Passed/Failed: An education in the life of Michael Gruber, novelist

'My PhD is on octopus behaviour'
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Michael Gruber, 60, worked in President Carter's White House and then ghost-wrote 15 legal thrillers for Robert Tanenbaum, a real district attorney in New York, who wrote a further two independently. Gruber's latest novel for adults is Valley of Bones. His children's novel, The Witch's Boy, is now out in paperback.

You mustn't think my mother was a member of a Wiccan coven, but there was a great deal of putting a "zinger" - evil eye - on people who crossed her, and of countering the evil eye. She came from Galicia in Eastern Europe, a historical region split between Ukraine and Poland, which had the remains of the old Celtic peasant belief-system. Children in our house were called "cockroaches", not because we resembled cockroaches but because evil spirits, always looking to do mischief, try to blight the lives of children who are praised.

The elementary education I had in New York was first class. The teachers were from the last generation for whom teaching was a major profession. Women then had no other options; they'd be captains of industry today. They picked out favourites and it was very Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. I was picked out as somebody who could write. I started writing comic books from the age of about eight. We weren't a bookish family. It was a matter of expectations. At six years old, I took home a form to be filled in if you wanted to play a musical instrument. I said I would like to play the violin, but my mother said the only people who would play the violin were people on the street with a cup.

At seven or eight I was bought a 10-volume set of all the world's mythologies; a treasure trove. The first literary book I read was Les Misérables, when I was 10. I was in the library, basically looking for baseball books, and I thought it was a mistake for "less miserable". I wanted to be less miserable, so I looked at it. It had the famous Delacroix painting of Liberty greeting the people - with one breast cheekily exposed and holding a rifle. Breasts and rifles were the two things I was most interested in. After that, it was novels, novels, novels.

Midwood High School, where I went from 13 to 16, had a tradition that every class would put on an original musical comedy. As the class writer, I did the lyrics. I had a barbaric energy (when I first encountered high culture I felt something of a barbarian - and still do). I didn't come from a cultural background and musical comedy was a high point in my house.

I went to Columbia University in New York at 17 to do a BA in English. I had the fortune - or misfortune - to go to an English department that was a citadel of high modernity; novels with pace and plot - Steinbeck was a favourite of mine - were the wrong side of the line, with James Joyce and Samuel Beckett on the right side. I felt ashamed that I didn't get it, although I could parrot it. I did not drink deeply of what was on offer. I spent most of my time editing the college humour magazine.

I entered the New York publishing world in the Sixties, the great age of magazines, until I was seized with an enormous repugnance for the railroad track from sub-editor to editor; I just didn't want that. I wanted to be a real American, not a New York person. I went back to college to study biology and then to the University of Miami for a PhD in marine biology, with my dissertation on octopus behaviour. I got my PhD but thought: "This is wrong; I'm not a scientist, I'm a writer. I can write about science but I can't actually do the laboratory work."

I did odd jobs. I got a job in the Metropolitan Miami Government and then worked in the White House as a policy analyst; I became the tiniest pimple on the Carter administration.