A former marine biologist, cook, speechwriter, and White House policy advisor, Michael Gruber is a New York Times–bestselling writer who work infuses genre fiction with philosophical and supernatural themes. His books include the Jimmy Paz trilogy (Tropic of Night, Valley of Bones, and Night of the Jaguar) and thrillers about Shakespeare (The Book of Air and Shadows) and Velázquez (The Forgery of Venus). His two most recent books, The Good Son and The Return, are spy thrillers set in Pakistan and Mexico. Prior to writing under his own name, for sixteen years he was ghostwriter of the popular Butch Karp-Marlene Ciampi series. He has also written a young adult fantasy novel, The Witch’s Boy, and writes magazine essays on biology. He lives in Seattle, where he was interviewed by Gregory Wolfe.
Image: You’ve spoken about being able to have your cake and eat it too when it comes to writing genre fiction with a strong literary dimension. In short, you manage to sneak an awful lot of substance into your thrillers. What’s it like to inhabit that space?
Michael Gruber: When you say “genre,” you are talking about two different things. In modern publishing, thrillers or mysteries or romances are marketed in a certain way to a certain audience—and that is one way of looking at genre. The other is that genre is a form, no different than a sonnet or revenge tragedy. Looked at it that way, which is how I look at it, genre can carry as much freight as you want to put on it.
Many people say that literary fiction is just another genre. I don’t believe that. Literary fiction is about challenge, expansion, making something new, rendering the human condition in a different way. Genre is essentially about affirmation. You want it to come out in a particular way.
Also, in genre, it is almost inevitable that you have a protagonist with whom you can identify. Lionel Trilling said that the definition of trash is that the reader can identify with it—this I learned as an undergraduate from the man himself. But in literary fiction you need not have that kind of protagonist. You need not have a protagonist at all. Everything is up for grabs in both modernism and postmodernism.
But narrative still has energy. People want to hear stories. People are stories. I stand with Anatole France when he said that stories teach us how to live. That’s what I try to do when I write. My books have a moral dimension. Life is real. Life is now. There are real problems. Illuminating those problems is what I like to do, so I write stealth novels.
The Karp and Ciampi novels, for example, are on the one hand cheap legal thrillers, which are famous as the bottom-feeding organisms of the thriller world—exclusively melodramatic, with cardboard characters, etc. But the fifteen Karp novels are really one gigantic novel about a family in the midst of horrendous violence and how each member handles it and how they develop as a family. The books are not entirely what I would have liked them to be, because the character Butch Karp was in thrall to the man for whom I was ghostwriting the books and therefore had very little space to develop. That person so totally identified with Karp that there were only certain things that I could do, though I pushed it as far as I could. The other characters—Marlene and Lucy and the twins and the ancillary characters—I could do anything with, and so they are actually more interesting than Karp. Karp is fairly interesting for a thriller character, but that is not saying much.
Image: You grew up in Flatbush, in the intensity of New York City and all of its cultural and educational opportunities. What was that like?
MG: Like every childhood, it was wonderful and horrible. There were very few books in our house. To my parents, the Broadway musical was the height of art. Rodgers and Hammerstein were like Shakespeare and Milton, and as a result I acquired an encyclopedic knowledge of the American songbook. I was fortunate to go to a high school at which writing musical comedies was the equivalent of being on the football team. I could write terrific lyrics, so I was a superstar. Everyone knew who I was. If you’re a writer, you’re supposed to be alienated from your high school, which is probably why I am a genre writer and not a literary writer.
I went to college at Columbia, where I edited the humor magazine. I went into the army, came out, and my course was straight, like a brick pathway I was destined to follow. Woody Allen had been the superstar at my high school five years earlier, and I was supposed to be the next Woody Allen. But I did not want to be that person—a literary fellow, successful in show business, metropolitan. For some reason, which I still haven’t figured out, all that was anathema, so I decided to turn myself into a real American by becoming a scientist. I went back and did the equivalent of a BS in biology and then a PhD in marine biology on a full ride to the University of Miami. I was set to be a postdoc and then a professor and write grants and have that life. Once again, the idea of going along with my peers and climbing the academic ladder just made my skin crawl.
So I dropped out and became a cook. I cooked in various restaurants around Miami, and then I ran off and joined the Hog Farm, which was a group of traveling hippies back in the day, and then I came back and started cooking in Miami again. I had a daughter by that time, and one day I got yelled at by the chef and it struck me that I had a PhD and I didn’t have to take this crap anymore. I called a friend and she got me a job with the manager of Dade County, and I had a career in government. I went from being a county policy analyst to the head of planning for the department of human resources, and then I got a telephone call from the White House, because I had developed a reputation as someone who could really do policy work in the human services.
