Carving Out a Niche: Gary Braver on ’Skin Deep’ and the Art of the Bio-Medical Thriller
Boston-area writer Gary Braver turns up at a trendy brew pub at Harvard Square in Cambridge looking happy. There's plenty to smile about: it's a gorgeous summer's day, and his new bio-medical thriller, Skin Deep, has just been published.
Braver has written some scary stuff over the course of his career, which now spans some seven novels. But the new book delves more deeply into the very tissue of what terrifies us than his previous books; it's even scarier than The Stone Circle, which I'd have to rank as among the top two or three books, in terms of sheer fright, I've ever read.
Skin Deep also proves that Braver continues to grow as a writer and a novelist. Braver has always written well, and his novels have always been tautly constructed, but this time he's following a dark thread that, once pulled, unravels mysteries far more disturbing than a mere murder investigation. As a professor of literature and creative writing at Northeastern University, Braver knows a thing or two about effective storytelling. (He also knows plenty about the academic world, and he relishes giving it a few juicy jabs in Skin Deep.) Braver brings that practical knowledge to the pages of his own work in the service of that ineffable spell a good novelist casts over the reader: he has a strong visual sense, a fine-tuned instinct for word choice, and a thorough investment in his characters.
He also has a gut-level understanding of what the human organism fears: abandonment. Loss of identity. Loss of family. Loss of bodily integrity, and of spiritual compass. And, in this case, the proximity of surgically sharp blades.
The truly disturbing element about fear--and Braver's books are virtual master classes in this lesson--is that it involves an uncomfortable degree of fascination. We read scary books because they bother and unnerve us; it's a mutual challenge for both writer and reader as to how far each is willing to go, and this time Braver goes farther than he ever has before. If the reader is left breathless, it's both from adrenaline and the effort to keep up.
Braver started out writing under his own name, Gary Goshgarian, with Atlantis Fire, an adventurous novel that blended romance, action, and archaeology, before moving into the horror genre with a genuinely frightening story of vengeful spirits and possession called The Stone Circle.
Braver's last book writing under his own name was Rough Beast, an intersection of horror and medical thriller: a teenage boy's own adolescent hormones mix with pollutants in the ground water to trigger a tragic (and hair raising) transformation in his body and his soul.
Under the pseudonym Gary Braver, the author has concentrated on the bio-medical thriller genre, though perhaps that tag doesn't do his writing justice. The books do thrill, in the sense that they engage the mind and quicken the heart; but they are less about gore and violence (the bad rap that "thrillers" get) and more about families under threat: a researcher discovers the key to perpetual youth in Braver's book Elixir, but the cost to his wife and son is steep; in Gray Matter, well-to-do parents in an upscale suburb seek to buy their children the ultimate in opportunity: a boost in IQ... but with terrifying side-effects; and in Flashback, a young man's family secrets struggle to the surface of his memory after a brush with exotic jellyfish stimulates the memory portion of his brain, a discovery that ties into a new and dangerous treatment for Alzheimer's disease.
With Skin Deep, Braver takes a bold step in a new direction, though the theme of family is still very much at the center of the novel. Boston homicide detective Steve Markarian is separated from his wife Dana in the aftermath of an infidelity. But it's not just Steve's mistake that had riven him from Dana; she wants children, and his own scars from a tumultuous childhood have made Steve gun-shy about fatherhood.
When an acquaintance of Steve's ends up dead in a staged accident, the detective knows that a killer is on the loose; what he's not sure of are his own whereabouts on the night of the murder.
Meantime, Dana is laying plans for plastic surgery because she needs a fresher, younger look to be competitive in the job market... and, Steve fears, because she's about to enter the singles market, looking for her next life partner, leaving him behind.
Steve's own inner transformation as he wrestles with his doubts and suspicions and Dana's change in appearance mirror one another nicely; but what drives the book is a trail of dead women who all have something in common: a startling resemblance to one another... and to Dana.
Braver's books all have something in common, too: an Armenian-American is always in the middle of the action. Noting that there's a large Armenian-American population in the Boston area, and that Braver's real name, Goshgarian, is also Armenian, I ask him about this: is Braver looking to bring Armenian-Americans into the literary mainstream? Or is he aiming his books at an Armenian-American readership?
