Have you read Fifty Shades of Grey? Um, I haven't. But whoa, lots of people have. It's right there, all over the best seller list, and I have to say I fret for the authors who're pushed off the lists because of it. In fact, off the record, one such author told a pal of mine that s/he considered herself three places higher in the list because s/he wasn't counting Fifty Shades. But that's a story for another day.
Anyway, I DID read Bryan Gruley's STARVATION LAKE. I had no choice. I was going to be the moderator of some panel--do you remember what it was, Bryan?--and since Bryan was on it, I was obligated to read his book.
(I promise you this has a point.)
I say obligated--because I will admit to you I wouldn't have, otherwise. Because I thought it was about--hockey. Hockey! Until the year the Bruins won the Stanley Cup, I'd never even watched a hockey game. Fine. Sue me. I hadn't.
But panel responsibilities are panel responsibilities, so into Starvation Lake I went.
And it was life changing. First, it wasn't really about hockey.
Second--it was fabulous. Wonderful. Brilliant. So when Bryan won the Anthony and the Macavity for Best First novel, I had to say--well, of course!
Now hes on his third novel--a copy of which we'll award to a very lucky commenter. Now Bryan is no longer a newbie, he's an award-winning mystery novelist on his way to stardom. And along the way, Bryan has been considering what that means. And the journey. And who he's met on the way. And a little bit about Fifty Shades of Gray. (See? I told you there was a point.)
If It's Not a Rhapsody
My pal Matt likes my books. He makes a lot of money trading options and would love to see me make a lot of money too. He wonders if I should shorten my sentences, maybe simplify the plots a bit, so I'd sell more books and get rich and, like Matt, have Bon Jovi play at my house.
Matt's a good guy who wants the best for me (except the Bon Jovi part). Shorter sentences and easier plots might well make me a bestselling novelist, or at least a better-selling one. But, as I told him when we talked books over after-work beers, I don't need to bend over backwards for the sake of sales.
Is that because I'm an artiste, so deeply committed to the purity of my lyrical prose and penetrating tales that I deafen myself to the siren song of commercial success?
Nah. I'm all in favor of my Starvation Lake novels rising to the top of the New York Times Bestseller List. I'm about as commercial a writer as you can find--just not when I'm writing fiction.
For nearly thirty-three years, I've been a journalist, writing and editing for newspapers in Michigan, Washington, D.C., and Chicago. Now I write long narrative articles for Bloomberg Businessweek magazine. It's a blast. I love seeing new places, meeting interesting people, piecing story puzzles together. It pays the bills and then some. Because, from the Kalamazoo Gazette to The Wall Street Journal to Businessweek, what I do is strictly commercial.
Each of the six publications I've worked for has its own audience. That audience has expectations. You write your stories to meet those expectations. People who pick up the Journal don't expect stories on yesterday's Chicago Cubs loss any more than Chicago Tribune readers want a 1,500-word dive into the ephemera of the Federal Reserve.
I used to tell a fellow Journal reporter, one of the most passionate journalists I've ever known, that our newspaper's core mission was to make rich people richer. Even though it was a joke, this drove him crazy because, like all jokes, it carried some truth.
I'm not saying we in the non-fiction world pander. We tell folks plenty of things they'd rather not hear (lots of Cubs losses, for sure). But as we choose what we're going to write about--or, just as important, not write about--we're ever mindful of the age, income, and geography of our audience, lest we lose their interest and, in turn, their subscription and advertising dollars. It's business and, for me, money-grubbing fun.
Which means I can afford to be, if not an artiste, then a purveyor of sentences longer than See Jane Kill and a creator of plots and characters more textured than those in The Hardy Boys. I see certain trendy books dominating the bestseller lists and I feel for the authors who've been bumped off the list as a result, especially those who truly need that big break, who aren't as day-job lucky as I've been.
At the same time I admire them and all the writers who put words to paper because a story is burning a hole in their hearts. And I remind myself that even those mega-selling authors, at least most of them, are doing the same, writing what they need to write, writing because they must, because it's as important to them as eating, because no amount of fame or money can outweigh the knowledge that you have done your very best.
I'm lucky that I don't need to write novels to stay current on our mortgage. Still, I wake up each morning and feel that essential need to sit down and make stuff up. If fortune follows, okay with me. But if it ever does, I'll be inviting Alejandro Escovedo to play at my house. You're all invited.
HANK: So I said to Bryan: who's Alejandro Escovedo? And he said:
Escovedo is an old ex-punk rocker turned alt-country artist who mixes 'em all together in songs with lyrical stories. And he can rock. For harder stuff, try Real Animal or Street Songs of Love. For mellower, try A Man Under the Influence. My favorite lyric (perfect for writers):
If the melody escapes me,
I will stumble upon it soon,
If it's not a rhapsody,
It'll just have to do
So, reds--a commenter will win a copy of Bryan's newest--so let's discuss: Have you /will you read Fifty Shades? Or--if someone said: "write this way, and I'll guarantee you get big bucks"--how would you feel about that?
Bryan Gruley is the award-winning author of three novels set in Starvation Lake, a fictional town in northern lower Michigan. His new book, THE SKELETON BOX, debuts June 5. The Detroit native lives with his wife in Chicago, where he is a reporter at large for Bloomberg News.