Last month, Andrew Gross’ novel The One Man was released in the US / Canada, and a feature / interview was published at Jeff Peirce’s THE RAP SHEET to coincide with its release.
Shots reviewed this remarkable novel here [with no spoilers] as an airport trade paperback from Pan Macmillan was released in advance of the Hardcover [which hits UK and Irish Bookstores] on 22nd September.
With the Shots team off to Bouchercon, New Orleans, we are presenting a UK edit of a feature interview with Andrew Gross early, as we will be out of the country when it reaches the bookstores. Shots have discounted copies that can be pre-ordered from this link to our online bookstore.
Avid readers when talking about thriller fiction, many of us want something new, something fresh, something different [though commercial reality is sometimes in conflict, with that assertion]. Publishers need financial returns on their investment, as does Hollywood, so we often see patterns, sequels, and many work following successful formula, and dare I say, “..the same old, the same old…”
I am reminded by a speech given by the Legendary British Publisher Christopher MacLehose in January 2008, at the London Press Club where his new imprint MacLehose Press launched [in-conjunction with Quercus Publishing] Stieg Larsson’s “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”
He informed us that the job of the publisher is to bring books to the public that they didn’t want; books that they didn’t anticipate; and books that would nonetheless make an impression and challenge their way of thinking. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is one such work, he observed.
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I have been reeling from reading one such recent work, a highly literate thriller, but one that is very different from the work this bestselling author is celebrated for. I am talking about Andrew Gross, and his Novel “The One Man”; a heavily researched World War Two historical techno-thriller, but one that mixes in the themes of family, of ordinary people in extraordinary situations – and places them into a narrative that is the Holy Grail of Novels – “the one-sitting read”, and here’s why -
Poland. 1944. Alfred Mendl and his family are brought on a crowded train to a Nazi concentration camp after being caught trying to flee Paris with forged papers. His family is torn away from him on arrival, his life’s work burned before his eyes. To the guards, he is just another prisoner, but in fact Mendl—a renowned physicist—holds knowledge that only two people in the world possess. And the other is already at work for the Nazi war machine.
Four thousand miles away, in Washington, DC, Intelligence lieutenant Nathan Blum routinely decodes messages from occupied Poland. Having escaped the Krakow ghetto as a teenager after the Nazis executed his family, Nathan longs to do more for his new country in the war. But never did he expect the proposal he receives from “Wild” Bill Donovan, head of the OSS: to sneak into the most guarded place on earth, a living hell, on a mission to find and escape with one man, the one man the Allies believe can ensure them victory in the war.
And the reviews from Publishers Weekly and Kirkus mirror my own thoughts, when I read it, with a denouement that floored me, and I found myself clapping until my palms stung, and were the same colour as that of the Red LED digits on my alarm clock, which informed me it was coming up to 4am, and I had read the this thriller through the night.
I’ll leave the last word to Kirkus, who said in closing their review “This is Gross' best work yet, with his heart and soul imprinted on every page.”
We were delighted when Andrew agreed to talk to The Rap Sheet and Shots Magazine, in a very wide ranging interview, just before he set off on a promotional tour which culminates in his appearance at Bouchercon New Orleans next week.
“It begins with two men….they were running.”
Ali : Andrew we recall when you broke through with The Blue Zone, you discussed at Shots that despite working in the corporate world, you always hankered to write, so tell us about your earliest readings [as a child] and what books resonated?
Andrew : I actually had a decent literary background before I chose to get an MBA and work in business. I was a published poet at 16, and got into Middlebury College as kind of a "literary jock." I edited the literary magazine there as a junior, which was kind of an honour as it always went to seniors. I was trained in the classic literary curriculums, so I admit my early reading in "mystery-thriller" had some holes.
For early thrillers that I enjoyed, I go back to Morris West (Shoes of the Fisherman) and Trevanian (The Eiger Sanction). If I had to name the two books that had the greatest effect on me, mystery or not, I would say, one, Robert Penn Walker's, “All the King's Men”, to me the most beautiful novel written in English, (which is often read as just a political novel when it is really based on the Telemachus myth, and follows a son's search for his father.) And Robert Stone's Dog Soldiers, which won the National Book Award in 1974, and was the first true piece of contemporary literary thriller writing I ever read. Dog Soldiers for me defined the type of book I one day wanted to write. So I was a reader long before I went into business, long before I connected with Patterson, the latter two which kind of defined my writing career for a while.
