Gregg Hurwitz: Writing from experience

By Craig Sisterson

Thriller writer Gregg Hurwitz talks to Craig Sisterson about shifting from Shakespeare to crime and comics.

American crime writer Gregg Hurwitz. Photo / Supplied
American crime writer Gregg Hurwitz. Photo / Supplied

Changes in his personal life, as he married and started a family, "played a big part" in Gregg Hurwitz's evolution from writing "super cop" thrillers to focusing more on emotion-packed tales of ordinary people facing extraordinary circumstances.

"The things that concern me and the vulnerabilities I feel have shifted," says the Los Angeles-based author, screenwriter and graphic novelist. "I've got a lot more interested in real people, with real families."

Hurwitz's latest novel, You're Next, his 11th, further underlines that shift from early high-octane tales about serial killers in underground prisons (The Tower) and mind-control cults (The Program) towards domestic suspense. In it, developer Mike Wingate, who has a wife and daughter, is about to cash a big pay cheque for a long-running project and be honoured by the Governor for environmental building practices. He's come a long way since being abandoned in a playground as a 4-year-old.

But things start going wrong. "I know you, don't I?" says a crippled stranger at a party. Then come threats, and attacks. Mike and his family aren't safe anywhere. But how can he protect them when he doesn't know who his enemies are or why they are after him?

"As I got older I started to have an even greater appreciation for those classic suspenseful set-ups, looking at an ordinary man, where you catch him on the worst day of his life," says Hurwitz, who was raised in a household where the only things watched on television were Red Sox games and Alfred Hitchcock movies.

"With Mike, I want people to relate to him as a guy under pressure, as a father, as a husband. I really like depicting what happens to people and relationships under extreme pressure. We've all felt intimidated, we've all felt overwhelmed, we've all felt like we're not sure if we can stand up to something at different times in our lives. One of the things I'm trying to do in my thrillers is to take everyday pressures we've all felt, and then magnify that by 1000 per cent."

Hurwitz is a passionate, animated guy. He talks briskly, as if he's trying to pack in as much as possible. Unsurprising, given he does the same with his life in general. In the past year he's also produced two seasons for the sci-fi television show V, for which he does "a lot of writing", sold a screenplay to Warners, and written comics for Marvel.

But his primary love has always been novels, he says. "That's my base line, that's wired into my limbic system. The books are first and foremost but I'm also kind of a sucker for fun, and there are just some opportunities that are just so much fun I can't say no to them."

Hurwitz says he always knew he wanted to be a crime writer, despite growing up in the Bay Area surrounded by doctors (his grandfather, great uncle, father and sister).

He still has mysteries he wrote in primary school, bound between cardboard covers.

He completed a BA at Harvard (he was undergraduate scholar-athlete of the year for his pole-vaulting achievements) before heading across the pond for a Masters in Shakespearean tragedy at Trinity College, Oxford. There he was a Knox fellow and played soccer.

Even after he graduated, and began establishing himself as a thriller writer, Hurwitz continued his love affair with the Bard, publishing academic articles like "A Tempest, A Birth and Death: Freud, Jung and Shakespeare's Pericles".

Moving from Shakespeare to heart-pounding thrillers might seem unusual, but for Hurwitz it "was very logical".

"Look at Shakespearean tragedy, he says. "It is a tight form, with a lot of convention, tightly structured and plot-driven. To my mind that's closest to a crime novel. You look at Macbeth and it's like a mob thriller. You look at Othello and it's a tale of lust and intrigue. The form is very structured, it's not stream of consciousness, loose post-modernism. There are five acts, the flaw is located in the hero, it leads to extraordinary violence, the plot is tantamount and central, it's suspenseful, it's well-paced.

"And, of course, through this medium, through this set form of five acts and a tragic flawed hero, you're exploring things that are universal, as in crime fiction. I'm not just writing about a guy who's on the run, I'm writing about the way we view our families, the ways we learn how to love and how to be vulnerable, even when that's the scariest thing in the world."

In hindsight, Hurwitz admits his Shakespearean studies, along with his courses in psychology, have proved very helpful as a thriller writer. But that wasn't why he took them initially. "I only studied or did anything because I loved it."

It's that same drive to follow what he loves, what he thinks might be fun, that has seen Hurwitz not only become involved in screenwriting and comics ("someone will ring and say 'do you want to write a Wolverine comic?', and how can you say no to that?"), but also develop a well-earned reputation for hands-on research.

"My aim with research is to always do everything myself so I can bring the reader as close as possible. So in my book about mind-control cults I went undercover in a cult, did the cult testing so I could experience it first-hand.

"When I've had books that deal with explosives, I'll go to a demolition range with a couple of Navy Seals and blow up a car, so I can describe the sensation, how it feels, what it smells like. I've sat in on autopsies; I've gone up in stunt planes. If something's in the book, I want to see it first-hand to get all the telling details so the reader can feel like they're right there."

You're Next (Sphere $29.99) is out now.

- NZ Herald

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