Michael Gruber explains the inspiration behind his 2007 intellectual thriller,
The Book of Air and Shadows
The Book of Air and Shadows was born during a conference with an
intellectual property lawyer on a particular afternoon in November of 2003. When
I say born, I mean nearly the whole plot popped into my head and I actually spun
it out as a narrative, really as an extended hypothetical in reference to the
reason I was sitting in the lawyer's office in the first place. The issue at
hand, which I won't get into, was essentially about the value of an oral
anecdote with respect to a work of fiction based on same. For example, a guy in
a bar tells you a story, and then you write a work of fiction about it, and the
guy in the bar comes back at you after the book's been published and says, in
effect, that's my story, all you did was put it into words, so I want to get
credit as a collaborator, you can't claim to have written the book ("our" book)
all by yourself.
So the intellectual property lawyer asks me about the various circumstances
involved, and I tell him, and he says that the anecdote guy has a point and
might be able to sue me. I might win such a suit, he said, but it would cost a
bundle to defend it.
I could not believe this. I said, wait, suppose I'm in your office and I tell
you a story, any story, let's say . . .it's about an English professor who finds
a manuscript of an unknown Shakespeare play . . . .
And off I went, and as I spoke, there boiled up, in a manner that will be
familiar to many writers, characters and twists, and subplots and the underlying
theme of the novel, which was what happens when ideas in a writer's mind get
converted into intellectual property that people can fight about.
So why Shakespeare? Because he's the essence of mystery. Because in the modern
history of the world there's no literary figure of remotely comparable magnitude
for whom we have less biographical information: the greatest single figure
writing in our language, and he's smoke. Because he flourished in a world
without copyright laws. Because I had just read a biography of Mary, Queen of
Scots, and started to imagine what Shakespeare might have made of her, a
Shakespearian tragic heroine if ever there was one, and then I started to
imagine a situation where he might've written such a play, and then I asked why
he would've bothered since such a work could never be performed, given the
religious politics of the time. So there had to be a reason he wrote this lost
play, and hid it away, maybe there was a plot to get him into trouble, and a set
of letters, yes, coded, letters, that both explained the plot and provided clues
to where the precious manuscript was hidden. And the people who found these
letters would be a strange pair, a man and a woman, and the hero would be . . .
I thought, looking at the guy I was talking to, an intellectual property lawyer!
When the intellectual property lawyer told me his bad news, therefore, I was not
as annoyed as I might have been, because I had the plot of my next novel as a
gift fully formed. Honestly, it was like reading a thought balloon hanging over
my own head. I love it when that happensall I had to do was type it out. Not
really, but there was an important lesson here, too, which is that there's no
point in crying over intellectual property lost. Just make up some more.
Michael Gruber Tells The Story Behind Tropic of Night
In a sense, this book began with me being bitten by an octopus in a Bimini
lagoon. I had stalked the wily creature to its lair in the coral, and had
squirted ammonia into the hole to force it out, when all at once it emerged in a
rush, and instead of blowing ink and trying to flee, like any normal octopus, it
swarmed up my arm and bit me. Octopuses are venomous, but at the time no one was
really sure how toxic their bite was, because so few people had been bitten by
one. The reason I was in Bimini, in a boat, with my arm starting to look like a
blackish zucchini, instead of sitting in an editorial office in New York,
remains even now somewhat obscure. Somewhere in my 23rd year, after having
always been an English major-type and writer, I succumbed to a brainstorm and
decided to go back to school, get a B.S., and then become a marine biologist.
Who knows why we do these things? A little Captain Cousteau, a little Rachel
Carson, the desire not to do the expected, the notion of being able to earn a
living dressed in a bathing suit instead of tweeds
In any case, in a few years I found myself working for a doctorate at the
University of Miami's celebrated marine laboratory, where I soon discovered that
marine biology did not consist exclusively, or even mainly, of floating blithely
among picturesque coral reefs or contemplating the mysteries of the deep. Much
of the field, and the main emphasis of the professors thereof, involved
collecting creatures, classifying them, pickling them in formalin, and snipping
them up under the microscope, or else taking enormous numbers of precise
measurements in an effort to find out why a particular limpet chose a particular
rock. I was not good at these things. What I really wanted to do was to laze
around in that bathing suit and watch animals. Luckily, it turned out that there
was a sub-area of biology devoted to doing just that, or nearly; it was called
ethology, and that was where I chose to do my dissertation. The animal I chose
to do it on was the octopus.
Now, the ethologist's main task is to understand the perceptual world of the
animal and that requires a tricky kind of concentration, especially with a
creature like the octopus, which is basically a snail that's as smart as a cat,
and from the human perspective the most alien intelligence on the planet. You
don't really get this from the data, as in conventional science: it comes to you
through long experience, and then you can construct an experimental regime that
will allow non-bathing-suited scientists to share what you've learned. Thus
Bimini, thus the boat, and the bite.
