DON FRANZEN: I’m sitting here with Greyson Bryan — pleasure to be here with you. I’ve just finished your first Duncan Luke novel, BIG: Beginnings.
GREYSON BRYAN: It’s appropriate for the first book in a series, I hope.
I know that the usual advice to first-time novelists is write about what you know, and I take it that you took that advice with respect to this novel. Can you talk about your career and how it led to you writing this first book?
In 2001, I’d been an international practitioner for a number of decades, but in 2001 major US financial institutions were discovering emerging markets. That was the year that the term “BRICs” — Brazil, Russia, India, China — was coined, and big financial institutions in the United States were looking for greater profits outside the country. What they didn’t realize at the time was that along with greater profit opportunity came greater risk, both legal and reputational, and I got involved in representing a number of them in emerging markets.
Fast-forward a decade later and I was on a plane to Washington, DC. I’d been told by some friends who’d heard details of my practice that they thought it was fascinating, and that I ought to try and write something about it. So I started to sketch out some of the more interesting deals I had worked on. Those deals included an investment in an underwater forest harvesting operation in Ghana, an investment in a Channel Islands company involved in petroleum exploration in West Africa, and then an investment in a Nigerien uranium concession. These real deals became the backdrop for the three novels I’ve written.
I was wondering where the idea for the underwater forest came from when I read the book.
It’s fascinating. There are a number of these underwater forests hidden under natural, but more often, man-made lakes around the world. I didn’t want to use the one I worked on in Ghana — I wanted something a little closer to Los Angeles — so I found that there was underwater logging in Panama and that’s how I began to weave together the idea of a plot that would originate in Los Angeles but extend to Tokyo and then into Panama.
How much of Duncan Luke’s story, then, is autobiographical?
Well there are certain major elements: middle-aged, international lawyer with a demanding practice; a single father trying, and failing for the most part, to try to reconcile the competing demands of career and family. I have a daughter on the autistic spectrum. She’s older than Sam, Duncan Luke’s son in the book, but nonetheless I understand some of the rewards and challenges of being a parent of a child with special needs. Tokyo, Japan, has been a big part of my career. I opened my firm’s office there in the late ’80s, and, I’ve spent many, many years working and traveling there. I speak Japanese. I understand the culture very well for a foreigner, so that’s a big part of being able to write about Japan.
But it is fiction. I’ve never been to Panama, for instance. Never in my practice, career, or my life.
I have to say the scenes in Japan really gave the impression that you knew the place well. They’re very evocative, very descriptive. I’m impressed that you also evoked Panama so well without ever having been there.
I found that I could research a location and, as long as I could compare it to a similar place where I had been, then I could describe the background in a way that would be interesting to readers. I also found that one of the first mistakes I made was over-describing a setting and I had a wonderful editor — who later became my publisher — and one of the first things she said to me was, “Just give readers a taste and allow their imagination to take it the rest of the way.” And I although I learned that finally, it took a number of painful drafts for me to get there.
I’m guessing that some of your characters are composites of people you’ve come to know during your practice. Can you comment on that a bit?
I think Duncan Luke is a composite of several people, myself included. What I really wanted was to have two central characters. I’m a big fan of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey–Maturin series of historical novels, and I really enjoyed seeing how Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin played off of each other. Very different characters, with deep mutual respect as well as some conflict. But instead of having two males, I wanted to have a male and a female. I wanted Duncan Luke to have the thing that he valued most in life threatened — that’s his relationship with his son — and I wanted the other character, a woman, Ghislaine Bingham, to have the things she most valued — her business, her legacy, her family — to be threatened, in that case by a dispute with her stepson, Ward. And, it’s been relatively easy for me to get into the character of Ghislaine since I’ve known many strong businesswomen who share a number of her characteristics.
Duncan, the main protagonist starts off in the book in kind of a hapless situation. He’s left his high-level, high-profile job at a major law firm to take a teaching position, only to have his wife Gracie throw him out of the house in summary-judgment fashion, you might say, with no appeal, and he finds himself in an apartment in Playa del Rey instead of his beautiful home north of Montana in Santa Monica — what is for him a pretty dire situation. What was your thinking? Start the character off in a crisis and take him from there?