"Probably both of those, as well as touting, proudly, my own heritage," Braver says.
"There aren't that many Armenian novelists out there," Braver continues. "There's Chris Bohjalian, who's known, and a few others, who aren't know. And there aren't that many Armenian homicide cops or [literary] characters, only Joseph Yossarian in Catch-22 and a few others.
"I won't say my motivation is to capture an Armenian readership," says Braver, "but if a few Armenians were to see the name and buy the book, that's good. And also, there aren't that many of us around, so having an Armenian Boston homicide detective is rare; it's distinctive than the usual lot."
Braver adds, "There are so many detective novels that have been written, hundreds of thousands of them, in the last hundred years, and every one of [the authors] is trying to make their protagonist different from the [herd]. So this is a ploy in that direction, I suppose."
So why the mid-career switch from writing under his own name, the perfectly good Armenian name of Goshgarian, to the less ethnic Gary Braver?
Braver takes a deep breath. "At that juncture from Rough Beast, which was the last Goshgarian book, to Elixir, which was the first Gary Braver book, they said, 'Change your name,' because Elixir got a movie option by Ridley Scott. It looked like Elixir might be a big, big book, and they wanted to print up a lot of copies so that the title would not be under-ordered by the book store chains."
Braver explains that the book store chains base their pre-publication orders on the basis of how well an author's previous book has sold, and in the case of Rough Beast, those numbers were not very high, due in part to an accident of timing involving various in-house editorial difficulties. The result was a low printing number and correspondingly low sales: after all, a book can't sell a million copies if there aren't a million copies to be sold.
Hence the publisher's instructions, which Braver recounts as, "Change your name so that we can print a lot of copies," get high pre-orders from bookstores, and sell them all. "Very cynical," reckons Braver. "But it worked. And now I'm Gary Braver, which is my grandfather's name in translation from the Armenian."
"Braver" comes from an old family name, then?
Recounts the author, "They gave me three days to change my name, and the only guidances were to make the name short, and to keep it, alphabetically speaking, toward the front of the alphabet."
Braver continues, "Short, I understand. But front of the alphabet? I said, 'Why is that?' and they said, 'If you walk into Barnes & Noble's or Borders, and you head over to the shelves near the front with the new fiction releases, the books are arranged in alphabetical order according to the author's name. When people browse, they stop looking mid-alphabet.' [It was a case of,] 'Studies have shown that...'"
"So I said, 'Okay,' and I tried the family tree [for inspiration]... nothing there," says the author. "So I tried translations [of family names]. Goshgarian means 'shoemaker,' which is too long, as well as being at the back of the alphabet. My paternal grandfather's name was Garabed, which in translation means 'brave,' or 'braver man,' and I said, 'I'm gonna go with that.'"
A moment before, Braver had made a nice metaphor about pounding the pavement after finishing each novel, but I'd always had the impression that finding a new idea was more akin to speed dating: the writer might spend three minutes with an idea and see whether there are any sparks before moving on.
"Yeah, I think so," Braver allows. "You're constantly looking for something, and when it happens, what I try to do is think of an arc. Start with some breakthrough and think of how it would benefit mankind, what the dangers would be, who would make hay out of this idea, and who would get hurt.
"But having a big idea doesn't mean you have a story, and that is the hardest thing," Braver continues. "When I do get a germ of an idea, I try to write a 300-word synopsis and then I expand that into three or four pages, and that's what I send to my editor, and then I start working on it. It may change completely by the time I get done with it."
I ask Braver about the progression in his novels from action-adventure, to horror, to bio-medical thriller. The reason for this genre-hopping is more prosaic, but also more surprising, than one might have imagined.
"The shift was more a determination by the publisher," Braver tells me. "They had read Rough Beast and they said, 'Give us more of the same.'
"I said, 'The same as what?'
"'They said, 'Bio-medial thriller page turner that is nicely written and centered on the family.' So, in a sense, I had an assignment."
That's important, because it suggests a degree of job security; as Braver says, "Whenever you finish a novel it's like getting fired, and then you're pounding the metaphorical pavement."
Continues the author, "But at least I had a direction, I had a genre. And I had a vague idea: a cautionary tale centered around some bio-medial breakthrough, high-concept, that would appeal to a wide audience, centered on the family, which everyone has, or has had at some point."