When I arrived at the little marine station, the station director was standing
on the dock with a lovely blonde woman wearing a robe and a bikini. This was how
I happened to meet J. I said, "I've been bitten by an octopus," which
turned out to be the sort of introductory line she appreciated. We spent the
rest of the day together, during which I discovered that a lot of St. Pauli Girl
beer was what the doctor ordered for octopus bites, and also that she was an
anthropologist, was working at a big public hospital in Miami, and had recently
returned from a trip from Algeria to Nigeria by car in company with a well-known
black writer. This person had apparently gone nuts, seized upon J. as a symbol
of white oppression, and arranged for a local sorcerer to curse her. She
subsequently became gravely ill, and had to be yanked from death's embrace by
I had not previously met anyone who'd been ensorcelled, so I was fascinated --
never mind that I was spending my days deep within the scientific paradigm, in
which such things were not allowed. We became close friends in Miami during the
time I was finishing my degree, and when someone broke into her house and
assaulted her, she asked me to move in as a sort of bodyguard. J.'s job at the
hospital was working with people who'd been afflicted by sorcery, not normally a
Medicare-covered treatment modality, but fairly common in Miami at the time. I
hung around the fringes of the santería-voudoun world with her and observed a
number of phenomena not easily explained by science. By this time it was clear
that I was not about to set the world of biology aflame -- not many people were
interested in octopus behavior -- and so after the university grudgingly gave me
a doctorate I departed for a job as a restaurant cook.
Shortly thereafter, J. and I got married, although not to each other, and I
started working for the county manager as a criminal justice analyst. I got to
know a little about cop work and battered kids, and a lot about the peculiar
ethnic politics of the Magic City. Then I went to Washington and spent 20 years
as a government drone, while moonlighting as a ghostwriter -- political speeches
and a line of thrillers.
The last thread: my wife was working as an art teacher in an inner city school
and she told me about a young black girl in her class, a brilliant artist but
subject to fits of uncontrollable rage. It turned out that she had been adopted
by a white couple, decent people, but without a clue about what was driving
their daughter crazy. About six months after I heard this story, I grabbed an
old bound scientific notebook off a shelf, turned to some blank pages and began
to write, unusual because I never compose in longhand. I wrote in what seemed
almost automatic writing far into the night. In the morning, I saw that I had a
story about a white woman in hiding from something that happened in Africa, and
from her husband, a famous black poet, and trying to protect a battered black
child she'd rescued. It looked like the first chapter of a novel. I was dying to
find out what happened next and so over the next two years I wrote Tropic of
Some Thoughts on Race: Everyone knows that the current President is a
white man and the current Secretary of State is not. And yet, this distinction,
which we give so much importance socially, is in reality a form of cultural
hallucination. Tropic of Night is a novel about, among other things, the
way in which people construct reality based upon what their culture teaches them
is significant: We observe that one person is race X and another is race Y
because we have been taught to pay particular attention to a certain set of
essentially trivial physical characteristics. (Imagine, in contrast, that we
broke humans into the shorties and the tallies or the lefties and the righties
and we made all sorts of invidious distinctions based on those groupings:
shorties got rhythm; tallies are smarter. We would have exactly the same sort of
stupid social caste arrangements as we do today with respect to race.) In Tropic
of Night, hallucination -- individual, group, cultural -- is a central theme,
and an essential part of the story, because I wanted to show narratively that
this strange cultural obsession we have with race is, in point of fact, based
not in reality but in socially conditioned fantasy.
Michael Gruber talks about his Jimmy Paz
trilogy set in Miami, and in particular the first in the series, Tropic of
You've written a book in which the two main male characters are black men,
but you yourself are white. How can you do that?
By invention, imagination and sympathy, the same way male authors can
invent real female characters and female writers can invent real male ones. It's
absurd to think that we can only make characters out of personal experience.
Your villain is a black man who oppresses a white woman. Doesn't that
theme play into the hands of racists?
Since the point of the book is that race is an hallucination, I can't see
how anything it says can support racism, which is the absolute reification of
race. The villain becomes villainous by becoming a racist, and literally
loses his humanity because of it. Not being allowed to show a fully developed
brilliant black villain would really be racist.
You say a lot of unkind things about the Cuban community in Miami,
implying that they are a racist bunch.
I don't say anything at all about any group as such. There are white
Cuban racists in the book, yes, and white Cuban non-racists, racist here being
defined as people who denigrate or harm others solely because of their race.
Virtually everyone is a racist in the sense that they notice race and have
thoughts about the other based on that observation. They may favor the other
race or do the opposite, but they are still caught in the toils of the
hallucination. We all suffer from the hallucination that the earth is flat and
the sun travels across the sky, but only crazy or profoundly ignorant people act
as though that is the true state of things.
So you don't think blacks are oppressed?
I didn't say hallucination failed to have an effect in the real world.
Ask any schizophrenic living in a cardboard box under the freeway. We live with
the evil results of history, among which are that people designated as black are
poorer and less educated than the average; are laden with all kinds of negative
projections by the majority; have internalized many of those negative
projections; and in large numbers are subject to daily insult and racist
nastiness. The ultimate solution to this problem would, of course, be to place
race into the dustbin of history along with divine right, phlogiston, and
luminierous aether, but maintaining its reality serves too many social and
By writing about the black experience, don't you join the ranks of white
people ripping off black culture?
A: Yes. Writers rip off anything that comes to hand, gleefully and
mercilessly -- cultures, family, friends. The greatest American novel (Huckleberry
Finn) and the most successful American novel (Uncle Tom's Cabin) both
involve white people ripping off the black experience, which happens to be one
of the great fountainheads of creative life in this nation. It's hard to be an
American writer without doing a little ripping off, just as it's hard to be an
American writer of any color without using a language invented largely by
paleface folks in the British Isles. The great thing about culture is that
anyone can join in just by learning the rules.