My Interview with
When I read the first page of Skin Deep, I was blown away. This is when I discovered the author, Gary Braver. After finishing Skin Deep, I locked myself in my favorite room with iced tea, veggie wraps, and a copy of Gary Braver’s latest medical thriller, Tunnel Vision, and enjoyed one of the most invigorating weekend getaways I’ve had in a long time.
*Victoria whispering* Now, I for one, plan on finding out exactly how Mr. Braver comes up with his absolutely incredible, yet credible ideas. . .
Tap, tap, tap. *Handshakes and Smiles* “Hi, Mr. Braver. I’m Victoria Valentine from Away With Words. It’s so nice to meet you! May I call you Gary?”
Gary Goshgarian is an award-winning Professor of English at Northeastern University in Boston. He teaches Fiction Writing and courses in popular culture (Science Fiction, Horror Fiction, Detective Fiction, Modern Bestsellers, and Edgar Allan Poe.) He’s an accomplished professor and author of eight critically acclaimed novels: Atlantis Fire, The Stone Circle, Rough Beast, Elixir, Gray Matter, Flashback, Skin Deep, Tunnel Vision.
Victoria: Along with an M.A. in English from the University of Connecticut, and a Ph.D. in English from the University of Wisconsin, you earned a degree in physics from the Worchester Polytechnic Institute. Is there a connection between physics and your writing?
Gary: Yes. My interest in science as a kid naturally led me to reading science fiction. When I started teaching at Northeastern, I introduced a course in the genre and have been teaching it for the last 30 years. But I don’t write science fiction per se—no robots, gee-whiz gadgetry, or aliens. I write science thrillers, or psychological thrillers with medical or biomedical slants—but not enough to blind readers with hard science as in a lot of SF.
Victoria: Your given name is Gary Goshgarian. Why did you decide to use a pen name and how did you come up with, Gary Braver?
Gary: The decision to go with a pen name was that of my publisher. The actual pen name choice was mine.
That happened in the year 2000 when my book, Elixir, a thriller about the development of an anti-aging drug was optioned for a movie by director Ridley Scott (“Alien,” “Thelma and Louise,” “Gladiator”). Because of that option and the publisher’s perception that the book was hot and going to take off, I was asked to adopt a pen name to fool the bookstore chains (B&N and then Borders) which base their prepublication purchases on the sales figures of an author’s previous title. Because my publisher (Tor/Forge, St. Martin’s Press) wanted to print up ten times the hardback copies of my previous book, Rough Beast, they didn’t want bookstores to under order. Thus, they said get a pen name, short and front of alphabet. Short, for obvious reasons (Braver fits better on the cover than Goshgarian); front of alphabet, because browsers stop around H on the “New Fiction” shelves.
Braver is the translation of my grandfather’s name. And with Elixir, Gary Braver was born. Ridley Scott re-optioned the book for a second year, but decided to make “Hannibal” instead. But Elixir did well and had been optioned two more times after that. I’m still waiting for the movie, but not holding my breath.
Victoria: How long have you been writing?
Gary: I had written nonfiction in college, being copyeditor of my college newspaper, year book, and editor and founder of a humor magazine. While teaching my Science Fiction course at Northeastern, I decided to try my hand at fiction, something I had always wanted to do. My first novel, Atlantis Fire, came out in 1980. Then I had two kids, who tended to take time away from writing. My other seven novels came out since 1995.
Victoria: Who or what has been your biggest literary influence?
Gary: The biggest influence on my writing was teaching. I knew by my sophomore year in physics that if I wanted to write novels when I grew up; and that I needed degrees in English to teach college courses and take advantage of the summers off to write. Also, teaching fiction seemed like the best way to become familiar with the fine points of novel writing–how characters are created, how thematic unity is maintained, how stories keep readers engaged. And nothing gets one more familiar with how novels are written than analyzing them in a classroom. For 30 years I’ve taught scores of novels in my courses. And I learned to look at each the way a carpenter looks at a house.
The person who was the biggest influence on getting me started was the late NY Times bestselling author, Robert B. Parker, my former office mate at Northeastern and my closest friend. Back in the 1970s when he began writing his popular Spenser detective series, he demystified the process, writing every day and selling his first book. I saw how it was done. And through him I got my first literary agent.
