Four years ago, a novelist named Michael Gruber made a life-changing decision: to let himself be seen. Not that he was ever one of those lost writers howling in a solitary basement, scribbling sentences no one would ever read. Nor was he a writer of such rarefied artistry that his audience consisted of tenured English professors and a few MFA students. For three decades Gruber’s words had been heard and read by thousands, sometimes millions of people. The speeches and policy papers he wrote helped shape national environmental policy. Fifteen best-selling mystery novels—one each year—emerged from the sunlit lakeside house in Southeast Seattle that Gruber’s writing paid for. Critics hailed them and fans cherished them as rare injections of character and family drama into the mystery genre. Michael Gruber was living the writer’s dream, with one hitch: No one save Gruber, a few friends, and one cousin who took the credit knew that those words and those books were his.
“The man was smoke,” Gruber likes to say of the elusive William Shakespeare, a key character in his new novel The Book of Air and Shadows. “No one really knows who he was.” He could be describing himself. For more than a decade, until he emerged from his own shadows, Michael Gruber was the invisible man, Seattle’s—perhaps America’s—most celebrated ghostwriter. After a lifetime of playing hide-and-seek with his own talent, of veering from one career to another, he seemed to want it that way. “Being obscure, hiding, was a big part of my life,” he says, smiling as he leans back in the chair in his office off the kitchen. “It was absolutely conscious. It runs against the me-me-me spirit of the age—‘Look at me, I’m famous.’ ”
But then, in his breakthrough 2003 thriller Tropic of Night, Gruber started to hint at the secrets he’d kept. The book aches with the desire to be acknowledged—to be literally seen—and the fear of being exposed. Its protagonist, whose name really is Jane Doe, goes through most of the book hiding as Dolores. Her husband, DeWitt Moore, is a poet, playwright, and killer who can among other tricks make himself invisible. He wins fame with a play about race and identity in which the characters don multiple masks so quickly the audience forgets which ones started out white and which were, like the playwright, black. Moore “had a desire to be seen, really seen, as himself.” African sorcery helps him obtain magical powers and undergo fantastical transformations, but as Jane says, “He will still be invisible, the poor man.”
So why did Gruber, a magician in his own way who vividly shared Moore’s anguish, stay so long in the shadows? And why did he finally emerge, if he really has? To the first question, he offers two answers: “I decided that I would never wear the lampshade on my head”—never clown and caper for attention; and “I’ve always felt that if I could do it, it’s no good. The talents I have I think are shit. I can write and paint well, but I fall at the feet of anyone who can play ‘Go Tell Aunt Rhodie’ on the ukulele. If you can ski, I worship you.” He shrugs and smiles again and beats me to the psychological punch line: “It must derive from a deep imbalance in the way I was raised.”
michael gruber’s story begins on October 1, 1940, in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Flatbush. His father, Harold, a star athlete who never graduated from high school, tried his hand at several businesses, and succeeded at none, though he may once have briefly owned options on all the oranges in Florida. Harold Gruber was the guy with the lampshade on his head; he dreamed in vain of becoming a comedian at the Catskills resorts where he took the family every summer. Down the street lived Aunt Ruth Tanenbaum. Her son Robert was two years younger and almost a brother to Michael. When the Grubers’ finances hit bottom, they moved in with the Tanenbaums for a year. Decades later cousin Robert would play a critical role in Gruber’s finding his literary vocation.
Young Michael had an uncanny ability to remember song lyrics; his stagestruck parents groomed him to be a child performer, and he still glumly recalls having to stand up and sing on command. In high school he showed a knack for writing lyrics and books for school musicals. That led him to study English literature at Columbia University. But his professors, who loved Proust, Kafka, and Joyce, weren’t encouraging: “They pounded it into my head that I’d never be a writer. They suggested that everything I like about fiction was trash.” Trying to get his work produced, he experienced what he calls “the great revulsion—I saw myself becoming a New York type, like Woody Allen, and it drove me crazy…. I had talent to spare, but I didn’t have that confidence to push myself forward in a crowded marketplace.”
