Writer to Writer: A Conversation with Andrew Gross

Andrew Gross is the best-selling author of many thrillers including The Blue Zone, Eyes Wide Open, Don't Look Twice, 15 Seconds, and his latest novel, No Way Back. Andrew received a degree in English from Middlebury College in 1974 and a Masters in Business Policy from Columbia University

He worked for many years in the apparel business, but left the corporate world to attend the Writer's Program at the University of Iowa. At 46, he finished a draft of his first novel, Hydra, which received dozens of rejections from agents and publishers.

One day, out-of-the-blue, he received a call from James Patterson, who had heard Andrew captured women's voices exceptionally well in his writing. Patterson proposed they work together and their collaboration began. In 2006, Andrew wrote his own novel, The Blue Zone and has had a series of best-sellers ever since.

What made you decide to become a novelist at the age of 46?
Basically, I got fired and didn't know what I wanted to do. For 20 years I pursued a career in the sports apparel business. Things didn't work out with the last firm. I just came home and said, 'I'm not going back out in the field. I've had enough.'

Had writing been a dream or fantasy you'd been nurturing for years?
I think it was on my bucket list as it is for many people. I thought I could write one novel. I was sort of an English jock in college and edited the literary magazine at Middlebury. There was a period of my life when I thought I would write, but I got involved in business, got an MBA and went forward. I realized I had a skill in writing, even if it was only expository, because everyone said I wrote the best corporate memos they'd ever read.

But you know, getting fired and a having a failed dream have caused many families to fall apart. I was just lucky. I quit to write a book, and it didn't get published. But somehow, it managed to fall into the hands of James Patterson, who fortuitously, read it and responded to it. He was looking for someone to partner-up with and he called me up out of the blue. I won the lottery that day.

People often feel they don't have good luck, but I think luck is equally distributed in life. There have been a few moments in my career when I've had that shaft of light shine over me. That call from James Patterson was one of them. We met for breakfast; he outlined some ideas; and we became co-writers of a series. They all became number one best-sellers.

What do you think you learned about writing thrillers from James Patterson?
It's like having an MBA and an MFA in thriller management. I learned the rudiments of how to construct suspense and keep a book moving, I also learned about successful marketing from him. I've retained certain elements Jim introduced me to that are really helpful in writing thrillers. I keep the pages turning. I think I inherited quick succession of chapters from Jim, although mine tend to run slightly longer than his. I also learned to have dramatic endings of chapters and to fashion chapters that lead into each other. Jim writes in a telescopic first-person point of view, but he also breaks the mold and puts his villains and victims in the third person. You get a combination of first and third person views which, up until he did it, no one was using. To me, it's the perfect structure for a thriller. The other rule I learned from him was to invest the reader in the plight of your hero, literally, within the first ten pages. People have many choices about how they want to read or devote their time, and I don't really want to give them a chance to put the book down. I want them on board quickly. I learned all that from Jim.

What about thrillers do you think intrigues people so much?
I think people love suspense. They like having people put in danger. This theme dominates television today. Thriller-writing, to me, is probably the best mirror of society right now. All the crises and issues in the news cycle today are probably best reflected in thrillers. It's a good mirror of where life is today. It's very relevant.

Many of your thrillers begin with a fairly benign situation that rapidly escalates into something much larger. You seem to develop these plots very intricately and meticulously. Is that so?
Yes, it is. I often talk about that. I love the idea of something benign and ordinary that has disastrous consequences. Whether it's a choice someone makes or something they do inadvertently. I also like conspiracy. I like the idea that the situation gets more and more important -- enlarges -- as the book goes on. It's like peeling an onion. It goes deeper and deeper as other layers of complexity emerge. I always say If you're going to start a novel with a traffic accident, don't end up in traffic court. I want to make the situation grow in importance and let whatever is at stake grow larger within the book.

