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Michael Gruber Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Michael Gruber

Michael Gruber

An interview with Michael Gruber

In two essays and an interview, Michael Gruber tells the stories behind his intellectual thriller, The Book of Air and Shadows (2007), and Tropic of Night (2003), the first volume of his bestselling Jimmy Paz trilogy set in Miami.

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 happens—all 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 her family.

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 Night. Magic.

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


Michael Gruber talks about his Jimmy Paz trilogy set in Miami, and in particular the first in the series, Tropic of Night

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 political interests.

By writing about the black experience, don't you join the ranks of white people ripping off black culture?
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.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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Books by this Author

Books by Michael Gruber at BookBrowse
The Return jacket The Good Son jacket The Forgery of Venus jacket The Book of Air and Shadows jacket
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All the books below are recommended as read-alikes for Michael Gruber but some maybe more relevant to you than others depending on which books by the author you have read and enjoyed. So look for the suggested read-alikes by title linked on the right.
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    He graduated from Clare College, Cambridge, and studied at Yale University as a Mellon Fellow, where he completed Notes for a New Culture: ... (more)

    If you enjoyed:
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  • David Almond

    David Almond

    David Almond, in his own words:

    I was born in Newcastle and I grew up in a big Catholic family in Felling-on-Tyne. I had four sisters and a brother and lots of relatives in the streets nearby. My dad had been in Burma ... (more)

    If you enjoyed:
    The Witch's Boy

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    by David Almond

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