Michael Gruber is a New York Times best-selling novelist and master of smart suspense. His latest novel, The Forgery of Venus, explores reality and unreality in various forms, layered atop one another like coats of paint. We’re thrilled he took the time to chat with us about his novel and his process. Enjoy!
Part 1: Interview with Michael Gruber
Q: The Forgery of Venus is a brilliant novel that interweaves artistic creativity with the effects of a mind-altering drug called Salvinorin A–a drug that can make it seem you’re reliving parts of your past. When did you stumble upon research into this drug, and was that the inspiration for this story? How did the idea for this story evolve for you?
MG: I first ran into Salvia divinorum back in the 60s. I was living on a bus in a commune in southern Colorado and a group of people arrived who had been living with Mixotec indians down in Oaxaca and participating in shamanic rituals using that herb. I didn’t take it myself, since I didn’t much like being eight the first time around, but I heard the stories. I guess it stuck in my mind because when I created the character of Chaz and I needed something to make him crazy, the property of S. divinorum that enables the user to break loose from time and actually experience the past again, seemed a perfect fit. I did the research and found that they had refined the active principle into a drug, and read all the literature on it. The effects of the drug vary wildly among users and I chose to make Chaz one of the more sensitive ones.
Q: The protagonist of the story, Chaz Wilmot, is a talented artist who–he believes, at least–was born of the wrong time. Let’s talk about that. Is Chaz right to believe his natural works wouldn’t have been valued? How did you use cultural bias to influence theme?
MG: I wanted to explore the idea of why we value the old masters. Is it merely rarity and antiquity or is there something eternally valuable in that kind of work? If the latter, how come we don’t do it any more? How come if someone did work in that style, the work would be seen as mere pastiche? So Chaz is right about that: we value innovation in art above any substantive quality in the art itself, and the art market today is entirely commodified–it’s cut off from real feeling, from the iconic, from real visual interest, and is largely based on concept and appropriation. Chaz has the ability to do that kind of stuff, but, as he says, it makes him sick. He wants to be part of a culture that believes in something besides success, but that kind of culture no longer exists in our part of the world.
Q: I don’t think it gives anything away to say that as Chaz is influenced by Salvinorin A, we begin to wonder if he’s lost his mind: He’s no longer reliving parts of his past, he’s reliving someone else’s. Tell us about constructing a novel around an unreliable narrator. What are the advantages and disadvantages to this approach? What freedoms does it allow a writer? What do you have to take care with?
MG: The problem with an unreliable narrator is that the reader can get lost, and a lost reader is a bored reader. Even in pure fantasy there have to be rules and some reference to an underlying reality. That is, the character can be crazy but the author can’t. The writing of actual crazy people is typically unreadable. That said, we are all to a certain extent unreliable narrators of our own lives, and if you push this carefully in a character’s development you generate psychological tension and terror, which is what I tried to do in Forgery.
Q: Would you say it’s perhaps smarter to create first what seems a sound-of-mind character and then gradually introduce the question of sanity? What would have been pushing the sanity question too fast, too far for Chaz, risking reader involvement?
MG: You have to establish a rational history from the POV of the character and get the reader to buy into it, which is what I tried to do with Chaz. It’s certainly possible to begin with a person who’s clearly mad, but then the story has to be how the mad person gets back to reality.
What I tried to do with Chaz was to slowly get the reader off-balance and to consider the possibility that Chaz’s entire life, as he reports it in his recording, is in fact a forgery, like the painting. I leave all of that ambiguous and suggest that everyone’s life is in some sense forged.
Q: You’ve set the novel up uniquely: a friend of Chaz is given hours of Chaz’s audio recordings along with the task: to judge whether or not Chaz has lost his mind, or if his memory has become knotted up in what became his present reality. The book then proceeds–page 15-308–as if those recordings are being played. How cognizant were you of blending the telling and showing in this chunk of the book. What was your approach to ensure the reader would still feel an organic unfolding of scene?
MG: The framing device is an old dodge, and it was used often as the novel was developing in the 17th and 18th centuries–the manuscript found in a chest, the putative collection of letters, and so on. The anonymous narrator here stands in for the reader, and vouches for the ‘reality’ of Chaz’s adventure.
Q: Not really a question, but to add to the above: I also noticed that, though the beginning of the “taped” segment reads like a taped segment might–with Chaz occasionally speaking directly to his friend–you graduate into more traditionally laid out scenes. I thought this worked well–writer’s freedom ala reader immersion.
MG:Yes, I thought it would be annoying to break the narrative with aside to the fictive listener and, of course, in real life this actually happens. The speaker forgets he’s being interviewed or filmed and sinks into his own narrative. This is why such people often blithely reveal shocking crimes. All cops are familiar with this phenomenon.
Q: Early in the novel, Chaz mentions sprezzatura, which means achieving excellent results that appear effortless. How much effort do you spend editing your work for sprezzatura? What is your process? And how long did it take you to paint your Venus–from conception to finished work?
MG: This was the most difficult book I’ve ever done. I started it in April, 2006, and finished the first draft in January, 2007. At that point it was a straight thriller and the protagonist was not Chaz but Jake Mishkin, the protagonist of The Book of Air and Shadows. In other words, it was a sequel, and it wasn’t any good. Then I threw out 90 per cent of the book and rewrote it as a straight thriller, but with Chaz as the protagonist, with the insanity theme tossed in almost as an afterthought. It still wasn’t any good. Then I re-wrote it a third time, making it a psychological thriller, fleshing out Chaz’s growing estrangement from reality and building up the character of Krebs to be more ambiguous, and not just a straight villain. Then I had to rewrite it a fourth time to remove all the fossils from the first three versions, by which time it was October of 2007.
As for preserving freshness–any book like this, that requires the transmission of a great deal of specialized knowledge, can suffer from didacticism, the kind of fiction that uses phrases like “As you know, Bob . . . ” I tried to work around this by embodying the information in action or interesting conversation or tying it to passionate expression. You can do this successfully if you’ve created interesting enough characters, so that for the reader the medicine goes down without gagging.
Q: Though this was your most difficult work to date, was the path you traveled with it like the paths taken with any of your other novels?
MG: Not really. Every novel I’ve written before this one went straight to press with only minor re-writes. Most of them have had only copy editing. Almost all of my novels have been real novels encased in a genre shell, but obviously I can’t do that any more. Luckily, I happen to have a very good editor now.
Click here for part 2 of my interview with Michael Gruber, and hear about risk-taking in genre and literary fiction, and Gruber’s advice for aspiring novelists.