Q&A with Bryan Gruley, Author of Bleak Harbor
By John ValeriNovember 30, 2018
Bryan Gruley is a lifelong journalist who shared in the Pulitzer Prize awarded to the Wall Street Journal in 2002 for its coverage of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Formerly the Chicago bureau chief of WSJ, Gruley is now a staff reporter for Bloomberg News and Bloomberg Businessweek. He also authored the popular Starvation Lake trilogy: the multiple award-winning Starvation Lake (2009), The Hanging Tree (2010), and Skeleton Box (2012). His latest novel, Bleak Harbor (available December 1, 2018)—already a #1 bestseller through the Amazon First Reads program—marks the launch of a new series. Gruley lives with his wife in Chicago.
Recently, the author kindly entertained questions pertaining to the creation of a new series canvas, building tension through character and circumstance, depicting autism in a realistic way, using setting to enhance narrative, and the ways in which his background in journalism has influenced his fiction. Gruley also offered a teaser as to what readers can expect next.
Bleak Harbor is your first book since completing the Starvation Lake trilogy. What did you find to be the greatest liberties in conceptualizing a new landscape? Conversely, what were the greatest challenges?
I’ll start with the latter question. The greatest challenge was in the very creation of a new landscape. I knew Starvation Lake well, not just fictionally but with reference to my own life, as I’ve spent a great deal of time in northern Michigan and towns like Starvation Lake (which is loosely based on Bellaire, Michigan). I haven’t traveled nearly as much in southwestern Michigan, which presented a challenge of authenticity. While I don’t think the town of Bleak Harbor has to be exactly like any on the Lake Michigan shore, it should feel like it could fit in there. I based the town loosely on Saugatuck, where I’d spent a bit of time reporting a story for The Wall Street Journal some years ago. I liked Saugatuck especially because of its long-ago history as a timber mill town called Singapore, which disappeared into the sand dunes surrounding what would later be Saugatuck. Singapore inspired my invention of Joseph Estes Bleak, the New Englander who founded Bleak Harbor in the 1860s.
When their son disappears, Carey and Pete must confront their pasts in hopes of redemption. In what ways can such an extraordinary situation both unite and divide a couple—and how does their dynamic add to the story’s escalation of tension?
Of course, there’s tension within each character’s individual situation: Pete’s foolhardy dealings with a Detroit drug ring (will his contact exact a violent price?) and Carey’s risky blackmail ploy (will her boss, with the help of the wily Quartz, outmaneuver her?). The tension intensifies—I hope—as the consequences of their choices begin to emerge, but also and especially in the ways they begin to intersect in the search for Danny. If I’ve done my job, the reader should be worried about Danny’s fate but also about the futures of Pete and of Carey and of their marriage.
The son, Danny, has autism. How did you endeavor to portray this condition and its resultant considerations accurately—and in what ways does empathy, or lack thereof, inform the work?
Although I knew from the start that Danny would be on the spectrum, I did not set out to write a definitive autistic character. I set out to write a character who happened to have autism—or what his doctors think is autism (note his mother’s disdain for the doctors’ efforts to label her “beautiful” son). I did some research on autism, and what I read again and again is that people disagree on what autism is, the causes, and the treatments. That gave me a lot of leeway. I strived to make Danny a sympathetic character, especially regarding his relationship with his dog, Paddle, while imbuing him with enough edge to separate him from the stereotype of the sweet disabled child. Danny can be a little shit, and that’s okay.
In your opinion, how does setting enhance narrative—and in what ways does Bleak Harbor (evocative by name alone!) contribute to the atmosphere and tone you set out to establish with this book?
The place is a character. Its history, its present, the way it looks and sounds and behaves influences the way the humans look and sound and behave, and vice versa. I’m not saying anything revelatory here. What would Mystic River be without Boston? Steve Hamilton’s novels without Paradise, Michigan? I hope the town of Bleak Harbor contributes a feeling of lost promise and abandoned values that buttresses the core narrative.
You are a lifelong journalist. What of that discipline is most transferable to crafting novels? Also, what unique skill set does each specialty require?
Good journalists are great gatherers of details you can see, hear, taste, touch, and smell. When you’re reporting a story, you should be writing down all sorts of things that you observe with all of your senses, regardless of whether you think they’ll work in the story. You don’t know if they’ll work in the story until you actually write the story. All those details bring places and characters to life. Feature writers like me also must be good storytellers—you have to keep people in the room, as my Pulitzer-winning Wall Street Journal colleague Ron Suskind used to preach. Plus, your space is always limited, you’re always trying to stuff 12,000 pounds of potatoes into a 12-pound bag, and that forces you to write as economically as possible while throwing out everything that’s unnecessary to the tale. The best-selling novelist Anna Quindlen sent me an email about Starvation Lake a while back that said, “Journalists make the best novelists.” I cherish that.
Leave us with a teaser: What comes next?
Next is Purgatory Bay. It is not a sequel, per se, but it is set in Bleak Harbor and a couple of characters, including Katya Malone (now the police chief), carry over. The story involves a young woman who was grievously wronged as a girl and has set out to reconcile her past with the present.