June 2, 2010 / 2:06 AM / 9 years ago

Book Talk: Tension at home fuels Michael Gruber's new novel

SYDNEY (Reuters Life!) - It was tension at home between a peace activist wife and a son in the U.S. military that sparked U.S. writer Michael Gruber’s latest and seventh novel.

Gruber, praised as a writer of literary spy thrillers, delves into religion and the Muslim world in “The Good Son,” which tells the story of a mother taken hostage in Pakistan while at a peace conference and who is rescued by her son, an ex-elite soldier.

He said the book was seven years in the making as it takes him a while to “cook his books.”

Gruber worked as a cook, marine biologist, speech writer, a policy advisor for Jimmy Carter’s White House, and a U.S. bureaucrat before becoming a full-time writer in 1988, collaborating with his cousin, lawyer Robert K. Tanenbaum, on a series of legal thrillers about prosecutor Butch Karp.

The writer, who turns 70 this year, spoke to Reuters:

Q: What led to “The Good Son?”

A: “A few threads. When I was a kid I was a big fan of Kipling and I never abandoned my respect for his writing ... and now we find ourselves in a Kipling-esque situation with our involvement in South Asia and the graveyard of empires.

But what also got me into this book was my wife who is an English woman and the daughter of a WWI hero. He was a tank commander on the Western Front and some dreadful events happened to him and he was among the shattered generation. As a result of her experiences with him, she became a peace activist and was at the forefront of organizations against the Iraq war.

But our son was in the U.S. navy and in 2003, as she was doing peace work, he was riding around in boats in the Persian Gulf after Iraqi ships so there was a lot of tension in our house. Then he decided that what he was doing wasn’t dangerous enough so he decided to become a U.S. Navy SEAL which went down like a lead balloon in our house.”

Q: Anything else?

A: “The other thing that got me started was when I was in New York in 2002 in the fall, about a year after 9/11, I went to a little cabaret in Soho and the night we went there it was bouzouki night and they were playing Arab music. As we sat, a woman in conservative business attire got up and started to dance spontaneously. It was so beautiful and erotic without being suggestive. Then she sat down and everyone clapped and someone else got up and started to dance. I saw that almost everyone in the restaurant was an Arab and it struck me what it must have been like to be an Arab in New York in the year after 9/11. In their bodies they were saying they are not those people but theirs is a wonderful culture with wonderful music.”

Q: Where did you go from there?

A: “I resolved to find out more about the culture. I plunged into novels of the Arab world and read widely. I also got onto the Internet and listened in on the talks of Pakistanis and their concerns. I was amazed to find women talking very intelligently about decisions to restrict their sexuality. They were very lively discussions. I also read poetry as this is a culture where poetry is absolutely alive unlike ours.

Q: Were you concerned about any backlash from this book?

A: “My agent was wondering about fatwas but I don’t think that will happen. I don’t think I am important enough for anyone to get too excited.”

Q: Is your son still with the military?

A: “No, my son is out of the navy now and is an employee of the government in Seattle.”

Q: What made you leave ghost writing to write your own books?

A: “The relationship with the person whose name was on the book became untenable so I abandoned ghostwriting and had to start writing under my own name.”

Q: Was it hard to make that move?

A: “No. I had always been a writer. I was a speech writer at cabinet level and state government. Some people would say that is exactly like writing fiction. Unconsciously I have always been headed in that direction. It just turns out I could do it.”

Q: Any advice for aspiring writers?

A: “My advice is if you can think of anything else to do you should do that. If you really have to write and feel nauseous if you are not writing then go ahead and try to be a writer. You also have to get used to failure, not just in the world but in everything that you write. It is the nature of the beast.”

Reporting by Belinda Goldsmith, Editing by Michael Perry

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