Andrew Gross is an international bestselling author. His books include The Blue Zone, Don’t Look Twice, The Dark Tide, and more. He has also co-authored five #1 bestsellers with James Patterson, including Judge and Jury, and Lifeguard. He joins Steve to speak about his latest book, Button Man, and to uncover mysteries of the publishing business.
Button Man Synopsis
Andrew Gross’s latest book, Button Man, is a story based on an immigrant family’s experience in vibrant New York City between 1905 and 1935. The story deals with Morris Raab, a rough and tumble kid who grows up on the Lower East Side. At age 12, Morris has to drop out of fifth grade so he can work and support his family.
Morris ends up apprenticing in a garment factory. By the time he’s 21, he’s running the factory. Five years later, a now confident Morris opens his own firm with his older brother Sol. As his business grows, he finds himself head-to-head against the Jewish mob.
Set in the throes of the Great Depression and the vice-like grip of unions, the book is part Dickensian and part The Godfather.
Andrew Digs Into His Family’s Past
Button Man is partly based on Andrew Gross’s grandfather’s immigrant experience. Like Morris, Andrew’s grandfather had to quit school at 12, ended up running the company where he apprenticed, and later had to square off against organized crime.
Ultimately, his grandfather was very successful; in fact, his company, Leslie Fay, was listed on the New York Stock Exchange. At its peak, Leslie Fay did a billion dollars in revenue but filed for bankruptcy when it overstated income by $80 million and was delisted.
Writing With James Patterson
Around the time Leslie Fay’s fortunes dwindled, Andrew left the company. At first, he tried turning around companies in the sports apparel business. When that failed, he decided to become a writer.
He asked his wife to give him a year to write his first novel. That year grew to three, and his first novel got rejected by 27 publishers. At that time, Andrew had no idea where his life was headed.
Then, he got a call from James Patterson, in the 2001 timeframe when Patterson wasn’t the big author he is today. Andrew Gross’s publisher, Little Brown, had given Patterson a copy of Andrew’s first novel, which impressed Patterson enough to ask for a meeting.
At the meeting, Patterson proposed that they collaborate as co-authors on a new series of books about female crime fighters. That was Andrew’s big break.
The Role Of Co-Author
As co-author, Andrew took Jim Patterson’s ideas and original outlines and stretched them out into a full novel. Andrew did a lot of the research and day-to-day writing. But Jim oversaw the last draft and made whatever changes he wanted.
Fortunately, the collaboration worked well.
It also gave Andrew Gross strong recognition since his name got equal billing on a number of Patterson bestsellers. Publishers now saw Andrew as a bankable writer.
The Role Of Editors
Steve wonders how the role of an editor has evolved over the years. Andrew sees today’s editors less as editors in the strictest sense but more as custodians of a book, seeing it through all aspects of the publication process. That said, editors also make sure the book delivers on aspects such as character development, readability, and suspense.
Next, Steve gets Andrew’s thoughts on the new self-publishing model. Andrew grew up on the traditional side of the business. He sees self-publishing as a very difficult process where even breakout success doesn’t guarantee a strong writing career.
He appreciates the accessibility that self-publishing gives to writers but laments the clutter and the incredible amount of mediocre content out there.
In closing, Andrew Gross attributes his success to a combination of luck and talent. He was lucky that someone put his first novel in James Patterson’s hands. It was talent, however, that made it possible for him to co-author multiple books with Patterson.
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Steve Pomeranz: Andrew Gross is the author of the international bestsellers, The Blue Zone, Don’t Look Twice, The Dark Tide (which was nominated for the Best Thriller of the Year Award by the International Thriller Writers) Reckless, Eyes Wide Open, One Mile Under, The One Man, and The Saboteur. He’s also known because he’s the co-author of five number one bestsellers with James Patterson, including Judge and Jury and Lifeguard.
Now, I’ve asked him to join me today to talk about his new book, the name of which is Button Man. And it’s said it’s kind of a cross between Great Expectations meets The Godfather, so it sounds pretty interesting. But as always, I’m interested in how the business of publishing works.
And I’ve asked Andrew if he would talk about publishing this as well. I know there’s a lot of writers out there who want to understand some of the mysteries of the business. Andrew Gross, welcome to the show.
