Q&A With Bryan Gruley

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Q&A With Bryan Gruley

I have the honor of doing a Q&A with award winning author and journalist Bryan Gruley. Bryan has written the Stravation Lake Trilogy, Bleak Harbor & Purgatory Bay. When Bryan isn’t writing a story he is writing a wide variety of topics for Bloomberg Business Week magazine. Gruley shared the Wall Street Journal’s Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the September 11th attacks. He’s won numerous awards for his writing and reporting!

Q: So Bryan when did you know that writing and journalism were your two callings in life?

A: In the summer of 1978, I was an intern for the Antrim County News, a weekly newspaper in northern lower Michigan. I wrote features about local businesses and tourism. At the end of the summer, I wrote a piece about how much I enjoyed it. A reader sent a letter to the editor saying she and her family enjoyed my writing, too. “It is your calling,” she wrote. I have a clip of the letter pinned to the bulletin board over my desk at home.

I don’t think of fiction and non-fiction as two separate callings. My calling was writing. I knew I wanted to be a writer of some sort when I seven or eight years old, writing stories about twin brothers who sleuthed like the Hardy Boys. At Notre Dame, I figured I’d wind up in law school, but school itself finally bored me, and I turned to journalism. I really didn’t know much about reporting and interviewing, but I learned a lot about it working at two weeklies outside of Detroit—and, most important, learned I loved it. I’d long dreamt of becoming a writer of fiction as well, but didn’t seriously pursue that until 2002, when I started writing STARVATION LAKE.

Q: Would you like to talk about your books and where your ideas for them come from?

A: The ideas for four of my books came from things in the real world: a tree filled with shoes that sits near Kalkaska, Michigan (THE HANGING TREE); an errant coach (STARVATION LAKE); the long-ago murder of a young nun (THE SKELETON BOX); the 1968 murder of a family in their summer cabin (PURGATORY BAY). I don’t recall exactly where the idea for the other, BLEAK HARBOR, sprang from. And when I have idea, per se, it’s only the germ of something I plan to figure out as I write. I try to outline, I really do, but I find it next to impossible to know what characters are inclined to do or not do until I actually write them on the page.

Q: Are you currently writing your next book right now? If it’s not too early to reveal any details would you like to talk a little bit about it?

A: I just completed a draft and, fingers crossed, hope it gets published. BITTERFROST tells the story of Jimmy Baker, a former minor-league hockey player who turned into a fighter. He gave up that career after almost killing an opponent. Thirteen years later, he’s the Zamboni driver for the popular junior team in Bitterfrost, Michigan. He becomes the suspect in a brutal double murder of two young men traveling through Bitterfrost from Detroit. His defense lawyer, Devyn Payne, is also a hockey player and a member of one of the most prominent families in northern Michigan. Naturally, there’s more that I should keep quiet about.

Q: How do you juggle journalism and writing books and what would your advice be to anyone wanting to do both?

A: I retired from the journalism day job three years ago, but when I juggling the two for about twenty years, I tended to get up early and write fiction for an hour or two every morning. Eventually the words would pile up, and I’d have a draft. Meantime, I’d be plying my non-fiction trade for The Wall Street Journal and, later, Bloomberg Businessweek magazine. Journalism taught me many things that I found useful in writing fiction: economy of words, the importance of tiny details to bring a place or character alive, the secrets of keeping the reader reading from sentence to sentence, paragraph to paragraph, page to page. If you want to write fiction in tandem with a day job, you need to follow the first rule of writing: ass in chair. I like to tell the story of my Chicago pal Michael Harvey, who was a successful lawyer and TV documentarian when the fiction bug bit. He started by writing for five minutes a day, then 10, then 20, and so forth. He’s now written and published something like 10 novels. Again, the words do pile up if you just keep typing!

Q: What was it like covering the September 11 attacks? It was awful for those of us seeing it on tv and hearing about it. I couldn’t imagine covering the story.

A: A memorable day. I was working in The Wall Street Journal’s Washington bureau. While we weren’t as physically endangered as our colleagues at the New York mother ship, we had to jump in and provide much of the coverage, or at least the writing of the coverage, because the reporters and editors up north were scattered around greater NYC and unable to get to the downtown newsroom. I recall two waves of emails coming into my computer at the rate of about one every five seconds. The first was from reporters and editors informing the staff where they were and asking how they could help. The second was a series of heartbreaking memos describing scenes in the towers, on the ground, and in Boston, Pennsylvania, and DC. My colleagues, especially those in New York, were risking their lives to tell the world what happened on that terrible day. I’ll never forget it.