By Mary Thurman Yuhas | Photography by Robert Nelson
After Andrew Gross was let go from his job as president of an apparel manufacturer at 46, he followed his dream and became a writer. He gave himself two years to succeed, a time during which he credits his wife, Lynn, for supporting him. Sales of his first book, Hydra, were ho-hum until fate intervened. Unknown to Gross, literary agents noted how well he wrote about women and spread the word. To his surprise, Gross received a phone call from another Palm Beach author: James Patterson. The two went on to co-author six best-selling thrillers in the “Women’s Murder Club” series, one of the most popular series of all time. Seven years later, Gross left to write on his own. “It was just time,” he says. Now with 13 best sellers under his belt, the part-time Palm Beacher is still evolving as a novelist. His most recent book, The One Man (Minotaur Books, $12.99), released late last month, is a historical thriller about a Polish immigrant who rescues a physics professor from the Auschwitz concentration camp. “After a few best sellers, I want to write stories with larger themes and more in the mold of what I like to read,” he says. “It’s a very big step—most publishers and readers expect a different kind of story from me. But I think I’ve carried it off pretty successfully, and it will be a powerful and engrossing tale.”
PBI: Several times in your career, you zigged when it would have been easier to zag. Most recently, you ended your best-selling Ty Hauck detective series to write a historical thriller. Have you always been a risk taker?
AG: Yes. I was a risk taker in business, a risk taker in the market, a risk taker in switching careers, and, ultimately now, a risk taker in wanting to switch genres. While 50 percent of those leaps of faith have probably not worked out, to my good fortune the really big ones have and always led to a better place. Clearly, as I’ve grown older, I’m a little more risk averse.
How do you come up with ideas for your books?
I’m not like my mentor. I hope one solid plot idea comes into my head that can both motivate me and has the dimensions for a novel. But a novel isn’t just one idea. To me, it’s kind of a triangulation of three, sometimes four, themes or leitmotifs—sometimes things you come across, sometimes things from real life.
Are any characters in your books based on locals?
[There was] a book I wrote with Patterson, Lifeguard. It was set in Palm Beach. A number of those characters came from my history there. But principally, Champ—a half-crazy, self-destructive Aussie motorcycle racer who became kind of a sidekick to the hero, Ned—was built off a similar lifeguard at our Palm Beach condominium. Also, the homes and a few other characters people might find reflective of the types you find in Palm Beach.
Many authors would like to write the great American novel and imagine sitting by the pool with a martini and a laptop. Does that describe your work day?
Yes, identical to that—minus the pool and the martini. Writing is an enviable way of life, but it requires discipline and dedication to the task. Books don’t get put out on their own. It’s also a product of isolation: No one walks into your office to tell you about or help you on a problem. I work in a nice studio, facing away from the nice view of our pond, usually six days a week, though mostly between 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. The rest of the time I stare at the ceiling blankly, trying to convince my wife I’m working.
What frustrates you most when you write?
As in people knocking at your door, pets barging in, or requests for interviews? Just kidding. I think the overriding frustration for me is that you spend 11 months crafting something, and you have complete control of every detail. Then you turn it over to marketing and basically lose all control. Another frustration is that you get so wrapped up emotionally in the characters and storyline of a project that it becomes your entire world. When it’s finished, that world is gone to you forever. In truth, I can’t even remember the names of my characters once I turn the page to my next book.
What’s something few people know about you?
I don’t ride a bike (which comes up every visit to Palm Beach). I grew up in Manhattan. The closest I came was years ago. I took my wife to Bermuda. We rented mopeds. I ended up on a two-seater with her in front and had to pretend our whole trip that I was just letting the “little lady” take it out for a spin.
You recently went to the doctor for a checkup thinking you were in great health and walked out knowing you had to have lifesaving surgery the next day for two blocked arteries in your heart. How did that change you?
I’m young looking, but I have four stents in my heart. I had a 99-percent blockage of the [left anterior descending]. It was a fortuitous event that got it noticed. I was doubly lucky, as I had many warning signs. Once in Palm Beach, I was on the treadmill experiencing pain and trying to push through it. Some guy who must’ve been 98 years old looked at me and said, “Son, you don’t look so good!” I’d like to say I learned a bunch of life lessons from it, but the legacy was mainly a better diet. The fragility of life and randomness of death have always been themes with me. That situation only focused on it more.
What are your favorite Palm Beach haunts?
We like Renato’s, Buccan, and Imoto. For something to read, the Classic Bookshop. Walker Zabriskie Furniture and Island Home for things for the house. Most likely, I’m to be found on my computer.
Any advice for aspiring writers?
Continuous improvement. A writing career is a process, not a fixed point. You read, you write, you let others read, you get better, and slowly the things that seemed so daunting begin to come around. And rewriting. All those dazzling clues and reveals that make readers think you’re brilliant don’t always come on the first draft. Not to mention, all the good writing. Oh, and outline up front. I’m a strong believer in being in control of your story, not your story in control of you.
After working with James Patterson, Gross went on to pen 13 bestsellers of his own.
Gross describes his latest novel, The One Man, which is set in Poland in 1944, as a powerful and engrossing tale, one that represents a thematic deviation from his normal output.