Andrew Gross: Thank you, Steve, great to be with you.
Steve Pomeranz: So let’s start with your new book, Button Man is the name. And it’s a story of an immigrant family that’s in New York City, the vibrant New York City around 1920s, 1930s. Give us a good synopsis of it.
Andrew Gross: I’ll give you a sentence or two because it’s always, especially when it comes to a thriller, you don’t want to give too much away.
But it does sort of breach the era between 1905 and 1935, starting on the lower east side of New York. And it’s a story of Mars Robb, who’s a rough and tumble kid who grows up on the Lower East Side and has to begin work at 12 years old.
Has to leave the fifth grade in order to help support his family, ends up apprenticing in a garment factory. And by the time he’s 19, he’s running that factory and ultimately, opens his own firm and has to go head to head against the Jewish mob—which is probably worth talking about a little bit—who have taken over the garment unions for their own gain and are extorting and murdering people who don’t comply with how they want to run it.
Steve Pomeranz: There’s three brothers; there’s Morris, Saul, and Harry. Saul becomes an accountant, Harry falls in with a gang. And I guess that’s where really the big tension lies as they are brother against brother at some point.
Andrew Gross: Yeah, it is the story of three brothers. The Robaschevsky brothers whose name gets shortened to Robb. As you say, one of them is Saul, sort of heady and level-headed. And he has to drop out of accounting school, and he joins his younger brother in business. And the third brother Harry, who is scarred by a family tragedy, ends up being seduced into a life of crime.
And even though he’s never a bad guy, he’s always hanging around with bad guys. And you can sort of see the impending tragedy of what’s going to take place by him. One of the things about the book is you see this collision that’s about to take place, ultimately, between Morris, who is a person of this unshakable moral center and Lewis Buchhalter, who becomes Louis Lefty.
Famous mobster, famous Jewish mobster.
Steve Pomeranz: Ruthless mobster.
Andrew Gross: Who is known since his early years on the lower east side and who, ultimately, you know are going to end up face to face in a confrontation.
Steve Pomeranz: So I know that your family was a big part of the garment trade and Button Man is about that.
Is much of this autobiographical?
Andrew Gross: It is. I actually set out to write my grandfather’s story. He was that person who quit school at 12 and ended up running—but it’s before he was 20—ended up running the company he apprenticed in and then did square off against the forces of organized crime.
My grandfather was a man who, until the day he died, would be happy to lift his shirt and show you the stab wounds that he carried his whole life, courtesy of Louis Lefty’s henchman, whose name was Garah. Jacob Shapiro, known Garah. And who, at the time, early on, the unions were corrupt, so It took a certain kind of person to stand up to them.
And whether or not, ultimately my grandfather was the most successful. I mean, he built a large company, it ended up being on the New York Stock Exchange, and he did rather well in life. But even more than that, any of his contemporaries would tell you that he was the toughest SOB of any of them. So I did set out to write his story.
Steve Pomeranz: That’s a great story. Well, there’s some threads between this story and your family and my family a little bit. My father was in the garment business. He was a salesman; he sold woman’s clothes down here in South Florida for many years as well as New York.
My last name is Pomeranz, the founder of the company you’re talking about…
Andrew Gross: Yeah, my family name is Pomerantz too.
Steve Pomeranz: Pomerantz too, exactly. Now, of course, you have a T, and as I always tell my listeners, there’s no T in my Pomeranz when you go to the website.
Andrew Gross: Well, we usually encounter Pomeranzes occasionally with ce, and I go, no, we’re the Jewish one.
Steve Pomeranz: Exactly, so there is that. I don’t think my father was involved in any of this type of thing at all. So your grandfather started the company, Leslie Fay? Am I correct?
Andrew Gross: Yes.
Steve Pomeranz: Yeah, and that was the company he took public. Go ahead.
Andrew Gross: No, I was going to say, depending on how old your listeners are…[COUGH]…so sorry. A little chest cold.
They would know it. And our company, especially since your listeners, I think, have a financial interest, was one of the first of the CEO scandals.
It ended up having an $80 million overstatement of income in 1993, I believe, and ended up running through its covenants and going Chapter 11. When I left the firm, I used to work with it before I started writing, it was doing close to a billion dollars when a billion dollars was a billion dollars.
