Bryan Gruley doesn’t just walk into a room. He saunters. He blusters. His energy explodes in the doorway. His six-foot-two athletic frame commands attention. Heads turn. He is somebody. And he’s used to this. As a nationally renowned reporter—seven years as Chicago bureau chief of the Wall Street Journal and as of September with Bloomberg News—and now also a best-selling author, there isn’t very much in his life that’s about keeping a low profile.

We meet in Northern Michigan in early January, on a day when the roads are nearly impassable because of blinding snow. The venue is Short’s Brewing Company in Bellaire, about 40 miles northeast of Traverse City. This microbrewery and this town are among Gruley’s favorite haunts in the north. In fact, all three of his novels take place in a fictional village called Starvation Lake, which is based on the town of Bellaire.

The real Starvation Lake is a 125-acre lake in Kalkaska County, just outside of Traverse City, mostly known for its trout fishing, and a quintessential Northern Michigan bar called The Hideaway, where Gruley concedes he’s spent quite a bit of time. Gruley shakes the snow off his North Face jacket and orders a Short’s microbrew—a Locals Light lager. Settling into a bar stool, he explains he’s fresh from playing an alumni game of ice hockey with former classmates at his high school in Detroit. He still plays amateur ice hockey regularly at Johnny’s Ice House in Chicago. Each year he brings a group of his hockey-playing pals up to his father’s place on Big Twin Lake for a gathering that’s called The Pistachio Open.

The day we meet, he’s just completed 92,000 words of the third book in his mystery series. It’s called The Skeleton Box, due to be published in February 2012. “Who are you going to kill this time?” I say.

“Darlene’s mother,” Gruley answers matter-of-factly. The people sitting at the bar turn to look at us. Gruley doesn’t care.

“I’m going to kill her in the first line. It goes like this: ‘Darlene found her mother on the floor of my mother’s living room, lying on her back, eyes shut, arms spread wide, the rosary laced through the fingers of one hand. Still. Quiet. Pale. Gone.’”

He wraps an athletic hand around the glass and takes a deep swig in a way that lets you know he’s done this quite a few times before. Then we begin talking about how it is that he came to write mysteries based in Northern Michigan.

“My mom really instilled in me the love of books and writing. The first book she gave to me was The Hardy Boys, The Crisscross Shadow. “I started writing Starvation Lake in 2002—I always wanted to write a novel. I thought about it; dreamt about it. If you look at my journalism work, I write a lot of narrative. I really like stories.”

His love of stories led him to help the Wall Street Journal win a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of 9/11. And now Gruley’s an award-winning author, and part of a group of mystery writers whose work based in Northern Michigan is affectionately termed Up North Noir. I ask him if writing mysteries was always in his blood. “I didn’t really set out to write a mystery. I’ve read mysteries. I’ve read Hammett. Some Chandler … Dennis Lahane. I love Thomas Harris, Silence of the Lambs. I read all sorts of stuff. But I just set out to write a story!”

Bryan Gruley

It’s clear from the get-go that though he has enjoyed his job as a journalist for most of his professional life, he is relishing his role as an author. And it’s even more satisfying for Gruley because the three-mystery series combines four of his passions: Northern Michigan. Newspapers. Amateur ice hockey. And intrigue.

The first two books in Gruley’s mystery series, Starvation Lake and The Hanging Tree, were published in 2009 and 2010 by Touchstone Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, and won solid acclaim. Starvation Lake won the Strand Magazine Critics Award for Best First Novel, and The Anthony Award and the Barry Award for Best Paperback Original. The Hanging Tree won the Barry Award, as well as the 2011 Michigan Notable Book Award and was chosen as the No. 1 Indie Next Pick for August 2010 by the American Booksellers Association.

Here’s what the Detroit News said about Starvation Lake: “Gruley deftly juggles several intricately related plots, and conveys the beauty and picturesque shabbiness of a northern Michigan town.” Publisher’s Weekly wrote of The Hanging Tree: “Absorbing. Gruley vividly evokes the frigid Michigan winters and the even chillier atmosphere of an insular community determined to keep its secrets.”

Starvation Lake is about a mysterious disappearance of a youth hockey coach, which happened long ago. The novel begins when the missing man’s snowmobile washes up on the icy shores of Starvation Lake. Gruley’s second book, The Hanging Tree, is about a woman who is found dead of an apparent suicide. Her body is found hanging in a tree filled with shoes, very much like the tree on U.S. 131 in Kalkaska. The third book, The Skeleton Box, revolves around the discovery of a dead nun’s bones, inspired by a real-life Northern Michigan murder that happened in the early 1900’s in a church near Cedar.

In each of the books, the protagonist is Gus Carpenter, a newspaperman and amateur hockey player who seems an awful lot like Gruley. “People say to me, ‘You’re Gus!’ I say, No. Gus is shorter, balder, single, younger. No kids. He’s a disgraced journalist. I’m not that … not yet, I’m not! But we certainly share some personality traits. But I think there’s as much of me in Soupy (a tragic character in the first two books) as there is in Gus. Soupy is messed up! You’ll find out why. It’s a sad story. But there are little bits of me in everybody.”