And what could be more universally appealing than a newly discovered plant extract, for all intents a magical elixir, that preserves and extends youth--indeed, extends life itself, potentially well past the Biblically allotted threescore and ten years? Hence Braver's first novel under his pen-name.
Continues Braver, "So that was a niche that I would fill. It's a challenge, because every time I have to come up with some new, big 'What if' that's a bio-medical whatever. And I've got to come up with anew storyline, because I don't have continuing characters. These are all stand-alone [novels]."
In that same vein, Skin Deep seems to be another departure: in this latest book there are breakthroughs and innovations, but they are sidelights. A larger social question is more the focus, which allows Braver to make the book into a commentary on social forces that can derange people. That underlying observation becomes just as chilling as any horror story or newly invented medical procedure Braver has dreamed up in the past, and when you're talking to a guy whose work has included stealing brain tissue from children, that's saying something.
"Chilling is the right word," Braver tells me, before disclosing how he got the germ of the novel's basic premise.
"The idea came to me in a kind of a chilling awareness. I was passing through the living room and the television was on to Dr. Phil."
Now, that's chilling!
Braver continues, "And there was an attractive, 28-year-old mother who was crying in front of Dr. Phil and the audience--recognizing, admitting an obsession: she could not walk past a mirror and not be depressed at how she did not resemble Jessica Simpson.
"This woman said, 'I know I'm crazy, I know I'm obsessed.' She'd had eighteen medical procedures. She had a mouth like a grouper. She was still attractive except for this ridiculous mouth, and the mach-5 look," Braver says, miming what he means by pulling back the skin of his own face.
"She's 28 years old," Braver reiterates. "She tried to get sculpted after Jessica Simpson who, to this woman, was the ideal female face."
Braver continues, "She knew she had a problem, and that told me a lot. Here she is [on television] in front of X million number of people; cosmetic surgery is no longer an embarrassment as it was years ago, and here it has created an obsession, here is a woman who is obsessed with her appearance, obsessed with an ideal, and she can't do anything about it. She's helpless."
Says Braver, "That opened up the whole social aspect. I have no problem with people getting cosmetic surgery; if you have a big honker of a nose and people have been calling you Eagle Beak since you were a kid, well then why not have it taken care of?
"However, it's this obsessive quality that bothers me, particularly with young women. It's become the quick fix. Young females today, who are part of the instant gratification generation, can buy what they weren't born with: they can get Nicole Kidman's nose, they can get Angelina Jolie's lips, they can Julianne Moore's chin. Because it's so available and the medical technology is there to do this, people become dissatisfied with their looks and become nutty about it."
Braver is careful to be fair to the upside of cosmetic surgery in Skin Deep. He allows his plastic surgeon character, Dr. Aaron Monks, to explain the ethical ground that cosmetic surgeons have to tread, the assessments they have to make about their prospective patients' mental state. For some, a nose job is the key to greater happiness, a lasting happiness that allows for greater self-confidence and more success in life. But the other side of that coin is the obsessive behavior of people looking for happiness just beyond the next nip, snip, or enhancement.
"In excess, [cosmetic surgery] could be awful," Braver says. "I know people who have had cosmetic surgery and they're perfectly happy; I know people who keep on [having procedures]: 'In two years, I'll get this done!' It depends on the person.
"Today, parents give nose jobs and breast enhancements as graduation gifts, and young people in South America go to cosmetic surgeons like they were going to a hair salon," Braver adds.
Our time is growing short, so I ask the author to tell me a little about his next book.
Braver chuckles and repeats what he said earlier about his books being liable to change over the course of developing from high-concept notion to story outline to fully realized novel. Even so, he's willing to let slip a few details.
"The working title is Tunnel Vision," Braver tells me. "It's about finding God scientifically."
Cautions the author, "That's all I want to say about it. It's about a third done, but I'm not sure how it's going to end. It's my Finding God book, tapping into the debate of wishful thinking versus [the question], is there a real spiritual presence?"
Braver has a laugh at himself, saying, "You see the direction I'm going in? I've gone from boosting intelligence, to living longer, to curing Alzheimer's, to face jobs, to finding God!"
Skin Deep, published by Forge Books, is now available in hardcover.