In 1977 I moved my family to Washington and worked in the White House Office of Science and Technology, and then at the EPA. When Reagan came in, I became a speechwriter to William Ruckelshaus, who was the head of the EPA at the time, and then I had a career as a political speechwriter.
Around ’84 or so, I got a call from my cousin Robert Tanenbaum. He had recently published a ghostwritten book of nonfiction about a famous murder case that he had won as a district attorney in New York. It had been a New York Times bestseller and so he had a reputation, and his publisher had asked for a novelization of another of his famous cases. He sent me his first five chapters to have me take a look, because he knew I was a writer.
I told him that the thing was unsalvageable but that I would undertake to write a novel for him, and he agreed, for half of the advance. I had never written a novel before, but I loved doing it. I knocked it off in four or five months and it sold hundreds of thousands of copies. On that basis we got a contract, and another contract, each advance a good deal higher than the last, and soon I was making a lot of money. I quit my government job and we moved to Seattle. I wrote Karp novels between 1984 and around 1999. I had a really good time. Of course my name wasn’t on the cover, but because of the peculiarities of my attitude toward fame I was reasonably content with that.
Unfortunately, it was becoming increasingly clear that Tanenbaum’s attitude was a little off. He was a successful lawyer with a career in politics, a handsome man, a good speaker, knew the law backward and forward, a wonderful litigator. When I started doing this, I thought these books would be like his sideline. But it became clear that he wanted me to admit that he wrote the books. People would come up to him and say, “Gosh, these are wonderful books. The Karp family is just like my family.” The praise did something corrosive, I think. He wanted that to be him.
It became more and more apparent that he was not telling his publisher who wrote these books, and when I tried to discuss it, he would clam up. We had some harsh words, and he told me through his agent that he didn’t want me to be involved anymore. And that’s when I started writing Tropic of Night.
Image: I guess part of the magic, though, was that by coming to that first novel almost by accident, the latent literary side of you was set free, where maybe you wouldn’t have able to think of doing it directly.
MG: Yes, the veil. I could work behind the screen but not in front. Why is a matter for psychologists. The interesting thing is, shortly after I started writing the Karp books, I decided that I wanted to write something of my own. A fairy tale. I had read John Gardner’s Grendel, which tells the story of Beowulf from the point of view of the monster, and I thought it was a great idea, because you know, monsters are interesting, maybe more so than heroes. So I decided to write the story of Rumpelstiltskin from the standpoint of Rumpelstiltskin. What’s his back-story? Why did he want the king’s daughter? How did he learn to spin straw into gold? And so I wrote The Witch’s Boy.
I felt I had to write it in an isolated place, and so I took a week off and rented a cabin on the Appalachian Trail, but I just could not write. I spent ten days and probably wrote ten pages, and I put it aside for ten years. Then around 1999 I took it out again and wrote it in a month. It just gushed out. And nobody wanted that book. I sent it out to fifteen, twenty publishers. “It’s a wonderful book, but we have nowhere to put it.” I shelved it until after I published Tropic of Night and the rest of the Miami Trilogy. I gave it to my agent, he loved it, and it sold in twenty-four hours.
Image: Just one more question about the Karp-Ciampi books. They seem to establish a pattern that you have played many variations on in later books: There are issues of the day—politics and justice and economics. There is a family, or at least a kind of domestic comedy. And there is religion—and not just a purely cultural version of religion but, for instance, parents who might suddenly start explaining original sin or the via negativa to their children. So I guess all that just sprung out of who you are?
MG: That is true. I understand bureaucracy as most people who write thrillers don’t. I have been there. I have wielded power, which is a whole different thing. When I hear people talk about politics, I often think, “You really don’t know what you are talking about.” You wouldn’t talk about repairing a roof if you’d never repaired a roof, yet politics is the one area where not knowing anything is a tremendous advantage.
The family, raising children, is the most interesting thing in the world. Nothing can compare with it. To see the human being develop is irreplaceable as a life experience.
With religion, you have to be careful. You don’t want to be didactic. Very few thrillers or mystery stories have religious protagonists, unless their religion is the whole point of the novel: Chesterton’s Father Brown stories, Harry Kemelman’s series about the sleuthing rabbi, Julia Spencer-Fleming’s series about an Anglican priest who solves crimes in upstate New York. Those books are all very well, but not what I am interested in writing. My model is Graham Greene; my attitude toward moral questions tends to fit with his. In the Karp books, his daughter Lucy is profoundly religious, Karp is essentially agnostic, and Ciampi is raised Catholic but has the attitude of many educated Catholic women toward the church: unless you change with respect to women’s issues, I’m not going to participate.