Another myth Gruley wants to debunk: “People will say, ‘You know I don’t like hockey.’ Or, ‘I don’t know anything about hockey.’ I have a buddy who says, ‘Those are hockey books.’ They’re NOT hockey books! They have hockey IN them. It’s a story about people, and hockey happens to be the thing that knits this particular town together.”

Gruley was born and raised in Detroit, went to Detroit Catholic Central, then the University of Notre Dame. His first newspaper job—an internship—was at the Antrim County News. That’s where he got his first taste of what it was like to be a newspaperman in Northern Michigan, and the experience planted the seed of the main character in all three novels.
From the Antrim County News, Gruley moved on to newspaper jobs in Brighton, Howell, Kalamazoo and Detroit, and then the Wall Street Journal in Washington, D.C. When he moved to Chicago in 2005, he became the journal’s Chicago bureau chief. He lives on the north side of the city, near Wrigley Field, with his wife, Pam.

Gruley still comes to Northern Michigan on a regular basis. “My dad and my mom used to come up here before they had a place. They would take my brother, Dave, and me to Indian River or to Burt Lake. I was five, Dave was three. In 1971 they bought a home on Big Twin Lake, which they re-did. It’s on 200 feet of water. It’s beautiful. The water: you can see down 25 feet. My brother has a place on the lake now, too.”

Every January, Gruley comes up to Big Twin Lake alone, to write and get inspired. “I’ve been up here all week and just to walk around and drive around—for some reason it stokes my creative juices.”

As you read Starvation Lake and The Hanging Tree, it’s clear this writer pays attention to the smallest detail. His characters are clearly drawn. So are the places he tells his stories: the smells, the feel, the sounds. The game of ice hockey is like a full-blown character in each of Gruley’s novels. So are icy cold Northern Michigan winters. He even made a detailed map of the fictional town he created based on Bellaire. He pulled the wrinkled, well-worn piece of paper with scribbles on it out of his pocket as we sat at Short’s, and then we went outside in the heavy snow as he pointed out each spot that inspired the fictional town of Starvation Lake.

“So this is Main Street in Starvation Lake. To the left of Lulu’s restaurant would be the Pine County Pilot where Gus works. There’s the Avalon Cinema … and on the right would be Audrey’s Diner, which has scenes in both books. Then down by Lulu’s would be Enright’s bar, where many of the characters in all three books hang out. It’s named after one of my teachers from Detroit Catholic Central, who died last week, Father Jim Enright. He was my hockey coach. Over there is Boynton Realty. Then at the end of the street, where the yellow blinking light is, you would see Starvation Lake right there, where the road turns along the southern shore.”

He stands in the middle of the street, pointing out the places he created in his mind as if they were real, clear as day, in front of him. It’s as if he’s directing a play or a movie.

Or maybe, it’s more like he’s playing God.

Snowflakes fall all around him, piling up on the shoulders of his jacket. He hardly notices as he talks excitedly and gestures to the streets and apartments; the town he created in his head that is now familiar to thousands of readers. You can tell he has taken the time to make it all fit and make it right.

So how does someone write a best selling novel while holding a full-time job (and playing hockey—pick up games—on a regular basis) and being a husband and father of three kids? When I interviewed Gruley, he was still working for the Wall Street Journal, and I asked him to describe his day. “I make lots of lists. I get up early … 5:30 or 6:30 a.m. depending. I don’t set an alarm. I procrastinate for a while. Then I sit down and I start writing. I usually have my work e-mail on … I’ll answer an e-mail from someone in New York while I’m writing. It doesn’t bother me that much. Then I’ll have a conference call with New York with the bureau chiefs. I can do this from my house at 9:30 Chicago time. Then I go to work at about 10 a.m. I get home about 7 p.m. I have dinner with Pam, and then I read for a while, and then I’m often out by 9:30 p.m.”

Is this one of the best times of his life, I ask. He says “Yes. But it’s hard. This is what I wanted to do as a kid. I wanted to write novels. And now I write novels!”

When Gruley is traveling on his book tours, or when he heads Up North, he always takes his hockey equipment—his gloves, stick and puck—with him. When he stopped at McLean and Eakin Booksellers recently, he happened upon Petoskey’s Winter Sports Park and wound up skating, and hitting a few pucks across the ice for 45 minutes. Here’s what he wrote about that day: “All by myself, I skated around, making moves, firing shots, imagining perfect passes off the boards, starting to sweat. It was like I was 12 years old again, fooling around on my backyard rink in Detroit. Except for the trees towering over one side of the rink. I wanted to call every one of my hockey pals around the country and tell them to make their way to Petoskey, the puck would be dropping as soon as they arrived. After about 45 minutes, I fired a wrist shot at the net at the rink’s south end. It rang off the crossbar and went flying over the fence into the woods. And that was that.”

So some winter day, perhaps in January, if you see the lone silhouette of a man, wearing hockey gloves, holding his stick, shooting a puck at an imaginary net at the end of a pond somewhere in Northern Michigan, it’s probably Bryan Gruley, looking for new inspirations for his next novel. And thinking about the next person he’s going to kill.

This story is featured in the October 2011 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine. Subscribe. 

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Photo(s) by Todd Zawistowski