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Joseph R. Garber author of RASCAL MONEY, VERTICAL RUN

Interview with Joseph R. Garber
Lisa Fredrick

Joseph R. Garbers first novel, RASCAL MONEY, was published in 1989. His second novel, VERTICAL RUN, was published in 1995 and became a bestseller. VERTICAL was optioned to Warner Bros. and will soon be a motion picture. Joseph is a columnist for Forbes Magazine and writes occasional literary criticism for the San Francisco Review of Books. A well-known business analyst, Mr. Garber serves o the board of directors of a number of companies. He is currently at work on this next novel, which he touches on in this interview with Lisa.

Lisa: Give us a little bit of your background, maybe something more than the fact that you are a successful and published writer?
I was born in Philadelphia, a fact which I do my damnedest to forget. Although I skipped about the country in the wake of a frequently relocating father, I mostly grew up in New Hampshire. I spent two years at the University of Virginia majoring in beer-drinking, a discipline for which little academic credit was awarded. Immediately thereafter, in that era of universal conscription, I was subjected to the United States Army's tender mercies, an experience which persuaded me to return to college, but change my major.

After graduating, I spent a few years with AT&T (then the world's largest and most boring company) before being recruited by Booz, Allen & Hamilton, one of the bluest blue chip management consulting firms. I've remained active in the consulting world ever since, these days spending my time on mergers and acquisitions projects -- smaller, private, and most assuredly friendly deals.

I began my first novel, "Rascal Money," while trapped by a blizzard in the Fort Wayne, Indiana airport. I had nothing better to do at the moment, and was in a shall-we-say cranky frame of mine. That novel was intended to lampoon the predatory ways of the 1980's corporate raiders -- a task which (according to reviews in the Wall Street Journal and elsewhere) I managed to accomplish with some wit.

My second published novel, "Vertical Run," which became an international best-seller, was inspired by a spate of IRA bomb incidents involving one of the tenants in my office building.

Simon & Schuster UK will publish my third novel, "In A Perfect State," early in 1999. The yarn is another paranoid thriller. I don't know who the blazes will publish it in the U.S.

I make very little distinction between work and play -- all the money-making things I do (novels, a column in Forbes Magazine, consulting) I do because they are fun. My chief recreations are reading, the opera, charity and wildlife preservation work, and a considerable amount of exotic travel -- when abroad I usually can be found doing something imprudent involving carnivores.

Some writers use index cards, outlines or just let the story take over. What system do you use, and why?
I start with character and situation, and with a vague sense of what's going to occur on the last few pages. What happens in between is as much of a surprise to me as it is to readers.

At the end of "Harlot's Ghost" Norman Mailer wrote an essay that impressed me greatly. He observed that as he was writing the book, he'd frequently think about what fun he had back in the good old days when he was a CIA agent -- then he'd bring himself up short: hey, I NEVER was in the CIA! It was as if, he said, his characters had been living in his mind, waiting for a chance to come out and tell stories of which he himself was unaware.

I myself have the same experience.

The single most frustrating experience of my life was trying to write "In A Perfect State" to an outline. I tore the damned thing up a quarter of the way through the book. Never again!

How did you come up with the story VERTICAL RUN?
During the late 1970s, on more or less a monthly basis, the NYPD bomb squad would order our building evacuated because of IRA threats (and once or twice actions). While walking down thirty-five flights of stairs with about 5,000 other grumpy white collar workers, I thought to myself: "My goodness, wouldn't Alfred Hitchcock make much of this spectacle!" I imagined a Hitchcock hero fleeing the building; I imagined gunmen waiting at the foot of the stairs; I imagined gunmen in the crowd behind him. The whole novel sprung from walking down those stairs, and from wondering why those gunmen would want to make an ordinary corporate drone dead, dead, dead.

In VERTICAL RUN, your protagonist, Dave, over comes obstacles after obstacles after obstacles. How do the obstacles help you develop the character to the plot?
When confronted with almost any obstacle, Dave's initial temptation is blow the evil bastards away. As a former MACV-SOG hardcase, he certainly has the skills to do so. However, long ago and far away, he vowed that he would war no more. Thus every obstacle forces him to face the sort of man he once was, and to fight to remain the sort of man he's sworn to be. For me, that interior fight is the heart of the novel's character development. Moreover, despite the fact that the book is widely referred to as an "action thriller," there really is quite little exterior action in it -- a brief initial shoot out; two episodes in the stairwell; a bit of stalking; and the final, climactic/cathartic battle. The bulk of the tension and REAL action all goes on inside Dave's head. That's where the character and the plot interact -- nowhere else.