AK : And did you come from a family that valued literature and books? And what about your schooling, what did that bring to you in terms of your future career as a novelist?
AG : I wouldn't say I come from a family with any great literary tradition. My family were in the women's clothing business and were highly successful innovators. But I do come from a tradition of magnetic storytelling, and that is what is at the heart of writing for me. My father could captivate a room with his tales better than anyone I've ever met.
AK : You were the first of James Patterson’s protégés, penning four novels or was it more? So am I right in asserting that THE JESTER was the key work in that diverse quartet?
AG : It actually was five books with Patterson (and maybe even a sixth if one looks closely.) The Jester was the book closest to my heart, because it built on my interest in the Middle Ages and it was a beautiful romance and fairy tale, but it didn't sell particularly well in the States so it didn't stand out as a success. I would say my last two, Judge and Jury and Lifeguard, probably the best, and stand out as good examples of my early writing.
AK : I have been most intrigued by Jim Patterson’s recent BOOKSHOTS, thriller novellas designed for our time constrained times, so what’s your take on this recent innovation and the art of the Novella?
AG : I haven’t much to say on that apart from the fact that Jim has his pulse on a certain consumer in the States, maybe beyond, and he's devoted to mining that persona in the way network TV does. But anything, anything that gets people reading who would not normally do so is aces by me! I've got nothing but respect for him, in the face of obvious criticism, and learned a hell of a lot working with him.
AK : I know I have often mentioned how much pleasure THE JESTER gave many of us, so tell us a little about the writing process as I feel it is a precursor [of sorts] to The One Man – am I right?
AG : Well, THE JESTER is a precursor in that it gave me the confidence I could write a tale in a completely different time and setting in a convincing way. Not every publisher felt the same. I always had faith in myself as a writer, though my work was always defined by the clashing rocks of Patterson co-writer and "suburban thrillers."
Blending research into narrative, transporting the reader, enriching the story with historical detail, these are all judgments a writer makes in his work -- how much, how little. Obviously with Patterson the kind of detail that's in THE ONE MAN would never have been permitted. The kind of richness of detail that elevates the book! But both have extremely emotional endings. So I knew I could pull it off, so to speak, and deftly.
When it comes to writing process, I assume you meant with JP; and I'd rather not go into much of that, other than to say, all of the books I wrote with him came from his ideas and original treatments. That said, I'm pretty comfortable of how much I added as a partner on the venture. I wasn't just typing it up!
AK : So an obvious but important question, why did you depart from penning your contemporary thrillers to craft the historical action adventure of The One Man?
AG : So as I say, I wrote what might be called 'suburban thrillers’; stories of everyday people in an upscale setting, like yoga moms and hedge fund dads who step into something murky, something scary. Then through a misstep or just fate, find themselves over their heads in deep-shit, generally threatening the family. There were only so many predicaments and characters I could come up with, without knowing I was becoming entirely formulaic -- the real trick is to convince the reader otherwise of course.
My sales trajectory had waned. To me, though everyone loves this category, there is only one author who's come out of the pack in this sector that's been able to fully brand himself -- and that's Harlan Coben. I know in the UK Linwood Barclay has too, but not to the same extent as he has the US. So I just said the hell with it -- I needed to make a change. I have confidence in calculated risk. I wanted to write the kind of books I wanted to write and like to read -- books that transport you and deal in large themes, where, as Thoreau said, “you can find the miraculous in the common”. My contract with HarperCollins ended, and a story presented itself to me, and I decided I wanted to be defined by the kind of books I wanted to write, not the narrow band my publisher's felt were the easiest to market. So I took the leap!
AK : Considering the departure in terms of The One Man compared to the work you are most recognised for, are you a reader of WW2 Historical Thrillers such as MacLean?
AG : I read Furst consistently, read my share of Eric Ambler, and yes, Alastair MacLean. I can also go back to Ken Follett, Frederick Forsyth, William Goldman’s Marathon Man and Ira Levin’s The Boys from Brazil.
AK : I know an inspiration for The One Man was your late Father-in-Law, but had the story been gestating with you for a while, or was it more recent?