I also learned from Bob Parker the importance of precise language and snappy dialogue.
Another author who had early influence on me as a writer was Stephen King. I liked how he created depth of characters, the lure of dark forces, and a narrative thrust. He also raised the literary standards of horror thrillers. Perhaps it was arrogance at the time (or wishful thinking), but after teaching his The Shining some years ago, I decided that maybe I could do this. And with Bob Parker’s encouragement, I wrote my first novel, Atlantis Fire, an archaeological thriller set on the Greek island of Santorini. It got nice critical acclaim plus a fabulous plug from Stephen King.
The book debuted in 1980. So did the first of my two sons. And novel publishing took a 13 year break because I was also writing college textbooks to help raise our family. But I saw my first writing effort turn into a book. I just needed the time to eventually get my writing career going.
Victoria: Do your books play off one another or have a common denominator?
Gary: Although my 8 published novels are stand-alones (no series characters), each centers on a major scientific breakthrough or discovery. And each has the warning: Watch out what you wish for. The influence behind that is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which I still teach in my SF course. Also, having worked as a physicist at Raytheon Co. for a few years before grad school in English. I was involved with some exotic Frankenstein projects that gave me insights into the dark seduction of scientific research. Also the dangers. My last 5 novels specifically address the deadly allure of tampering with things we perhaps shouldn’t:
- Elixir: An anti-aging drug that threatens to throw out of whack human relationships.
- Gray Matter: Boosting the intelligence of “slow” children for parents obsessed with raising geniuses.
- Flashback: A rush to market of a flawed cure for Alzheimer’s Disease for an aging America—yet which has nasty side-effects.
- Skin Deep: Obsession with beauty and, through cosmetic surgery, getting the face you’ve always wanted.
- Tunnel Vision: Finding God.
Victoria: Have you written short stories?
Gary: Only one and on the invitation of Clive Cussler: “Ghost Writer” which appeared in Thriller 2, edited by Cussler (Mira Press, 2009).
I like short stories and teach them in my Horror Fiction and Science Fiction courses. But I prefer the larger canvas of novels. They also sell better than short fiction these days.
Victoria: Do you write nonfiction?
Gary: I’ve written book reviews as well as articles on travel and scuba diving. I also have 6 college writing textbooks with Longman Publishers, with one to two new editions each year.
Victoria: How dear to your heart is writing, and do you believe you’ll continue to write for the rest of your life?
Gary: Fiction writing for me is a passion. It’s what I’ve wanted to do since college. It’s what I’ll do for the rest of my life. And, thankfully, people think my books are pretty good. The response of critics and readers alike has been very gratifying. So was winning a prestigious Massachusetts Book Award for Fiction (Flashback, 2006).
As I said, I also have college textbooks (published under my real name) that I’m constantly working on when I’m not writing novels or teaching. Those are still going strong. But after 36 editions, the thrill is gone. And revising them is more like work. Writing fiction is more like a sport to me—a constant challenge that I love. It’s also a world that I can invent and control. And unlike life, fiction has to make sense.
Fiction writing is also solitary and non-collaborative. That doesn’t bother me, because I don’t mind being alone at a keyboard for hours. Maybe that has something to do with being an only child.
Victoria: Do you ever run dry?
Gary: Thank heavens I’ve not yet run dry. I think if I lost my ability to write I might start braiding a noose.
On the brighter side, I don’t believe in so-called “writer’s block,” which I think is a cop-out—as if “writer’s block” is some kind of medical condition like dysentery. “Gee, I can’t write for the next two months because I have writer’s block.”
To my mind, that’s laziness. Yes, I’ve been stuck in the middle of a book, not knowing exactly where to go. Every writer experiences that. What I do when I’ve hit a brick wall or multiple fork in the road is write a scene I know has to be in the book, or polish a previous one. I’ve found that staying verbal, pushing ahead elsewhere in the story always unties the knot for me.
Victoria: Do you write poetry?
Gary: No, but I’ve taught poetry for years and have been influenced by lyrical descriptions, evocative narratives, and the compression of language so characteristic of poetry.
