Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to speak with Bryan Gruley, author of the Starvation Lake trilogy, as well as the forthcoming Bleak Harbor — due out from Thomas & Mercer on December 1st. The book, which is centered on Pete and Carey Peters who have moved back to the seemingly idyllic small town that Carey’s ancestors founded, their son Danny — who ends up mysteriously disappearing one day, just as the town’s annual Dragonfly Festival begins, and their family — is one of the most engaging and suspenseful mysteries I’ve read this fall. Read on to see what Bryan had to say about how he began to write novels, the inspiration for Bleak Harbor, some of his favorite reads and much more.
Andrew DeCanniere (AD): To begin at the beginning, I was wondering how you made the transition from being a journalist to writing novels — or, more accurately, from journalist to journalist and novelist? Second, what was your inspiration for Bleak Harbor, specifically?
Bryan Gruley (BG): Sure. I’ve been a writer since I was a kid. In the first or second grade, I was reading Hardy Boys books. I even created my own version of the Hardy Boys. I’d write these stories out longhand and then read them to my second grade class. I always dreamt about writing novels, but I kind of took a detour into journalism — which is good, because this way I could have a house and put my kids through college, et cetera — but the hankering was still there. In the very late nineties, I had an idea and talked with my agent about it. I wrote about 25,000 words and she didn’t like them very much, but there was a little glimmer of ice hockey in those 25,000 words, and she said to me ‘Why don’t you write a story about these middle-aged guys who play hockey in the middle of the night?,’ and I immediately had an idea which became Starvation Lake.
I decided to set the novel in this fictional town in Northern Lower Michigan, mostly because I spent a lot of time up there when I was a kid and well into my adulthood. My parents bought a lake house up there, and not far from our lake house was a lake called Starvation. No town, just a lake. So, I stole the name and invented a town and I wrote that first book, not knowing that it was a mystery or a thriller or whatever. I just wrote the book and the publishing industry did their labelling thing. After 26 rejections, I got a three-book deal from Touchstone — a Simon & Schuster imprint. I then wrote The Hanging Tree, which is a sequel set in that same town, as well as The Skeleton Box.
That takes me to 2012, when I was offered a two book extension. However, I felt that I was done with Starvation Lake, and so I set out to write a different book in a different place and came up with Bleak Harbor. I was working as a journalist for the Wall Street Journal until 2011, and previous to that had done a story in Saugatuck, Michigan. Have you ever been there?
AD: I haven’t actually — though I have heard of it.
BG: It’s a cool place and, really, the geography of Bleak Harbor is based on Saugatuck. The town, rather than sitting right on Lake Michigan, sits on an inland bay that has a channel that goes out to the lake and is surrounded by dunes. That’s kind of what Bleak Harbor looks like. Actually, Saugatuck was originally a town called Singapore back in the 1800s. There was a timber mill that provided a lot of the wood for the rebuilding of Chicago.
I don’t know if this is absolutely true, but there is a cool legend. The town was basically buried in the sand dunes and then the town of Saugatuck came up. This whole idea of creating a cedar mill in this little town of Michigan inspired my idea for having Joseph Estes Bleak come from New England and dredge out a swamp, to have a timber mill and then a steel mill [in the town] and so on. You know, he built this small late 19th / early 20th century industrial empire that his kids then piss away. So, that’s the long way of how I got to Bleak Harbor.
AD: I also thought there’s quite the contrast between the setting itself — this seemingly idyllic small town — and many of the people who inhabit it. I don’t want to say that absolutely no one is who they seem to be, but I will say very few of the people are. You almost can’t trust anyone.
BG: Yeah. Speaking of unreliable narrators, these people are speaking to you through a third person and the third person is just simply relaying what they’re thinking and saying. So, I think you can see that they themselves are aware that they’re lying to themselves — that they’re shading the truth or dissembling, even with themselves. Human beings do that. Even the best of us do it. You look back and probably the only characters you can really believe are Michele Higgins and Katya Malone. The trader, O’Nally, is so minor it doesn’t matter. But certainly Pete, Carey, Danny, Dulcy, the FBI agent — Allen Locke — all of them have their own agendas, as people do.
AD: Speaking of people being less than honest, I also thought it was interesting that you touch on the issue of corporate corruption and these abuses of power within the logistics company — Pressman Logistics — that exists in your book.
BG: As it happens, Pressman and Carey Peters have what we would now call a ‘Me Too Moment.’ Of course, I conceived of that scene long before all of that came out. The company — it’s just that, you know, there are a whole bunch of logistic companies here in Chicago. It’s one of the great ports of the world. The trains all run through here. The whole idea of him doing things that were unlawful sort of evolved. I didn’t go into it thinking that. I thought this guy is a shithead who used his power and wealth to abuse a woman.
AD: Well, it really is very timely — Pressman’s abuse of power and what played out between him and Carey.
BG: Only by happenstance. We all know that this has been going on for decades — powerful men abusing their positions, especially with regards to women. It has come out in a very powerful way in the last couple of years, but I was just writing what I know happens. It just so happens it’s in the headlines now, but I certainly didn’t foresee that.
AD: And I would hope that it is changing — sooner rather than later.
BG: I agree.
