SNHU Talks Writing with Suspense Novelist Gary Braver

by Pamme Boutselis

Suspense Novelist Gary Braver

Gary Braver is the pen name of Gary Goshgarian, an award-winning professor of English at Northeastern University and the author of eight critically acclaimed suspense novels; three under his own name – “Atlantis Fire,” “Rough Beast” and “The Stone Circle” – and five under his pen name – “Elixir,” “Gray Matter,” “Flashback,” “Skin Deep” and “Tunnel Vision.” He is also the author of six popular college writing textbooks, “Exploring Language,” “The Contemporary Reader,” “Dialogues,” “What Matters in America: Reading and Writing about Contemporary Culture” and “Dialogue as Argument: A Concise Guide.”

Your first book, “Atlantis Fire,” was inspired by your own real-life scuba diving adventure that involved the discovery of two Roman shipwrecks, an underwater pirate attack and the antiquities black market. Dirk Pitt certainly has nothing on you. While you vowed to write a book about the experience should you get out of there alive, how did you know that you had it in you to actually write the book?
Since college, I knew I was pretty good with words even though I was at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) majoring in physics. I was an editor of the college newspaper and yearbook, and had started a humor magazine. I also got more pleasure out of writing English papers than lab reports. By my sophomore year, I knew I wanted to write someday, and that meant getting advanced degrees in English. But I stuck it out for the four years at WPI.

By the end of graduate school, I was confident that I had it in me to write a novel. What was missing was the story. The experience in Spain — where our small diving team of Earthwatch volunteers encountered a dangerous black-market antiquities operation — provided me the basis of a high adventure tale and the opportunity to turn that into a novel. I had been to the magnificent Santorini islands several times and was fascinated in the possible connection between its history and Plato’s Atlantis legend. So it was an easy maneuver to fold my Spain experience into that Aegean venue and the mythic lure of Atlantis. The book was well received in 1980. And I’m happy to say that “Atlantis Fire” is again available in digital form on Amazon and other online venues for a mere $2.99.

If you had not had this experience, do you feel you would have written an archeological thriller as your first book?
Possibly, since I had regularly been on Earthwatch expeditions. Although most were marine biology, I had an abiding interest in archaeology. In fact, my third novel, “The Stone Circle,” centers on the discovery of a buried stone circle — a la Stonehenge — on a Boston Harbor island.

How did you go about getting published initially?
My office mate at Northeastern University was Robert B. Parker before he became Robert B. Parker. I watched him write and sell his first Spenser novel. (In fact, I took the dust-jacket photo of him on that novel.) I watched him write the second and third Spenser books, essentially demystifying for me the writing process. When I had finished “Atlantis Fire,” he put me in contact with his agent whose partner sold my novel to Dial Press (Doubleday) on the second submission.

Tell us a bit about the evolution of your own writing and how you choose the subject matter for your books.
In my third book, “Rough Beast,” a military experiment long ago went horribly wrong with terrifying results today for the Hazzards — a normal, unsuspecting family in a Boston suburb. Everyday their son becomes more uncontrollable, feral and dangerous —the result of buried bio-toxins. While the government will do anything to eliminate evidence of its dark secret, the boy’s parents will do anything to save him before the Beast gets loose. That book did well, and my publisher said it wanted more of the same from me: a high-concept, page-turning thriller with a medical slant, centered on a family with a strong female protagonist (since most readers are women), and well written. So that was my charge. And although I’m an English professor, writing medical thrillers meant doing a lot of research. Because all my novels are stand-alones — i.e., not a series — I had to come up with a new cast of characters and new medical high concept for each subsequent book — that is, some kind of break-through innovation that would appeal to most people.

Although I had to come up with a new medical or biomedical idea for each subsequent story, I used as my thematic core the caveat at the heart of Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” — a novel I have adopted for years in my science fiction course at Northeastern University: Watch out what you wish for. (In Shelley’s novel, creating a superior human being.) That theme has been central to each of my books since. The challenge was coming up with new high concepts that I could spin a thriller around.

“Elixir” is about development of an anti-aging drug; “Gray Matter,” about enhancing the intelligence of “slow” children” for parents wanting to raise genius kids; “Flashback,” about rushing to market a flawed cure for Alzheimer’s Disease; “Skin Deep,” about getting the “ideal” face through cosmetic surgery. The latest is “Tunnel Vision,” which centers on the efforts of neuroscientists hoping to determine if there is anything behind the claims of near-death experience — that is, an afterlife.

You can probably see an evolving thematic pattern the older I get.

