March 19, 2003

Michael Gruber at the Mysterious Galaxy

If you haven't heard of Michael Gruber yet, you will. He's the best-selling novelist who's just published his first novel. Yes, you heard that right: bestselling novelist with numerous New York Times Bestseller List triumphs under his belt, yet he is only this month coming out with his first novel.

See, Gruber has been an invisible man, the ghostwriter behind Robert K. Tanenbaum's series of thrillers for the past sixteen years. This fact had been kept secret from the mainstream public until just a few weeks ago, with the release of Tropic of Night (ToN), his first novel published under his own name.

At a lecture and book signing at the Mysterious Galaxy bookstore in San Diego last night, I found Gruber to be shy about mentioning his illustrious ghostwriting career, at least during his lecture. I sensed he was torn about talking about it: on the one hand, mention of the Tanenbaum connection clearly detracts attention away from ToN and the Gruber brand which he's now out trying to build. On the other hand, Gruber's a natural storyteller, and what a story he has to tell, about himself and Tanenbaum!

Interestingly, Gruber referenced Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, several times during his talk. One of ToN's characters was inspired in part by the hero of Ellison's book. There's a strange parallel between that hero and Gruber's own life story. Unable until this year to be his true self to the public, to speak publicly about his writing life, unable to do book signings as Robert K. Tanenbaum, having to deal with Tanenbaum talking on TV or in lectures or interviews about how he writes "his" books... think about living that kind of life for sixteen years. That's enough to drive anyone crazy.

No wonder Gruber found refuge online on The WELL, where for the past ten or so years he's hung out in the "writers" conference, telling us all about his real-life Ghostwriter v. "Fleshwriter" ordeal, discreetly keeping the Tanenbaum name out of the conversation. Everyone in the writers' conference knew, or found out eventually (it wasn't hard: at times Gruber would post notes announcing not one but two of his ghostwritten novels were on the NYT or Amazon bestseller lists at the same time), but they kept it a secret from the conference postings. Now, after all of these years, he emerges out into the world, kind of like (if you'll pardon the analogy) a grub having lived underground for seventeen years before climbing the tree and turning into a cicada. (Funny, guess what "tanenbaum" means in German.) It's as if the grub desperately wants to tell its own miraculous story of life underground; but nobody seems to care, they're here for the cicada. At the same time the cicada is enjoying its new metamorphosis.

Regulars in The WELL's "writers" conference have been privy to what amounts to nearly a daily blog of Gruber's writing life for the past ten years, the highs and lows, the victories, the defeats (well, mostly victories). There, we learned that the scary-looking dagger featured on the cover of ToN was actually something Gruber found on the Bows of Wood website, where artist and craftsman Vinson Miner makes and sells a line of what one might call organic weapons. The dagger is made of a sharpened obsidian blade with a handle made of the jaw of a lion.

In fact the most recent of the writers' conference's "brag" topics (where for years WELL writers have proudly and openly "bragged" about their accomplishments, followed by the obligatory cheers from other writers), has in a way been co-opted by Gruber over the past year. I don't for a moment think he's done it intentionally, but one of his brags would, shall we say, be enough to put food on the table for a dozen or more other WELL writers for quite a long time. Everyone remains polite and supportive, but there's an unspoken understanding that Gruber is now, compared to everyone else there, a genuine superstar. Each and every posting of his in that topic is like yet another rung up the literary ladder of success. It's been a remarkable journey to witness. It must be extraordinary to finally, after all these years, be able to emerge with your own fame in public. He's earned it.

One of Vinson Miner's knives.

There were some sixteen folding chairs arranged in three rows around a podium in this modest little bookstore. There were perhaps twelve people in the audience, including myself. I couldn't tell how many had read the book already: it was a weird crowd. Thriller/occult geeks, seemed to me, all of them middle aged. Remember the way Garth of Wayne's World 2 said "Unix! Kewl!"? I had no difficulty imagining the Trekkie-like members of this crowd going, "Occult suspense shamanistic ritual horror novel! Kewl!". I could be wrong...

