Michael Gruber, in his own words:
I was born and raised in New York City, and educated in its public schools. I went to Columbia, earning a B.A. in English literature. After college I did editorial work at various small magazines in New York, and then went back to school at City College and got the equivalent of a second B.A., in biology.
After that I went to the University of Miami and got an M.A. in marine biology. In 1968-69, I was in the Army as a medic.
In 1973, I received my Ph.D. marine sciences, for a study of octopus behavior. Then I was a chef at several Miami restaurants. Then I was a hippie traveling around in a bus and working as a roadie for various rock groups. Then I worked for the county manager of Metropolitan Dade County, as an analyst. Then I was director of planning for the county department of human resources.
I went to Washington, D.C. in 1977, and worked in the Carter White House, Office of Science and Technology Policy. Then I worked in the Environmental Protection Agency as a policy analyst and also as the speechwriter for the Administrator. I started writing freelance at that time, and shortly after being promoted to the Senior Executive Service of the U.S., I left Washington and settled in Seattle. I worked for a while for the state land commissioner, but since 1988 I have been a full-time writer.
I am married, with three grown children and an extremely large dog.
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Some interesting anecdotes from our interview with Gruber:
"My first job was writing copy for Classics Comics, which was the best job I ever had. Reducing Tolstoy to thought balloons!"
"I did my Ph.D. on the relation between moray eels and octopuses. As a result of this work, I am one of the few people who have been bitten by both a moray eel and an octopus. Been bitten by a moray is much like catching your finger in a car door. Being bitten by an octopus is like being snake-bit. Your arm swells up and turns black."
"I was once a member of a traveling commune called the Hog Farm. I was the cook on one of the buses. My road-kill dumplings were famous throughout the mobile counterculture. I once made eggs benedict for 14 hippies on the banks of the Rio Grande. Aside from that my life has been fairly dull and no fun at all."
"I have no hobbies. The only thing I do with my time is reading, writing and research. I walk my dog. I occasionally dig in the garden, but we have a gardener and this tends to upset her. I never unwind, except I get drunk with a bunch of journalists every Friday. Every Wednesday I teach snippets of Catholic theology to people who wish to join the Church."
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In the spring of 2007, Michael Gruber took some time to answer some of our questions about his favorite books, authors, and interests:
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer?
Not a book but a set -- The Children's Classics, ten volumes covered in candy-colored cloth that I read continuously from about age seven through ten. It comprised short excerpts from "good" literature, everything from the Iliad to Penrod and Sam. I didn't really get much of it, except that the stories gave me a sense that there was another world outside the daily nonsense and pain of life and that reading was a way of escape.
The first real book I ever read was Les Misérables by Victor Hugo. I was about ten or so. My home was not a literary one -- mother read bestsellers, my father did not read at all -- and I took the book down from the library shelf under the impression that the title was a misprint -- that it was meant to read Less Miserable -- which I very much wished to be. This was my first experience in total immersion in a fictive universe and the first sense I had that one could create such a universe on one's own.
The book that actually got me writing on my own was John Gardner's Grendel. It made me want to do that, tell the story of a monster from the monster's POV and I did.
What are your ten favorite books, and what makes them special to you?The Iliad -- Total immersion in alien soup, but still strangely accessible since so much of our culture traces back to this gang of murderous thugs. I use the Fitzgerald translation mostly and always wish I could read it in the original.
Middlemarch by George Eliot -- Love gone wrong, lives ruined, what's not to like? The greatest sermon against violating one's own deeper feelings ever written.
The Rings of Saturn by W. G. Sebald -- A completely new genre of literature. A man walks through the English county of Suffolk and reflects on culture and history. No other book makes the point so well that every thing we do and everything that's in our head is part of a specific history. The book is like drugs.
Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy -- Pays attention to the lives of ordinary people in modern society and generates out of that close attention a tragic grandeur. Spiritual agony raised to high art. Very hard to do and a model.
The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway -- As close to perfection as he ever came. Stripped intense language, true dialog, complete absence of sentimentality. Scraped out all the sludge the novel had accumulated over two centuries and gave everyone a clean page to write on.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald -- On everyone's list, but who cares? American life under a microscope slide, hidden evil rendered visible and sympathetic too. Yeah, we really are like that.
Palace Walk by Naguib Mahfouz -- The creation of a whole world out of a neighborhood in Cairo, Egypt in 1917, with a central character who's an absolutely awful man, and yet he makes us pay attention to him, to become absorbed in his life.
Kim by Rudyard Kipling -- This is the best adventure tale ever written. The setting is perfect, the characters are completely false, it's sticky with racism, but so what, the magic is there.
The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman -- History written with the absorbing excitement of the best fiction. It's hard to believe that the bozos she describes so well actually got to destroy Western civilization, but they did and here we are in the ruins.
Three Farmers on the Way to a Dance by Richard Powers -- The author sees a photo of three anonymous men and makes up a story and weaves it together with the story of the photographer and his own life as well. A startlingly original piece of work, the kind of book that, if you're a writer, makes you want to kill the author.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you? Blue
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
These are just off the top of my head. I'm not sure what makes them unforgettable to me, except that they're not melodramas and they all have a deeper sense of the human condition than the average film. They all have good scripts, with no false notes. The endings all grow out of the interaction of plot and character in a natural way. They all take some clear moral stance, even if, as in Chinatown, for example, that stance is that there is no moral order at all.
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
I like music written in Europe between about 1500 and 1800: Monteverdi, Palestrina, Vivaldi, Hadyn, Handel, Mozart. I like silence when I write. On the popular side, I haven't bought any music in a while. I have a whole bunch of old stuff on an iPod that I hardly never use -- Air, Ohia, Lucinda Williams, Joni Mitchell, L. Cohen, K. D. Lang, Edith Piaf, Os Mutantes, Jms. McMurtry, Fred Neil, Karen Dalton, Kraftwerk.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading?
Penelope Fitzgerald's The Blue Flower. Because it is one of the loveliest books ever written, and it's short, so that there's a good chance the whole book club will finish it.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
Reference books full of obscure facts, because if it's a gift you want it to be around for a while and used a lot.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
Yes I play six different games of Solitaire before I start writing. If I win the games first try, I will have a good writing day. I have notebooks and research materials on my desk when I write.
What are you working on now?
A novel about Prague in 1787, with characters involved in the premiere of Don Giovanni.
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
I started as a ghostwriter, producing thrillers for Robert K. Tanenbaum. I wrote and had published 15 novels, some of them bestsellers, before I wrote the first one under my own name, so my publishing history is somewhat unusual. I had a little trouble finding an agent, but when I found one he sold my first novel, Tropic of Night, in a day. If I had an inspiring anecdote, I would not reveal it, since I don't wish to inspire people to write. I wish to discourage them. It is a hard, frustrating, miserable way to earn a living. With respect to income expectations, you would be much better off buying a lottery ticket every day. It is as unhealthy as coal mining: the average novelist dies at 64, the average poet at 53. The divorce rate among published writers is about ten times that of the general population, and the rate of mental illness is about three times the national average. If you can possibly avoid writing for a living, do so.
If you could choose one new writer to be "discovered," who would it be?
As I spend all my time sitting alone in a room writing, I have no time to meet new and undiscovered writers, nor do I read fiction much when I write. So I don't know any undiscovered writers.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
Get an agent.
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