The typical thriller protagonist though, the character who was created by Raymond Chandler and others almost a hundred years ago now, is professionally an existentialist. Every thriller is an existentialist document, and I find it dull. The thriller protagonist doesn’t have any children, has no domestic life, his sexual life is either one-night stands or a live-in girlfriend, and the moral basis of the book is the morality that he creates: he can kill someone if he’s decided that that person deserves to die. And the literary form is always melodrama. Jack Reacher is the unimpeachable hero, and the guy he is pursuing is irredeemably bad and deserves to get shot in the next-to-last chapter. I find it very difficult to get that stuff to move past my retinas. If I were a literary scholar I would say that the prose is crappy because the ideas are crappy—but hundreds of millions of copies are sold.
My other area of interest, starting with the Paz books, is how culture works. My belief is that every culture has horrible and wonderful things about it, and to say that our wonderful things are ultimately wonderful and our horrible things are not so bad, while in foreign cultures the horrible is ultimately horrible and the wonderful is, eh, not so great—that is cultural imperialism. I have tried to unpack all that in my writing. I could see someone from a Muslim culture looking at how we treat our elderly, how we allow them to be cared for by strangers, and thinking it monstrous, in just the same way we find monstrous their restrictions on women’s rights. For us to say, “The way they treat women is so bad that it delegitimizes their whole culture,” is cultural imperialism.
Image: I think of the Jimmy Paz trilogy as anthropological supernatural mysteries—because you seem interested not only in different cultures but in differences in the way people see the world, the nature of human consciousness. Is that fair to say?
MG: There is a wonderful passage from Tom Robbins, who has a character say something like, “Camus says the most important question is whether you should kill yourself or not. Einstein says the most important question is, does time have a stop? But I say the most important question is, what can make love stay? Answer me that and I’ll tell you if time has a stop and whether you should kill yourself.”
But I think the real question is, is there another world? That is, is the world described by science exhaustive? Is everything just quarks, electrons, and the force between them, or does the fact that consciousness is so ultimately mysterious imply that there is a world beyond the material, whatever you want to call it? As a Catholic I believe that the material is not everything, but even outside of that one of the themes I develop in the trilogy is the possibility that there is an unseen world that interdigitates with ours and that the only machine in the universe that can interact with it is the human brain; the brain is the only thing complex enough to tune in. X-rays existed from the origin of the universe almost, but we didn’t know about them until 1898 because we didn’t have the right machine. Radio waves are the same. One of the things that humans have done since forever is tune into that unseen world. That’s the underlying assumption of the trilogy.
I would hesitate to call them supernatural thrillers. They’re not genre horror, like Stephen King, because nowhere in the trilogy do I say it’s all real. You can read these thrillers and conclude that it’s all drug-induced, all suggestion, which is just what science does. If two guys in Japan see a neutrino, it’s international news. It’s on the front cover of Nature. If five hundred peasants in Yugoslavia see the Virgin Mary walking on the hillside, it’s a mass hallucination. If you ask what a mass hallucination is, they say “I don’t know” and start waving their hands. Consciousness is the most interesting thing there is, and so that is what I write about.
The other thing I try to explore—especially in the trilogy which consists of The Book of Air and Shadows, The Forgery of Venus, and a book as yet unpublished—is the phenomenon of genius. From a scientific point of view, you want to know where it comes from. How can we possibly understand someone like Shakespeare, someone like Mozart, someone like Velasquez? I wrote the Shakespeare book and the Velasquez book, but the Mozart book turned out not to be about Mozart at all, because I don’t know enough about music to discuss musical genius. The protagonist of the book I did write is tone deaf.
Image: Genius fascinates us, but we naturally have ambivalence toward it because it can make us feel small. I presume that your interest in genius isn’t so much in the hagiography of higher beings, but more at the level of consciousness?
MG: I’m interested in the question of where does it come from and why is it there. Why aren’t all people who produce art pretty much the same? If you walk through the Prado you see brown painting after brown painting, and then suddenly: Velasquez! Another great example is the Mauritshuis Museum in the Hague, a former palace. As you walk through the central atrium of the great hall, you see all the superstars of Dutch genre painting. The Dutch didn’t want historical pictures or religious pictures. They wanted pictures of bourgeois life. And a cadre of brilliant painters in the seventeenth century provided that product. As you walk through the hall, you think, “Boy, these guys could paint. Look at that lace, that tile, the light coming through that stained-glass window. What talent! De Hooch, Hals, Metsu, Steen—all these guys are greats.”
