Andrew Gross on changing careers
So, readers, I’m driving down the turnpike to come to Bouchercon on Thursday. I have fond personal memories of Baltimore. For six years I worked in Columbia, Maryland as president of HEAD Sportswear, makers of ski, tennis and golfwear, and spent a lot of time here in town. This is my first time back.
It’s a good meditation on the vagaries of life to think back on that time. Then, I was a 24/7 guy who was pushing with everything he had to restore luster to a tarnished tennis and ski brand. I had an MBA from Columbia, a lot of chutzpah and ambition, traveled two hundred days a year, and my final thoughts before falling asleep each night were generally how to rebuild the brand. Writing crime thrillers then was about as far from my reality as conversing in Chinese. In 1989, when HEAD became #1 again in both tennis and ski, (and we celebrated with a massive party in Las Vegas,) I felt a sense of personal triumph I doubted would ever be equaled in my life.
Flash forward 20 years. A couple of turnaround opportunities didn’t quite turn around. All the chutzpah and ambition in the world couldn’t fight a market declining 15 percent a year. One day I found myself out. Desperate, I gave myself over to this nagging whim I had carried since college, more outright fancy than thought-out.
I had this cool idea for a thriller.
I begged my wife for a year. Got her to agree. We took the kids out of private school. I went at things with the same determination and single-mindedness I had shown in business — vacuuming in whatever knowledge I could, applying it to whatever skill I brought — monitoring, auditing, improving, until I had this heavy draft that shone to me like a diamond, that was going to make the publishing world stand up and welcome me in.
It never sold. Got close. Found a fancy agent, raised a few brows. What it did do, though, was miraculously find its way into the hands of a top-selling author looking to partner up with someone to get out a few more ideas. That first breakfast with Jim Patterson changed my writing life. We did a book. It went to #1, his first. We did five more. They all went there too. Over, seven years it became probably the best co-writing gig in the business. And what I learned from Jim was invaluable-- like a combination MFA-MBA.
Seeing my name at the top of the lists, boarding planes and counting my books as I passed the rows, it was that same triumphant feeling all over again.
So here I am in Baltimore again. This time I have two novels of my own, The Blue Zone and The Dark Tide. Both made the N.Y. Times list. Maybe not #1, but climbing. I’ve been writing crime thrillers for twelve years. I’m struck by the amazing way life has come full circle—diverse, rewarding, fulfilling in ways I never imagined. And also by how it’s changed. No one here would ever even recall I once had something to do with the HEAD company. Once I traveled relentlessly; now, I rarely leave the house. Once I was so obsessed I yelled at a Miami sales rep for not being out on the road in Hurricane Andrew. Now I talk about seeing your kids grow up, finding balance, advising burnt out business people on how to reinvent their careers.
Once I stayed awake at night plotting growth strategies. Now, I’m still awake, just plotting.