I didn’t want to base the story in a law firm; I wanted to place it primarily in the context of an investment bank specializing in emerging markets. But, Duncan was a lawyer and so I had to separate him from his practice, and to throw into jeopardy the thing he held most dear, as I said, his son. Having him leave practice and then be thrown out of his home accomplished all of those things. He takes one last job because he needs Ghislaine to fund his custody battle. But she also needs him, because he has this relationship with Taro Takayama who has the swing vote and can decide whether Ghislaine can defeat Ward, her stepson, for control of her company.
Duncan is a very interesting character. His mind tends to wander at very critical moments, and I’m wondering if that’s autobiographical. He would go off and think about, “Where did this bottle of wine come from?” in the middle of a critical meeting.
It’s not me, for better or for worse. I can focus a little bit better than Duncan can. I wanted to give him some flaws that would make him a believable character. He’s somebody who’s stronger on the facts than the law. Somebody who tells a good story in court, somebody who I think has a curious mind and has innovative solutions to problems. But, as you say, particularly under stress, his mind wanders and he has to be called back to reality. Something which I’m sure didn’t help his marriage.
No, and in fact, Gracie calls him to account on that several times. I have to say you give a fair airing to just about every character in the book, even Ward, but it was very hard to be sympathetic with Gracie. How did you come up with her character? Was this based on real divorce situations you had seen or real custody battles that you’ve known?
I went through a divorce, and we had disagreements about the custody of our children along with some other things. But, Gracie is a fictional character, and like most of the characters you have to draw them in a slightly extreme way in order to make them interesting and to create conflict with other characters. From Gracie’s perspective, she has a son who’s at risk, and who is vulnerable, and who needs help in her view, and she is furious at Duncan for deciding to leave his practice of law and removing the resources she believes, genuinely, are necessary for her son’s well-being. I can understand that, from her perspective. And I tried to the best I could to have her make that argument in a compelling way.
She’s pretty hard on him though.
Well, she is. But she’s a former Goldman Sachs banker and someone who is very protective of her son, and if Duncan gets in her way that’s too bad for him.
You also give voice to Ward’s point of view, despite the fact that he does some awful things in the course of the book. I got a hint that maybe he and Gracie are headed toward some kind of relationship? Is that a spoiler alert?
I think I can say that that is a subplot that will be worked out through the next two books. So, stay tuned.
Alright, that will really drive Duncan crazy, I’m pretty sure.
That’s, of course, the point. And Ward knows that, and will use that. You know Ward is an interesting guy, because, as unsympathetic as I think he has turned out to be, when you think back on his life he lost his mother when he was quite young, and was left to the not so tender mercies of his father, a narcissistic character if there ever was one. So, as much as I take Ghislaine’s side in their struggle you can certainly understand why Ward turned out the way he has and why he so strongly believes that the company is his, not Ghislaine’s.
You have some hot political topics in the book. Of course, the fact that part of the novel takes place to Panama, which has recently been in the news as a tax haven, or tax avoidance regime. You have environmental issues, you have foreign corruption issues, you have espionage, you have sex trafficking. A lot of headline elements. Was this all designed, or is it just lucky that Panama hit the news lately?
Very lucky. You know, as I said, I made the decision to base the underwater forest in Panama because I didn’t want it to be in Ghana. And once I made the decision to put it in Panama it was relatively easy to imagine an unscrupulous character like Salduba as one of the villains. One of the other elements in the book that I tried to bring out was the issue of human trafficking and human trafficking victims. Magdalena, one of the characters in the book, is a trafficking victim, and as I researched human trafficking — both the legal and the psychological aspects of it — I began to realize that our system here doesn’t really do enough for victims. And I wanted to make that argument as strongly as I could in the context of a fictional story like this.
We do have federal laws dealing with trafficking. Do you think those laws don’t go far enough or are they not being enforced vigorously enough?