AG : Yes, my father in law, who just died at ninety six, came to this country from Poland in April of 1939, six months before the war. He lost his entire family and never knew their fates. Like a lot of survivors, he refused to talk about his upbringing, it was just too painful, and he carried this mantle of guilt and sadness with him his whole life. I started out in this book seeking to write a book about that guilt and probe at what was responsible for that sadness. Who did he leave behind? And why? He also served his new country in the OSS, and never talked about that either. So in many ways, I wanted to tell the story that he would have written. So yes, the urge was with me for a while, but not the opportunity-- I think I had pieced together an outline a year or two before I started writing.
AK : There is a texture in The One Man that reminded me of the British Thrillers of Alistair MacLean such as Guns of Navarone, Breakheart Pass, Where Eagles Dare et al and I know when I have interviewed contemporary writers such as Dennis Lehane, Lee Child, Robert Crais that Maclean was an influence on them, so were you a reader of his action thrillers?
AG : As I mentioned before I was a keen reader of Alistair MacLean, as well having viewed the films based on his work - though it's hard to separate book from the movie. But I think my next one, a novel based on the daring British-Norwegian raid on Vemork in Norway that ended the Nazis hope for the atomic bomb is far more in the spirit of MacLean -- a typical action story focused on the hero. In THE ONE MAN the hero is enmeshed with so many cultural issues in his motives for going back to the camp on this suicidal mission, and the setting of Auschwitz so overwhelming in terms of humanity and evil, that it's not in the centre of the standard action/hero matrix.
AK : Many of us love ‘A Yarn’, something that The One Man is - a rip roaring adventure tale so what is it about human nature that we like to escape into these [what I term ‘camp-fire’] tales?
AG : Well, besides the obvious celebration of heroism, which goes back in literature as early as we've been painting on cave walls, and the struggle to find meaning in our actions and the mystery of death, and if there's something beyond, I mentioned earlier that finding the miraculous in the ordinary is, to me, both an elemental joy of meshing together great characters to a rich plot. Another facet is the combination of weakness and strength, loyalty and betrayal in the heroes such as Job, Achilles, King Arthur, Lear et. al. So we see ourselves as reflections, battling trying conditions and settings, and look for humanity at its best - standing up to humanity at its worst.
And of course we pray that the former overcomes the latter. Not to overthink it, of course!
AK : Like Frederick Forsyth’s THE DAY OF THE JACKAL; in THE ONE MAN, we know the outcome; De Gaulle was not assassinated and The Manhattan Project beat the Nazis in Norway enriching Uranium, so how conscious were you during the writing process, that you need to keep the tension going despite the global outcome being known by the reader?
AG : Ah, a good point. My view is, you can do anything -- create mystery, suspense, historical importance -- if the person who is the reader's lens in the book does not know the outcome. Then it is up to your abilities in your own craft as a writer to convey and convince the reader that that outcome hasn't taken place. For Nathan, my hero, this is a life and death mission, not only for his service to the Allied cause, but for the honour of his family who he left behind to die. So to see the story through his lens is to feel it without the playing out of history already before us. The questions of "if" and why" trump the outcome.
AK : There is a great deal of detail striated across the narrative, so tell us about your research, and what was done on ‘the fly’ to tell this story without it becoming a Physics textbook and a Holocaust lament ?
AG : Yes, the detail was vital in THE ONE MAN. To me, that's what creates richness. streets, addresses, memories, anecdotes -- that's what makes the book come alive. And of course historical detail, and yes, science. Now keeping in mind I'm a guy that muddled his way through eighth grade earth science, it was important for me to convey just what it was so vital that Alfred Mendl knew. So I take my readers through the science of gaseous diffusion -- but not in a textbook way, yawn! But in the energetic interaction between two characters -- the professor like Mendl, the expert in his field, and a brash, brilliant boy Mendl stumbles upon who he needs to transfer his knowledge to. So what could be boring is enlivened by the battling modality of their exchanges. Everyone tells me this is one of the best parts of the book, and I think an important part, because Leo's learning of the science is part of the maturation from boy to manhood he must go through. But if I said up front, I'm going to give you a little lesson in atomic physics, you'd go, like me, ugh!; as these are the parts, as Elmore Leonard once said, you tend to skip over.