And eventually, it just shrank down to nothing and became delisted.
Steve Pomeranz: All right, you talk about when you started writing. So you were in that business, and you got out of that business, and one of your first gigs was writing with James Patterson. How did that come about?
Andrew Gross: After I left our family company, I ended up doing turnarounds in the sports apparel field like Head skis, Head tennis, was a big one and a couple of others. And one of them didn’t turn around. So I came home one day without a role in life and my wife said, what are we going to do?
Having three kids in private school and living that sort of life, and I looked at her and I said we’re going to write a novel. And unbeknownst to her, I’ve been doodling this idea around for a thriller and, in any case, so I say, give me a year. So the year turned into three years and ultimately, I was drifting farther away than anything I knew how to do in life.
But I had this book, and in the end, the book got rejected by 27 publishers. And I had no idea what I was going to do in life. Sort of having already driven my family off the cliff to do this for three years and out of the blue, I got a call.
And someone said, could you take a call from James Patterson? And keeping in mind that something like 16, 17 years ago, Patterson wasn’t quite the person, the big business force, that he is today, but he was still a number one author. And as far as I’m concerned, the fact that he had somehow read my book, it had been given to him by the president of Little Brown, his publisher, and he said, basically, you got the goods.
Would you like to meet? We met in White Plains, in a diner in White Plains and he proposed this idea he had of a new series other than his Alex Cross series, and I became his first co-author. And now he’s got plenty of them, and, of course, he’s bringing out eight to ten books a year.
Steve Pomeranz: Yeah.
Andrew Gross: Even more, but going back, I was his first, and he wanted to do a brand extension into these four women crime fighters. We ended up setting it in San Francisco and do another series. And it was sort of a radical idea back then. At this point, a lot of the large branded authors are augmenting their own work with the work of co-authors.
Steve Pomeranz: I have a question about the role of the co-author. It made me think of the composer, John Williams of Star Wars and all of these great Spielberg movies. And from what I understand, he writes the themes, the emotional inflection points, some of the voicings on it.
And then there’s other people who actually fill in the blanks. Is that the role of a co-author, or how does that actually work?
Andrew Gross: [LAUGH] Well, I don’t know. It depends, and I can’t speak to how everybody works, but I would think more Dick Wolf as a creator of content and individual people would write the episodes.
Or even Rembrandt [LAUGH] or sort of the school of Rembrandt, although I don’t want to overstate it, artistically. But I will say, just in a sentence, that when I was working with Jim, every book I did with him, came from his idea and his original outline. And my role was to take that outline and maybe stretch it out into a full novel.
And then you can usually assume that the person who’s below the line is perhaps doing a lot of the day to day work. But I will also say that Jim also had last draft on all of the things we did together. And things can change in that last draft as well, so it was a collaboration, I was happy to do it.
It got me a strong platform when I started working on my own, in the sense that I had bestseller status because, ultimately, I went from no name to equal billing on three or four books. Developed sort of a branding of my own at that point. So when I went on my own, publishers sort of looked at me as someone who could have bestseller status.
Steve Pomeranz: Yeah, yeah, my guest is Andrew Gross. We’re talking about his new book, Button Man, about the garment industry. And we’re also talking about the business of publishing and things like that. So that phone call, lightning struck for you, lucky man. And it’s interesting because a couple of years ago, I interviewed Winston Groom, the author of Forrest Gump. And he had a similar experience. He kind of hung around with the muckety-mucks up in New York State or on the Island somewhere. And he started writing and he presented his books to some of them and they encouraged him.
And next thing you know, he gets a call from an editor and lightning struck for him. So I asked him about editors and about that experience, and he said most editors are not editors anymore, they’re book buyers. Is that true in your case, do you feel the same way?
Andrew Gross: Well, the role is different, I mean, this is not Maxwell Perkins and F. Scott Fitzgerald anymore. I mean they’re, in my case, editors are sort of custodians of the book. Yes, they are book buyers and then they are custodians in the publishing process. So, they basically get your book through all the aspects of publication.
Now, there is a little editing to it and depending on who your editor is, it’s more or less of that. The most important thing that I rely on my editor for is to resolve the big macro issues in a book. The motivations, whether it achieves suspense, whether the characters are believable.
