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Thriller Writer Uses Catholicism to Probe Rationalist Pretensions

A conversation with Michael Gruber

BY STEVE WEATHERBE, REGISTER CORRESPONDENT

| Posted 7/30/10 at 1:34 AM

 

When novelist Michael Gruber had his first religious experience, he was in the middle of a personal crisis that produced symptoms of self-destructiveness, hypochondria and agoraphobia, especially on airplanes.

He was also on a flight from New York to Seattle in the middle of a thunderstorm.

“The overhead compartments were popping open, the bags were falling out,” he recalled in a recent interview with the Register, “and I had what I can only call a very profound religious experience. I was aware of a Presence. I was being spoken to by it — and at that moment the turbulence stopped.”

Until then, Gruber had been an agnostic, though a lapsing one.

“I’d read a lot of Simone Weil, who was Jewish too, and thought that, though I was attracted by Christianity like her, I could never be baptized a Christian,” he said.

The day after the thunderstorm, while sitting in a pew at Seattle’s St. James Cathedral for a Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults service in which his wife was a sponsor, he pondered his spiritual isolation. “When the priest elevated the Host and said, ‘Behold the Lamb of God,’ it was like a shock wave radiating out from it.”

He asked himself, What would it be like to accept that something unique was happening here and 2,000 years ago in Palestine? “And at that moment, suddenly, I did accept it,” he says. He was baptized in 2001 and now teaches RCIA himself.

Gruber has written seven novels since 2003 under his own name and ghostwritten 15 of the highly successful Karp-Ciampi legal thrillers for his cousin Robert K. Tanenbaum. But for several years before his conversion, he had been imagining what having faith would be like in the legal thrillers revolving around the marriage of Butch Karp, a cerebral, secular Jewish prosecuting attorney in New York City, and Marlene Ciampi, a hot-headed, liberal Catholic private detective. “It was a domestic comedy: how two people cope with huge differences, raise an unusual family and still love each other,” he said — leaving out the suspense and frequent violence.

While most genre serials, such as Robert B. Parker’s Spenser detective books, feature an unchanging protagonist encountering new challenges, the Karp-Ciampi family changes.

True, Karp remained noble and stoic at the insistence of Robert Tanenbaum, the retired lawyer who had conceived the series in 1984 and then left all the writing to Gruber.

But in the course of the 15 books, Marlene is blinded in one eye, becomes a vigilante more than willing to take the law into her own hands, Sicilian-style, falls into alcoholism and recovers, and leaves her husband; one son is blinded in both eyes, and daughter Lucy matures from being a mere linguistic genius to a mystic who communes with saints.

“To write about Lucy I had to imagine what it would be like to have such faith,” said Gruber.

Significantly, Lucy became his most interesting character, and he proposed to his cousin that he write a novel — and perhaps a new series, about her alone — under his own name, while continuing to pen the main series as Tanenbaum’s silent partner. His cousin balked.

So after 10 million copies sold, Gruber quit the relationship, triggering his emotional crisis, his conversion, and his emergence as a novelist in his own right.

Gruber says he never expected to be a novelist at all, though he had always planned to be a writer. “I thought I would write non-fiction. I thought I would enter the New York literary scene as copy editor, work my way up and then write my own books.”


Thomas Merton’s Footsteps

Raised in a secular Jewish home in Brooklyn, N.Y., he started pursuing his plan at Columbia University, where he first encountered Catholicism in the still vibrant memory of Thomas Merton. Merton had edited a literary magazine at Columbia in his undergraduate days, and Gruber now held the same job. “I even got his old desk,” he recalled. He also read his books and mulled the problem Merton posed for him: “It was hard to believe someone like him (a bright, literary type) could become a monk.”

When Gruber’s plan for himself grew too oppressive, he jumped ship and studied science instead, getting a Ph.D. and becoming a policy analyst with an ascending series of governments, reaching the White House during Jimmy Carter’s presidency.

Along the way, the Karp-Ciampi series came out of the blue, when his cousin, a prominent Manhattan prosecutor, asked for help on a novel. “I wrote it as a lark, but it was successful, and they asked for more,” he said.

That series now lurches on with a new writer and diminished sales, while Gruber continues to get phone calls from unhappy readers of the original books who’ve just learned about his departure.

As for the novels he has written since, he readily admits that most have not even approached the popularity of the Karp-Ciampi books: “I’m a cult writer now. I have a cult readership.”

The sole best-seller was The Book of Light and Shadows, premised on the possibility that Shakespeare was a secret Catholic who wrote a lost play about Mary, Queen of Scots.


Domestic Comedy With Guns

Like most of Gruber’s books, The Book of Light and Shadows is a domestic comedy with guns, as the plot moves back and forth in time between Shakespeare’s England and the New York of literary lawyer Jake Mishkin, whose marriage is broken.

Mishkin is something of a secret Catholic too — to himself. The protagonist hunts for the lost manuscript while he hunts for love in all the wrong places, and finally seems fated to end up with the wife — and faith — he started with, but maybe not the lost play.

In Gruber’s latest, The Good Son, he tells of a Catholic Jungian therapist, long married into a Pakistani Muslim family, who is kidnapped by al-Qaida terrorists and rescued by her son, an American special forces soldier. As always, there is lots of gunplay and keen observation of family dynamics. As a bonus, there is Jungian dream work and trenchant criticism of both Western hedonism and Islamic misogyny.

Gruber says his basic approach is to probe at the “reductionist” and scientific assumptions of Western culture. As his pokers, he sometimes uses Catholicism and sometimes the supernatural, whether Christian, pagan or both. The results, for many, make for good reading.

Is Gruber comfortable being considered not just a Catholic who writes but a “Catholic writer” — one whose worldview is Catholic?

“Yes I am,” he said, “if it’s a Catholic writer like Graham Greene or Flannery O’Connor.”

Steve Weatherbe writes

from Victoria, British Columbia.