Andrew Gross started in the rag trade, a decidedly indirect route to becoming an international best-selling author. With his 18th novel, Button Man (Minatour, September) he takes on the burgeoning garment business in 1930’s New York City, combining the real with the fictional. He artfully blends the mobsters of the day—Lepke, Luciano, Dutch Schultz, Anastasia—with his fictional characters, especially the brothers Morris, Sol and Harry. He clearly has a feel for the material, a memory of the time and a passion for his characters, especially Morris, based on his grandfather. It is a powerful book written at a fierce pace and packed with many a memorable scene.
As to his cred in the garment industry, Gross began as a dress buyer soon after college and moved on to run the ski and tennis company Head in 1984, when they were in serious financial trouble. Head became number one in both tennis and ski wear during his stay, with a growing operation in Europe. He moved from there to work at the company founded by his maternal grandfather—Leslie Fay. At the time, it was taking in close to $1 billion a year in annual sales. Working in a family company has its benefits and its negatives and, in 1991, Gross went back out on his own. He took over two companies—Le Coq Sportif and then a Canadian outfit, Sun Ice. Neither move worked out as planned. What to do next? He wrote a book.
But, typical of writing careers, getting out of the gate proved no easy task. It took him three years to write his first novel, Hydra. The book found no buyers when it was sent out in 1998, but it did land Andrew a very important fan—James Patterson.
Gross wrote six number one best-sellers with Patterson, starting the popular Women’s Murder Club series. Then, in 2006, he went solo and since then has written one best-selling novel a year. He began with edge-of-the-seat thrillers, kicking it off with The Blue Zone. The plots were tight, the dialogue rich and the characters multi-dimensional. In short, the kind of books you couldn’t wait to read and were eager to get to the finish to see how it all came together.
Then, once again, as he had a few other times in his life, Gross switched gears. Putting aside the contemporary thrillers, he begin writing historical novels—yes, still action-packed and crammed with twists and turns—but steeped in a reality he felt the need to explore. “I wanted to write richer books,” he says, “Wanted to deal with larger themes, books with some heft to them, steeped in history and atmosphere.”
He began with The One Man, followed by The Saboteur and continues his journey with Button Man, his most personal novel yet. “When I was doing the research for the book,” Gross says, “I went to FIT in Manhattan. I found out that in their historical archives, they had oral tapes of the men who helped launch the garment trade. My grandfather was one of those men. I sat in a room and got to hear his voice thirty years after he had died. I listened to that voice with tears in my eyes. He is, without a doubt, the most important character in my book.”
The rest of his research was spent reading about the gangsters of the time and getting a grasp of those turbulent early years of a trade that was a prime target of organized crime. “I walked the Lower East Side streets,” he says. “And I went to the Tenement Museum, looking for small items that would enrich the story, get a true feel for the people of that time, their sound, their nuances, what it was that made them tick, made them fearless when confronted by the dangers they had to face. These were true European craftsman working in a trade that, in many respects, no longer exists.”
Gross is tall, athletically thin, with a youthful face and a friendly manner. He speaks in a measured and relaxed tone. He is confident in his abilities and works as hard at his trade as his grandfather had at his. “I outline chapter by chapter, usually about 45 pages single-spaced. Roughly 80 chapters at five pages a chapter. I have the entire book thought out before writing a single word.”
Gross prefers to write in the mornings. “I usually get to my desk by 8:30 and spend some time doing all the delaying tactics that writers use before I begin—read the papers, check e-mails—then I loop back to the previous day’s work. Make sure those pages are in shape before I move on. I like to keep the pace going. I’ll hold a scene and set it aside if I’m not comfortable with it and come back to it later. I just keep the story moving. At some point it all comes together.”
Gross has already begun work on his next book. “It’s set in New York in 1941, before the war. Set in the Yorkville neighborhood. It’s early Hitchcock with a touch of Rosemary’s Baby.” He sits back, smiles and shrugs. “Something like that.”
He has no plans of retiring. He and his wife Lynn split their time between a house in Westchester County and a condo in Florida; his three children are grown and thriving and he and his wife travel quite a bit, but each and every day he is at his computer working. “The writing is easier for me now,” he says. “I’m better at it. It’s simply a process of improvement over time, working at it for so long. I pick a period I want to live in for a year or two, one that’s dramatic enough to affect the history of what I’m about to write, put myself into a corner and go at it. Every book, in its own way tears you up. You begin by building on a skeleton. And have to flush it out from there.”
A dedicated tennis player, Gross also loves to cook. But most of all, he loves to write. “It’s what I do,” he says. “I don’t play golf, so I need to do something and I would like it to be something I’m good at.”And he is as proud of Button Man as he is of any book he has thus far written. “It’s a tribute to my grandfather,” he says. “He was as tough as any gangster you’ll read about in the novel. He was single-minded and driven and set a high bar for himself and he succeeded. The first half of this book is mostly about a young boy growing into manhood. The thriller element doesn’t kick in until the second half of the novel. It’s sort of like Great Expectations meets The Godfather. Though I make no claims to being either Dickins or Puzo. It’s simply the balance I was looking to achieve. I like to think my grandfather would have been happy with the end result. He would, no doubt have found something to find fault with, that was his nature. He was a tough man. He had to be to have survived everything he had to endure to build his business. But I know, that deep down, he would have been proud to have his story told.”
Lorenzo Carcaterra’s next novel, Tin Badges, will be published by Ballentine in 2019.