Tips for Writing About Controversial Topics in Fiction

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and bestselling novelist Bryan Gruley offers his best tips for writing about controversial topics—social, political and otherwise—in your fiction.
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Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and bestselling novelist Bryan Gruley offers his best tips for writing about controversial topics—social, political and otherwise—in your fiction.

A few months ago, my friend Helene Cooper of The New York Times read an advance copy of my new novel, BLEAK HARBOR. She emailed me to say she liked the book and to ask, “Where do you come up with this shit?”

Good question for someone who has never been involved in pedophilia, sexual asphyxiation, suicide, or murder, except on the page. The rough answer is that the ideas for each of my first three novels were inspired by captivating non-fiction tales I had read and an actual tree in northern Michigan that is filled with shoes. My newest and fourth novel, BLEAK HARBOR, doesn’t have such specific lineage. But, partly by accident, it touches on themes that resonate in our national discussion.

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I say “partly” because, while I intended to delve into the subjects of autism, legal marijuana and sexual harassment, I couldn’t have predicted when I started this book in 2012 that #metoo would blow up into a huge story over the past year. Writing novels that are “ripped from the headlines” can be risky if, to use another cliché, truth really is stranger than fiction. You can avoid that trap if you focus on making the real world your own. I have strived to do with some of the more topical matters that have found their way into my novels.

Defining autism (or not): Danny Peters, the 15-year-old boy who is kidnapped in BLEAK HARBOR, is on the spectrum. I could have done exhaustive research to create a supposedly definitive autistic character. But I didn’t believe such a character could exist, especially after my reading repeatedly suggested that there’s wide disagreement on what autism is, what might cause it, and how to deal with it. I set out instead to create a realistic 15-year-old boy who happens to have autism, a condition that in my imagination would yield some interesting details, such as Danny’s obsession with dragonflies. I didn’t want to be confined by the observations and arguments of others; I wanted Danny to be an adolescent boy first, an autistic one second.

#My #metoo: Early in the book, we learn that Danny’s mother has succumbed to her powerful boss’ sexual advances. It’s a #metoo encounter, although I conceived and wrote it at least a year before the outing of Harvey Weinstein. In retrospect I’m glad I wasn’t writing it in the middle of that tsunami of coverage. I might have treated it differently, perhaps been overly sensitive to what others might say about Carey and her furious reaction. While I loathe the character who exploits her, I also didn’t want to portray Carey as a helpless victim. She’s too strong a woman for that, despite her obvious flaws.

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Teens and tech: Like his peers, Danny is adept at social media. Naturally, this causes his mother concern, especially when she discovers after his abduction that he may have been in contact with his estranged and violent birth father. You could fill Amazon warehouses with the pages of copy that have been written about this subject over the past decade. Because my kids were all born in the 1980s, I experienced this only in the nascent phase of the web (14-year-old daughter out at 2:30 a.m. on an “Internet date”). I felt free to make things up at will and probably stretched the truth as I was writing, knowing that by the time BLEAK HARBOR was in print, whatever Danny did would probably be out of date. In other words, have fun with it. If you really think you can imagine some tech process or gizmo that hasn’t already been done, maybe you should stop writing books and start inventing things.

Perils of the (evil) legal weed: Danny’s stepfather Pete runs a legal marijuana shop that he expects will make him rich. He is mistaken. Some of what underlies Pete’s story is limned from my reporting of a non-fiction story for my daytime employer, Bloomberg Businessweek magazine. But a lot of it is, as some people say, “fake news.” When I was first writing the book, Michigan had not legalized any sort of marijuana, and recreational marijuana only became legal recently. But it’s my state and my town and I’ll do what I want with it. It’s fiction, after all, and if the topic is interesting enough—as I believe Pete makes his screwed-up pot shop—it doesn’t have to be as factual as the sun coming up in the east (after you’ve been up all night on edibles).

The bones of the matter: My third book, THE SKELETON BOX, was inspired by the murder of a nun in northern Michigan in the early 1900s. I first read about it in a short piece published in a history anthology I bought for five bucks at a convenience store. Later, a talented non-fiction author, Mardi Link, wrote an entire book, ISADORE’S SECRET, about the murder. I read parts of Link’s book, but stopped after a while because I was afraid of having the real-world facts take over my story. Better, I thought, to let some of those lurid details ignite my imagination and write my own version of Sister Janina’s death. I guess, when you’re writing truly fake news (i.e. fiction), it’s best to be truly fake.

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Bryan Gruley is the critically acclaimed author of the crime fiction novel, BLEAK HARBOR (December 1, 2018; Thomas & Mercer), and the Anthony, Barry and Strand Award-winning author of the Starvation Lake mystery trilogy (STARVATION LAKE; THE HANGING TREE; and THE SKELETON BOX). A lifelong journalist, he is now a staff writer for Bloomberg Businessweek and is the recipient of numerous journalism awards including a shared Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the September 11 terrorist attacks during his tenure with The Wall Street Journal. You can visit him at www.bryangruley.com.

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