Journalist Bryan Gruley shared in The Wall Street Journal’s Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the 9-11 terrorist attacks, but since he was a boy, he has wanted to write novels. The acclaimed author of the Starvation Lake trilogy and a standalone, Bleak Harbor, will launch PURGATORY BAY, another standalone, and his fifth foray into the world of fiction, in January.
“I wrote this book from the heart,” Gruley says.
PURGATORY BAY is set on an inlet of Lake Michigan, near the town of Bleak Harbor. Jubilee Rathman had life licked at 17—an A-student headed to Princeton and an all-state soccer goalie—when her family was murdered in a mafia hit. Twelve years later, she plots revenge from a fortress on Purgatory Bay. One of the people she holds responsible is Michaela “Mikey” Deming, a former journalist who may have endangered Jubilee’s family. Between them is Bleak Harbor Police Chief Katya Malone. Three women who don’t know each other must join in a fight for their lives and their souls.
Jubilee Rathman is one of the most engrossing characters in recent memory. Gruley says, “Jubilee is a hollowed-out woman. Although she survived mass murder, she continues to feel threatened by the responsible people and barricades herself in her fortress on Purgatory Bay. Her greatest asset is focusing on her mission. That distracts her from sentimentality that could weaken her resolve, keep her from her objectives, and put her at risk of suffering the same fate. Fear is no longer relevant to Jubilee. If she fears anything, it’s failure.”
Among Jubilee’s targets is Mikey, first and foremost a loving mom to her hockey star daughter.
“Mikey began her career as a journalist at the Detroit Times,” Gruley says. “There she encountered Jubilee Rathman’s family and the murders that followed, an experience that compelled her to leave the profession. In PURGATORY BAY, she has to confront her past. How she responds is crucial to the conclusion.”
Bleak Harbor Police Chief Katya Malone must stand between them. In Gruley’s words, “I love Katya. She’s tough and smart and determined to have a better life in Purgatory Bay, ‘with something other than the heat in her cruiser to make her warm, something more than late-night drunks to make her laugh, someone who calls her Katya instead of Chief or Malone or Officer.’” It’s not easy, though. Before becoming chief, Katya was dogged by a kidnapping case and the tragic loss of her young daughter.
In Gruley’s deft hands, even secondary characters are spellbinding. One of the eeriest is Caleb, who has a special relationship to Jubilee.
“Caleb must come to grips with what he is and what he isn’t, not an easy dilemma for anyone, let alone this lonely young man,” Gruley says. “He’s probably my favorite character.”
PURGATORY BAY proves Gruley’s motto: “In small towns you think you know people. You don’t.” Though currently based in Chicago, he’s spent a lot of time in towns across America. “My family had a cottage in northern lower Michigan near some small towns. In college, I interned at a newspaper in nearby Bellaire. Since then, I’ve written a lot of news stories in small towns around the country, especially in my days at The Wall Street Journal: Hill City, Kansas; Regent, North Dakota; Stilwell, Oklahoma; Trenary, Michigan, and plenty more.”
Gruley says his “detour into journalism helped me write fiction and paid a lot more bills than fiction would have. Writing for newspapers and magazines teaches economy of words and how to use details to help readers see, feel, smell, and taste a story—both useful for telling made-up tales. The biggest challenge for me, and probably for other non-fiction writers transitioning to fiction, was adapting a strong authorial voice. Journalists are taught to distance themselves. Novelists can’t afford that, lest they distance themselves as well from the readers.”
He doesn’t outline, except for the next few steps in the story, and says for PURGATORY BAY, he only “knew a few things at the start: the murders, the fortress, and Jubilee’s overall objective, to exact revenge in an unconventional way, with unconventional targets. For the rest of the story, I felt my way through the darkness. Of course, you can always go back and fix and change things. I do a lot of that.”
The characters revealed themselves in his writing, especially in the first scene. “I fiddled with that scene a lot, right up to the end of writing the first draft. The state police post commander, Charlotte White, had a number of makeovers, as I recall.”
A difficult plot and difficult characters challenged Gruley in this story, and the ending surprised him. “I had a vague idea of what might happen, but at the suggestion of my editors, I made a dramatic change to a certain character that scrambled my vision. And then other things happened that I hadn’t anticipated. I like it. I think it offers emotional closure. I hope readers agree.”
In the end, “Mikey does what I would have advised her to do. As for her daughter, as a fellow hockey player, I’d say don’t ever give up the game entirely. It can be a blessing your whole life, as it has been for me.”
What’s next? “My next book will involve a peculiar kind of lawyer who decides how fractured families will be broken up. It will be set in Detroit.”
Bryan Gruley is the award-winning, critically acclaimed author of five crime fiction novels, including the forthcoming PURGATORY BAY, which Michael Connelly says is “impossible to put down.” Gruley also wrote the Starvation Lake trilogy: Starvation Lake, The Hanging Tree, and The Skeleton Box. When he’s not making things up, Gruley writes long-form features on a wide variety of topics as a staff writer for Bloomberg Businessweek magazine. He also shared in The Wall Street Journal’s Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the September 11 terrorist attacks. He lives in Chicago with his wife, Pam.
To learn more about the author and his work, please visit his website.