Victoria: How difficult is it for you to come up with one of your marvelous plots?
Gary: Very difficult. And a lot of work. Once I get the germ of an idea—what Alfred Hitchcock called the “McGuffin,” what gets everybody scrambling—it’s a challenge to stretch it out to a full plot with clear conflicts, characters to dramatize the action, a unifying theme, the moral issues characteristic of my books, as well as all the twists, turns, and surprises that readers want and expect of me.
Since Rough Beast (1997), the plotline ideas have been narrowed for me, as my publisher had charged me with writing high-concept psychological thrillers with a big scientific–medical or biomedical–breakthrough that centers on ordinary people with families and essentially constitutes a Faustian Bargain—i.e., a deal with the devil.
While that pigeon-holing as given focus to my options, coming up with a unique and potentially exciting idea is still challenging.
Victoria: How about characters? Are they easily born and developed?
Gary: No. Nothing is easily born or developed for me. It’s constant work trying to decide how to people a provocative storyline—that is to maximize the big central ideas. The first challenge is figuring out the role for each major character, how they will advance the plot and function around the central conflicts. That means deciding what each of them wants and fears. Then to develop a story where these characters mutually intersect and create the core conflicts that keep developing and keep revealing them as characters—all the while maintaining narrative thrust to keep the readers turning pages.
For each character I try to do a psycho-drama—that is, pretend that each of them thinks the book is about them. In other words, I try to project myself into each– whether heroic or villain, male or female, child or adult–and give them legitimate motivations for their behavior, good or bad, that makes sense and that moves the plot along. Almost always, these characters develop as I write. Never does a story or fully-drawn characters lay themselves out for me. It’s constant work deciding the function and purpose behind each character and each scene—them making all that interesting and thematically unified.
Even villains must have clear motivations and sweet-smelling reasons for their adversarial behavior. Unlike in real life, evil in fiction has to make sense. Very few literary villains are actually pure psychopaths. Those that are for me hold little more interest than the shark in “Jaws” who was simply an eating machine following pure sharky instinct.
Victoria: Do you ever find yourself a struggling writer?
Gary: Only when trying to get my publisher to put more promotions into my books. I’ve gotten great reviews, but sometimes it’s a struggle to get the publisher to market the books as they should be.
Victoria: What advice do you give to your students who want to make writing their career?
Gary: Read. And read books by those authors you admire.
And read slowly, carefully. What I tell my writing students is what I said earlier: Look at another writer’s work the way a carpenter looks at a house. That is, notice how economically they create characters; how they write realistic sounding dialogue; how they get in and out of a scene effectively; how their language is original, inspiring, and evocative; how they create a narrative thrust to keep you turning the pages. Don’t just read these books—study how they’re put together.
Victoria: About how long does it take for you to complete a novel, from concept to completion?
Gary: 18 months.
Victoria: Do you have someone edit your work before sending it to your agent or publisher?
Gary: Before submitting my manuscript to my agent to forward to my publisher, I ask two people to read it first. My wife Kathleen, former English teacher, and terrific reader. And a close friend and published novelist, Barbara Shapiro, whose manuscripts I read.
Victoria: Do you let your family or anyone else read your work before it’s finished?
Gary: No. Only when it’s done and, hopefully, ready to send to my agent.
Victoria: Have you ever trashed a novel or story before or after finishing it, feeling it wasn’t turning out as you had planned?
Gary: Yes, one but not because it wasn’t good. But because it was about the particular development of the Internet in its early days. But, alas, by the time I had finished the book, technology had outstripped my idea, rendering the core idea passé. But I’ve recycled parts of that in subsequent books, so not all was lost.
Victoria: Have you ever felt any uncertainty about a literary project or your career as a fiction writer?
Gary: Every writer does about a particular book, usually in Act 2. But I have learned to trust my abilities to pull off a project and make it work.
Victoria: If you had never been professionally published, would you still continue to write?
Gary: No point in that. To my mind the only reason to write is to be read, and not just by friends and family.
Victoria: How did you choose the genre of bio-medical thrillers?
Gary: Growing up, I read a lot of science fiction and horror stories.
