By Jeff Ayers
It seemed an innocent enough idea. After Barnaby Gilbert got laid off with a nice severance, his boss suggested he take up a new hobby to fill up his free time. On his regular commuter train, Barnaby got an idea what that hobby would be. He decided to satisfy a curiosity he’d long had. An avid birder, he began tracking some regular passengers—people he’d always wondered about—to see where they went and what they did. In following a Chinese man, a schoolgirl, and a sexy woman, he used the same techniques he had to add hawks and herons to his life list. But in THE COMMUTER, a quirky, compelling, tongue-in-cheek thriller, he found out pretty fast that humans were a much more dangerous species.
Patrick Oster is a managing editor at Bloomberg News in New York. He was previously editor-in-chief of the National Law Journal and has worked for Business Week in Europe, Knight Ridder in Mexico, and covered the White House, State Department, and the CIA as Washington Bureau Chief of The Chicago Sun-Times.
He recently took the time to chat with THE BIG THRILL.
When did you realize you had the writing bug?
While doing some long-form journalism that used personal tales to tell a real-life story. For example, while reporting from Mexico I did a big take-out on what had happened to Oscar Lewis’s Children of Sanchez, one of whom I met while covering Mexico City’s twin earthquakes in 1985, 25 years after his classic work.
I used that story as part of my 1989 book, THE MEXICANS: A PERSONAL PORTRAIT OF A PEOPLE. And Lisa Drew, my editor at William Morrow, the hardcover publisher, said my use of real life short-stories in the book indicated I had some talent to write fiction, which is just another kind of story telling. So how could I not give it a try?
Working in journalism, what prompted you to want to write books?
For THE MEXICANS, it was mostly a desire to tell a fuller, more interesting story than is allowed in the space allotted newspaper stories. I also had accumulated a lot of information about Mexico in my four years there that never made it into my daily newspaper stories.
It’s an important country that most Americans don’t understand—in fact, misunderstand—and at the time there was only one real comprehensive look at Mexico by a foreigner, Alan Riding’s Distant Neighbors.
What is THE MEXICANS about?
It’s a look at the lives of twenty Mexicans whose personal stories reveal an important truth about the country and the people, from a smuggler to an illegal immigrant to a maid to a doctor in a slum to a TV comic to a beauty queen to an honest cop.
It got good reviews and was a Book of the Month selection. Harper picked up the paperback rights, and in 2002 I did a revised version of it for them with a timeline that brought readers up to date and an afterword about what I appeared to have gotten right and wrong in the original book.
It’s still selling for people who travel there as tourists and has been a textbook at some colleges for courses about Mexico.
What sparked the idea for THE COMMUTER? Why delve into such a different genre?
After I did the update to THE MEXICANS, I started thinking about novel writing again. I had written some novels after I published THE MEXICANS but, having moved to Europe after my journalist wife got transferred there, I had to put aside my efforts to earn a living. Nothing was good enough to be published at that point, but it was time well spent learning the craft. A sort of Iowa Writers School all by myself.
The last novel I did before I stopped fiction writing back then was a draft of THE GERMAN CLUB, a spy thriller that should be coming out in late September. As with most of my stuff, it was based on things I learned as a reporter. It’s set against the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the reunification of the two Germanys, which I covered as a reporter. November is the 25th anniversary of the wall’s surprising fall.
I dusted that manuscript off, changing some of the plot and shortening the dialogue. As my agent Bob Thixton shopped that one around, I wrote and finished THE COMMUTER and we decided to push it out first.
As with THE GERMAN CLUB, THE COMMUTER also grew out of my reporting and editing experience—and traveling to my job in Manhattan from my home in Croton-on-Hudson. I got the idea of a character who followed people on his regular commuter train by walking to work behind some fellow passengers who took similar routes from Grand Central Terminal to their offices. I figured out where some worked—or at least which building—just by observing. But I always wondered what their real stories were, based on how they looked and how they conducted themselves on the train.
Not being as clueless as my main character in THE COMMUTER, Barnaby Gilbert, I did not follow them inside a building or take pictures or anything so reckless. But I did have Barnaby do that, using his techniques as an avid birder.
In the end, it’s a modern-day story of opening Pandora’s Box, which Barnaby learns was actually a jar with nothing left inside except hope, which is how things end for him.
When do you find the time to write and is it difficult to keep the journalistic side away from the novel side?
I write on my train, which is where I wrote some of THE COMMUTER, and late at night, some weekends and almost always on vacation, lugging my Mac Air with me.
Keeping the journalism instincts out of fiction is easy. In real-life stories, you have to tell immediately what happened and why. In fiction, it’s the reverse. You want to keep the most important facts till the end to keep the pages turning.
Other than THE GERMAN CLUB, what is on the horizon?
I have a first-person novel about a hacker that has the tone of a graphic novel without the dark cartoon pictures. It’s more in the crime genre than a spy thriller, starting out with a beautiful topless woman with a murdered man at her feet, though there are Chinese hackers who are a new kind of spy and some Russian hacker crooks who my twenty-five-year-old main character battles with. Thinking of that for early next year. And like a graphic novel, it’s a quick read.
I also have another Berlin-related, end-of-the-Cold-War tale that I am reworking. THE SLEEPER LIST. Another spy thriller.
Do you have any advice for writers?
I had a number of colleagues and friends who reacted to THE COMMUTER by saying it had inspired them to give a novel a try or to dust off an old manuscript as I had. Asked for advice, I said to write and re-write and re-write and to show their work to people who would be candid about its merits and flaws. And not to worry about Writer’s Block. The key thing to keep in mind is Writer’s Butt. Keep it in the chair and don’t get distracted by all the wonderful things around you that you might otherwise be doing. Still, I do worry that we are reaching the point, given the rise in self-publishing, that we will have more writers than readers. Even so, the writing life, as my friend Pete Hamill calls it, seems pretty great.
Patrick Oster is a managing editor at Bloomberg News in New York. He was previously editor-in-chief of the National Law Journal and has worked for Business Week in Europe, Knight Ridder in Mexico, and covered the White House, State Department, and the CIA as Washington Bureau Chief of The Chicago Sun-Times. His reporting in Mexico won an Overseas Press Club award. He won a Worth Bingham award for investigative reporting of the Reagan administration and three ABA Silver Gavel awards for coverage of the Supreme Court and other legal topics. He lives in Croton-on-Hudson, New York. His thriller “THE COMMUTER” was published in 2014 by Perseus Books Argo Navis imprint. He is a member of the International Thriller Writers.
To learn more about Patrick, please visit his website.