Message From The Author
A Killer Debut
Former Ghostwriter Michael Gruber Dredges Up Demons for Debut Thriller
By Diane Snyder
An encounter with a hostile octopus led Michael Gruber to the woman who would inspire his first novel, TROPIC OF NIGHT. The story of a woman on the run from a serial killer who is also an expert in witchcraft, it's by the former ghostwriter for crime novelist Robert K. Tanenbaum. William Morrow has great expectationsand a sizable marketing campaignfor this electrifying thriller, which the publisher is comparing to The Silence of the Lambs.
At the time, however, a writing career wasn't on this Brooklyn, New York, native's radar. A marine biologist in the early '70s, Gruber met the
inspiration for TROPIC OF NIGHTa female anthropologist who recently had been through a terrifying ordealafter he was bitten by an octopus in the Bahamas. "On the dock next to the marine lab director was a woman," he says. "I said I'd been bitten by an octopus, that intrigued heran interesting pick-up lineand we became good friends."
She confided in Gruber about a perilous journey she'd taken
to Africa with a boyfriend. A white woman, she had been dating
a radical black writer who became engrossed in some destructive witchcraft. "She told me this remarkable story of how, as the trip continued, this man became more and more angry and gradually started to blame her for all the oppression that black people had suffered," Gruber, 60, explains. "He focused all of his rage, which was very deep, on her. He started using witchcraft against her, and she got very sick." Her parents eventually went over to Africa to bring her back to Miami, where she recovered.
The woman, whom Gruber declines to identify, became the muse for his fictional Jane Doe, an anthropologist who fakes her death and hides out in Miami under an assumed name. She's on the run from her husband, a black playwright who fell under the spell of some dark witchcraft during an African expedition. Now he's on a killing spree involving pregnant women, and Jane and police detective Jimmy Paz must try to bring him to justice. One problem: Witnesses' memories have been erased.
Gruber recounts his friend's almost inconceivable tale with complete sinceritynot what you'd expect from someone with
a Ph.D. in biology who is supposed to deal in objective scientific explanations. Their friendship continued back in Miami, where his acquaintance was working as a medical anthropologist at Jackson Memorial Hospital. It served Cuban and Haitian immigrant communities, for whom witchcraft holds much more
reverence than it does in American culture.
"People who were very sick would show up, but there was nothing wrong with them medically," he maintains. "They had been cursed. Her job was to either arrange for somebody like a witchdoctor to provide a counter-curse or find out why the curse had been placed and try to get whoever paid for it to rescind it."
She visited various witchdoctors for a journal article she was writing, and Gruber came along to draw illustrations for the story (photographing the practitioners was a no-no). "I saw stuff which is just hard to explain except by believing that spirits do come down and ride on people," Gruber recalls. "The premise of the book is that in very few, but real, cases traditional societies have a technology so advanced that it appears to us as magic. These shamans are technicians of the subjective universe the way that [scientists] are technicians of the material universe."
Soon after, Gruber gave up biology, worked in a restaurant ("they called me 'Dr. Cook,'" he quips), then as a criminal justice analyst in the Miami area. He spent time in the Office of Science and Technology at
the Carter White House and later became a speechwriter for the Environmental Protection Agency. Then he hooked up with former New York prosecutor Robert K. Tanenbaum and ghostwrote his popular Butch Karp/Marlene Ciampi series. That's one reason why Gruber has no desire to write a series character. Although the African-Cuban Paz will appear in his next novel, Gruber plans to be done with him after that.
Still, he's grateful for the success of Tanenbaum's books, which allowed him to give up his government job to write full time. He now lives in Seattle with his wife, an art teacher, and it was one of her studentsa black girl who had been raised by white parents who helped shape TROPIC OF NIGHT's serial-killer character.
"She was a brilliant artist, but she had uncontrollable rage,"
he says. "Obviously, hundreds and hundreds of families are
mixed and perfectly happy, but I wanted to explore the idea
of what if that went terribly wrong. If you had a very brilliant African-American man who'd been raised by liberal white
people in such a way that his rage had never been dealt with,
what could such a person become?" G
For more on TON, visit www.michaelgruberbooks.com.
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