After you have finished a novel do you look back at the story and realize that some of your characters made choices that were not predicted by you?
Absolutely. I often have no idea what's coming next. For example, in "Vertical Run" at a very tense moment, Dave fires off an insult at the bad guy: "Up your poop with an ice cream scoop." I don't know where that came from, had no idea it was on its way, and roared with laughter at the absolute incongruity of it. The line had no place in the whipcrack dialog between good guy and bad guy, but there it was, and by god it worked, even though I cannot begin to imagine how it arrived.

This sort of thing happens to me all the time.

How involved do you get with each character? Can you condition yourself to actually be like each different character as you write?
The way I know I'm happy with a manuscript is if I'm in love with the characters. A great deal of my reworking and rewriting through many, many drafts deals with character touches. The story line is usually pretty easy in comparison.

By the time I've made multiple passes through a manuscript, I know the characters well -- especially their vocabularies and personal quirks. Case in point: the villain of "Vertical Run" speaks in a calm monotone and never swears. However, that villain is in point of fact a headcase who's very good at hiding his emotions. When, at last, Dave gets under his skin, the villain vomits blistering profanity. I doubt if anyone who read the book consciously noticed the device, but I'm pretty confident that at a subconscious level it gave them a clearer understanding of the villain's personality than any explicit narrative description would have.

You mentioned at a talk I attended that you base your characters on people you know/knew in the corporate world. How have you incorporated them into your stories? How much does your personality go into your characters?
My first novel, "Rascal Money," was chockablock full of character quirks drawn from other people. The hero of that book, Scott Thatcher, was modeled principally on Mark Twain, but drew heavily on three quite prominent American chief executives. The book's bad guy investment banker was a composite caricature of a number of gentlemen who subsequently became guests of the state, four years at various low security facilities and time off for good behavior. The investment banker's catspaw, Brian Shawby, embodied every element of executive incompetence I've ever encountered.

Subsequent books feature characters who are based more on type than on individuals. For example, your ordinary garden-variety corporate group vice president or head of logistics tends to fit a certain mold. I use the mold, but no specific person.

My female characters are sometimes based on personal friends. For example, in "In A Perfect State," I make it abundantly clear that Olivia Thatcher is a role written specifically after my pal, the adorable and delightful Tippi Hedren. Equally clearly, Zaitun was created with Tia Carrere (whom, alas, I do not know) in mind.

My own personality is a problem and an impediment. I am a sharply sardonic person who usually looks for (and finds) humor in even the most ghastly circumstances. Keeping that out of serious books is probably my greatest single challenge as a writer.

Who are your favorite authors?
I read omnivorously, so that's an unfair question. Off the top of my head: Twain, Conrad, Hemmingway, Iris Murdoch, John Fowles, Brian Moore, Ian McEwen, the authors of the Icelandic Sagas, Iain Banks, Terry Pratchett, Patrick O'Brian, Bernard Cornwall, Shusako Endo, Russell Hoban, Angela Carter, Barry Unsworth, Robert Stone, Thomas Pynchon, Robert Goddard, Geoffrey Household -- and ten pages more.

Tell us a little bit about your historical novel.
Joseph: The book is set in Mongolia in 1920, a year before Roy Chapman Andrews (the model for Indiana Jones) mounted his famous archeological expedition to the Gobi desert. The protagonists -- a part of five Americans, one of whom is a sixteen year old boy -- set forth on a geological research exploration. They encounter the last surviving remnants of what was once the principal form of Christianity (this is quite historically accurate; the last members of that faith were wiped out during the Japanese invasion of Mongolia in the late 1930's). So too do they encounter that faith's opposition, and in so doing find that not merely their lives but their very souls are in jeopardy.

You have sold VERTICAL RUN movie rights to Warner Bros. Congratulations! You have mentioned that you are not interested in screenwriting or being a part of the Hollywood scene. How come?
Some people like sushi. Others do not. Some people like to listen to The Spice Girls. Others to La Boheme. De gustibus non disputatum est.

What are your plans for the future? Any new stories?
I'm a third of the way into a tale entitled "The Object of Her Wrath." It is a novel intended to give every heterosexual male in America bad dreams. And, thank God or the Muse (Calliope, I believe) it is going like gangbusters. This is one scary book, and I can hardly wait to find out how it ends!

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