Last summer my neighbor was getting ready for the Race to Mackinac, a tradition rich, century-old, yacht race from Chicago to Mackinac Island. The day before he left, Greg asked me if I had a good book to recommend for the down time on the 300-plus mile trek to Michigan's Upper Peninsula.
In fact I did have a good book. A really good book.
That same day I had finished an advance copy of Bryan Gruley's terrific debut Starvation Lake, a mystery that takes place in a weird and dark and wonderful version of Northern Michigan. One week later Greg returned it, slightly water-logged and highly praised.
Now that the book is out, the acclaim is coming from all quarters. There have been starred reviews. The Chicago Tribune dedicated the entire front page of the Books section to the estimable Dick Adler's rave. USA Today has also weighed in, and Borders has made Starvation Lake a Mystery Pick for the month of March. As should you.
Every novelist will tell you there is nothing like your first few days as a published author, so I asked Bryan, who is the Chicago Bureau Chief of the Wall Street Journal, to jot down some thoughts on publication week while they are still fresh in his mind:
The best part might have been seeing Joe Maceri.
He was standing along a wall of bookshelves when I arrived at Aunt Agatha’s Mystery Books in Ann Arbor last Tuesday for the launch of my debut novel, “Starvation Lake.” Joe and I had gone to high school together, played hockey together, chased girls and sneaked beers together in his sweet ’55 Chevy, white with red leather interior.
But we hadn’t seen each other in years until Tuesday night. We embraced. We laughed. Joe already had read my book, which of course entitled him to rib me. “You jerk,” he said. “You put a gynecologist in the book and you call him ‘Dr. Johnson?’”
I swore up and down that I had intended no such pun (honest). “Bullshit,” Joe said. We laughed some more.
I gathered memories funny and sublime as I criss-crossed my home state of Michigan last week, speaking at Schuler Books in Okemos and Borders in Novi, signing stock at Horizon in Traverse City, McLean & Eakin and Horizon in Petoskey, and Saturn Books in Gaylord, seeing old friends and making new. It was fun and exhausting and inspiring and, now and then, a little frightening.
All along, I tried to remember something my Wall Street Journal colleague Jeff Trachtenberg told me many months ago. I had asked Jeff, who covers the publishing industry, what kind of sales I should expect. “Bryan,” he reprimanded me. “Just go out and have a great fucking time.”
I logged more than 1,200 miles in my muddy gray Chevy Malibu, a box of books in the back seat and my iPod cranking Bob Seger between Kalkaska and Kalamazoo. (I’m talking ancient, rocking Seger, like 1966’s “Two Plus Two,” which plays a role in my novel.)
Once a day, I’d stop at some small town dive, order a longneck Bud and empty my laptop of emails. Scores came from friends congratulating me—or yanking my chain—about a nice piece on the book in USA Today, a big spread in the Chicago Tribune, a thumbs-up from Canada hockey personality Don Cherry.
Jamie Agnew at Aunt Agatha’s gave me an old tan-covered copy of The Crisscross Shadow, the Hardy Boys mystery that got me interested in reading fiction as a boy. The next day, I knelt at my mother’s grave and thanked her for getting me that book more than forty years ago.
Bob Brill at the Petoskey Horizon store stripped back a sleeve to show me the dozen Detroit Red Wing autographs tattooed on his left shoulder. I posed for a photograph with my Sheila Brice, the seventh-grade teacher who encouraged me to write. I drank beers with John Gallesero, who lived across the street from me when I was a kid. I hadn’t seen him in thirty-five years.
My younger brother Mike zinged me during my talk at Aunt Agatha’s. “So,” he said, “if you only write what you know, I assume you won’t be writing a book about golf?” When the laughter subsided, I said, “No, and neither will you.”
I savored a succulent patty melt at the Hide-A-Way Tavern on the real Starvation Lake beneath a photograph of a guy riding a snowmobile wearing nothing but a cowboy hat. And I enjoyed the landscapes of northern lower Michigan that inspired my novel, from the snow-covered hills along U.S. 131 south of Ellsworth to the glistening silver of frozen Big Twin Lake stretching out from the bluff at my parents’ cottage.
The frightening moment came near the end of my speak-and-sign at Schuler in Okemos. The turnout was decent—about thirty-five people, most of them strangers, a few who have cottages on the real Starvation Lake. I was enjoying myself. Then my old friend and fellow journalist Mark Hornbeck asked, “Do you ever have the sneaking suspicion that you only have one book in you?”
“Of course,” I said. The audience chuckled. I hope they didn’t notice that my own smile was a nervous one.
I submitted my second manuscript recently. I think it’s a great story but I know it’s not in the right order yet. And there are a couple of holes. Etc. You guys get it. With the help of my terrific editor, Trish Grader of Touchstone Books, I’ll make it work.
Still, Mark’s question hit a soft spot. It reminded me of something my friend Marcus Sakey told an interviewer about trying to enjoy plaudits for a freshly published novel when you’re finishing up the next one and you know it ain’t quite right yet.
Sometimes I have to remind myself that people are reading my first book, not the one I just sent to my editor.
Anyway, I got past the question. We headed to a nearby saloon. I reminded myself that I’d be seeing other old friends like Joe Maceri later in the week—yeah, the best part of it all, at least in Michigan--and proceeded to have a great fucking time.
Catch Bryan Gruley in person this month:
Tuesday, March 10, 7 p.m., Borders, 2817 Clark Street (at Diversey).
Thursday, March 12, 7 p.m., Mystery One Bookstore, 2109 N. Prospect Avenue, Milwaukee.
Monday, March 16, 7 p.m., Book Stall at Chestnut Court, 811 Elm Street, Winnetka.