You wrote your first three books under your name, Gary Goshgarian, and later changed to the pen name Gary Braver. How did that transpire?
The decision to go with a pen name was that of my publisher. The actual pen name choice was mine.

That happened in the year 2000 when my book, “Elixir,” a thriller about the development of an anti-aging drug was optioned for a movie by director Ridley Scott (“Alien,” “Thelma and Louise,” “Gladiator,” “Prometheus,” etc.). Because of that option and the publisher’s perception that the book was going to take off, I was asked to adopt a pen name to fool the big bookstore chains (B&N and Borders), which base their prepublication purchases on the sales figures of an author’s previous title. Because my publisher (Tor/Forge, St. Martin’s Press) wanted to print up ten times the hardback copies of my previous book, “Rough Beast,” they didn’t want bookstores to under order. Thus, they said get a pen name, short and front of alphabet. Short, for obvious reasons (Braver fits better on the cover than Goshgarian); front of alphabet, because browsers stop around H on the “New Fiction” shelves.

Braver is the translation of my grandfather’s name. And with “Elixir,” Gary Braver was born. Ridley Scott re-optioned the book for a second year, but decided to make “Hannibal” instead. But “Elixir” did well and had been optioned two more times after that. I’m still waiting for the movie, but not holding my breath.

You have a strong reputation for hand-selling your books at book signing events. Was this always so or have you simply gained momentum through experience with each book?
I had always been baffled that authors would sit at a table piled high with their books looking like crash-test dummies waiting for customers to stop by. Or worse, reading a newspaper. Like any other product, to sell your book, you have to engage customers, interact and get them interested in what you wrote. Early on in my writing career, I decided that the best way to interest bookstore customers at a signing is to introduce myself and to give them a handout briefly describing the book with excerpts of reviews and blurbs. Otherwise, I was left with having to give a synopsis to everybody who came by, risking boring them. But with a handout, they can go off on their own in the store and read for themselves. And if interested, they’ll come back to ask more about the book and/or to buy a copy. I’ve met some lovely people that way and lots of former students — many of whom are now devoted fans.

What’s the most important thing for authors to know about book signing events and engaging the public?
That unless you’re James Patterson, J.K. Rowling, or family, not a lot of people will be lined up at your table – that nobody needs your book; that its publication will not make the world a better place; that there are thousands of other titles for sale around you. The novel business is entertainment, not cancer research. So, you have to interest customers in what you’ve written, and within a two-hour window — or you’ll not be asked back.

That means getting people interested enough to ask what the book is about. Since I write suspense novels, I often ask bookstore customers if they’re mystery or thriller readers. If they are, then I tell them that my books are like some of the authors they may like —Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Michael Crichton, et al. If they’re not, I tell them to consider changing their ways and ask them to read the dust-jacket synopsis and endorsements and critical excerpts, to thumb through the pages to see if they like the writing, etc. If they’re still not interested, I pull up from under the table a bucket of water and a kitten by the tail, threatening to drown the thing if they don’t buy a book. That usually clinches the sale. (Okay, not really, but that option has crossed my mind.)

How has the book business itself changed since you began as a writer?
It’s worse and unpredictable. And books have turned into toothpaste. They’re commodities, just as their authors are.

First, it is much harder to sell books today. There are fewer publishers, fewer bookstores, fewer newspapers that review books and fewer readers of fiction. This means that publishers are skittish about taking new authors — which is also true of literary agents. They may also be cautious in the promotion of authors they have already published. Marketing and advertising budgets are smaller. Consequently, promotion of one’s books has shifted to the author, especially via social networking.

Today authors must be very active online, branding themselves via Facebook, Twitter, blogs, websites, emails, etc. Similarly, they have assumed the onus of personally contacting bookstores for signings, talks and readings as well as libraries, civic organizations and the various media to get the books exposure.

Of course, that means devoting more time to marketing and advertising rather than to writing the next one. Yes, it’s time consuming but necessary since publishers not only have cut back on promoting authors, but expect authors to assume the burden, since you’re more invested in your book than they are.

Another major change is that we are seeing more writers than authors. In the past, an author was paid to write books. Today with self-publishing in print and online, people post “books” that have not been vetted — no agents, no editors to determine if the book is worthy of publication. That means that anyone with a computer can post online his or her work which, if turned down by literary agents and established publishers, probably means the writing is inferior to authored books.

And as an English professor and novelist, I worry that this could result in the dumbing down of “books” and readers.