I also saw lots of SF, horror, and thriller movies in my youth. Those were the genres that captured my imagination. Those were the genres I wanted to write in when I seriously considered fiction as a career.
My interest in science led me to a degree in physics and a job as research physicist before pursing higher degrees in English and my teaching career at Northeastern. Exposure to literary fiction inspired me to write science thrillers that were not just plot driven but which had fully developed, psychologically interesting characters who engaged readers.
I also created courses in Science Fiction, Horror Fiction, and Modern Bestsellers at NU. So, writing science thrillers was comfortable genre for me.
It was my 3rd book, Rough Beast, that defined the biomedical slant in my books. Following the success of that, my publisher said they wanted more of the same high-concept thrillers with a big medical or biomedical breakthrough as the McGuffin. So I was happily pigeon-holed in a genre that I liked, even though the medical aspects involved considerable research for each novel. Luckily my science background came in handy. Still does. So did teaching at NU where I had friends in various departments of biomedical sciences.
Victoria: Your knowledge and style of writing amazes me. Not only are your stories entertaining and thrilling, but they’re also educational and factual. How do you brainstorm medical conditions such as ‘caul’?
Gary: Thank you. The science background gave me appreciation for technical matters as well as the stuff I don’t know and need to research. The term “caul” I picked up a long time ago, and I remember reading up on it and how according to folk lore a baby born with such a membrane over his or her face would grow up with psychic or spiritual powers.
Victoria: Is there any medical background in your family?
Gary: No, just physics. However I’m lucky to be teaching at Northeastern University where friends in different departments—biology, pharmacy, biochemistry—help me on technical matters. Also, Boston is the medical hub of the universe, and doctors have been more than generous to walk me through medical procedures.
Victoria: Writers often spend almost as much time researching a book as writing it. Do you do your own research?
Gary: Initially when I get an idea, I consult experts to see if I technically I can make it work in the story. After that, I do my research as I go along. If I need nursing expertise in a scene, I call a nurse friend. If I have questions on the brain, I call a neurologist colleague. Same with guns and police forensics, since NU has a terrific Criminal Justice Department.
Victoria: Will you share with us your experience with your first novel, Atlantis Fire?
Gary: I had always wanted to write a thriller, but didn’t have an idea that I wanted to pursue. Also, I was close friends with my officemate, Robert Parker, who had begun writing his Spenser novels, only adding to my itch to get writing.
Then I had an extraordinary experience that became the basis of my first novel.
It was the late 1970s, and I had just gotten certified as a Scuba diver and joined an Earthwatch team of other divers volunteering to help a marine archaeologist look for Phoenician and Roman shipwrecks off the Spanish island of Mallorca. Fishermen had pulled up ancient artifacts, and the scientist wanted to see if he could find a shipwreck that had not been ravished by time or looters.
After a week, we began finding pieces of amphoras and other artifacts from Roman wrecks that had sunk off the coast over 2000 years ago. One day while excavating a pile of pottery about two kilometers off shore, a speed boat passed over our bubbles. We were only 10 meters deep on the sand uncovering ancient pottery, indicating that there might be a full wreck below. In spite of the fact that our inflatable boat was anchored just above us with a dive flag, the boat raced through our bubbles again and again. The first time is an accident, the second time is stupid, the third time meant danger.
Unfortunately, we were nearly out of air, yet the boat kept turning around and crossing over us. After the 5th or 6th pass, the drivers of the boat dropped anchors swinging on chains in effort to gaff us on the fast moving spikes. Near panic and almost out of air, my dive buddy and I shot to the surface following a pass by the boat. Seeing our heads break the surface, those in the boat headed for shore. Yet they had slashed our rubber boat so we had to paddle to land.
We did not know at the time that our little marine archaeological expedition had trespassed on a hot antiquities operation involving dealers who were stealing booty from Mediterranean shipwrecks and selling it to collectors and museums around the world. The owner of the speed boat was the ring leader, a lawyer by profession and antiquities smuggler on the side. He even managed to get the local naval commandant to revoke our dive permits. But we got them back because we had an underwater metal detector that he wanted to borrow, hoping to find gold and silver on another wreck. So we let him borrow the device for a day only after he arranged the return of our dive permits.
