Saturday 9 December 2017

Andrew Gross and The Saboteurs

I often quote a line from Stephen King’s ON WRITING that always resonates in my consciousness –
“Life is not a support system for the arts, it’s the other way around”
For I find “reading fiction” my way of coping with what the random nature of reality throws at me. I find it helps reduce the anxiety that is inherent in the human condition. I can always find succor, distraction as well as enlightenment from my fiction reading. Reality and Fiction are interrelated, especially when it comes to Thriller Novels - and the latest narrative from Andrew Gross is just such an animal.
The Saboteur is a heroic historical thriller set during WWII in Norway, where we see Gross research an espionage operation that took place by the Allied Special Operations Executive [SOE] to destroy the Norsk Hydro [which now trades as the Norwegian Chemical Company YARA] fertilizer plant that the occupying Nazi’s converted to the production of ‘D20 : Heavy Water’ – a pre-requisite [at that time] for the enrichment of Uranium; which was required for Hitler’s dream of building a Nuclear Device ahead of the US Manhattan Project. 
Gross took a conscious [and brave] decision several years ago to change direction in thematic terms of his bestselling contemporary thrillers toward the historical end of the genre. Though if you reflect upon Gross’s writing, you’ll realize that he in fact has come full circle, for he debuted as a fiction writer by penning [in-concert] with James Patterson a historical thriller, a novel that dazzled me, and many others - THE JESTER.
Mike Stotter and I first met Andrew Gross [and Jim Patterson] in New York during Thrillerfest 2006 in New York. At that time Gross had penned several other work with Jim Patterson, but eventually published thrillers alone - which he recounted for Shots HERE.
Over the years I would bump into Andrew at various conventions and conferences – and as I loved THE JESTER so much, I would often tease him to return to penning historical thrillers, and last year my wish was realized when Gross did just that. He left HarperCollins US and HarperCollins UK joining Macmillan UK and St Martin’s Press / Minotaur US with a WWII Thriller that literarily sucked the air from my lungs - THE ONE MAN.  I would interview Gross at the time, as I was floored by not only the ambition of this novel, but also its execution.
The interview was hosted at Jeff Peirce’s The Rap Sheet and for me, very enlightening regarding not only the work of Gross, Patterson but also about the world of thriller writing – and it can be accessed by clicking here.
Gross followed up The One Man with an extraordinary thriller, again a WWII adventure tale entitled THE SABOTEUR which will have a title change in the UK for its upcoming Paperback Release to THE SPY.  
For the record, The One Man became one of my favorite thriller novels of 2016, and in 2017, The Saboteur also makes my top thriller novels of the year listing. I naturally called Andrew up, as I had a few questions I needed to ask as his writing has become very important to me, to help me cope with the alarming reality I see surrounding us, with this rise of the so-called populism and lurch toward the Right-Wing in geopolitics.
As the world needs heroes, and heroic deeds - I would urge you to seek out The Saboteur; because the excitement of ‘doing the right thing’, as well as seeing the compassion for humanity [and care for the weakest members of society] is important to me – as well as the bare knuckle action of defeating the bad guys, truly inspirational.
The Saboteur is all the more exciting because at the spine of this novel, lies the real life heroism of men and women; a tale of truly inspirational bravery that defeated evil – click here to read about the real life events that helped defeat the evil of Nazism.
Ali : After your decision to change the direction of your writing from contemporary thrillers to a WWII historical setting, can you tell us how that decision has affected you – both mentally as well as commercially?
Andrew : Mentally, it gave me a renewed sense of purpose in my work. Writing about the Holocaust in THE ONE MAN, I was doing something heftier than simply writing a thriller. I was dealing in themes and leitmotifs that were larger than clues or motives, or even suspense. I was creating something that spoke to the Jewish tradition, culture, family, and loss. Even in THE SABOTEUR, it was really about heroism and sacrifice, and the moral choice between duty and feeling. So it’s been galvanizing for me. Commercially, I was lucky that THE ONE MAN was my largest book to date, in the U.S., even though it didn’t get high on the bestseller lists like previous books. It had a tremendously long tale and continues to sell. So I’m pleased with the new direction.
AK : And what about your new publishers, Macmillan in the UK and St Martins / Minotaur in the US – how supportive have they been?
AG : Well, completely supportive. They bought into the change—literally. I told them before they purchased THE ONE MAN that I was putting traditional, “suburban” thrillers behind and intended to focus on moments in time where a pivotal choice had to be made. Once you try and change the brand, there’s no going back.
AK : So after the startling THE ONE MAN, we see the shadow of Nazi aspirations for perfecting a Nuclear device again appear in THE SABOTEUR, was this planned as it seems you have an interest in Nuclear Chemistry / Uranium Enrichment?
AG : This question comes from a man with a scientific background and I’m a guy who could barely get through eighth grade Earth Science. Even though both books are linked by the thread of the Allies frantic to beat the Germans to the atomic bomb in WWII, that was really only the delivery system, so to speak, for what I was trying to do, which as I said, was transport people in time to moments where selfless courage defeated overwhelming force and power. And of course it didn’t hurt that in each, the stakes of failure were so high that it ratcheted up the suspense to the highest level. And I did layer in just a little science just to show high school friends how I’ve evolved. No, just kidding. To give a sense of what the stakes were, I thought it important to make the reader invest in the science just a bit, as my characters had to invest in what they were trying to overcome.
AK : And you mention Kirk Douglas and “The Heroes of Telemark” so I am assuming you have researched this period of WWII in detail; though I am impressed that you didn’t allow the science to slow the narrative’s velocity. What’s your take on research in thriller fiction as opposed to “I make shit up” ethos in the writer?
AG  : Well, books set historically, especially WWII and even more so, the Holocaust, can’t get too far in the “I make this shit up” zone. I’m not a believer in over-researching. I don’t like to smother a reader in how much work I’ve done to prepare. But just enough to “sell” the scene effectively. You notice Alfred grilling Leo on the science in THE ONE MAN, but the back and forth in the teacher-student dynamic, or better, the arrogant young genius and the desperate, dying professor made it entertaining, as it was peppered with humor.  In THE SABOTEUR, teaching a bit of atomic science to commandos who were more at home trudging through storms than sitting in classrooms, made it an easy lesson for the reader too.
AK : I enjoyed The Saboteur immensely, as it embodies how important it is do what is right, which is best illustrated by Kurt Nordstrum the leader of the Saboteurs – so tell us how you shape ‘character’ as a novelist.
AG : Well, that’s not the easiest of questions, but I suppose in my heroes, I start with an idealized version of what I think is heroic, (courage, an innate sense of what is right, selflessness and romantic), then carve and whittle it down into an identifiable regular person who has to convince themselves to measure up. I like unassuming, wry, quiet and unafraid, but someone who grows much larger in taking on what is required of him. I suspect somewhere these people are generally an idealized version of myself, who I would want to be, given that I sit all day behind a computer and the biggest moral courage I show in a day is whether to feed the dogs lunch meat from my sandwich or not.
AK : There is much tragedy in the lives of the protagonists and antagonists in The Saboteur, and from there springs motivation. How important is ensuring the characters have the requisite level of motivation? But being conscious that too much back-story [as to the origins of the motivation] could slow the narrative, or too little makes characters one dimensional
AG : Yes, well, being a hero because one is brave or a bad guy because he is mean, or insane, have never been very satisfying for me. A hero must have weakness and frailty too. And there has to be something that pushes them to stand ahead of others, and things like guilt and shame can be part of that too. In the case of Nordstrum in THE SABOTEUR, since he is a last survivor so to speak, and the things he loved gone, that gives him both a nothing to lose fatalism and lost love to give him moral courage. 
Even the bad guys have to have depth too, depth of motive. When you write Nazis, or in the case of SABOTEUR, Fascists or sympathizers, it can’t just be that when they put on the uniform they’re bad. In the case of Lund, my Quisling officer, he was an outcast from the time he was ten, and the false sense of power he received from obsequiously climbing his way up the ladder in the secret police, made his battle with Nordstrum a match of showing his superiority, to someone who had made him feel small from his youth.
AK : There’s an Alistair MacLean feeling in The Saboteur, a Scottish writer whose work dominated the thriller genre in novels and films in the 1970s. I know many writers such as Dennis Lehane and Lee Child were avid readers of his work. Were you also a reader of Alistair MacLean; and if so, can you name your favourite work from his canon [both novel as well as film adaptation]?

