Monday, July 09, 2018

Robert Dugoni & Bryan Gruley at The Poisoned Pen!

It was a mildly crispy late afternoon in June when Denis and I headed to The Poisoned Pen. We were both fairly recent converts to Robert Dugoni's books (especially his Tracy Crosswhite series) while the second author, Bryan Gruley, was new to us. From previous experience, we both knew that this event would probably convince us that we'd want to start reading Gruley's books as well.

Barbara Peters & Robert Dugoni
Barbara Peters gave a short introduction and then took a seat off to the side of the room. Robert Dugoni said, "This was a surprise to both Bryan and me when Barbara told us, 'You can talk to each other.'"

"You've just gotten lazy, Dugoni," Barbara called out from the sidelines. "I've spoiled you!"

Dugoni continued, "A big thanks to all of you for coming out. I think it was 113° when my plane touched down. Everyone in the airport in Seattle was wondering why I was dressed in shorts and flipflops. I think it had something to do with a fifty-degree difference in temperature!"

"I live in Chicago now," Bryan Gruley said. "Last week, it was in the fifties and raining. I am delighted to be here!"

"Bryan and I met seven or eight years ago when we were staying at the Arizona Biltmore. We came down here to The Poisoned Pen for a book signing," Dugoni said. "Was that for Starvation Lake, Bryan?"

"No, I think it was for Hanging Tree or Skeleton Box," Gruley replied.

The two men discovered that they had some common ground: hockey, although Dugoni's team is Stanford and Gruley's, Notre Dame.

"So we've known each other for a long time," Dugoni said. "We met in New York, and Bryan asked me if I'd read his new book, Bleak Harbor, that will be coming out at the end of the year. Of course, I told him that I'd be happy to. I forget the exact quote about the characters that I gave you..."

"A fascinating calamity of flawed characters," Gruley replied. "Pretty cool!"

Coming December 1, 2018!
"It's one of those books that, when you begin reading it, you're not sure who you're supposed to like. Because everybody's got a flaw which makes them extremely real. So the whole time you're going through this, you're wondering because it's a terrific mystery as to what actually happened. How did this all come about? You're trying to put together the pieces of the puzzle and see how this is all going to fit.

"One of the things I wondered, as a writer, was how you put together the plot without giving anything away so that when we get to the end we go 'Oh! Yeah!' and it all fits together."

"You know, I wish I knew!" Gruley deadpanned. "I had an idea-- the book is about the kidnapping of an autistic boy who's almost sixteen-- I had a vague idea of how it would end. I started at the beginning... and I did a lot of rewrites. It was in the edits-- this was after our friends Thomas & Mercer bought the book. It still wasn't exactly right. I don't really outline, but I have these files, and I have a file I call Later. It's like balls in the air. I know it's something that has to be dealt with. I can't deal with it right now, but I don't want to forget it so I have this Word file called Later. So I put all that in the file. The beauty of it is that you can go back and fix it.

Bryan Gruley
"I love to rewrite. It's hard, but I know it's getting better."

"Do you think it's the journalist in you that makes you love the rewriting?" Dugoni asked. "I was a journalist, too, and I have no problem with Thomas & Mercer giving me instructions to change things around because I know it's part of the writing process.

"I do know of writers who will say 'Do not touch my words,' but I've never been that way."

"I've been a journalist for almost thirty-nine years," Gruley said, "and you get a thick skin. Because... whoever you're writing for, it's their paper, it's their magazine. They'll work with you, but if you tell them not to touch your words they'll just laugh in your face. 'We're paying you, we'll tell you. If you want to make it better, we'll let you make it better.' You just learn to do that, and I've always found that really great editors will help you-- and I had a fantastic one for Bleak Harbor, Kaitlyn Alexander-- and in the end, it's your work. You made those decisions.

"So when I edit, I go from digital to print. I print things out because I love the tactile sense of striking words out. Striking out whole paragraphs. Because I know that it's probably getting better."

Robert Dugoni
"I have a law school roommate who has a son who is autistic, so I was fascinated with the whole idea of an autistic character. How did you come up with the idea, and how did you research it?" Dugoni asked. "I don't know much about autism. What I know, I know from my friend's son, and your book read very real to me."

"Unlike my other three books where I know exactly how I got the idea, I don't really remember," Gruley replied. "I had a whole process where I had a completely different book in mind, but when I talked to an editor from a big publishing house about it, she told me not to write it, that I needed to get out of my comfort zone. So... I made this boy autistic. Research-wise, I read a lot of stories. What I got from it is that they really don't know what autism is. There are all sorts of camps that argue about what it is, what it might be, what might cause it, how to deal with it, and in the end, I decided I was just going to write about a character.

"His name is Danny. Even his mother says that autism is just a label. This is my boy, and he's not like anyone else in the world. As it happens, about a year and a half after I started writing Bleak Harbor, my daughter had a baby, and Sawyer is probably on the spectrum. Certainly, Danny is not modeled after Sawyer, Sawyer is an angel and Danny is a little shit-- which you'll find out when you read the book! But he did influence me to some degree.

