It's funny how some stories have a cyclical effect--there's an immediate reaction when it first becomes known, but then people who either were focusing their attention elsewhere or simply missed it the first time around become aware and react in their own manner. That seems to be the case with Michael Gruber, whose bio entry at Bouchercon attracted some attention for admitting that he's long been the ghostwriter for Robert Tanenbaum, the trial lawyer turned NY Times Bestselling writer.
Lee Goldberg, upon finding out, expressed serious surprise:
I've seen Robert Tannenbaum at signings. I wasn't aware that he had such a large following that he needed a ghostwriter to churn out his books. I mean, is he really in the same league as Clive Cussler? Tom Clancy? James Patterson? At least those titans credit their co-authors.Though as the backblog comments show, the story's fairly complicated and a long way from being totally resolved and out of the open.
Tanenbaum's illustrious career included serving as the Deputy Counsel for the House Select Committee on Assassinations in the late 1970s, looking into matters like the death of President Kennedy, and before that, working in the DA's office in New York where he was known for never losing a murder case. He then switched to writing books with 1979's BADGE OF THE ASSASSIN,detailing a 1971 case in Harlem involving the death of two cops, and THE PIANO TEACHER (1987), about a gifted but psychotic pianist who killed two women before hanging himself in jail in 1982. What's interesting about these two early works is that co-writers are credited; for BADGE, it's Philip Rosenberg, a Hollywood screenwriter (and author of 2003's HOUSE OF LORDS.) For PIANO TEACHER, it's Steve Greenberg, a syndicated columnist and TV producer. So even in a non-fiction setting, Tanenbaum needed help, and knew (or likely, his publishers knew) where to get it. Of course, the writers are co-credited on the 2001 mass market reissues; I've never seen first editions of these books so have no idea if Tanenbaum was listed as sole author originally.
But after two cracks at non-fiction, Tanenbaum decided to try his hand at writing a novel. According to the story recounted at the blog Nobody Knows Anything, Tanenbaum sent the manuscript to his first cousin, one Michael Gruber, and he got a very interesting answer back:
Tanenbaum's a relative of his and had a nonfiction bestseller (about one of his cases??) c. 20 years ago. Decided to get into legal thrillers, wrote a book, asked Gruber to critique it for him. Gruber said it was so bad that for half the money he'd write a whole new one for Tanenbaum. And so it went from there. Evidently the once close relationship became mightily strained by this arrangement.So for sixteen years, Gruber served as his cousin's ghostwriter, making good money but unable to write the kind of books he really wanted to do. But eventually, something gave.
More about the story is recounted in a long event report posted in March 2003 by Brian Dear, who had attended Gruber's signing at Mysterious Galaxy and had known Gruber from THE WELL, an online writer's forum where people could hang out and talk about writing:
Interestingly, Gruber referenced Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, several times during his talk. One of ToN's characters was inspired in part by the hero of Ellison's book. There's a strange parallel between that hero and Gruber's own life story. Unable until this year to be his true self to the public, to speak publicly about his writing life, unable to do book signings as Robert K. Tanenbaum, having to deal with Tanenbaum talking on TV or in lectures or interviews about how he writes "his" books... think about living that kind of life for sixteen years. That's enough to drive anyone crazy.Suffice to say that Tanenbaum wasn't terribly thrilled about Gruber shopping around his own work to publishers independent of Tanenbaum and wanting to make a break. Then when TROPIC OF NIGHT (and its sequel, January's VALLEY OF BONES) sold to HarperCollins, the schism was essentially irrevocable.
No wonder Gruber found refuge online on The WELL, where for the past ten or so years he's hung out in the "writers" conference, telling us all about his real-life Ghostwriter v. "Fleshwriter" ordeal, discreetly keeping the Tanenbaum name out of the conversation. Everyone in the writers' conference knew, or found out eventually (it wasn't hard: at times Gruber would post notes announcing not one but two of his ghostwritten novels were on the NYT or Amazon bestseller lists at the same time), but they kept it a secret from the conference postings. Now, after all of these years, he emerges out into the world, kind of like (if you'll pardon the analogy) a grub having lived underground for seventeen years before climbing the tree and turning into a cicada. (Funny, guess what "tanenbaum" means in German.) It's as if the grub desperately wants to tell its own miraculous story of life underground; but nobody seems to care, they're here for the cicada. At the same time the cicada is enjoying its new metamorphosis.
There are so many reasons why the Gruber/Tanenbaum story fascinate me--like why someone would stay for sixteen years writing essentially anonymously--but the most compelling is the family thing. Would Gruber have stuck around so long if Tanenbaum hadn't been his cousin? Somehow, I doubt it. Were there outside family pressures imploring him to stick with a sure thing, with something that netted him a nice share of the proceeds (evidently, Gruber and Tanenbaum eventually split contracts and royalties 50/50, so it wasn't like Gruber was in indentured servitude throughout those years.) And Gruber obviously did as good a job as he could with Butch Karp, Marlene Ciampi and other characters who populate the Tanenbaum novels; though I haven't read any myself, the reviews have generally stayed on the positive side.
Never mind that with families to support, sticking with the safe bet is often the easiest and most workable option, while going further out to write what you really want may result in heartbreak. And with Gruber, selling TROPIC OF NIGHT was the result of a fairly long process of rejection, where publishers allegedly told him that the work would never sell. So when faced with that kind of answer, why not stick to the sure thing?
But all I know is that this story's far from over. No one knows who is currently ghostwriting Tanenbaum's books (but I wonder if he's gone back to the earlier ghostwriting well of his non-fiction days) but fans at Amazon are decidedly unhappy, based on their reactions to the latest one, HOAX. And evidently there are still legal and contractual issues being worked out which has only worsened the schism between the two cousins. And no doubt when VALLEY OF BONES is released, attention will be focused anew on L'Affaire Tanenbaum.
Part II, which will focus on ghostwriting in general, appears tomorrow afternoon.