At the beginning of your novel or in a prologue, you may have a character who only reappears 100 pages later, but by then, the reader completely understands why that character pops up. Do you plot this out as an algorithm or graph of some kind?
The writing is linear. As for plotting, a great deal happens as you go through a book. I'm a believer in prologues, and someone may appear in the prologue. I'll park that person on the side for about 100 pages, and then I bring him back in. A lot of good stuff happens on second and third drafts. I love to play games with time and sequence. I love ah-ha moments in a book where things come together and the reader suddenly realizes what they all mean. I like playing with that. Hopefully, if I befuddle the reader, it's only for a brief period, and I keep things going with the storyline's pace. Things start to knit together in the last third of the book.

Is there any particular character in your thrillers who most closely resembles Andrew Gross?
I think they're composites. Maybe sometimes a character is an idealized form of who I would like to be. I suppose my Ty Hauck character might be closest to me. It's hard to do a series character and not invest yourself in him. I certainly don't look in the mirror when I write these books. The truth is, when you write a book a year, it isn't easy; and you often reach for the low-hanging fruit, and the lowest hanging fruit is the author and what happens in his life.

I know that you've incorporated some events from your life into your novels, especially in 15 Seconds.
Yes, the premise of 15 Seconds is that even the best of lives can fall apart within 15 seconds. Actually, the opening of that novel approximates something that happened to me. In Houston on a book tour, I was stopped because of a minor traffic situation. It escalated and I was pulled out of the car, handcuffed, arrested and thrown in the back of a police car. As I was sitting there, my mind started going and I realized 'I may have something here.'

How has your life changed since you've become such a successful author?
It probably hasn't changed in terms of the trappings. It isn't life in the fast lane. Like any writer you can usually catch me at my desk 90 percent of the time. It's not exactly a glamorous life. One thing that's been great is when my kids were in the house I was always around. I think the best thing a writer has, especially if you're lucky enough to make some money, is flexibility of time, and having freedom. That makes for a whole different life. The one I was living previously was totally structured, ordered and involved multi-tasking and was very demanding. I travelled extensively for business. As a matter of fact, for six years, my office was in Maryland and my home was in Westchester, New York.

You set many of your novels in Westchester County, New York.

Yes. I like writing about successful, semi-happy, affluent people whose lives are ripped out from under them. So I generally set things in Westchester or occasionally in Florida.

Are you ever in a public place and notice someone engrossed in one of your books? If so, how does that feel?
The best thing we have as writers is, I think, is the adulation of fans. It's the best payback we can get. I always try to start my day by returning or receiving fan e-mails or Facebook comments. It pumps me up. There's nothing better than that. Yes, if I see someone reading a book, I think looks sort of familiar, I'll crane my neck and wonder Is that mine? Occasionally it is. I'll usually have my wife approach the person and ask "Are you liking that book?" If they say yes, it's great, that's its own reward. If they think it's garbage...well, that's the way it goes.

If you could have dinner with writers from any time frame in history -- living or dead -- who would they be?
I would say Shakespeare and Dickens. If I could add a couple of crime writers I suppose I would add Robert Stone, who though a "serious" author, also writes about crime. I like Cormack McCarthy. The people I read are the ones who play on the same playing field I do. I like Harlan Coben, Linwood Barclay and Greg Hurwitz. I occasionally read Lee Child, who I really like as a person.

What would you guys be talking about at dinner?
A couple of us might be grumbling about the business more than others. But I really think we'd be talking about getting books into movies.

What's coming next from Andrew Gross?
Another thriller called Everything to Lose. It's become my signature to write about someone who's likeable, attractive and successful; who makes one mistake and life falls apart for them. It's about a woman with many problems in her life. She's driving one night and comes upon an accident. She's the first one on the scene. At the bottom of a gully she finds someone who's dead, but in the car is a half-million dollars. She wrestles with whether it's right to take it and ultimately of course, she does. Disastrous things begin to follow her. Really, everybody has a choice and it's a question of what you do with that choice. I start this book by saying "Every life is the story of a single mistake. It depends on what you do with that mistake."

To hear a podcast of this entire interview please visit author Mark Rubinstein's
"Writer to Writer" on booktrib.com