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Andrew Gross is the author of New York Times and international bestsellers The Blue Zone, Don't Look Twice, and The Dark Tide, which was nominated for the Best Thriller of the Year award by the International Thriller Writers, Reckless, and most recently, Eyes Wide Open. He is also coauthor of five number one bestsellers with James Patterson, including Judge & Jury and Lifeguard. He lives in Westchester County, New York, with his wife, Lynn. You can follow Andrew Gross on Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, and at AndrewGrossBooks.com. 

Now, let’s dive into my conversation with Andrew Gross:

 

Initially, you worked at various clothing line companies, including your families company “Leslie Say”.  Did you dream of becoming an author back then?

 

The answer then was no.  I was perfectly happy doing what I was doing.  We were a public company on the New York Stock Exchange.  It was fairly substantial and I guess towards the end of it I was managing about a third of it so it had my attention and I’d gotten an MBA from Columbia and I was only interested in being as devoted and successful a manager and an operator of a business as I could be.

When I was in college I wrote and edited the literary magazine.  I went to a small sort of little ivy in the wingland little Middleburg college and I was active in the writing community there but after I graduated I made a commitment to pursue the business.

Like a million people I always sort of harbored the sense that I always wanted to write a novel.  I actually wrote poems in college.  The first piece of real prose that I ever wrote ended up going to number one with James Patterson.  I really didn’t have a history writing prose but I did have this idea for a novel that I carried with me and at some point, I thought I would cross it off my bucket list like a million other people did.

I was pretty single-mindedly focused into business when I was working, not only with “Leslie Say” but then I left that firm and got into a bunch of active sports oriented lines.

 

What inspired you to change careers and follow your dreams and become an author?

 

Basically, I got fired.  I was doing a series of turnarounds with different companies and I got involved with the third one that didn’t turn around so well and I ended up on the beach.  I just said to my wife that I can’t do this anymore.  When you take these turnarounds on, they can be pretty intense.  Sometimes people lose their jobs.  Corporate cultures have to be shifted and all kinds of things and I just couldn’t handle another one.  They all ran over about two or three year periods of time.  We had three kids in private schools in Greenwich, Connecticut and living that sort of life.  She just looked at me, because I’d come home literally without preparation for her.  I just got into, if I remember correctly, a disagreement ( I was President of this Canadian firm) with the Chairman and ended up leaving that day without a job.  I came home and she said “What are we going to do?” and I said, “Honey, I know you’re not prepared to hear me say this, but we’re going to write a novel.”  It didn’t go so well at first, but, I basically just asked for a year and I sort of couched in on all of these quantitative business school-like terms about auditing my progress and taking input from mentors and things of that nature.  My wife was a Yoga teacher at that stage, she’d done it for ten years so self-actualization was pretty high on her list of priorities so I knew I had to sell it from the start.  So I got my year but as I’m sure any of your readers would know who have attempted this sort of thing it doesn’t take a year to write a first novel.  It might take a year to get the words on paper and then maybe another year to polish them and put them in some presentable form and then, in my case it took me a third year to try to get the book sold.  Finally, I did connect with a fairly hotshot agent in New York and it looked like everything was going to happen.  We were all excited as anyone can imagine.  We weren’t broke but when you’re suddenly going three years without a dime coming in and the same three years keeping you away from anything revenue generating that you were any good at.  I didn’t know where I was at that point.

 

The book was called “Hydra” and it was a political conspiracy novel about a radical wing of the NRA that basically took over the Presidency.  When I finally got it out there, with a lot of optimism, about twenty-five publishers passed on it.  I had no idea what my next step was in life and I looked at myself and said: “How did you possibly ruin this life that had this great trajectory to it?”.  Basically, I was sitting around in my den trying to decide what cliff I was going to drive my SUV off of, then I get this call and someone says “Can you take a call from James Patterson?”

 

So what was going through your mind then, and how did that feel?

 

You’ve got to go back and recall.  Now I have to do the maths.  I’ve done eleven books.  This was like seventeen years ago, amazingly.  I can’t even believe I’m saying that.  And, he didn’t have a co-writer then.  I was his first, or his first one that did a regular basis.

I actually had never read Jim at all, but I knew his name of course, and I knew he was a big selling author.  He basically, had been given my manuscript, which I assumed was in every garbage can on Madison Avenue, by the President of Warner Books who was his publisher at the time, with the words, “This guy does women well..” written on the cover, which I assume meant that I wrote them well because the hero of my novel “Hydra” was a gal who had to perform the acts of valour.  An everyday woman who lost her son and was called on to do a lot of brave stuff and he needed someone who wrote women well because he got on the phone with me and basically told me that I had the goods.  And I was like “ Uhh?” and he said, “ I read your manuscript”.  Then he told me how he got it and he said “let’s have lunch. I have an idea for you.”  And we had lunch at a diner in Westchester a couple of days later and he proposed this idea to me of four women who were engaged in crime-fighting to some degree and I didn’t have a plan B so believe me that when I heard he was looking to form a writing partnership with someone, I was in no matter what it was about.  And I went home from talking to him as he sort of mapped out his idea I wrote two chapters, sent it back to him and within a day or two we were working together.  So that’s how that started.

