The Writing Life interview: Gregg Hurwitz

Gregg Hurwitz is the kind of guy other guys would like to be. Hollywood handsome, an accomplished athlete with a tremendous academic record, successful in his chosen field. He’s also the kind of writer other writers would like to be. His thrillers are intricate, thought-provoking, and breathlessly paced. His new book Trust No One, which I reviewed last week, will be out in June, and it’s red hot. Gregg took time out from the busy publicity schedule in advance of his new novel to tell me his views on writing and the life he lives around it.

How long did it take you to get published?

I was very fortunate—more fortunate than I knew at the time. I wrote my first book in college, revised it while getting a one-year masters (in Shakespearean tragedy—hurray for useful degrees!), and sold it shortly after. So I never had to find respectable work.

Would you recommend any books on writing?

I’d recommend reading lots of novels.

What’s a typical writing day?

Up at 7, writing by 8. Work all day. Finish between 4 and 8, depending on deadlines. Sometimes a night shift too if deadlines are threatening.

Plug your latest book. What’s it about? Why’s it so great?

Well, I’ll give you a rundown of the first chapter.

Nick Horrigan, an average guy, awakens in the middle of the night when he thinks he sees a watery blue light along his ceiling. He blinks, and it’s gone. He gets up, rubbing his eyes, crosses into the main room, and looks through the sliding glass door onto the balcony. A black rope is hanging over the lip of the roof and lies coiled on the balcony floor. He opens the slider, steps out, closing the screen behind him.

Down below he sees dark sedans lining the curb on either side, and cop cars with their lights now turned off. Before he can react, the rope twitches, and a guy clad in full SWAT gear rappels off the roof and—not seeing Nick—hammers him in the chest with both boots. Nick soars back into his apartment, ripping the screen from the frame, and lands on his back. His front door flies out of the frame like a hurricane hit on the other side, and slides to within an inch of his nose. And before he can catch his breath, a full SWAT team storms the apartment.

The lead agent grabs him, asks, “Are you Nick Horrigan?” Nick still can’t catch his breath, so he nods. They shove a photo in front of his face. “When’s the last time you’ve had contact with this man?” Nicks says, “I’ve never seen him before.” They tug him to his feet. He’s barefoot, in pajama bottoms. He’s dragged outside. Cop cars everywhere. Neighbors lining the sidewalk. A loud thrumming shakes the air and then the palm trees behind his building light up. A helicopter rolls into view and sets down on the end of his cul-de-sac. He’s dragged toward it, and finally he stops, says, “You can’t just take me. Where the hell am I going?”

And the lead agent replies, “A terrorist has just seized control of the San Onofre nuclear power plant. He’s threatening to blow it up. And the only person he’ll talk to is you.”

And there we end chapter one. I think the thing about this book that made it so much fun to write is its velocity. I really wanted it to move like a freight train, while not sacrificing character. So what took the most work was to keep that pacing tight while also delving into character. I hope readers will find I was successful.

How much of what you do is:
a) formula dictated by the genre within which you write?
b) formula you developed yourself and stuck with?
c) as close to complete originality as it’s possible to get each time?

That’s an interesting question. It’s very hard for me to distinguish because I’ve always been drawn to genre. And to structure. I love Shakespeare, for instance, and he was clearly working within very clearly defined conventions and structures, but also as original as one can get. For me I don’t break it down the way you lay out above. I find a story that I can sink my teeth into, and then I try to let the story guide me to its logical shape. The metaphor I think of is lying down on a towel at the beach. At first it’s uncomfortable and you sort of settle your body down, move the sand from beneath your head, find a comfortable mold for your body. That’s the process of getting to a good story—a lot of squirming and adjustment so it can lie comfortably.

What’s your favorite sentence in all literature, and why?

Molly Bloom’s soliloquy at the end of Ulysses, ending with “Yes I said yes I will yes.” Because if you have to pick one sentence, why not choose one with great stamina? Also, I think the thawing of that relationship is so human and intimate and wonderful, and here, her remembered lovemaking is so tender after everything they’ve been through. Plus, what better way to convey an orgasm?

What’s the best descriptive image in all literature?

Benji in The Sound and the Fury: "It was two now, and then one in the swing." The greatest description of a kiss, from Benji’s limited perspective.

Who’s the greatest stylist currently writing?

Boy, I don’t know. I haven’t read everyone. Louis Begley is pretty staggering. To jump to non-fiction, Christopher Hitchens makes my jaw drop. And James Wolcott is the perfect social commentator. For crime fiction, it still goes to Thomas Harris (for Red Dragon), though Motherless Brooklyn also blew my hair back; after writing that, Lethem must’ve taken a victory lap.

Who’s the greatest plotter currently writing?

I am tempted to answer with a name from politics.

How much research is involved in each of your books?

A good amount. For various books, I’ve gone undercover into mind-control cults, sneaked onto demolition ranges with Navy SEALs to blow up cars, gone up in stunt planes. When I’m dug into a story, my foolishness knows no bounds.

Where’d you get the idea for your main character?

For me, when character collides with plot is when I know I have a book. And so I thought of Nick waking up to this SWAT team storming his apartment in the middle of the night—your classic Everyman in an impossible situation, like Jimmy Stewart in a Hitchcock flick. And then I thought: what if something had happened in his past that, rather than this being a surprise out of the blue, was something he always feared would happen? So that when they drag him in his boxers to the waiting helicopter, while he knows nothing about what’s happening, he DOES know that he’s been marked in a manner since his childhood.

What’s the best idea for marketing a book you can do yourself?

Sandwich boards. Or hide hundred dollar bills in the pages.

What’s your experience with being translated?

I have great relationships with my foreign publishers. I went to Moscow and St. Petersburg recently for book festivals, which was a blast. But what’s funny is: when you’re translated into a language you can’t read, it’s like collaborating with someone when you can’t see the outcome. A writer is very reliant on the talented men and women who translate his work—you go on trust and pray that they have a good ear for the cadence of your writing. And if they don’t, you’ll never know!

Do you live entirely off your writing? How many books did you write before could make a living at it?

Yes. I’ve been quite fortunate. I’ve been writing full-time since I sold my first.

How many books did you write before you were published?

I sold my first, not counting Willie, Julie, and the Case of the Buried Treasure (written in third grade). I’m still shopping that one with little luck.

What’s the strangest thing that happened to you on a book tour?

I was in Minneapolis the day of the bridge collapse, and I was supposed to be going over the bridge at that moment, but my driver took a detour to dodge traffic.

What’s your weirdest idea for a book you’ll never get to publish?

Baseball haiku.

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