On a whim Gruber decided to become a scientist, a “safe” occupation in which ego and chutzpah were subsumed by numbers and process. He got a masters degree in biology at the University of Miami, served two years as an Army medic, and returned to Florida for a PhD in marine sciences, studying octopus behavior. He enjoyed the diving and field work but not the lab drudgery. After seven years of preparation, and a painful bite from an octopus that evidently knew a writer masquerading as a marine biologist when it saw one, Gruber never worked a day as a scientist. The suppressed writer inside wouldn’t let him.
His scientific education informs his books, but another Miami experience proved more formative. Gruber befriended a medical anthropologist there who had done field work in Africa, where she claimed, as Jane Doe would, that her African-American boyfriend had bewitched her and she had nearly died before her wealthy family rescued her. Later, following an attack by an assailant at her home, she begged Gruber to stay there and protect her. He slept with a borrowed pistol by the bed. One night he awoke to find a man in the kitchen. “I told him that if I ever see you in this house again, I’m gonna blow your heart out,” he says. “If he had come at me, I would have killed him.” Years later those experiences would form the core of Tropic of Night.
So was he as tough as the characters he creates? “I was tough for my background,” he says offhandedly. Gruber is 66, but he could pass for younger, and his thick hands and barrel chest suggest a powerful physique. He has a round face, made rounder by a bald dome fringed with sparse silver hair and a thin beard. The eyes are mud-brown behind round spectacles. Gruber once described a character, a witch, as dressing in the colors of stones, and so does he. On this particular day he’s wearing a monkish black Senegalese skullcap that looks hand-knitted, a tweed sports jacket over a brown shirt and black tee, and earth--colored slacks. Skullcap aside, the outfit fits in Seattle, as does his voice, warm and welcoming, with a whiff of Brooklyn but none of the professorial pretense you might expect from an acclaimed novelist, or the tough-guy edge you might expect from his bruising characters.
In Miami, out of sorts and unsure what to do, with a failing marriage and a young daughter to support, Gruber found work as a restaurant cook. That led to a spell riding on a hippie bus with the entourage of the legendary Wavy Gravy. Gruber returned penniless to Miami. He was homeless for a stretch. He resumed working in restaurants until a boorish chef told him, Columbia professor-style, “You can’t even chop parsley!” The hell with this, grumbled Gruber, I’ve got a PhD. He found different work, as a policy researcher and chief human-resources planner for Dade County. He met and married an English-born painter and poet named Elizabeth Winder; 31 years later, they’re still married. They moved to Washington, DC, where Gruber worked first for President Jimmy Carter’s science advisor, then for William Ruckelshaus, the founding director of the Environmental Protection Agency, who’d returned to salvage the agency after it ran aground under Reagan. Ruckelshaus returned to Seattle, and in 1988 Gruber followed him. He performed research and ghostwrote speeches for both Ruckelshaus and the state’s Division of Natural Resources. He and Elizabeth liked the cool, wet Northwest climate, so reminiscent of her native Kent.
and here, under misty northwest skies, Gruber’s story takes a Shakespearean turn. While he was casting about in grad school and chopping parsley badly, his cousin and childhood companion Robert K. Tanenbaum rose fast, becoming chief of the Manhattan District Attorney’s homicide division, a successful trial lawyer, a Berkeley law professor, and mayor of Beverly Hills. But Tanenbaum wanted to write. In 1984 he asked Gruber to look at a crime story he’d based on a case he’d tried and for which he already had a contract from a publisher. It was lifeless and needed extensive revision; Gruber agreed to rewrite it for half the $20,000 advance.
The result, No Lesser Plea, was the first of what mystery buffs would come to know and love as “the Tanenbaum books.” Under a 50-50 handshake deal, Gruber spun stories from cases and background Tanenbaum provided, about a Manhattan DA named Roger “Butch” Karp and his feminist-warrior wife Marlene Ciampi, who wrestle with moral dilemmas, crises of faith, and the New York legal system. Tanenbaum held copyright and received sole cover credit. Inside ran this over-the-top acknowledgement: “Again, and yet again, all praise belongs to Michael Gruber whose genius and scholarship flows throughout and who is primarily and solely responsible for the excellence of this manuscript and whose contribution cannot be overstated.”