AG : Yep. The Guns of Navarone or Where Eagles Dare. Both, excellent movies from my youth too. I wanted to write a big, sprawling action-suspense WWII story, and McLean was the master. I used his name (brand) in my pitch to the publisher before I wrote a word. No one’s writing these kind of stories now. Of course in WWII, there was such a defined sense of good and evil that every story fits into our own ingrained values of good overcoming evil and as long as you make them believable and root-able, letting the good guys win.
AK : I was highly impressed by Edoardo Ballerini’s reading of the Audible version of The Saboteur [as well as The One Man] as he is an excellent vocal artist – so tell me if you’ve heard it also, and what are your thoughts about the audio versions of your work?
AG : I think he’s brilliant. I couldn’t be happier. To tell you a story, I never listened to one of my own books before, since THE BLUE ZONE, my first. Whoever did that book was so bad I never listened to another, even though I got to approve the readers. Ballerini changed my view! We had a long drive to a wedding I said, what the hell, everyone tells me the guy’s pretty good, let’s see. My wife and I were mesmerized. He handles accents and suspense superbly. And if you had asked me how many I sold of any audio recording before I couldn’t have told you, because it was such a rounding error, but THE ONE MAN sold almost 20,000 downloads in the U.S.  And THE SABOTEUR is following in suit.
AK : In Britain some thrillers are sometimes termed “Blokey” referring to their appeal to be steered toward male readers. Your work however often features strong women, and their presence is far from stage dressing – so what’s your thoughts about gender in thriller fiction?
AG : Ahem, gender, at this particular moment in the U.S. is very much in the news. And politicized. And I always feel that no matter what I say on this subject, I say the wrong thing. But I have always admired and found attractive strong-willed women. I come from a family of them. (I also spent 15 years in the women’s apparel biz before writing.) I find nothing sexier than a women who stands up to do the courageous thing. My original contract dating back to working with James Patterson, was because... “This guy does women well!” So even my WWII books are read by as many women as men. In THE SABOTEUR, there are two principal women, both who arrive in the second half of the book. One has that measure of heroism. The other becomes a believable love interest for Nordstrum in a short amount of time. They are different, but both succeed, I’m told. I don’t know, I just have a knack. Trust me, my wife would tell you, it’s not because I pay much attention to her……smiling carefully……

