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March 21, 2008

Intrigue in the C-Suite

Before thriller writer Andrew Gross ’82 (EMBA) was a best-selling novelist, he was a successful businessman — an ethical one, though, unlike no small number of his fictional characters.


Earlier this year, Andrew Gross ’82 (EMBA) signed a six-book contract — a rare deal in the publishing industry — with William Morrow, a HarperCollins imprint.

You started off in the sports-apparel industry at the Leslie Fay Companies, a women’s clothing firm started by your grandfather. What made you decide to leave the industry?

I really enjoyed connecting with creative, entrepreneurial companies and helping them get ahead. When I was on the board of Leslie Fay and had run a few divisions there, I was asked to take over and manage Head Sports, which was at that time in terrible shape. The company needed a complete overhaul of what it stood for. By the time I left Head six years later, in 1989, its ski and tennis businesses had grown to No. 1 in the country.

It was great to be part of such a successful turnaround story, so I sought out similar opportunities in the industry. When two companies that I acquired didn’t turn around quite as well, it hastened my writing career! I decided to do something that I had been thinking about since college: write a novel. I had an idea for a political conspiracy.

By then you had a wife and three kids in Westchester. It must have been hard to step away from the business world.

Westchester is full of successful people, and you can bet that there was a lot of anxiety about what the hell I was doing! But I didn’t go about this blindly. One of the things my business career set me up well for is that I didn’t make this transition in a frivolous or haphazard way: I set very concrete goals and benchmarks for myself. My wife and I decided that I’d have one year to write the novel and that we’d audit the process very closely.

I finished the novel in a year, and then I spent another year marketing it. Still, after the 14th or 15th rejection, I was sitting around wondering what cliff to drive my SUV off of — and we live at sea level! I was pretty devastated, as anyone would be who had spent two years on a business deal that in a week completely disappeared.

And then, out of the blue, James Patterson called. 

Completely out of the blue. That call from Jim changed my writing life. The president of Warner Books had given him a copy of the book with five words written on it: "This guy does women well." Quite an epithet! We met, hit it off and he proposed that we collaborate on a series about four women crime fighters in San Francisco. I ended up writing the first three books in the series with him, and all three went to the top of the best-seller list. We sold three to the movies. [The concept was also bought by ABC and turned into the popular Women’s Murder Club series.]

Jim would start with a concept and a cursory outline, and then I would extend it into a detailed, chapter-by-chapter outline, start to write and send him chapters to review. He always had last draft. We ended up writing three more books together. All went to No. 1. All of a sudden this unusual association had become very lucrative.

I could never have duplicated what I learned or my experience with Jim. I think he’s the most marketing-savvy author in the industry. In a lot of ways, he was the first commercially branded author. There’s an enormous consistency in the look and feel of Jim’s books — even when his collaborators change.

Your first solo book,The Blue Zone, came out last spring. Was it hard writing on your own after seven years with Patterson?

I miss bouncing ideas off him. It was like having Bill Gates or Warren Buffett on your speedial and being able to ask, “What do you think about this idea? Will it sell?”

Of course, pitching my own book the second time around was a whole different story than before. I wrote a similar outline about an idea I had and a week later four publishers were bidding on it.

Your second book, The Dark Tide, which came out this month, is about a hedge fund manager involved in some murky deals. You often write about the corrupt practices of successful business types. Did you encounter this sort of thing in your own career?

In the 90s, in organizations like the Young Presidents’ Organization, I got to witness firsthand the downfalls of several prominent CEOs who appeared almost untouchable in their business success. Even my family firm Leslie Fay was caught up in a CEO scandal that brought the company down. We’re talking about a once billion-dollar company that’s now out of business. 

As a writer, I think the business world has a particularly rich potential for conflict. And I know that people like reading about the undoing of the rich and unassailable moguls who are actually manipulating the game from the inside. Of course, The Dark Tide isn't exactly a "business" novel — it just uses that as a platform for a story of a wife who has to uncover the secrets of her dead husband's past, and, no surprise, it doesn't add up to who she thought he was! 

When people ask me, “Aren’t you proud to be on the New York Times best-seller list?” I always say that what makes me most proud is that I was able to succeed in two different careers. I’ll always carry who I was in my business life with me when I write; it’s my own history and the culture that I draw on.

Read more about Andrew Gross on his official Web site or on MySpace.  

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