Q&A with mystery author Bryan Gruley

Here’s the transcript of an interview I did a while back with Bryan Gruley, author of the excellent mystery books STARVATION LAKE and THE HANGING TREE (and the forthcoming THE SKELETON BOX). Bryan’s a Bouchercon buddy of mine and the Chicago bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal. I’m hoping the similarity of our names causes people to buy my books when they’re really looking for his. If you post your own questions and comments in the thread, I’ll try to get him to stop by.

Q: You’ve made your career in journalism. Starvation Lake features a small-town newspaper editor as the protagonist. How did working as a reporter and editor prepare you to write a novel, and how did that influence you to write this novel?

A: I’ve wanted to write fiction since I was a boy. The journalism thing was a detour that turned into a fun and gratifying career (it also pays the bills). But I don’t think I could’ve written this book without my experiences at papers of all sizes, from the tiny Brighton Argus, whose newsroom is the model for the Pine County Pilot’s, to The Wall Street Journal, where I’ve learned and continue to learn about detail and storytelling and economy.

Q: This is no serial killer thriller. You’re not dropping bodies every other chapter. Yet the novel has a seriously frightening vibe, and it’s extremely suspenseful. It’s the characters’ emotions, dreads, insecurities, revulsions and uncertainties that bother us as we read. That’s not the approach we see a lot these days. How’d you decide to go that direction, and how was it received when you started shopping it to agents and editors along about the time the Da Vinci Code had been No. 1 on the NYT bestseller list for two years running?

A: I honestly didn’t think much about what I was doing; I just sat down to write a story. Although I’ve read lots of mysteries and thrillers and particularly enjoy Hammett, Pelecanos, Connelly, and Chandler, as well as my Chicago pals Mike Harvey and Marcus Sakey, I’m not what you’d call a mystery/thriller aficionado. The twenty-six editors who rejected Starvation Lake couldn’t figure out how to sell it: was it frozen food? Dairy? Produce? One said it was too nuanced to be a genre mystery. Thank God Trish Grader, then of Touchstone, saw some potential and signed me to a three-book ddeal.

Q: How long did it take from when you first got the idea for the book to when you actually sat down and began writing it? From then, how long did it take you to finish it?

A: Short answer: four years. I had the idea for this book in August of 2001. I didn’t start writing until January 2002, mainly because I was busy helping the WSJ cover 9/11. We submitted it in April of 2006. A year and a pile of rejections later, Touchstone offered me a contract. That was a good day.

Q: Starvation Lake is full of artfully rendered descriptions of cutthroat hockey games and guys getting a hole in their cheek stitched up by the Zamboni driver. I also notice a lot of grudges from regular life get worked out in the games via a stiff check against the boards. Tell us about your own history on the ice. Do you still play? Does it serve as catharsis for you? Why was it important to feature hockey in the novel?

A: I still play once or twice a week at Johnny’s Ice House in Chicago, one of the finest men’s amateur hockey emporiums in the land. I’m not a very good player, but I love to be out there, zooming around, hoping the puck winds up on my stick when I’m facing an empty net. As for the novel, it was my agent, Suzanne Gluck of William Morris, who asked me, “Why don’t you write me a story about these middle-aged guys who play hockey in the middle of the night?” It’s a subject I know well and I immediately had an idea that turned into the story.

The Skeleton Box is tentatively scheduled to come out next February. So use the time wisely between now and then and read Bryan’s first two books.

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