I don’t think anybody came into this business like I did.  I was once on this panel and everyone was talking about their first books.  How you’ve got to have faith in yourself and struggle past it and all of this stuff and I said, “gee, my first five books went to number one.”  So, I don’t think that anybody came into the industry in quite the way that I came into it.  But that’s what happened.  I just wrote a bunch of books with Patterson and this was early on.  Not all his books were guaranteed number ones then.  But they all did really well and they were all different because I only did three with the women's murder club sequence, then got involved in three others, “Lifeguard”, “Judge and Jury” and a book that took place in the twelfth century called “Jester”.  I had a pretty solid gig going with him, for sure.

 

So after you have this experience of writing with James Patterson were you nervous to start your solo career in 2006?

 

I was ready is the best way to put it.  I’ll tell you what I was nervous about, and I sort of say it jokingly but, one of the things I learned from Patterson was how to outline extensively and when I had done these books with Jim and I was sort of ready to do my own thing I probably still would have taken another idea from him, as a matter of fact I was waiting for one.  But in the meantime I came up with this idea about a daughter and a father relationship where the father who was by far the biggest presence in her life turns out to be a complete fraud and all of their wealth and all their trips and happiness and the big house and everything they’d done turned out to be given to them through this secret criminal history, money laundering for the Columbians.  It was the Blue Zone and I outlined it and sold it as an outline while I was waiting for another project from Jim.

So, when you say nervous, I actually was sort of nervous because everyone loved the outline, as  a matter of fact I think four publishers bid very actively on it and I was always nervous that I couldn’t write a book, as well as the outline and people, were going to say “the book sucked, but you should have read that outline.”  So, that was sort of my nerves.

But I was ready.  I always liked doing my own thing and even though I had a very good time with Patterson and learned a bunch and enjoyed the experience of it, I was ready to go on my own, I was just hunting for the right idea.

 

So, your last book “The One Man”, has a personal story behind it.  Can you tell us about that?

 

I guess biographically speaking, after “The Blue Zone” which I think went to number ten on the New York Times for a debut and sold in about twenty-five countries, I wrote eight other books that would be called “Suburban Thrillers”.  Sort of in the mold of everyday regular people who have some sort of tragedy or some sort of misstep of their own or just through fate have their world taken away from them.  It usually involved saving the family, saving the kids, that sort of thing and after a while, I just really began to feel that I was having a very difficult time continuing to come up with novel ways to entrap and then extricate my heroes.  I wanted to write different kinds of books and I guess I’m setting it up, what’s personal about it.  I wanted to write books with bigger bones and broader themes that might be based in history and become the books I like to read.  So, like a lot of things in publishing, you can’t really sometimes do what you want.  You do what your publisher wants to pay you for and every time I felt that I might want to do something, it just wasn’t the time in my contract.  I had a nine-book contract with Harper Collins and my contract was up and an idea stared me in the face and I just said: “what the hell?”.  I’d been pushing this boulder uphill, in my own mind, for a few books so I just let the boulder fall.  And the idea, or what I think that you are referring to is that my father-in-law came to this country in 1939, about six months after WWII broke out.  He came from Warsaw, Poland and he never knew the fates that befell any member of his family, including his mother and father.  He never heard from anyone ever again and he was the only person in his family to survive the war.  He never really talked about his life in Poland.  Like a lot of survivors, I think it was just easier to bury it than to deal with the memories that were so painful to him and he carried around this sadness and this heavyweight, guilt, or shame or whatever it might have been from a survivor points of view and we could never touch on exactly what it was because he would never share anything.

In 1941 when America got into the war, because of his facility with languages he was put into the OSS and was in the OSS for the balance of the war and, predictably he never shared any experiences that he had there.  So, basically, what I set out to do was to write the story that my father-in-law might have written if he had ever wanted to tell those stories.  That’s why it’s a personal book for me because I really wrote it, even though it was mostly fictional, to fill in the blanks and put his life into a narrative form.

 

Where do you draw the inspiration for the multiple stories that you have?