All praise belongs to whom? For years, no one—not readers, editors, or critics—seemed to question the acknowledgement’s meaning. “People make all kinds of acknowledgements in books,” says Gruber with a shrug. “It’s like thanking your secretary or your aunt.” For 15 years he was Gruberbaum, a Cyrano of crime literature, seducing readers while his cousin got the credit. He brought formidable research to the books, which are seeded with surprising details about such arcana as Chinese tongs, Simone Weil’s meditations on faith and suffering, and an ultrarare (but real) genetic condition whose bearers, including Butch Karp’s daughter Lucy, can master languages in hours.
The Karp series racked up critical swoons, multibook contracts, and advances topping half a million dollars. Writing anonymously unleashed a talent Gruber never knew he had: “You know, it just came out. Once I started writing it was like I’d always done that. That killer that had always stopped me before was sleeping, was put to rest.” He even found working within the confines of the thriller form liberating. “I like the idea of working in a popular genre. There’s no trick in being respected among the literati. And there’s no trick in writing trash and making a lot of money. The trick is doing both. I started with the thriller as a genre and I tried to make it literary. All of the Tanenbaum books, if you read them carefully, are actually interesting comedies locked inside a thriller box.”
For Gruber the partnership was “a great collaboration,” and the feeling seemed mutual. “They had a good relationship,” says Los Angeles literary agent Michael Hamilburg, who represented Tanenbaum, “and they both profited from it.” More than that, says Gruber, “I thought we were great friends. I stayed at his house and played with his kids.”
And then, in the late 1990s, this two-cousin dream team began to unravel. Gruber wanted to work directly with Tanenbaum’s editors in New York. “I said, I’m starving here. I need a relationship with an editor. Having you call me once a year and say, ‘This is what the editor says,’ isn’t enough. I want to have a literary life. He said, ‘No, I want you to spend your time writing. They don’t want to talk to you.’ ” Gruber made one effort to carve out a literary niche of his own. He wrote The Witch’s Boy, a mordant children’s fable about growing up in a difficult household that, for all its exotic elements (mom’s a witch and her boy Lump was raised by her enchanted bear and a wicked djinni) had echoes of his own family. Fourteen agencies, including Tanenbaum’s, rejected it.
Tanenbaum still claimed credit for the Karp books; he told one reporter that “the characters came to mind mostly from my readings of Agatha Christie.” But for Gruber, who’d shepherded the Karps through their imaginary perils, Butch and Marlene and their daughter Lucy had become a sort of surrogate family. He wanted to spin off a new series about Lucy Karp, and wanted to share cover credit. Tanenbaum refused. They’d reached a final impasse; their last book together was titled Resolved.
Tanenbaum, through his agent, declined to comment for this article. “I think Bob would rather put it behind him,” says Hamilburg. “He was glad that Mike was able to move out on his own and be successful.” Tanenbaum has continued producing Karp mysteries, with other collaborators and different results. “Oh, this was horrible,” one confused reader posted on Amazon.com last year. “Not a single character was consistent with who they were in the past.”
For Gruber, the rupture still hurts. Tanenbaum “could have done a million things to ease my movement into writing under my own name,” he says. “He couldn’t bear to give me that kind of credit.” When the collaboration with his cousin soured, he sat down to write a novel without the Karps, deriving from his own early experiences in Miami. It became the supernatural thriller Tropic of Night, with the the sorceror playwright DeWitt Moore, the haunted anthropologist Jane Doe, and Jimmy Paz, a Cuban-American detective who, Gruber-like, tries to protect her.
But Gruber found that his ghostwriting success counted for nothing in the wacky world of publishing. Six agents rejected Tropic of Night. Then Simon Lipskar at Writers House read it. “Reading Tropic of Night in manuscript was, to be honest, one of the hallmark moments of my life in publishing,” he says. “I remember sitting in my living room, reading until the wee hours of the morning, not really believing that this extraordinary masterpiece and the genius writer behind it had landed in my lap. It remains one of the best books I’ve ever read, for business or pleasure.” Lipskar sold it in a week, with options for two more novels featuring Jimmy Paz.