Now at the end of the gallery you stop. And there’s Vermeer’s Girl with the Pearl Earring. And that’s not just talent. What is it? He has penetrated the skin of mortality. That girl is real, and she is dead, and she once was alive, and you can see her life, and you know that she is gone. That is the difference between talent and genius. Where does that come from? They all had that skill, but genius is not just a skill; it’s something else. For example, when I was writing Air and Shadows, I thought at first I would try to write the missing play, something that could hope to pass as Shakespeare.
Image: Good luck with that.
MG: True. Anybody who has been trained in Shakespeare can do Shakespearean speech. You can do iambic pentameter until the cows come home. What you can’t do is the blank verse. That’s gone from the world. I put in a few lines of faux-Shakespeare just to suggest the play.
Writing about Shakespeare as a fictional character, of course, is a lot easier than imitating him, because we know almost nothing about him besides the bare facts and a few legal documents and mentions in the writings of the time. I mean, the man was smoke—the greatest writer in English, a figure in the London theater for thirty years, and not a letter, not a book of his, not a personal recollection of any length by a contemporary. So it’s wide open. I had a lot of fun with my version—the great man in his social status as a kind of upper servant, as seen by a gormless boy who’s been recruited to help destroy him.
Image: In a number of your books, including the Jimmy Paz trilogy, you have a modern culture that is analytical, scientific, empiricist, and pragmatic meeting a pre-modern culture that sees life more holistically. I’m interested in how you use satire in that context. With a character like the South American shaman in Night of the Jaguar, there is a certain amount of comedy. We see the absurdity of our mentality compared to this deeper, richer one, but he’s absurd too.
MG: There is a thing called original participation, which is the notion that there is no difference between nature and the person. In that book, one of the great shocks of the shaman Moie’s life is the idea that you can look at the world from outside. That blows him away. Since he is also a genius and has a willing and charitable teacher whom he loves, he starts learning some of the concepts of our world, the world we think is the real one. Moie understands our so-called real world as a construct put together by people who have power, and he understands that the reason that we accept it is that power dominates truth, as we know from the Gospels. But what we also know from the Gospels is that in the last act, truth dominates power. Power washes away, and there is truth. I am reaching towards talking about that in the trilogy.
There is a scientist in Jaguar who is sort of a foil to the shaman, but he is a good character too. I know guys like that: contentious, witty, iconoclastic, and devoted to the idea of materialistic causality. But when you talk to real scientists, people on at the outer edge of what we know, you find that causality is not what we thought it was. It’s been noted, for example, that in 1900 physics was mechanistic and biology was spooky, but in 2000, biology is mechanistic and physics is spooky. One of the questions I’m asking in Jaguar is: if every quantum experiment gets exactly to ten decimal places the results predicted by the theory, isn’t that strange? Doesn’t that make you suspicious that maybe the theorist is making it happen? Because the world isn’t like that. Nothing else in the world is like that. Me, I tend to be suspicious.
But you can also argue that consciousness is a basic constituent of the universe and can’t be studied objectively, like other aspects of nature, that it’s literally metaphysical. When I read Daniel Dennett explaining consciousness away, I reach for my revolver. Consciousness may be its own thing, like space-time or mass-energy. Maybe it’s something that pervades the universe, like cosmic radiation, so that when a life form gets to a certain level of complexity, at which it is capable of consciousness, then we have language and everything that comes out of that. I don’t know if I actually believe that, but it’s a theory admirably susceptible to literary manipulation.
Image: I wonder if in these stories your Catholicism is somehow carried by these older, pre-Christian cultures that enable us to see what sacramentalism and mysticism are really like. There is a kind of thickness to these cultures that we have forgotten in our very thin, over-explained, rational way of approaching everything, including our own religion. Your novels have a way of revealing that without being preachy.
MG: I would agree with you about culture. It is a difficult thing to write about in fiction, because as you point out, it would be easy to fall into preachiness. Or the looney. For example, let’s say you believe you’ve had a religious experience. There are a few possibilities. One, God is talking to you. Two, you’re crazy. And three, it’s the devil. How do you decide? You decide by looking at what the experience impels you to do. Do you check yourself into the clinic and get drugs? Or do you concoct a system that purports to control every possible thing? Well, maybe you are crazy. Do you set yourself up as the grand cham of a new religion that involves limousines and teen-aged girls? Well, maybe that is Satan using you as an agent. Do you perform acts of charity and are you humble? Well, maybe then that was God. Saint Teresa of Avila says, in effect, “When God talks to you, you feel like a worm.” That was also Isaiah’s experience.
