Tuesday, March 03, 2009
Writer Bryan Gruley Talks About Small Towns, Hockey Nicknames, and Emotional Tension
Bryan Gruley is the Chicago Bureau Chief of The Wall Street Journal. His debut mystery, Starvation Lake, is available in bookstores now.Bryan, your new book, Starvation Lake , is set in Michigan , which is where you grew up. Is Starvation Lake based on a real place?
There is a Starvation Lake near my parents' cottage in northern lower Michigan. I stole the name, made the lake a lot bigger, and put a town on it. The physical and emotional geography of my novel's setting borrows from that beautiful part of the country, as well as the many small towns I've written about as a journalist.
The mystery immerses the reader in the world of small-town hockey, and the descriptions of hockey practices, hockey games, are some of the most exciting scenes in the book. Do you play hockey?
I've been playing hockey since I learned on backyard rinks in Detroit as a boy. Now I skate two or three times a week at Johnny's Ice House in Chicago 's West Loop. I'm not a very good player, but I play hard and try to keep learning. My pals would probably say I'm not the best student in class.
Your main character, Gus Carpenter, is a man with a past; he returns to that past as the editor of The Pilot, a newspaper in the small town where he grew up. In places this book reminded me of a Ross MacDonald novel because the first-person narrator (and mystery solver) must unravel grim details from events that happened long ago—a MacDonald staple. Is he one of your influences, or is this a coincidence?
It must be a coincidence because I have, foolishly no doubt, not gotten around to reading a Ross MacDonald novel. I thought it was important to give Gus a back story, partly so readers could understand what matters to him. So I tell the somewhat loopy story of his first scoop regarding Perfect-O-Screw (how I loved coming up with that name!). But of course a lot of what's going on in Starvation Lake is Gus's unearthing of things that happened years before, and that requires going back. Whether I went back too much or not enough is for the reader to decide (in my favor, I hope).
You yourself are a journalist. What did you envision first: that your narrator would be a journalist, or that the story would be about hockey? Or did it all come together at once?
The story was inspired by a conversation I had with my agent at the time, the amazing Suzanne Gluck. Knowing I played hockey, she said, "Why don't you write me a story about those middle-aged guys who play hockey in the middle of the night?" I immediately had an idea, though revealing it here would spoil the story for those who haven't read the book. I didn't know Gus would be a journalist. Though that reminds me: I was having lunch with two of my WSJ colleagues and told them I was writing novel. One of them said, "Please tell me it isn't about a hockey-playing journalist." He was joking, sort of.
I assume he is now disappointed. :)
Gus leaves Starvation Lake and takes a job at a big paper, “carrying with me the vain and preposterous goal of winning a Pulitzer Prize.” Do you think that every journalist harbors this secret desire? Or perhaps not-so-secret? Or is the Pulitzer not something that people think of as they do their research and write their stories?
Most daily newspaper reporters and their editors would love to win a Pulitzer. From my experience, the actual talking about it and aiming for it is a lot more prevalent at the national newspapers--like mine--than at the metro dailies. For Gus, it was a way for him to prove to his town that he wasn't a loser. Of course it didn't work out that way.
Your plot has many, many layers which provide delicious suspense. Did you outline the novel beforehand, or did you, to an extent, allow it to tell itself to you?
I certainly didn't outline the whole thing, though I outlined ahead a little bit. Mostly I trusted my instincts and the characters I was creating. I remember writing a scene between Gus and the sheriff's ex-wife, Barbara Lampley. I went into this thinking it was basically connecting tissue and would last a page or so. But Barbara took over. I fell in love with her. That scene changed the rest of the book in profound ways.
I like Barbara, too!
You write suspense very well, even in scenes that happen in seemingly innocuous places, like a kitchen or a locker room or a living room. Do you find it difficult to create this mood, or do you become a bit lost in the scenes that you are writing?
I'm not sure it's so much mood as plotting--a game of keep-away with the reader that deprives them of the one or two facts they think they need even as another relevant clue or two is staring them in the face. Of course placing characters in danger creates tension, but I find emotional tension more interesting--and much more difficult to render.
You also tap into the dark mystery of the Michigan woods. I’m guessing you’ve spent a lot of time there.
Maybe not the woods so much as the lake. I started going "up north," as Detroiters call it, when I was eight or nine. Then my parents bought a cottage on Big Twin Lake when I was thirteen. I've been going there ever since, and loving it, no matter the season.
Is Starvation Lake your first novel?
Yes. I have a three-book deal with Touchstone/Simon & Schuster to write more about Gus and the town. I'm wrapping up the second book now.
What made you choose the mystery genre?
I didn't really. I set out to write a good tale. My publisher told me it was a mystery. I do think, however, that most novels are mysteries of some sort. The author poses a question and answers it. Here's Holden Caulfield and he's in an insane asylum. How did he get there?
Interesting. What do you like to read?
Fiction of all stripes, short, long, whatever. Unfortunately, because of my day job as a journalist, I have to spend a lot of time reading things I might not choose to read, were it entirely up to me. So I don’t get to read as much fiction as I’d like. I do a lot of falling asleep over novels at night, through no fault of the writer’s.
All of your characters have nicknames—Soupy, Tiger, Trap, Carpie. When you played hockey, did you have a nickname?
My hockey pals call me Grules and, on occasion, less charitable names.
Okay, I won't ask. :)
One potential theme of this novel is that no one should keep secrets, but another might be that small town culture, like any culture, tends to perpetuate itself. Were you aiming to write a book in which there were all sorts of crimes, large and small, intentional and unintentional?
I really just set out to write a good story. I had one “crime” in mind at the outset. But as the plot moved along, and new characters started showing up, the crimes, large and small, proliferated, thanks in large measure to human nature.
Your ad material identifies you as an amateur musician. What instrument do you play? Do you have a band?
Rank amateur would be a more apt description. I play rudimentary guitar and sing. I tend to sound better when I and especially my listeners have had plenty to drink.
You already answered this, but will Starvation Lake have a sequel?
I’m working on it now. And then there’ll be another—and maybe more, God and Simon & Schuster willing. We have not seen the last of Gus Carpenter.
How can readers find out more about Bryan Gruley and his brand new mystery?
They can check out www.bryangruley.com and www.starvationlake.com. The first website has lots of information about the book, reviews, tour, and me. The second—the brainchild of my brilliant young web designers Sunya Hintz, Justin Muggleton and Todd Kneedy of Chicago—will take you into the fictional Starvation Lake with sights, sounds, and excerpts read by the author. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I never ignore a reader.
Bryan , thanks so much for the fantastic read. I know it will stay with me for quite a while, as all good books do. Good luck with promoting Starvation Lake!