, a speechwriter, policy advisor for the Jimmy Carter administration, policy analyst for the EPA. For me, coming from a theatre background, those strike me as great preparation for being a writer. For being an observer of the human condition. How do you feel the threads of your life intertwined to make you a writer?
MG: I’ve always been a writer. I think a great deal of my résumé is about running away from it. There’s another alternate life in which I sat down at age 23 and started writing novels and became a plain vanilla novelist like the kind you see living in New York. But that didn’t happen. It was a lot of resistance to actually admitting that’s basically what I was. But it turned out that every job, every position that I had, writing became the bulk of it. For example, scientists do a lot of writing. They write up experiments, but they also write review articles and they also write grants. So as soon as I moved into the business of science, I became a writer. I did popular science writing. When I was a biologist I wrote grants. I did other kinds of writing things. Then I moved into government and of course government does a lot of writing. You write policy papers, you write grants, you write positions. You write organization plans and so on like that—constantly writing. When I moved to Washington, all I did was writing. When I was in the EPA, I became a speechwriter. It only took about 25 years before I got hip to the fact that this was what I was supposed to be doing. Then I got this opportunity with Tanenbaum to write fiction. From there on in, everything else kind of fell away and I realized this was what I was supposed to be doing.
MH: Your first book Tropic of Night, has a great story connected to it in terms of how you got the initial idea for the plot. I believe it involves an octopus, would you share that with us?
MG: I was collecting octopus in Bimini Lagoon, a little island off Miami in the Bahamas. And I was bitten by an octopus. Octopus have a little beak and they’re poisonous. My arm started to swell up and I took the boat back to the marine lab there in Bimini. The director of the lab was entertaining a friend and this friend was a woman who was very interested in the fact that I’d been bitten by an octopus. I always say she had a predilection for men who were obscurely maimed. So we became friends. She had an interaction with an intruder and she became very frightened, so I moved in with her and kind of became her bodyguard. We were together for a couple years—not intimate in any way. We were just roommates. She was a medical anthropologist at Jackson Memorial Hospital. People would come in with idiopathic illnesses. In other words, their liver was shutting down and the doctors couldn’t find a reason for it. She would ask them what was wrong and they would say, “I’m being hexed.” She would arrange to have them unhexed. She would hire a literal witch doctor, somebody who would look at the person and say “This is the course of the witching and I will stop it, either by counter-spell or by putting the pressure in the psychic universe on the witch.” She did this in this huge, modern medical establishment. Because when you have your immigrant community, as you do in Miami, with strong ties to their original culture, you just get that and it’s real. The interesting thing that I always thought about was that the people who came to Jackson were not the people who believed in this stuff. Because if they were the people who believed in this stuff, they would have gone to a curandero in the neighborhood. These were people who didn’t believe it and yet they were dying. So this gave me pause. Sort of shook my ontological roots there. I was a scientist. I’m not supposed to believe in this kind of stuff. Joan was deeply involved in the Santería establishment in Miami, and she kind of took me around to the big guns in the area and I participated to a very minor extent in the world of Santería, enough to become fascinated with it and to stick it in the back of the mind that someday I was going to write about it. About this kind of under current in modern society that maintains itself and it seems terribly real. It’s a core of their lives to the people who are the adherents.
MH: You seem to have a wonderful ability to find intriguing writing extremes, such as in the Tropic of Night, you go from the Santería, the voodoo elements. Then The Book of Air and Shadows, we suddenly have a hunt for a missing Shakespearean manuscript in Jacobean England. Especially in The Good Son as well with what you describe as the Taliban American. These are all just wonderful themes. Returning to The Return, it sounds like it is going to be a huge success. Library Journal calls it one of the “Four Commercial Blockbusters” for September 2013. Denver Post has called you “the Stephen King of crime writing,” which is a pretty high accolade I would think. So what do you have in mind for upcoming projects?
MG: Now that I’ve achieve the signal successes as a thriller writer, I’m going to totally abandon it. My typical function: when I reach a certain level of a thing, I tend to say, “Okay, I’ve done that. Let me move on to something else.” I’m writing a gigantic nineteenth-century novel about the Revolution of 1848 in Prague. I’ve always wanted to write a gigantic nineteenth-century novel. For the last 25 to 30 years, I have been on a schedule. I’ve been pounding out a novel a year, on contract, both for the Karp series and my own work. I just decided that I wanted to have the experience, of just accumulating a novel over a period of years. Just really writing as much as I wanted to write to get the story told. I just started doing this book because I’m interested in the Revolution of 1848. I’m interested in central Europe. I’m interested in where the ideas that populate our minds actually come from. And 1848 is a very fascinating seedbed. Lewis Namier, this historian, calls it “the seedbed of the twentieth century.” From this we get socialism, communism, nationalism, extreme genocidal nationalism, modern anti-Semitism, and the sense of Romanization of the revolutionary, which we still suffer from. All of this comes from 1848 and I wanted to describe it. I’ve also always been interested in the city of Prague, and its strangeness. And interested in what went on to knock Europe out of its centrality in the world. I wanted just to tell that story, and of course I wanted to also write a ripping good yarn. The core of the book is a man of 1848, a young liberal in Prague, recording the memoirs of his grandfather, who was a Napoleonic soldier of the Ancien Regime. He was a hero of the Napoleonic wars and an aristocrat. The young man, the young liberal, has no connection with his aristocratic past, and now he starts to understand where this old guy is coming from. He realizes, somewhat to his horror, that even though this old man represents everything he’s fighting against and everything he hates politically, he has never met a man who he admires more. And so that’s what the book is about.
MH: Sounds to me like you’ve set the table for a real literary banquet.
MG: Oh, yes. Well, I hope so.
MH: Thank you so much for talking with us today and best of luck with the release of both print and audiobook versions of The Return. Thanks again Michael. This has been a great talk with you. Thank you for joining us for this Downpour.com interview with Michael Gruber. You can find The Return, The Good Son, many of Michael Gruber’s other titles, and much more at Downpour.com.
This interview was recorded in September 2013.
Disclaimer: This audio and transcript have been edited slightly from the original recording for quality and readability.
Lauded as his number-one favorite book of the year, Stephen King advised President Obama, in the pages of Entertainment Weekly, to pick up Michael Gruber’s previous book, The Good Son. With an unforgettable hero, The Return is as exciting and provocative as Gruber’s best work.
The real Richard Marder would shock his acquaintances, if
they ever met him. Even his wife, long dead, didn’t know the real man behind
the calm, cultured mask he presents to the world. Only an old army buddy from
Vietnam, Patrick Skelly, knows what Marder is capable of. Then, a shattering
piece of news awakens Marder’s buried desire for vengeance; with nothing left
to lose, he sets off to punish the people whose actions changed his life years
earlier. Skelly shows up uninvited, and the two of them together raise the
stakes far beyond anything Marder could have envisioned.
As Marder and Skelly head toward an apocalypse of their own making, Marder learns that good motives and a sense of justice can’t always protect the people a man loves. With a range of fearsomely real characters, from a brutally violent crime lord to a daringly courageous young woman, a roller coaster of twists and turns, and a shattering exploration of what constitutes morality in the face of evil, Michael Gruber has once more proven that he is “a gifted and natural storyteller” (Chicago Tribune) and shows why he has been called “the Stephen King of crime writing” (Denver Post).