My Road to Fiction by Bryan Gruley
I have wanted to be a novelist for as long as I can remember. I started dreaming about writing chapter books when I was reading Hardy Boys mysteries in second grade. But I didn’t publish my first novel until I was 51 years old.
That was ten years ago. Do I wish I’d started making things up earlier?
Flag me for rationalizing but, looking back, I want to think that things happened the way they should have. The truth is, I never lost sight of my dream. I just took a detour into journalism. Without it, I doubt I ever would have written any serious fiction (wildly assuming, of course, that you consider my made-up stuff serious).
When I graduated from the University of Notre Dame in 1979, I knew that I wanted to write. I had some fanciful ideas about writing short stories but neither the experience nor discipline to actually put them on paper. A friend of my mother’s gave me the David Halberstam book, The Powers That Be. It glorified journalists who were covering the Vietnam War, Watergate, and the Pentagon Papers. I started applying to small newspapers, finally landing a job at the Brighton Argus, a weekly outside of Detroit.
Thirty years later, I was working at The Wall Street Journal in Washington, D.C., and feeling the itch to try novel-writing. My late pal, the writer Brian Doyle, told me that what I really wanted was to just sign books at my first reading. It was a jab; Doyle didn’t think I was serious about fiction. But I had a decent idea and wrote 25,000 words that my agent didn’t much like. There was a glimmer of hockey in that unfinished tale. My agent said, “Why don’t you write me a story about these middle-aged guys who play hockey in the middle of the night?” I immediately had an idea that would become my first novel, Starvation Lake.
It took me four years to write it. After twenty-six rejections, I had given up on getting that book published and was beginning to think about writing a different one. Then Simon & Schuster’s Touchstone imprint offered me a three-book deal. I was on my way.
Reporting and writing non-fiction taught me a lot that I use to tell my imagined stories: Discipline. Deadlines. Organization. Research. Word economy. Dialogue. Narrative. Observation (not just sight and hearing, but smell and taste and touch). And respect for the wishes of readers who would prefer to have me blow up a car rather than ponder the meaning of life (or, for that matter, hockey).
More important, I spent a lot of years living before I even attempted my debut. Reporting stories gave me an extraordinary opportunity to interact on a deep level with a huge variety of different people on an equally diverse array of subjects. In retrospect, I don’t think there’s any way I could have written a coherent novel with the slightest trace of maturity when I was in my 20s or 30s. Not to mention that I was a little busy helping my wife Pam bring up our three children.
After my first three novels were published, I was starting my newest, Bleak Harbor, when my friend Doyle wrote me another note. “Maybe I am one of the few who can well imagine the thousands of hours of work that led to this – the thousands of pages, the thousands of hours of listening and poking and trying – the thousands of hours of dreaming and then carpentering the dream as best you could,” he wrote. “We wanted to be Writers, and then as we got smarter we wanted to be writers, and we damn well became writers, and this is a salute to the thousands of hours of carpentry.” I treasure those words.
My journalism career is winding down after nearly 39 years. I see that as a chance to crank up the truly fake news of my novels, using all the skills I learned writing non-fiction stories. For the record, I have yet to blow up a car in any of my novels. But I’m writing a new one, so who knows?
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Bryan Gruley is the critically acclaimed author of the crime fiction novel, BLEAK HARBOR (December 1, 2018; Thomas & Mercer), and the Anthony, Barry and Strand Award-winning author of the Starvation Lake mystery trilogy (STARVATION LAKE; THE HANGING TREE; and THE SKELETON BOX). A lifelong journalist, he is now a staff writer for Bloomberg Businessweek and is the recipient of numerous journalism awards including a shared Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the September 11 terrorist attacks during his tenure with The Wall Street Journal. You can visit him at www.bryangruley.com.