AD: It seems that it is through silence that misconduct is perpetuated, so I think it’s great that people feel more free to talk about what happened to them and that, in turn, leads to others feeling free to share their stories. That said, I’m certainly not blaming anyone who has been abused or assaulted and remained silent, because I think society’s backward attitudes toward those who have come out is what silenced them for so long to begin with. All too often, those who’ve come out about their experiences have been further abused or punished in some way, and all too rarely have those who engaged in the abuse or assault been held to account for their actions. Anyway, as I said, I think it’s great we’re beginning to have this more open and honest dialogue, as a society, and that way more people think about it. Change certainly never happens by sweeping a problem under the rug.
BG: You are exactly right.
AD: You also touch quite a bit on Pete and Carey’s relationship. It certainly does seem as though they have been living a lie. To a certain extent, it’s a marriage of convenience. At one point, I think it’s safe to say that Carey even acknowledges as much.
BG: I mean, Carey was in a tough spot. She had a boy that needed a lot of care. She didn’t have a job that brought in a lot of money. She liked Pete, and Pete loved her, but she didn’t love him enough. I think Pete is a lovable screw-up. I kind of like the guy. He’s the kind of guy I wouldn’t mind having a beer with, but I wouldn’t want him to go out with my daughters. You know what I mean? I knew guys like that. My daughters are both married to terrific guys. And putting him in this pipe dream of being a medical marijuana millionaire was fun. Of course, he gets led astray, and that’s part of the problem.
AD: Arguably a big part. It’s not so much the opening of the dispensary that’s the issue. He opened that legally. His problems really start when he begins to make questionable decisions where the business is concerned — when he starts to take ‘shortcuts,’ so to speak, to remain competitive with another shop nearby.
BG: Actually, I wrote a story about the medical marijuana business for Business Week. It was probably four or five years ago now. So, I learned a bit about it. I’m certainly not an expert, but I learned enough about it that I think I was able to render it realistically. The issues that Pete faces of fees and taxes being so high, and regulations being so difficult and expensive that the black market can undersell the legal market, is something that is actually happening and has been reported on.
AD: Switching gears a bit, it also seems to me that while we don’t know too much about Pete and his background, it does seem that Carey’s family was a dysfunctional one and that may, at least in part, be why she seems to be attracted to dysfunction. That’s kind of what she knows and, consequently, that is the dynamic she is the most comfortable with.
BG: Yeah. There’s also rebellion. Imagine if she’d brought Bledsoe to the Bleak mansion. What would Jack and Serenity have said about him? Even at his best, they would have been repulsed by him. So, I think there’s some of that rebellion in Carey, and then there’s the thought that she can save this guy — this felon. To me, that’s not a stretch at all. That’s just the normal behavior of a young woman rebelling against her background and her parents, at the same time reflecting the dysfunction in her own life, being attracted to somebody who is also dysfunctional in different ways.
AD: It also seems to me that they underestimate Danny quite a bit. They seem to be unaware of just how much Danny is actually aware of. They’re pretty convinced he is kind of in his own little world, with his own little obsessions, and it would seem that’s pretty far from the truth of things. In reality, Danny seems to be much more aware of all that was going on than they could ever have imagined. He actually seems to have this sort of pent-up resentment which, it could be said, leads him to hatch the plan he carries out. I would argue that it is an unhealthy way of dealing with one’s issues, and it certainly is not a way that I would recommend anyone deal with the issues in their own lives, but I think that also just reinforces the fact that he is much more aware of what is going on than they give him credit for.
BG: He’s high-functioning autistic. He does have things he is passionately attached to. One of them is the dragonfly and it is, of course, a beautiful creature. It also happens to be, as I learned in a New York Times article several years ago, one of the most efficient and vicious killers in the animal kingdom.
AD: Is there anything else you wanted to add?
BG: I hope that people like it. I think it’s complex and I hope I did a good job of making clear how everything comes together in the end. It was hard to write, in that sense. You’re keeping track of all of these balls you have in the air. There are a lot of balls in the air about two-thirds of the way through. You don’t have to bring every single one down, but you do have to bring most of them down in some fashion, so it’s clear how things come together. I’ll tell you, that was a challenge for me, and I hope I was up to it.
AD: Well, I certainly think it’s a fascinating read. Last, but not least, who are some of your influences or what are some of your favorite books?
BG: I have to cite the Hardy Boys, because those were the first chapter books that I loved. The first one was The Crisscross Shadow. The bad guy’s name in The Crisscross Shadow was Breck, and I used that name in my third novel — The Skeleton Box — for one of my characters.
Later in life — this wasn’t a mystery or thriller — but, to me, Sophie’s Choice was the kind of book that is like an onion. You think you’ve found the truth and then a layer gets peeled back and you find out ‘Oh. That was not right. That was a lie,’ and then there’s another layer, until you finally get to the horrible truth at the center of Sophie’s Choice. That re-kindled within me a desire to write fiction. Another book that I wish I could be even close to pulling off, as far as thriller / mystery goes, is a book like Mystic River by Dennis Lehane. Another one I loved — which is very different from what I just wrote, obviously — is Red Dragon by Thomas Harris. Books that are just propulsive and, especially in Lehane’s case, contextual and richly layered — rich in ways so-called ‘literary fiction’ is. At the moment, I am reading Michael Connelly’s Dark Sacred Night. It’s his new book and it’s really good.
Bryan Gruley is the award-winning author of the Starvation Lake trilogy of novels. He is also a lifelong journalist who is proud to have shared in the Pulitzer Prize awarded to the staff of the Wall Street Journal for their coverage of the September 11 terrorist attacks. Gruley lives in Chicago with his wife, Pam. You can learn more by visiting his website. You can also find him on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Goodreads.