Meanwhile reader blogs had been speculating on the cryptic acknowledgement in the Tanenbaum books and Gruber’s role in writing them. In 2003, when Tropic of Night appeared to rapturous reviews, interviewers asked if he’d also written the Karp books. Yes, he said proudly. That completed the split. The two cousins have not spoken since.
Gruber then dusted off The Witch’s Boy, which he’d shelved after failing to find an agent for it in the ’90s. Lipskar sold it to the first editor he sent it to, and it went on to win a Washington State Book Award as a top children’s book of 2006.
Gruber’s journey took another twist when he sought to list the Tanenbaum titles on the “also by Michael Gruber” page in Tropic of Night. Tannenbaum held copyright, so Gruber consulted an intellectual-property attorney. Nothing could be done about the book credits, but a wide-ranging legal discussion ensued. “Are you telling me,” Gruber asked the attorney, “that if someone walked in here with a story about how he had found documents that reveal the whereabouts of, say, a lost Shakespeare manuscript, written in the Bard’s own hand, of incalculable literary and pecuniary value, and the documents were themselves written by a contemporary of Shakespeare’s—that he would own that story?”
Right there, the entire plot and cast of The Book of Air and Shadows popped into his head: the tough-guy intellectual-property lawyer Jake Mishkin, the young Shakespearean lovers Albert Crosetti and Carolyn Rolly, the Elizabethan mercenary Dick Bracegirdle, the Bard himself. Gruber wrote the book in 10 months, then feared he’d signed his own publishing death warrant: Had he gone too literary? Would he lose the success he’d just now won for a second time? Instead when Air and Shadows appeared last April, Gruber made the New York Times best-seller list for the first time under his own name.
michael gruber grew up in a nonobservantJewish family, but in 2001 he underwent another unusual transformation. Following a spiritual event, an encounter with what he calls “the unseen world” that he acknowledges but doesn’t like to discuss, he converted to Catholicism. Today he teaches catechism at St. James Cathedral, and a thread of faith runs through his books. “It’s always underneath the surface,” Gruber insists. “I’m not going to preach to anyone.” But many of his protagonists are Catholic: Jane Doe in Tropic of Night, Mishkin and Crosetti in Air and Shadows, even Shakespeare, a closet Catholic concealing his faith from Anglican persecutors—one more writer hiding behind a mask.
Last year Gruber tried to reprise the character in Air and Shadows, this time with Mishkin on the trail of a famous artist. But the manuscript was rejected: “My editor said this is really good, good writing, but there’s something wrong with it. It’s got no interior drive. The characters didn’t seem interested in what they were doing. And it was absolutely true.” Gruber had reached the end of his thriller line, of having bad guys with guns or other weapons drive a story. “I was so relieved,” says the author. “I could put away the guns and fights. I’m not interested in writing thrillers anymore. Or at least not the kind of thrillers I have been writing.”
Gruber has spent the past year rewriting the ill-fated Mishkin sequel, now minus Mishkin and the guns. Due out next year, under the title The Forgery of Venus, it concerns a painter obsessed with the work and life of the seventeenth-century Spanish master Diego Velázquez. Gruber’s next novel, already plotted in his mind, will concern Mozart in Prague. “I’m interested in the sources of genius,” he says. “I want to understand how these things happen. So I wrote a book about Shakespeare. And now about painting, and how a painting can change your life. And next about Mozart, at the premiere of Don Giovanni.”
From the mysteries of witchcraft and sorcery to the mysterious workings of genius: In Gruber’s hands, this seems a natural arc. His story told, the now quite visible author sits back in his chair and smiles, like a thrill-meister about to deliver the shocker ending. “You know,” he says cheerfully, “I have no idea if what I’m telling you is true. We all make up our stories. We conflate them. Everyone’s living a novel.”
Something he said earlier suddenly makes a lot more sense: “If somebody really could do magic, you wouldn’t know anything about it. They would be invisible, by definition. So also by definition, anybody who is obviously doing magic doesn’t know what they’re doing. Anything we can study is just the tip of the iceberg. The real stuff, we have no idea.”
And poof! Michael Gruber is gone, at least until his next book. Or his next incarnation.