Andrew Gross on Becoming a Writer
I’m often asked, how did you get into this trade, as my resume--an MBA from Columbia and sixteen years in the rag and sports apparel business--never exactly made a compelling case for the title: New York Times
But one of the great things about people writing thrillers today is that they come to their craft from disparate and compelling walks of life--lawyers, journalists, doctors, ad men, CIA operatives—and bring with them the experience of lives not spent in MFA programs and literary salons, but working amid the issues and crises that affect our
world every day.
In 1996, I left my job as the head of a ski and golfwear company to take a flyer on a whim I had—well, more like an obsession. Like a million people, I had carried the lifelong urge to get out a story that was inside me, in my case a Manchurian Candidate-styled conspiracy novel called Hydra
about a political takeover of the country that featured a strong heroine. I begged my wife to grant me a year, a year without income, a year without knowing where this new path would take us, declaring I’d earned it, deserved it. (She was a yoga teacher, so it wasn’t too hard to get her to agree!) Of course, we both knew that writing—to say nothing of actually selling—a first novel is more difficult than you think. The year turned into two—and then three.
I never thought I was being frivolous along the way. I always believed it would happen. I got some praise, and built on that, but I kept getting rejections too. Twenty-five of them from prospective agents. Finally, one came on board. A high powered one. My first real validation! With a ton of enthusiasm Hydra
was pitched to two dozen publishers and two weeks later I had letters from all of them—all rejections again! Each seemed to contain some encouragement, but for each there was some element—the story was too political or too controversial—that got in the way. I was out of options. I knew I would not be able to write a second one. I had a family to support. But in my heart I felt I had the chops. I had no idea what my next step in life would be.
As I sat around, unsure and dismayed, I received a call—completely out of the blue, like a cheesy plot twist, except this one was real—from a woman who asked if I would take a call from James Patterson
. Ahem! I cleared my throat and paused a couple of seconds, so as not to convey the utter desperation my life was sinking under then, and answered, yeah, sure, I could fit him in!
Thinking back twelve years, Jim wasn’t quite the James Patterson we know now—where everything he publishes rockets straight to #1, the top selling thriller author in the country. He was a successful writer with a plan, looking to expand into multiple storylines, and one was about four dynamic women who form this bond, this koffee klatch of sorts, to share their life experiences and ultimately to solve crimes. Unbeknownst to me, my manuscript Hydra
had been handed to him by the head of his own publishing house (who originally elected to pass on it) with five words written on the cover: "This guy does women well!!!" Jim read it, liked it, and most importantly, acted
on it. He was looking to partner with someone. His call changed my writing life!
Now maybe he had designs on The Women's Murder Club
becoming the second most successful crime series in fiction today (after his own Alex Cross
series), but I didn’t. I was just looking to scratch my way inside the circle that had been inaccessible so far, with a chance to pick up some tips from one of the best. A day later, we met for breakfast at a diner in White Plains. I bought into his vision for the characters and the story. I drove home and cranked out a couple of sample chapters and faxed them over...
And the partnership lasted seven years!
We did Women’s Murder Club books set in San Francisco, a book set in the Middle Ages, one built around a Mafia trial I was a juror on, and one about art theft in Palm Beach. And when the time came for me to go out on my own, not only did I have a platform of readers who knew and hopefully loved the books we did together, and a bit of name recognition, but I felt schooled in Thriller Writing 401. I had an idea that eventually became The Blue Zone
. It hit the New York Times
bestseller list and sold in 23 countries. I’ve followed that up with two other bestsellers, The Dark Tide
and Don’t Look Twice
So a quick word about what I do now: I don’t write Patterson-clones. Never intended to. But I do build on many of the techniques I learned with him, elements that I think any author can profit from, regardless of their literary ambition. Short, dramatic chapters that end on a punch and link to the one that follows. Investing your reader in the hero’s plight within the first ten pages. Lots of twists and surprises. Start with a bang.
My new thriller Reckless
begins this way: a harrowing home break-in gone heartbreakingly wrong, leading to the suspicious deaths of larger-than-life Wall Street managers, a wealthy divorcee’s fears that her new love is not the person he appears to be, and ultimately, to a gripping conspiracy that gives new meaning to the phrase “too big to fail.” The events in it are current and happening, but it has characters you will recognize and feel you know well, and a breakneck ending you will not see coming.
So I always think-- how different my life would have been if my draft of Hydra
had sold. I’d probably be back in the apparel business now!
A Q&A with Andrew Gross How did you get the idea for Reckless?