As a longtime professor at Northeastern, you introduced one of the first college-level courses in science fiction in the country. Why was this of interest to you?
I have a degree in physics and had read science fiction by the pound as a kid. Back in the 1970s when our then English Department chairperson had sent out an SOS that we needed more student electives, I proposed science fiction (SF). In spite of the academic snobbery back then, my Chair gave the green light. Perhaps because of the novelty, the course became instantly popular, drawing some 500 students a semester. Forty years later, it’s still going strong.

My main interest in teaching the course was trying to demonstrate the rich legacy of SF and that some of the more literate and visionary authors that have contributed to the genre and literature in general, beginning with Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” — perhaps the most influential piece of writing in SF as well as the first real SF novel. From Shelley on, SF authors have kept their fingers on the pulse of science and technology, raising warnings about the dangers of progress without foresight — about inventions and innovations that don’t consider the ethical or moral consequences. In short, I wanted the course to demonstrate not only the highly imaginative possibilities of SF authors, but also how the genre raises social and philosophical awareness regarding our future. Unlike any other kind of literature, science fiction worries about the future of the planet and our species.

What other courses have you taught and also currently teach?
Currently: Horror Fiction, Modern Bestsellers and Fiction (novel) Writing. I’ve also taught courses in Edgar Allen Poe, Detective Fiction and the Modern Novel as well as Freshman Writing and Freshman Literature.

Thirty years ago, I introduced a course in Horror Fiction, also rich with literary material from Edgar Allen Poe to the present; about the same time, a course in Modern Bestsellers. Both of these are still going strong. Also a course in Fiction Writing, in which I ask students to begin writing the novel they have always wanted to write.

In addition to teaching at Northeastern and your own writing, you also teach fiction-writing and thriller-writing workshops. What do students most benefit from learning in each?
The importance of keeping all the working parts moving at once: telling a good story, developing characters, keeping the plot going, maintaining a narrative thrust and writing carefully. No matter what the genre, I want them to think that each of their characters, major and minor, think that the book is about them. That means knowing what each character wants and fears from the outset—the basis of conflict. And that even the most villainous of antagonists has sweet-smelling reasons for their behavior, no matter how heinous. Creating round characters means getting into those characters’ heads and pretending you’re them. In short, students learn to love their characters good and bad, major and minor.

I also insist that writing is hard work, that if they believe in themselves, their talent and their stories, then keep at it; for someday they may see their tales in print.

What do you love about teaching others about writing?
Getting them to that eureka point of realizing their story and character arcs. Few writing students have a full idea of the stories they want to tell. They may have a gimmick or a McGuffin (Alfred Hitchcock’s term for what gets characters scrambling in a story); they may even have a protagonist and antagonist. But they often have only vague ideas of what to do with them.

The difference between life and literature is that literature has to make sense. Stories have beginnings, middles and ends and have to mean something, unlike most lives. Likewise, characters have to change from beginning to end; they have to experience crises whether in genre fiction or mainstream; and at the end they should have learned something from their experiences, coming out wiser if even sadder.

One thing I always alert them of is that any piece of fiction whether short or long, fairy tale or epic novel, has two quests — the outer and the inner. In mysteries or thrillers, the outer quest is always solving a crime or preventing one from happening. The inner quest is resolving some personal crisis — guilt, loss, addictions, fears or whatever other psychological issues that serve as baggage and make them human and, thus, sympathetic to readers.

It’s Cinderella wanting to go to the ball and wanting freedom. It’s Clarice Starling (“The Silence of the Lambs”) wanting to stop serial killer Buffalo Bill and wanting do so smoothly, professionally. It’s Paul Sheldon in Stephen King’s “Misery” wanting to escape his psychopathic captor, Annie Wilkes, and being a better writer even if he doesn’t.

When students “get” these essentials, then I know they’re on their way to fashioning a decent story.

What are the challenges?
The secret of good writing is good reading. Most people read for plot and most people read too quickly. The first challenge is to get writing students to slow down when they read someone they like or want to emulate; to read carefully. What I tell my writing students is to study how authors create their novels. To look at another writer’s work the way a carpenter looks at a house. That is, notice how economically they create characters; how they write realistic sounding dialogue; how they get in and out of a scene effectively; how their language is original, inspiring and evocative; how they create a narrative thrust to keep you turning the pages. Don’t just read these books — study how they’re put together.

Another challenge is convincing students that all writing is rewriting. Don’t be afraid to cut lines, paragraphs or pages if they don’t work. Yes, it’s like self-amputation by small slices; but if the book reads better, it’s worth the blood.

Who are the writers that you have learned from or been inspired by?
Mary Shelley for themes; Robert Parker for style; and Edgar Allen Poe, Stephen Kingnand Dean Koontz for creating psychological horror.