I still remember thinking back then that if I got out of that experience alive, I’d write a book about it. I did and moved the locale to the Aegean island of Santorini, the ancient outpost of the Minoan empire and likely source of the Atlantis legend. That book is called ATLANTIS FIRE.
It took 18 months to write. And my agent sold it on the second submission—to Dial Press/Doubleday.
Victoria: Was it difficult finding an agent and publisher?
Gary: Not back then. I found my first agent through Bob Parker, and he sold it on the second house he sent it to. A dozen years later, my former agent retired, and I found my current agent, Susan Crawford who has represented me ever since.
Victoria: What was it like to publish your first book?
Gary: Joy, second only to the birth of my two sons.
Victoria: Can words describe the exhilaration an author experiences during book signings?
Gary: Fabulous, especially when there’s a line.
Victoria: Have any of your novels found their way into film?
Gary: No, but half of them have been optioned. The most promising and lucrative was the option and re-option from director Ridley Scott for Elixir. Unfortunately, Hollywood of late has become extremely skittish with what they option, wanting big comic book epics for 14-year olds, or remakes of “safe” movies that earned money with the originals or sequels (from “Jaws” to “Saw”). After 2 years, Scott passed and made “Hannibal” instead.
Victoria: What genre of books do you most enjoy reading?
Gary: Well-done thrillers and mysteries. But I also enjoy good literary works, some of which I adopt for my Modern Bestsellers in which I have 4 genre titles as well as 4 literary novels.
Victoria: Who is your favorite author(s)?
Gary: Besides me? In my genre: Parker, King, Koontz, Michael Connelly.
Victoria: Do you write specifically for what the market calls for? Have you ever been inspired to write about a subject that was not considered marketable?
Gary: Since my publisher wants me to write literate thrillers with medical slants, that’s what I do.
Traditionally the thriller market has been characterized by heavy plotting and thin characterization. However, my novels have been praised by critics and readers for their high-concepts, careful craftsmanship, well-rounded characters, and page-turning momentum. Some people claim that my books are cuts above the standard thriller fare—more literate.
As for marketable subjects, I honestly can’t think of any subject that is considered unmarketable. Even child abuse if handled with artistic sensitivity and restraint can sell well. Many of my novels are love stories, although they are not marketed as romances.
Victoria: Along with a full time teaching position, you offer workshops. How do you find the time to balance your creativity and family life?
Gary: I sleep less than I used to. And my sons are adults and on their own now.
Victoria: Do you write fiction on a schedule?
Gary: Because I teach full time and have maybe two textbook revisions each year, I cannot turn out a novel in less than 18 months. My publisher would love one a year, but to maintain my high standard of writing and sanity, I simply can’t do that.
Victoria: How much down-time do you take between books?
Gary: None. As soon as one is done I start the next one. Tunnel Vision came out in July 2011. Primitive, my next one, is about two-thirds done and, hopefully, will come out during the spring of 2013.
Victoria: When not writing, are you interested in sports or other activities?
Gary: I do a lot of long-distance biking and hiking locally and in Europe. In warm-water environments, I also scuba dive.
Victoria: Do you have another book in the works?
Gary: See above. Primitive, my ninth.
Victoria: Is there anything you would like to share about your writing and publishing experience that might inspire and support new and struggling writers seeking agents and publishers?
Gary: Although the publishing business is uncertain about its future, especially with books going digital, there will still be readers who want books in whatever form. And that means they will need writers. And young writers have youth and time on their side. And as older writers pass on to the great white archives on high, new blood will take over.
Also, if you think you have talent, hold on to the belief in yourself. Read every day; write every day—stay verbal. And strive to be better by studying those writers you revere. Also, don’t give up on finding an agent to represent you. And even if you don’t, and you want your book to be published, you don’t need an agent to publish you in book form or online. You can be your own publisher or find outfits that will do that for you.
But don’t give up.
Victoria: Thank you, Gary, for spending this quality time with us!
I don’t know about everyone else, but I have a lot of reading to do!
Here is an Amazon.com link to all of Gary Braver’s books:
Books written under the name Gary Goshgarian