Bryan Gruley is the critically acclaimed, multiple award winning American author of the Starvation Lake crime series. His debut novel was described by number one international bestseller Michael Connelly as: ‘A wonderful surprise, one of those books that won’t shake its grip’, so we are proud to present an interview between the two great writers, provided exclusively for The Crime Vault. Read on below to find out more about Gruley’s highly atmospheric, suspenseful mystery thriller series.
Michael Connelly: I remember when I read Starvation Lake being not only impressed by the prose and the plot, but by the decision of the author to place his book (now books) in this far and out of the way place in Michigan. Was this choice purely based on writing what you know, or was there something more you were going for in terms of place in these novels?
Bryan Gruley: I certainly know that part of the world. My parents bought a cottage on Big Twin Lake – a few miles from the real Starvation Lake – in 1971, and I’ve been going there since. But it’s more complicated than that. Although I’ve spent most of my time up north during the summer months, all three of my books take place in winter. I chose to do that partly because I knew hockey would be part of the stories, but moreso because I was drawn to the desolation and loneliness that permeates the atmosphere, and helps shape our perspective of the narrator, Gus Carpenter, a lonely guy himself.
MC: They always say baseball is a metaphor for life. What about hockey? It’s never far away from these stories.
BG: I’ve heard golf is a metaphor for life, too (which could make for a lot of miserable lives). I guess all sports can be viewed as some such metaphor because they involve dramatic conflict that requires characters to make decisions that have well-defined consequences. As a narrative device then, it’s a setting for certain characters to work out old grudges and new conflicts in a dramatic way. But more important, like basketball in Muncie, Indiana, or oil in Odessa, Texas, hockey is the thing that gives the town of Starvation Lake a reason to get out of bed every morning. I understand that some readers are unfamiliar with the game and may be put off by it. It’s my job to make it at once understandable and essential to the bigger stories I’m telling.
MC: You are a real-life journalist writing about a fictional journalist. What was the draw to a) write crime fiction and b) make your protagonist a journalist?
BG: I didn’t set out to write crime fiction. I just wanted to tell a story. The publishing industry told me it was mystery. I enjoy crime fiction, but I read much more widely. I made Gus Carpenter a journalist – a flawed one – because I wanted to have a narrator who’d be a snoop but not a cop or a PI. Again, I fell back on writing what I know.
MC: You have a big time pedigree in journalism. Gus Carpenter represents small town journalism. Is there a message to the reader in that? And how do you use your experiences working in the big arena to write about a guy in a very small arena? I guess in other words, do you and Gus share more than hockey?
BG: I started my career working at little Michigan papers: the Antrim County News, the Livingston County Press, and the Brighton Argus (the latter of which is the model for the newsroom of the Pine County Pilot in Starvation Lake). Although they’re small, their relative importance in their hometowns may be as great, or greater than that of, say, The Detroit News or The Wall Street Journal. Gus and I certainly share a passion for telling the truth as best we can, and that can be just as difficult, or even moreso, in a small town than a large one.
MC: Is there something about small towns that is the same everywhere in the world? Does every small town have as many secrets and shadows as Starvation Lake?
BG: I’ve written many newspaper stories over the years set in small towns like Hill City, Kansas, and Regent, North Dakota. I’d go thinking the story was about some dispute between big companies and inevitably I would learn that the real story was about local small-‘p’ politics. That undoubtedly informed my view of Starvation Lake. Whether it’s a big city, a little town, a team, an office, a family, the core conflicts are those between people. People always have secrets, doubts, and questionable angles. Not all people all the time, of course, but enough that some crazy stuff happens every day.
MC: Congratulations on three really fine novels in three years. But that was yesterday. What are you working on and what’s coming next?
BG: Thanks, Mike. I’m working on a story about an autistic 15-year-old boy who is kidnapped and held for ransom. It’s set partly in Chicago and partly in a swanky Lake Michigan resort town called Bleake Harbor. The boy, Danny Peters, has a mother and stepfather who are having their own difficulties both in their marriage and in their individual lives. It’s complex and rich and I love it.
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