"Q&A With Bryan Gruley"
Book: Bleak Harbor
Author: Bryan Gruley
Bryan Gruley is the award-winning, critically acclaimed author of the forthcoming novel Bleak Harbor, which Gillian Flynn calls “an electric bolt of suspense.” Two-time Edgar Award winner Steve Hamilton says Bleak Harbor is “unlike any other crime book I’ve ever read.”
Gruley also wrote the Starvation Lake trilogy: Starvation Lake, The Hanging Tree, and The Skeleton Box. Gruley’s debut, Starvation Lake, was an Edgar Finalist and won Anthony, Barry, and Strand awards. The Hanging Tree was a #1 Indie Next pick, a Michigan Notable Book, and a Kirkus Best Mystery of 2010.Gruley writes long-form features on a wide variety of topics as a staff writer for Bloomberg Businessweek magazine. A lifelong journalist, Gruley shared in The Wall Street Journal’s Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the September 11 terrorist attacks and has won numerous other awards for his writing and reporting. He lives in Chicago with his wife, Pam, and enjoys playing ice hockey and guitar.
1. What intrigues you most about the stories and characters you create?
Probably how they turn out because, although I usually have a vague idea of how a novel will end, I don’t know exactly how the story will arrive there. That’s up to the characters, who take on lives of their own as I write them.
2. Where do you draw inspiration from when creating your uniquely ominous environments?
Nice of you to say. For the Starvation Lake novels, I was informed and inspired by the territory around the cottage my parents bought in 1971 on Big Twin Lake in northern lower Michigan (https://futuretravel.today/the-cottage-we-loved-and-lost-213fb73204b9).
Bleak Harbor is geographically similar to the Lake Michigan town of Saugatuck, in that both have inland bays with channels that wind out to the lake. Whatever is ominous is really created more by the characters themselves and how they interact with those environments.
3. What excites you about writing suspense novels?
Writing in and of itself excites me, whether it’s a narrative feature for Bloomberg Businessweek magazine, a scene in one of my novels, or an entry in my journal. I didn’t set out to write suspense or mystery; I just wrote what I thought was a good story in STARVATION LAKE. The publishing industry slapped the label on it, and I’m fine with that.
4. How does your approach to writing a novel differ in your approach to writing a news story?
Obviously, I can’t be making things up in a piece of journalism. And my longest narrative features are barely one-twentieth the length of a novel. But in both cases, the trick is to make the tale clear, evocative, and compelling enough that the reader is hooked early and stays with it until the end.
5. What do you want your readers to take away from your new novel, Bleak Harbor?
Mostly I hope they feel like they have to keep reading. I want them to have fun, be entertained, maybe think a little about how we categorize certain people and in the process underestimate them. Other than that, no big messages coming from me.
6. What was your writing process like for Bleak Harbor?
In short: too long. I had no publisher, no editor, and worst of all, no deadline. So I meandered and wandered with no real sense of purpose, trying out everything and anything without any commitment.
That said, I worked on it consistently, six or seven days a week. It finally was good enough to submit to publishers in 2016.
Sixteen of them rejected it. I retooled the middle of the book based on one editor’s advice.
The same editor and eight other rejected it again.
Then Thomas & Mercer showed up and signed me to a two-book deal. The edits by my editors Liz Pearsons and Caitlin Alexander made BLEAK HARBOR immensely better. Easily the best edit I’ve ever had.
7. What’s your best advice for getting over writer’s block?
Put your fingers on the keyboard and start typing. Some days you have your fastball, some days you don’t, but you have to pitch. Or, as my novelist pal Marcus Sakey says, “Plumbers can’t get blocked.”
Or, as one of my favorite musicians, Alejandro Escovedo, writes in a song, “If the melody escapes me / I will stumble upon it soon / If it’s not a rhapsody / It’ll just have to do.”
8. What’s the best book you read last year?
THE LONG AND FARAWAY GONE by Lou Berney. I fell in love with the title before I read a word. Then the words were very good. Lou writes sentences and phrases that, if I tried them, I would separate a shoulder.
9. Who’s a mentor that played an important part in your life and what’s the best lesson they taught you on success and happiness?
My mother encouraged me to write from a young age and to always be myself, even when being myself pissed her off.
My dad taught me that working hard could be its own payoff, even though he liked to joke, “This working shit is never gonna be popular.” He was right about that, of course.
10. Do you plan on writing more books in the future?
I just the other day turned in PURGATORY BAY, a second novel set in Bleak Harbor. It’s about a young woman named Jubilee Rathman who was grievously wronged as a child and has decided to settle accounts with those she considers responsible. It’s, ah, a little darker than BLEAK HARBOR.
Thanks for the excellent questions.
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