I think the problem is that our laws don’t really help victims who are trafficked outside of the United States. Yes, once they are inside the United States our laws reach them, and I think we provide a fair amount of assistance, but in terms of granting asylum or temporary freedom from deportation, I’m not sure we do enough. Duncan, at one point in the story, reviews what he’s learned about these cases to try to see if he can craft something to keep Magdalena in the United States. But many of those laws are there primarily to fight the crime of trafficking, and do not do much to give the victims any solace or refuge.
How hard was it for you to start writing fiction? As a lawyer you’re supposedly writing nonfiction. How difficult was it for you to transition?
Lawyers write for a living, and although there’s a lot of bad legal writing, there’s a lot of really wonderful legal writing out there too. I think I benefited from a career where I learned from some people who are wonderful writers.
As far as fiction goes, there have been people who accused me of writing fiction in some of my briefs! I think what I can say is that conflict is the essence of drama, and that the practice of law is all about conflict. Being able to put yourself not just in the shoes of your client, but in the shoes of the adversary who may be sitting across the table in a deal, or sitting next to you in a courtroom — that kind of empathy, if you will, the ability to understand your client totally, and also understand where the other person is coming from — is something that I think good lawyers learn, and that helped me as an author create characters and conflict.
Who are the authors that inspired you, or acted as your mentors for writing this book?
Writing this book, I didn’t have writers as mentors. I had the immense good fortune of being introduced to Katharine Cluverius, who is a former ICM literary agent, who, five years ago or six years ago, became a freelance editor when her younger child was born. I was introduced to her and I sent her the manuscript and said, “Will you look at it?” and she was kind enough to take a look for free. She sent her evaluation saying that it was better executed than she had thought, but that she could help me, and there has been no greater understatement in the world. That was draft two and the book is draft 27. She was immensely helpful to me and just as I was going out to market with this, and encountering stiff resistance, she decided that she wanted to extend her business into offering authors a full range of services, including those of a virtual publisher. And, she was the one who through Magneto Books, found the cover artist, the copyeditor, put up the website, the trailer, and everything else. So, I’m very fortunate to have found her. She’s as much the creator of this work as I am.
So she’s your Maxwell Perkins?
Yes, she’s my Maxwell Perkins. Exactly.
What writers in this genre are your favorites?
I’m a big fan of Scott Turow. I think he writes beautifully and has very well-crafted characters, and I think his plots are surprising. So I’m a big fan of his.
I noticed that every once in a while you have a digression in your book. Some of the passages are almost cooking lessons. I particularly liked the pasta recipe toward the end. Is that because you’re something of a chef yourself? How did Duncan Luke come to be so good in the kitchen?
He came to be so good in the kitchen because when he was a relatively young man his mother left him and his brother and his father. His father was a kind of distracted professor of organic chemistry at UCLA and was incapable of cooking, and his brother was too young, so he fell into it, and then discovered that he liked it. I wanted to give Duncan something that would show readers his creative side and allow him to decompress. For me, yes, cooking is that release. So it was easy for me to see him in the kitchen, usually with a margarita or a beer, cooking up something, usually Mexican or Indian.
Here’s an idea for your publisher or editor, maybe a companion spin-off cookbook? You could call it the BIG Cookbook.
That’s a great idea, a great idea.
So what’s next for the BIG series?
The second book went to the copyeditor today, and is coming out in November, and the third book is one pass away from going to the copyeditor, and it’ll be coming out in the spring. And the main characters — Duncan, Ghislaine, Ward, Rob, MD — are carried through the entire series. After the third book I’m not quite sure. We’ll wait and see. I think the third book has a relatively satisfying end, ties a number of things together. But it’s more of a colon than it is a period, so —
Or maybe a semicolon?
Or, yes, a semicolon, that’s right.
Don Franzen is an entertainment lawyer based in Beverly Hills. He is also an adjunct professor at UCLA’s Herb Alpert School of Music teaching on the law and the music industry and the legal affairs editor for LARB.