"Years ago-- even before I was published-- I was at this book conference, and I met Dennis Lehane," Gruley continued. "This was after he'd published The Given Day, and I asked him how much research he'd done on what he'd written about Lou Gehring and Babe Ruth going barnstorming around the country. He told me that he really hadn't done much, that he just wanted to get the feel of the characters right. Afterwards, he did go back and do a little research, just to make sure that he wouldn't embarrass himself."

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Dugoni then shared with us how he came up with the idea for A Steep Price. He was visiting his eighty-five-year-old mother. Driving-- especially to the airport-- makes her nervous, so Dugoni took an Uber to her office. The Uber driver was from India, and the two men struck up a conversation. Dugoni learned that the driver had recently been married.

"Congratulations! Have you known each other for a long time?"

"No, actually, no."

"What do you mean?" Dugoni asked. "And then it started dawning on me."

The driver said, "It was an arranged marriage."

"You know, the antennae go up in your head, and I thought, 'Well, this is different!' So I asked him, 'What does that mean? Did you date her?'"

"No. I met her. I met her again. Both times with parents present. And then we got married."

"Weren't you terrified?"

"Hell, I was terrified, and it wasn't an arranged marriage!" Gruley exclaimed.

Dugoni laughed (along with the rest of us) and said, "Since this is being video recorded, honey, I was not terrified... I loved every moment of it!"

Dugoni's driver was not terrified because his parents had also had an arranged marriage, and they've been married for thirty-five years. "Did you know that arranged marriages have a much lower divorce rate?" the driver asked.


"Yes. The divorce rate for Western marriages is 50%, and the rate for arranged marriages is much lower, about 20%."

Robert Dugoni (L) & Bryan Gruley (R)
This entire conversation made Dugoni start researching arranged marriages. "A lot of what the driver said was true, but it also had a lot to do with the culture. You don't get divorced in arranged marriages. You just live with it. You have a purpose outside of love, and that's to raise a family.

"I was just fascinated by the whole thing, and in my research, I learned that once couples whose marriages were arranged by their parents came here and had children and those children grew up as Americans, then there was a lot more resistance to the custom. And that was all I needed. A young girl going to medical school is being pressured by her parents to marry a young boy they've chosen for her. She resists and resists. And then she disappears. They don't know if she's just angry and has left or if something bad has happened."

"And her best friend has succumbed to the pressure," Gruley added. "It's a great dynamic. And I'm curious, as a writer and as a reader-- where did the idea for Tracy Crosswhite come from?"

Robert Dugoni reading from A Steep Price
"It was an idea born of necessity," Dugoni laughed. "I'd just been told by my publisher in New York that my David Sloane series wasn't selling very well, and they weren't going to publish it anymore.

"It was one of those conversations where you want to say, 'Yeah, because you're not promoting it at all!' But you learn..."

"They put it on the shelf!" Gruley said, which made us all laugh.

"When you find a publisher who believes in you and believes in your work, that's when you know you're in the right place," Dugoni said. "There's nothing better than knowing that you have a publisher who has your back. I knew these people didn't have my back. What are you going to do? Are you going to argue about it? No. You're going to say thank you and move on.

"I was okay about it until I walked into my hotel room there in New York. I called my agent-- our agent (looking at Gruley)-- and she was very sympathetic, but she said, 'Get over it and come up with a new character!' When I got home, I started looking through my David Sloane books looking for a character to spin off. I called Meg and said, 'I have a character! What about Kensington Rowe?' Meg said, 'What about his partner, Tracy Crosswhite?' What?!? 'What about Tracy Crosswhite? She's a former chemistry teacher. Why was she a chemistry teacher?' I don't know. 'Well, figure it out!' So that's how Tracy Crosswhite came about."

Gruley then told us about a character named Quartz in Bleak Harbor whom (he figured) would only be on a couple of pages of the book. But Quartz just wouldn't leave Gruley alone. "How long did it take you to realize that this character was in your head for a reason and that you should just go with it?" Dugoni asked him. "About three years!" Gruley replied.

The two men then read passages from their books before it was time to adjourn to the signing line. I really enjoyed their talk about where their ideas come from and their writing process, how about you?

And before you ask, Denis and I both want to read Gruley's Bleak Harbor when it comes out in December!

Bryan Gruley reading from Bleak Harbor


  1. Glad, as always, that you had a good visit to the PP, Cathy. What I like is that the PP 'special guests' are always so varied, and write in different sub-genres.

    1. There are also non-fiction writers, romance writers, and more, but if I don't go to see them and report back to all of you, you may not realize just how varied they are. That's why it can be so important to sign up for their emails.

  2. Sounds like a really fun event. A good sense of humor in writers is a good thing.

    I will check out their books and look for your reviews of them.

    1. I enjoy Dugoni's Tracy Crosswhite series, but it will be a while before I can read Bleak Harbor.

  3. Just the other day I had wondered about Bryan Gruley, so I'm glad to learn about Bleak Harbor (something to look forward to!). Starvation Lake was good, though definitely melancholic.

    And a big Thank You for the recent 'introduction' to Tracy Crosswhite! I'm enjoying the series, while doing my best to spread them out so I don't get caught up too fast...

    1. I bless the fact that I can sometimes get inundated with advance reading copies because it prevents me from racing through several of these series that I'm enjoying so much. On the other hand, July has been an ARC-free month, and I've been luxuriating in it!


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