Like all my books, it's never one idea but a series of elements that knit together into a story line. In 2007, a horrible triple murder took place in Cheshire, Connecticut, where a an affluent surgeon's family was tortured and killed right in their country home, and it sent a chill through me and many people I know—not just the depravity of it, but the terrifying sense of violation and invasion for parents and kids who feel illusorily protected by their successful lives. That this sort of tragedy could never find their way to their door.
Around a year later I was flying home from a weekend in Florida when a friend, who happened to be on the plane and sitting a row behind me, leaned forward and said—"Bear Stearns just collapsed."
To me, these words contained a similar profound historical importance as watching the trade towers come down, or the dismantling of the Berlin wall. A tsunami of events greater than society’s ability to restrain it. Something unimaginable happening before my eyes. I wanted to write a book about the sinister aspects of Wall Street as it connects to our government balanced against the personal stories of people who feel trapped and victim to events beyond their control—events they might have had a hand in making. So I combined the two events—one tragic, one stunning, the personal with the sensational, and that’s how Reckless
was born. How has Ty Hauck’s character changed over the past few books? What other changes do you foresee for him?
Well, when I first wrote him I had no idea he’d be with us for a while—three books. I will take a brief vacation from him on the next. What I love about Ty is that at heart he's a true romantic with his feet in the real world. He's a white knight, a true soul, in a world of questionable motives, who sees life in a simple, moral way and is willing to put himself at great risk and go up against the hegemonies of power and force that are way beyond his reach at first to penetrate or to dig out the truth. And usually it’s a kind of "quest" or "labor" for a woman he loves. In this shifting and usually disappointing world, he is someone who doesn’t disappoint, who you can count on to do the right thing. To me, that is very much at the heart of what being a hero in today’s world means. Reckless is your fourth solo novel. What changes have you undergone as a writer from your first forays into fiction to this book?
Well, my chapters have gotten a shade longer. But not too much so, I always fight my urges to let more texture in the books, let scenes develop more gradually with the commitment that I owe my readers a fast and gripping read. I think there is a deeper sense of personal motive in my books now than before. They’re richer. I don’t want to do things just for speed—as I did with Patterson or perhaps even in The Blue Zone
, which of course, has a great father/daughter dynamic which is about as "textured" as you can get. I’ve pushed back against the melodramatic more—but then again—a little melodrama is always good, critics aside. I don’t know, I’m stumbling. Always hate to try and define my own work. It’s better left to others to decide. Why do you write thrillers?
I like to write books which engage readers with a sense of real life characters thrown into danger—I like the speed of film and the actions of heroes. And I guess I like the delivery of information in a manner that breeds suspense. So I guess I’m a thriller guy. But I would like to write more of a generational, family story about the garment business, in the manner of The Godfather
—if my publisher will let me one day. John Irving knows the last sentence of his novels and then works back to the beginning. What is your writing process?
Well, I outline upfront. These days, about half the book, enough to get myself deep into the plot and the initial characters and to know what's at stake. And to get my publisher engaged with the next book. Then I always try to stay around ten chapters ahead of where I am. I’m not a believer in the story leading me—mystery/thrillers have to be well thought out, like business strategies and puzzles, otherwise you can find yourself down some alleys you don’t want to be. I want to control the story--frankly it’s my mortgage that’s at stake, not my characters'. But truth is, there are always changes and three a.m. epiphanies that completely change course. I may wake up and throw two people in bed together and say, "it’s time, get at it"—or I may wake up and kill someone off who just the last night was safe. That’s what happened with the mom in The Blue Zone
—I just woke up and said, "sorry!!!" What writers do you admire?
Not necessarily in my genre: Cormac McCarthy for his extraordinary prose; Thomas Harris for his bad guys; Harlan Coben for his ordinary heroes; early Robert Stone for his complexity; Robert Wilson for his amazing African thrillers; Elmore Leonard for his dialogue and minor characters; James Lee Burke for his rich humanity; Patterson for how to move a story and for teaching me the trade. I’m sure I‘m forgetting a few. Can you give readers an idea of what’s coming next from the pen of Andrew Gross?
We had a little tragedy in our family this past year. My twenty-one year old nephew committed suicide—jumped off a cliff. And as we writers do, we make sense of terrible events like this by weaving our own story around it, so I’m going back to a family story—much like in the way of The Blue Zone
—about a successful brother who has to solve his unsuccessful brother’s only son’s death. Should be a good one, I think. At least it’s one that is good for me.