 

They kind of change, because over time I was writing contemporary suburban mysteries and I would always pick up something from either the newspapers or the news or anecdotes that people told me etc. and just expand them into a novel.  Now I have “The One Man” that is a bit of a holocaust novel taking place in the second world war and really dealing to a large extent with some of the issues that Jews faced.  Some of it does take place in a concentration camp.  Then my next book is another world war two story that I came upon while researching “The One Man”.  So at this point, I’m sort of looking for things in history that just speak to me in some universal way.  It all somehow connects to a character.  What I have to find is a character that comes out to me in these historical times.  You can’t just read about a battle and say “I’m going to write about that.”.  You have to come across or invent a person that becomes the lens for the story because the story just becomes boring and like journalism, if it’s not seen through the eyes of someone that readers feel speaks to them.

 

Do you ever find yourself with writer's block?  And, if you do, how do you work through it?

 

I don’t really get writer's block because I am a person who maps out the bulk of these stories in advance.  That doesn’t mean I have to follow the outlines verbatim, I don’t.  But I probably stick to them eighty-percent.  I rarely come to the page and go “I don’t know what comes next.” Or “I don’t know what I’m going to write.”  I do sometimes, like everybody, have awkwardness setting themes, through whose perspective, that sort of thing.  Even right now, and this always happens to me at some point in a book, I’m in another book where I’ve written about a hundred pages and I’m not loving it.  I mean, I like the individual chapters, I think they’re interesting.  I don’t think the reader would be bored by them but there’s something that’s just not harmonious in the book yet.  Another author N J Rose once said we were discussing this at a panel and she said that when you find that book is just not speaking to you it’s usually because you’re not happy with your own main character and I actually think that that is universally true.  And right now I think that I’m not happy with my main character.  So that’s the kind of thing that I do get.  Sometimes I don’t outline the entire book for various reasons, one of which is, when you get a storyline approved by your publisher, you get a nice cheque so these days I don’t want to go through the second half of the book outlining it, but I want the cheque in my hand.  But by that point in the book a lot of it is writing itself anyway so I don’t even know that I need an outline at that point but I am pretty well armed with a day-to-day roadmap of what I’m going to be working on and I usually do that up front by instinct.  On the book that I’m working on now, all my publisher wanted was a two or three-page synopsis, just a basic – give me an idea of what it’s about and what’s at stake- and I ended up giving her thirty-five pages of single-spaced outline because that’s how I do it.  It’s basically how I get into a book these days.

 

And it’s an assurance for you because when you know where the stories going you never have to wonder, you never have to feel like you might lose the plot.

 

Well, that’s true of course.  Some people argue that it takes the organic inspiration away from it and I go “nonsense”.  It’s hard for me to say this because I still feel a bit like a rookie but this is my seventeenth book so you have this instinctual feel for what’s right or wrong with them even if you can’t fully put your finger on it.  Even in the book, I’m writing now which is actually about the early days of the women's clothing business, it’s kind of a family story where the individual people went against the unions and the unions were controlled by the mobsters so it’s really almost like a Jewish Godfather tale.  But I woke up one day and I realized the next chapter wasn’t right for where I had it, it needed a different point of view just to sort of break it up and get a different perspective.  It just sort of came naturally, so even though it wasn’t in the outline I knew I needed it and that just comes from some level of experience.

 

What do you think are the biggest lessons you’ve learned along your career as a writer, and what would you share with those contemplating this career?

 

Well, let me start with the second one.  My advice to people looking at this as a career is to really know what you’re getting into because writing a novel is a powerful thing that most people want to do and when they do it they do it because it’s what they need to do from the point of fulfillment and instinct.  Having it as a career, hopefully, they have a spouse who’s really a good money earner because it’s tough as nails out there right now.  There’s a lot of turmoil in publishing.  It’s almost like it’s a bifurcated business.  You’ve got a handful of people who are decently paid that are working with a big publishing company.  Even though all of the biggest best sellers are all with them there are a lot of people like myself who are pretty well paid and scratch the best seller list, but in terms of raw numbers, conventionally they’re not on the big breakout level.  Yet, ironically you can strike a deal with Amazon, you don’t get paid that much but you can get your book downloaded by a couple of hundred thousand people.  But at that price, it’s not the biggest thing in the world.  So it’s a really tough business now.  I think it’s very difficult for publishers to totally make best sellers.  It’s very rare I think, even forgetting about the breakout books like Paula Hawkins.  Anyone can look at the bestsellers lists from any given week and see that it resembles the best sellers from ten years ago.  So why is it that our industry is just not locating new blood at the highest level of sales.  So, you’ve got to know beforehand, your expectations have to be moderated.  We all think about, “I want to hit the big home run”, and maybe some people get to have that moment and catch the superbowl winning pass and then you think “I want to write a novel”, “This is a great novel I’m working on, I want to see it up there in the national book reviews or at the Thrillerfest top thrillers, blah, blah, blah..”, but the truth is those experiences are more in our own minds than they really turn out in reality.  You’ve got to find the day-to-day joy in the book and not in the career because the career can be very frustrating.  And I say this as someone who’s had my share of success in it.  I’ve had a bunch of best sellers, I’ve been the beneficiary of some pretty good contracts, so I’ve had my share of success, but even within it you still have to moderate your expectations.