Gruber wore a black jacket, black shirt, and blue jeans. He resembled a mix of Rod Steiger, Jean Reno, an older Bruce Willis, and a bespectacled Colonel Kurtz as played by Marlon Brando. He spoke in an East Coast (perhaps born in New York?) accent.

He dove right in talking about what inspired him to write ToN. Which I thought was an odd thing for him to do, since he hadn't checked who in the audience was already familiar with the book (I haven't read it yet, in fact, I've never read anything under the Tanenbaum name either; in fact, I'd have never heard of Tanenbaum if it hadn't been for the Writers conference on The WELL). Nevertheless, the story of how this novel came about goes way back, appropriately to a time long before he began ghostwriting, all the way back to the early 70s, when Gruber was in Miami pursuing a PhD in Marine Biology. He'd grown up wanting to live the life of Jacques Cousteau: "I wanted to make my living in a bathing suit," he said. While in Bimini in 1972, he was bitten by an octopus. It was that experience that led him to meet a woman that helped inspire ToN. She told him strange tales of shamans, rituals, and sorcery. Interestingly, Gruber felt it necessary to start the novel with a disclaimer, where while he acknowledges the book is fiction, he nevertheless gives credit to "J.H." for the inspiration.

The marine biology career didn't pan out. "I was a crummy scientist," he admitted. So he became a cook, "Dr. Cook," he says they called him. Then he did "government work", eventually leading to the ghostwriting gig.

"What I'm interested in is the deeply weird," Gruber told the small audience last night. Not abducted-by-aliens weird, but the feeling-of-someone-following-you kind of weird. The sense that there's a presence in the room when no-one else is there. "The world is not quite what scientists make of it," he says. "The world of the psyche is just as real as the world of quarks and stars, only science can't quite grab it."

He likes to push people's "ontological buttons." He spoke of beliefs of science versus psyche. From his perspective at the podium, he told how he could see the walls at the back of the bookstore opening up, and there revealed beyond the opening was the skyline of Miami. He noted that no-one in the audience turned around to confirm what Gruber said he saw, because of "an absolute faith that I'm bullshitting you." Everyone laughed.

After the talk, which concluded with a cheery "Thank you! Buy my book!" exhortation from Gruber, he signed copies of his book that everyone had bought. There were only a dozen or so people and no-one seemed to want to form a line, so people simply hovered around, casually taking turns having their books signed. One guy, shown in the photo below, had him sign two copies of ToN, and then two copies of another book, Killer Books: A Readers Guide to Exploring the Popular World of Mystery and Suspense by Jean Swanson and Dean James. The first couple of pages inside the front of these books were literally covered with autographs of, one assumes, famous mystery and suspense writers. When Gruber saw what the book was, he excitedly told the guy, you know what, let me tell you a secret.... Gruber quickly leafed through the table of contents and, not fiding what he was looking for, went to the back of the book and quickly scanned through the index, obviously looking on each page for the beginning of the T section. Nothing. I could swear Gruber was surprised.

Maybe Tanenbaum has finally become the ghost.

Posted by brian at March 19, 2003 10:14 AM



Posted by: JACQUE BISHOP at June 20, 2003 08:19 AM

I work in an independent bookstore in Ontario Canada and have had a fantastic time hand selling Tropic of Night to anyone who would listen to me rave about Mr Gruber's book. Please thank him for me if you are able and I've already asked his Canadian publishers rep to keep me in the loop regarding an author tour. The distance aside, if he's able, I'd love to build a reading around him. Thanks very much.

Posted by: Dave Worsley at July 21, 2003 04:50 PM

I just finished the book and loved it! I used to work with Mike during his "gov't work" period. I'd like to get his email address. I'm writing similar stuff.

Posted by: Steve Liebowitz at August 13, 2003 12:14 PM

I just finished reading Tropic of Night...loved the book.Please forward to the author-he's Great.When is his next book due? I also wonder what took him so long to write under his own name.

Posted by: Sandy Sanchez at October 30, 2003 01:38 PM

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