AK : Speaking of those two strong female characters, Hella and later Natalie Ritter who were adroitly evoked despite resting in the shadow of Kurt’s late wife Anna-Lissette. How do you write inside the mind of a woman?
AG : Well, I kind of started this above, but there is always a bit of the underdog in women, because, in thrillers as in life, they are always trying to impose sense and order on a crazy world run by stronger men. I guess I start with what I like in a women: boldness, wit, guile, firm footing, and brains. There could not be two more different people in the SABOTEUR than Hella (the resistance fighter) and Natalie (who sees in Nordstrum the heart and decency he has inside) and throws aside that she is Austrian and he is Norwegian. But both pick up on these qualities and work, I think, and, in a very short amount of time. By the way, even Nordstrum’s shortlived girlfriend Anna-Lissette comes off as convincing, I think, and she doesn’t even get a whole scene!
AK : I thought the dénouement was elegantly realized with the Austrian Cellist August Ritter of the Vienna Philharmonic, and his daughter Natalie. I enjoy endings that allow the reader to project their own thoughts onto the narrative rather than the author wrap up the climax with bows and ribbons. I know some editors favor the clear ending, with no trailing cables – while others allow a little wriggle-room for the reader’s thoughts – so what’s your take on endings?
AG ; They just have to be satisfying. What are the emotional stakes you’ve created in the book and how does the ending back that up and resolve it? I generally don’t like bleak. Or un-resolved. But I don’t like the fairy tale either. It has to be totally believable because that is the lasting message you get from the book. It’s what you carry with you as a reader. In THE SABOTEUR, you don’t know till the last page how it resolves. (The last line even! But don’t look….laughing…….) The stakes there—Nordstrum, a hardened warrior who has taken on a critical mission that to achieve it endangers the one person he has opened himself to love, Then there’s the “ does he survive or not?”, as well as the different feelings in the reader with each possible outcome. So excitement, believability, and resolution. That’s my three take-home points of an ending.

AK : I consider your work to sit at the top of the heroic edge of the thriller genre, and Kurt’s Father Alois, has a slogan  “a true man goes on until he can go no further, and then he goes twice as far” – tell me where did this line come from?
AG : Sadly, I didn’t make it up. It’s a Norwegian saying I came upon. But it illuminates the center of the Norwegian heart, of sturdy, dedicated, selfless men of the outdoors who rise to every challenge. In THE ONE MAN it was easy to touch upon Jewish archetypes to give meaning to Nathan’s character. In THE SABOTEUR, this one line is the heart of Nordstrum’s character and that of the Hillmen of Norway.
In a sentence, you know who these men and women are, and what’s at their core – they never give in.
AK : So what’s next for Andrew Gross? More Nuclear Chemistry and Adventure? Or are you tempted to team up with Jim Patterson, for a historical ‘Bookshot’? Perhaps even a coda to The Jester? As you know I had to ask……….
AG : No, I know you’ve wanted to reprise on JESTER since we first met over a decade ago, But I just finished something pretty good, I think. And personal. Built of my own family’s stories and legacy. It takes place in NYC between 1905-35, during the early stages of the women’s clothing business [when it was populated by gruff, tough characters]. Back then, the union was taken over by the Jewish mob (who trust me were much more violent than the Italian mob—they all grew up on the Lower East Side without a dime and faced ridicule and prejudice. So it’s the story of a brash, young garment entrepreneur who rises from nothing and has to go head to head against the mob-run union, and one murderous crime boss in particular who he was standing up to since his youth. Provisionally, I’m calling it, UNDER MANHATTAN BRIDGE. It’s kind of a cross between GREAT EXPECTATIONS and THE GODFATHER.
AK : Well that is intriguing me, and so I looking forward to it – and many thanks for your time.
AG : Always fun being with you, Ali!
For more information about the thriller writing of Andrew Gross click here and to read about the real-life hero of Telemark, Joachim Ronnenberg, Leader of Operation "Gunnerside" click here
I thoroughly recommend THE ONE MAN as well as THE SABOTEUR as outstanding thriller novels that will make you take stock of life, as well as make you think as they entertain and make the heart pump, like a Uranium enrichment centrifuge.
Ideal for Christmas presents for those who like to think, while being entertained.

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