 

Now, in terms of lessons, I guess there were a couple of lessons in there but in terms of lessons within the book maybe.  Patience and continuous improvement would be the two things that I like to say to, I won’t say aspiring writers because they are writers but, aspiring published writers.  Everybody thinks that what they’ve got is great but invariably when I read a lot of peoples work it has a lot of ticks of being at the beginning of the cycle and so, patience and improvement.  Keep going at your book.  To me the best draft is the draft that happens after you think you’re totally finished.  You’re sure that you’re totally finished and you couldn’t improve a word and it’s all done and here I am and then go through it again, maybe even after a month, I mean the best editor is time.  Then to me things start to awaken in the novel that a fresh set of eyes brings to it.  Patience is key.  In today's world where writers can have a lot of access.  I mean you want to meet Lee Child? Come to Thrillerfest.  You want to write Harlen Cogan, write him on Facebook, send him a message, I bet you he returns it.  So you can get the exposure to people but, to me, you don’t want to burn your bridges and if you go to these conferences and you meet an agent, because you can do that, you can go to these “Pitch fests” and come away with, “Oh this person loved my ideas, they just want to see a full manuscript”, well that’s all terrific but you only get that once and therefore, your novel has to be ready and it has to be smashing because nobody is taking a chance on pretty good anymore.  Pretty good doesn’t cut it because there’s no money in it for people so it’s tough.  So I say patience and I really believe in continuous improvement.  I have an example of, sort of a friend of mine who was a crummy unhappy lawyer and who decided what he wanted to do was to write scripts and his first scripts, I read one of them, was so bad that I would no more push it on a publisher or anything like that, it was just awful, yet that person ended up being a senior writer on “Law and Order”.  He just kept at it.  As long as you are leading ahead of your curve and giving it to people who are savvy and can instruct you.  I originally went out to the University of Iowa and spent a month in the writers programme there and the reason I did it was there wasn’t so much to learn about how to do it, it was to measure myself against the people who were doing it because I sort of said, if I can’t stand apart from twelve people who want to do this, how am I going to get my book sold where it’s going to be one in two hundred that are going to be accepted for publication.  So I wanted, in a sobering way, to compare myself to people.  But the good news is when you do things like that and you start to measure yourself against them and you can see where you fall short and where you need improvement.

 

I love what you said about patience and loving what you do because it’s not all going to be lollipops and candy corn, it’s a lot of hard work.  I have a quote above my desk that you totally reminded me of.  “Love the craft, the practice of your art and the peaks will come.”

 

I think that’s good advice.  Love the work and, hopefully, the peaks will come.  But as long as you love the work you’re doing something fulfilling and the only problem comes when you’re now looking at it as a career, then it just puts a different set of rewards that you want to come with it as opposed to looking at it as a craft.

 

 

Do you read your reviews?  What is your advice for authors that are dealing with not so popular reviews, because they are going to happen?

 

I only read the five-star ones.  I have my wife record them and play them in my sleep to me.  No, here’s the deal.  I really didn’t read them much for several books.  In the beginning, I did of course.  You have to be, I mean I don’t know what you’d be made of if you didn’t.  But then I stopped, or at least I stopped letting bad reviews influence me because I learned that I was decent at what I did and you’re always going to find someone who doesn’t like it and one of the things that a business background did for me was give me a pretty thick skin.  But I have to admit that on “The One Man” I’ve read a lot of reviews and I do keep in touch with them.  The reason was that it was such a departure for me to be writing this historical that had a holocaust base to it that, some of the reviews, you’d almost have to read them to believe them.  People are really touched by this book and I like participating in that.  The good news is that there are about eighty percent five stars and more than ten percent four stars so they are pretty good so I usually get gratified more than hurt.

I just think you can’t be brought down by that.  Now it’s easier to say that when you have some confidence that you’re better than most I suppose at what you do.  It’s a little more difficult when you’re not sure where you stand and you read and someone says “I want my money back” or something like that.  It hurts.  I certainly understand that.

I guess the question is, if you are at that stage I probably wouldn’t read them because I think the harm outweighs the good.  Basically they don’t mean anything to be honest with you because I don’t know that in a million cases you have totally informed people.  I don’t really trust the people who write one stars anyway.  If I don’t like something, I’ve never actually reviewed a book but I have reviewed a restaurant or two and I’d give it a two if I hate it.  If I really caution people not to go there I’ll give it a two because I respect that they are all trying to do their job well even if they don’t fully execute.  So anyone who gives something a one with some terse, mean response is an ass anyway. So I wouldn’t go that far and let it hurt too much.