But at the same time, they have over time evolved sort of into business people as much as literary people.
Steve Pomeranz: Yeah, so look, the publishing industry has dramatically changed over the last 10, 15 years. There’s a lot of self-publishing now. Have you ever done the self-publishing thing or have you been in traditional publishing because if you start with-
Andrew Gross: I’ve been in traditional publishing and I mean, I have to admit that I’ve never actually earned a royalty other than on foreign rights because the thing is if you’re earning royalties, your agent didn’t do a good enough job for you. And I suppose that I have always been part of a legacy publishing business.
There are these break-out stories of people who succeeded at self-publishing. But it’s a very difficult process, you might even get one book that sells well. It’s hard to follow that up the way that is in publishing where you have someone who’s responsible for sort of building a brand.
You’re on your own in self-publishing. So even if you get sort of a breakout book, there’s no guarantee that whether it’s Amazon or whoever will turn that into a career for you. So it’s really a long shot. I mean, it’s a long shot even in regular publishing at this point.
It’s an industry that’s stacked against in a big way, but self-publishing is even more so. And the fact of the matter is, there’s good and bad in self-publishing. Quickly, the good is that people who are storytellers and, for whatever reason, couldn’t get their stories to market, have a chance to do so, so that’s nice.
On the other hand, it just puts an awful lot of clutter out there in the publishing universe, an awful lot of inventory. A lot of mediocre inventory at best. And everybody is reading a little piece of it. It sort of takes away from the market as well.
Steve Pomeranz: I think clutter describes everything that has happened to us because of the explosion online.
Whether it’s news, whether it’s music, there’s just so much of it out there. It’s really hard to kind of filter it all down and find the best of the best, and I think that’s kind of where…
Andrew Gross: It is, yeah.
Steve Pomeranz: …traditional publishing did its job. It is said that if you’re lucky, you may have one good novel; if you’re extremely lucky, you may have two.
You’ve had many more than two. Are you lucky? Are you talented? What’s the story? [LAUGH]
Andrew Gross: [LAUGH] Well, I am lucky in that my book could have easily been rejected. And I don’t know what industry I’d be in now were it not for whatever hands put it in Jim Patterson’s, so I am lucky.
At the same time, there was a nexus between luck and skill. And so I think I bring something to the table. I do write historical novels at this point, not just thrillers-
Steve Pomeranz: Yeah, I wanted to ask you.
Andrew Gross: Historical thrillers.
Steve Pomeranz: Yeah, you’ve changed your mode here.
You’ve got a new publisher I understand, and now you’ve written this kind of a historical novel about your family called Button Man, we’re talking about. Are you going to be moving into this area specifically now?
Andrew Gross: No, I have, this is my fourth book. It’s historically set. My first was a story of my wife’s family called The One Man, which was set, a lot of it’s set in Auschwitz.
It was his Holocaust story and received a lot of attention. So The One Man, and now this one, is really based on my family’s story, but it’s still a thriller at heart and a story set in the 20s and 30s in New York. And in a subject that could be very interesting to people because, I’m not sure how much people know about the Jewish Mob, but in the day, the Jewish Mob was a lot bloodier than the Italian Mob.
As a matter of fact, the Italian Mob used to farm out its hits to the Jewish Mob who turned it into a business for hire, hence the name Murder Incorporated. So, yeah, so this is sort of a terrain that I’m in now at this time period. Yeah, I sort of do like writing books now that have a lot more atmosphere, a lot more historical setting.
And the outcome of the book impacts how history goes as well. So, to me, it’s a richer theme to be mining.
Steve Pomeranz: I don’t think we’ve heard a lot about the Jewish Mafia, so I think that would be a good track. My guest, Andrew Gross. The book is Button Man.
He has written many books, and also co-authored with James Patterson. Remember folks, to hear this and any interview again or if you have a question about what we’ve just discussed, visit our website stevepomeranz.com, no T in Pomeranz, stevepomeranz.com to join the conversation. While you’re there, sign up for our weekly update for a brief rundown on the important topics we’ve covered that week, straight to your inbox.
That’s stevepomeranz.com. Andrew, thank you so much for spending your time with us today.
Andrew Gross: You bet, my pleasure. Thank you, Steve.