Image: In Valley of Bones, you have created one of my all-time favorite characters in Emmylou Dideroff. She grows up in this terribly abusive, impoverished world, goes on to do very bad things and get involved with very bad people, and then bumps into a bunch of nuns and becomes this bad-ass modern nun. There is comedy in your treatment, but also something very serious. I love her toughness and realism. Can you talk to me about her?
MG: Emmylou started out with me hearing a speaker at Saint James Cathedral here in Seattle one Sunday, an ordinary-looking woman, probably a Maryknoll sister, who was here collecting money. She had a very simple ministry in Manila. She went out to the public dump to rescue babies who had been thrown on the smoking trash. Some had an extra finger or one eye or a cleft palate, and she took care of them and raised them. And she was there permanently, not for just two years to have an enriching experience. That was her life. And then those nuns got killed in El Salvador, and it hit me that I was going to write a story about an order of sisters like that. I made up the order, the Sisters of the Most Precious Blood. I wrote a hagiography of their founder as part of the book, and I tried to imitate the style of a 1940s hagiography.
Emmylou’s story also touches on another of my great interests: the impossibility of walking the cat back through a human life to find out why it worked out that way. You can look at a miserable character, a rapist in jail, let’s say, and claim that he ended up a rapist in jail because he had a terrible childhood and his parents abused him. But then you find somebody else who is a saint, and you ask, why this extraordinary devotion and charity? And they say, “Well, I had a terrible childhood. My mother abused me. My father abused me.” It’s strange. It’s mysterious. You can’t walk the cat back.
It’s true that studies tell us that people who are abused and deprived make up a higher proportion of the criminal population, but we also know that a much greater number of people with a similar background are not criminals. When you look at it closely, there is always an angel involved. Somebody takes this kid and looks them in the eye and says, “You are not this person,” and bam, something happens. Why isn’t Barack Obama a street hustler? “Well, he had a wonderful mother. He had a wonderful grandmother.” But look at all the wonderful grandmothers in those communities whose grandkids become street hustlers. It’s an interesting question, and it’s a literary question.
Image: Two of your recent books, The Good Son and The Return, deal again with the juxtaposition of cultures, but you have brought in hugely relevant political issues: in The Return, drug trafficking and its impact on the border between the United States and Mexico in terms of immigration and poverty; and then in The Good Son, the Pashtun culture of Pakistan and Afghanistan and terrorism. In both cases you are able to demonstrate another way of seeing the world, and to do it without sentimentality, but again you enable us to see that we are missing the point so often in the way that we approach these political issues—because they are very different issues for them.
MG: As I said earlier, every culture is wonderful and horrible. We have been trained by our movies and other fiction to view the world in a melodramatic way. Those poor kids we are sending to Afghanistan and Iraq are utterly unprepared to deal with a culture like that. They are seeing good guys and bad guys, cowboys and Indians. There is no subtlety, and so we fail. In The Good Son I create a character who is an amphibian, whose mother is American and whose father is Pakistani, and we see the world through his point of view. In one scene, this pathetic American lieutenant has stopped a busload of people and Theo talks to the translator, just making fun of the guy. It is done generously, I think, but the American officer has no idea what he is doing, cannot possibly have an idea, and so terrorism continues. We don’t know why they do the things they do. We don’t understand. And that is one of the limitations of our culture. Sonia in The Good Son is another interesting character. She is a Catholic in the United States, an atheist in Europe, a Muslim in Pakistan, and why not? I had a lot of fun making up Sonia.
Image: You certainly have strong female characters.
MG: Well, I like women.
The Good Son is all about a mother and son, and The Return is about a father and daughter. I suppose if I had been allowed to write a third in that trilogy I would have done a father-son thing. I actually spent two and half years on this gigantic historical novel called The Charles Bridge, my bid to get into the literary mainstream, and nobody wanted to buy it. My agent sent me the rejection letters, and they all say, “What a wonderful book. I was fascinated, but I can’t buy it.” I seem to be a quarter-turn wrong for modern publishing. It has been a funny literary life.
Image: Well, Lord willing it’s not over yet.
MG: No. I’m writing a pure thriller now. A confidence gang rips off a thriller writer and takes him for everything, and he becomes fascinated with the woman who is the interface to the gang, and he pursues her. She wants nothing to do with him, yet something in her reaches out to him, too, almost unconsciously. As part of the confidence racket she pretends to be a psychic, which she thinks is all nonsense, but then events start to convince her that in fact it is real, that she really can do things with her mind that you are not supposed to be able to do. I guess I’ve returned to my roots.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.