Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Man in the Goal - Bryan Gruley

Bryan Gruley is presently the Chicago bureau chief of The Wall Street Journal. He's worked at newspapers in Antrim County, Brighton, Howell, Kalamazoo and Detroit as well.  Bryan shared in the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News that the Walt Street Journal won for its coverage of the terrorist attack.

Bryan's protagonist, Gus Carpenter, shares Bryan's profession, as well as his passion - hockey. Like Gus, Bryan grew up playing hockey and still plays regularly in Chicago. We've yet to see if Gus is as musically inclined as his creator. Luckily, in addition to all this, Bryan is an incredible fiction writer as well. His first novel, STARVATION LAKE, was nominated for the Edgar Award for best first novel. It won the Anthony Award and the Barry Award for best paperback original. I named it to my list of favorite audiobooks of 2010. So, I'm very excited to host him today as part of the Moonlighting for Murder series. For those who have not experienced Bryan's books yet, this post will give you a taste of the splendor you'll find in his novels. Without further ado, Bryan Gruley!

Ice hockey’s goaltender may occupy the loneliest position in all of sports—which is essentially why I made Gus Carpenter, the protagonist of my novels, a goalie.

“You can never look into their eyes,” he says in his first line of narration in my debut, Starvation Lake. Gus is standing in his net, alone, facing a shooter bearing down on him in a hockey rink in the middle of the night.

On the surface, his words describe a rule goalies follow in trying to stop opponents from putting pucks behind them. At the same time, Gus alludes, however unintentionally, to his own alienation from the people around him, on the ice as well as off.

OK, you don’t usually see the words “alienation” and “hockey” in the same essay. But think about it. On the ice, Gus stays pretty much in one place—his net—while the rest of his teammates roam freely. He doesn’t actively participate in the game, but waits for it to come to him. He wears a mask. If he fails in his duty, he can count on shouldering most if not all of the blame. As he tells us in my forthcoming third book, The Skeleton Box:

You could whine and bitch about your teammates all you wanted, but they knew and, more important, you knew that it didn’t matter which defenseman coughed up the puck to an opponent, or which winger didn’t hustle to cover the point man with the big slap shot, because if the puck wound up behind you, in your net, it was your fault. Your job, your only job, was to keep the puck out, so even if it wasn’t your fault, it was, and you knew it, no matter how much you bitched at your teammates or banged your stick over the crossbar in anger.

It was you and only you.

My first novel came about after my agent asked me, “Why don’t you write me a story about these middle-aged guys who play hockey in the middle of the night?” That gave me permission to write about the sport I’ve played and loved since boyhood. I chose to make Gus a goalie despite the fact that I am not one (full disclosure: I played goaltender for one season when I was 12, and I was a sieve).

Many hockey players are loathe to admit this, but goalies are intrinsically cool. Goalies wear the niftiest equipment (their stick is a “paddle” and one of their gloves is a “waffle”) and have the weirdest superstitions (former NHL-er Gary Smith used to take cold showers between each period of games he played). They flip and flop and dive and waggle. They can be bigger heroes—and bigger goats—than anyone on the ice. Contrary to what most casual hockey fans assume, goalies are often among the best skaters on their teams.

When I was concocting Gus Carpenter, I knew too that he would be a defrocked big-city journalist (a subject for another time) forced to make a humbling retreat to his tiny hometown. It seemed fitting that he should be a goalie—a loner behind a metaphorical mask—as well as the goalie known for blowing the town’s only shot at a state championship years before.

Readers familiar with Gus know he can be frustratingly distant at times, even as he’s speaking directly to other characters and, indeed, to the readers themselves. Chastened by his past, Gus is wary, vigilant, defensive, at the same time that he misses things while “peering out at that little world through the eye holes of my goalie mask,” as he says in the first book.

Most good goalies share these character traits, but for Gus, they also define his personality and the way he approaches his job, his family, his friends, and his love relationships.

Did I intend for all of this to be so neatly packaged? Of course not. I had an inkling that it would be fun to write from the perspective of a goaltender. Then, like a goalie, I got between the posts and reacted to what happened around me as I wrote. As Gus says in that opening scene in the first book:

"By day, I was the associate editor of the Pine County Pilot, circulation 4,733, published every day but Sunday. By night I tended goal in the Midnight Hour Men’s League, surrounded by men I’d known as boys. In between I waited for something to change my life, to get me out of Starvation Lake again. That’s what goalies do. They wait."

Gus’s wait was about to end. What has happened since will eventually make up the trilogy of tales culminating with The Skeleton Box. And then?

A goalie can never be sure of what’s coming next.

If you have any questions for Bryan, feel free to leave them in the comments.

Dana Kaye of Kaye Publicity has generously donated a copy of Bryan's book THE HANGING TREE. If you'd like a chance at winning this book and you live in the United States, complete the entry form below. I'll take entries through Friday at midnight (Eastern) so don't dwadle! Good luck!


Ricky Bush April 6, 2011 at 11:24 AM  

Sounds like you've put "write what you know" (and enjoy) to great use.

Word Lily April 6, 2011 at 1:55 PM  

How do you balance the "day job" of words with the book-writing?

Bryan Gruley April 6, 2011 at 4:31 PM  

Thanks, Ricky. And, Lily, basically, the answer to your question is, I get up early and make stuff up then. Thanks for reading1

Belle Wong April 7, 2011 at 12:00 AM  

You can't grow up in Canada without watching your fair share of hockey games :) Out of all the positions, the goalie has always been the one I admire the most. So much pressure, and when your favourite player is the goalie, it always feels like he never gets enough credit for stopping those pucks, but so much of the blame for letting one in. I like the idea of a goalie being the main character of a mystery series!

Michelle @ The True Book Addict April 7, 2011 at 11:21 PM  

Gus sounds like an interesting protagonist. I've said before how I love the way amateur sleuths always seem to have interesting jobs and/or hobbies. Oddly enough, despite being from Michigan, home of the awesome Redwings, and now living in Nashville, home of the not too shabby Predators, that I'm not much of a hockey fan. I say it's odd because my sister and I used to play one on one ice hockey on our pond during Michigan winters and we loved it. I guess it just may be because I've never seen a live game. People keep telling me I'm missing out. It's just so hard to follow that puck on television!

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