AK : Tell us about the writing process behind The One Man, was it heavily plotted, or not? And as for the story arc, we have several concurrent stories running in parallel, so to knit them to the denouement [which at the risk of sounding sycophantic] stunned me; and must have taken some deep thought, am I right?
AG : In previous novels I've written, there was always the opportunity to "wing it" a bit when it came to research and hide behind the curtain of "fiction." Writing about the Holocaust raises the bar much, much higher. Not only is there the detail I described in the book, but the science, delivered in an entertaining way, even chess -- a smaller narrative thread in the book but an important one. I think part of the "enriching" quality of the book, is the way in which information is imparted organically, as part of conversation, as opposed to as you say, "like a textbook."
A book that did this recently, which I greatly admired by Terry Hayes is "I am Pilgrim."
So to discuss the actual writing process - I outline in advance. In fact, what I sold almost two years ago to Pan Macmillian was an outline. Not a thin, sketchy series of bullet points, but a detailed narrative, thought out to the last detail. I learned this from my days with Patterson. The one element I had not fully resolved was the little twist in the denouement that you say stunned you. It stunned me, because it was a reversal of how I thought I would end the book. It came to me in the middle of the night, eyes wide open, with my dogs barking at something outside -- I wasn't even thinking about it. At first I went, "Holy Shit. That might just work. Is it better? Thanks, Tobey." Ultimately, I decided it was. It's about the only major turn in the book that I hadn't mapped out in advance.
AK : So please tell me about if you suffered any anxiety in changing genre style from your peers and also publishers, as I have read excellent feedback from your peers, so what about early feedback?
AG : I have no anxiety in changing genre with regards to my peers. In fact, I've gotten so much advance praise heaped on me, it's more than all my books combined. On a personal note, I started out as high volume, low substance on the sales/style matrix, a holdover from the Patterson roots, I think, because all my books have depth of subject and character. I never went after praise from my peers because I chased sales. I ended up with neither….laughing…. I didn't realize until this book, how genuine praise from those who do what I do, felt so good. And I'm very grateful for it.
AK : So tell me, with this change in direction, what’s next for Andrew Gross?
AG : What's next as I alluded to is an Alistair MacLean-like adventure based on the story of the raid against the Nazi heavy water facility at Vemork, Norway, called THE SABOTEUR. It's more of as straight thriller than THE ONE MAN, but it's similar in that I want heroism to be the driving engine of the story. The Norwegian saying, "a true man goes as far as he can-- and then he goes twice as far!" was the inspiration of what this story is about.
AK : And finally, what has passed your reading table that has been engaging?
AG : Absolutely the best book I've read recently was An Officer and a Spy, by Robert Harris, a story built around the Dreyfus Case in France. I think it's truly a masterpiece of a career officer bound by duty whose soul is unleashed when he steps into the injustices of the French prosecution of Alfred Dreyfus. Ironically, I read Harris, yet I never even heard of An Officer and a Spy until it was recommended to me by a friend, and then I see it was awarded the 2014 CWA Ian Fleming Steel Dagger award. It's one of those novels where you go, "Damn, I wish I had written that!"
AK : Thanks for your time, and we wish you the best of luck with this new direction in your writing.
AG : Thanks for your enthusiasm and we look forward to seeing you and at Bouchercon New Orleans next week
An excerpt from The One Man is available here
In-conjunction with Pan Macmillan, we have three hard cover copies of Andrew Gross’ THE ONE MAN for Shots Readers.
So all you have to do is send an email to email@example.com with the “ONE MAN” in the subject line, and answer this simple question, supplying your mailing address.
Which one of these Alistair Maclean novels is not a WW2 Thriller
[a] HMS Ulysses
[b] Where Eagles Dare
[c] Puppet on a Chain
[d] Guns of Navarone
The first three emails drawn from the entries, will receive each a hardcover copy of Andrew Gross’ THE ONE MAN.
The Shots Editor’s decision is final, no correspondence will be entered
Closing date for email entries is Midnight 10th October 2016
Unfortunately we can only accept entries from the UK or Ireland
A US edited version of this interview was published at Jeff Pierce's THE RAP SHEET in August 2016
More information about the work of Andrew Gross is available here
Photos of Lynn and Andrew Gross and James Patterson and Andrew Gross taken at Thrillerfest 2007 at NY Hyatt (c) 2007 A S Karim