The person who was the biggest influence on getting me started was the late “New York Times” bestselling author, Robert B. Parker, my former office mate at Northeastern and closest personal friend. Back in the 1970s when he began writing his popular Spenser detective series, he demystified the process, writing every day and selling his first book. I saw how it was done. And through him I got my first literary agent. I also learned from Bob Parker the importance of precise language and snappy dialogue.

From Poe, I learned the art of creating interior conflict — the almost-civil war between a character’s rational self and irrational self; in short, the protagonist’s fear that he or she may be losing their minds. From reading and teaching King and Koontz, I saw how those inner battles can be effective in maintaining conflict, tension and dramatic ironies. Also, no better way to create characters and, perhaps, reader sympathy than to dramatize a protagonist constantly on edge, struggling with some inner demons yet trying all the while to do the right thing.
I am flattered that critics have favorably compared my novels to the writings of Poe, King, and Koontz while praising the distinctions.

Whom do you look to for advance reads of your books or perhaps review as you are in the midst of writing?
While I’m writing, no one. When I finish a novel, I give it to only two people — my wife Kathleen who is a former English teacher and who is a terrific and voracious reader. Also to a close writer friend, Barbara Shapiro, who is an excellent novelist and whose manuscripts I read. After entertaining any suggestions of making the book better, I then send the finished manuscript to my agent who forwards it to my editor.

What’s been your best and worst experience as a writer?
As someone who has taught literature and writing for nearly four decades, I take great pride in my novels and in the literary quality I try to bring to them — specifically in the fleshing out of characters and in the literate level of the writing. So critical acclaim is important to me — from professionals and those who have given my books starry reviews on

That being said, the two best experiences: Besides royalty checks, winning a Massachusetts Book Award for Fiction for “Flashback” in 2006; that was especially gratifying since that book was the first, and maybe still the only, thriller to win that prestigious award.

The other “best” experience was the Ridley Scott options for “Elixir.” For two years, I was levitating over the possibility of Scott making a movie out of the book. Although he eventually passed on the book to make “Hannibal” (sequel to “The Silence of the Lambs”), those Scott options were an honor. They also paid my sons’ college tuition bills.

The worst: The realization that numbers mean more to publishers than great reviews.

What are you working on now?
My ninth novel is called “Primitive,” which returns me to the Aegean Sea, the venue of my first novel, “Atlantis Fire.”

“Primitive” is about an American geek who has come to hate our digital culture — the daily onslaught of the electronic/digital world: emails, Facebook, Twitter, cell phones. He has had it with the fast-paced life he lives and yearns for something more simple, more primitive. When his estranged father dies, leaving him his dying wish to have his ashes scattered on the fictitious Aegean island of Ambros, he jumps at the opportunity to make a final bond with his dad while moving for a month to an Edenic island world where there are no cell phones, no Internet, no TV, no cars and limited electricity, where people live close to themselves and nature.

But as in all my novels, he gets more than he bargained for. More “primitive” than he had ever imagined, finding himself amidst a people whose ancient practices have long been lost to the civilized world.

Is there anything you know now that you wish you knew back then that would have helped your writing career?
No, but I wish I could have written faster — maybe a novel a year instead of every two years. Publishers like it when authors have a hardback and the paperback editions come out six months apart. But I’ve not been able to maintain such regularity. And the reasons are numerous. First, I have always taught full-time. Second, for the last 35 years I’ve had six college writing textbooks that have to be updated every three years, resulting in one to two revisions per year. (I just completed my 37th.) Third, I’m also a husband and father of two sons. I suppose I could have forced myself to write faster, but my standards are high; and I simply can’t bang out a novel a year and be proud of the product.

What are the most important things that new writers should focus on?
First, coming up with a solid story that in a 100-word synopsis would engage the most casual reader — and agent, editor and movie producer. Then to write the book where characters drive the plot, no matter how high-concept or activity-packed. And, most importantly to show not tell. Dramatize emotions, don’t tell them. Describe someone throwing a coffee cup against the wall rather than telling us she is angry. Respect your readers enough to engage their imaginations rather than explaining motives, details and background matters.

If you could only keep three books going forward, what would they be and why?
Besides, my own: Homer’s “The Odyssey,” Shakespeare’s “King Lear” and Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace.”

“The Odyssey,” because it is a timeless masterpiece whose central personal, social and philosophical conflicts are as current today as they were 7 century B.C.

“King Lear,” because of the profundity and universality of conflicts, the richness of characters and the extraordinary, magical use of language.

“War and Peace,” same as above, but also a masterful piece of novel writing.