Michael Grothaus is a novelist and journalist who spent years researching sex trafficking, using his experiences as a springboard for his debut novel Epiphany Jones. Born in Saint Louis, Missouri in 1977, he spent his twenties in Chicago where he earned his degree in filmmaking and worked for institutions including The Art Institute of Chicago, Twentieth Century Fox, and Apple. As a journalist he regularly writes about creativity, tech, subcultures, sex and pornography, the effects of mass media on our psyches, and just plain mysterious stuff for publications including Fast Company, VICE, Guardian, Engadget, and more. He’s also done immersion journalism at geopolitical events including the Hong Kong protests against Beijing in 2014. His writing is read by millions of people each month. Michael lives in London.
Can you tell us a little bit about your debut novel Epiphany Jones?
EPIPHANY JONES is the story of a man named Jerry who suffers from a number of addictions and psychological afflictions. The biggest affliction is that he sees people who don’t really exist as easily as you or I see people who do exist. As if Jerry’s life weren’t bad enough already, things take a major turn for the worse when he’s accused of stealing a million dollar painting from a museum he works for and then gets framed for the murder of a colleague by a woman who says she talks to God. Jerry is then blackmailed by this woman into helping her on her crusade against a sex trafficking ring that caters to the Hollywood elite.
What inspired you to write a book with sex trafficking as its main theme?
I actually started out wanting to write a satire about our society’s addiction to sex and celebrity. This is mainly because I used to work in the film industry and grew sick and tired of the inherent shallowness of it and the self-importance of those in the industry. I’ve always been fascinated with this tabloid society we live in where we voyeuristically follow the latest celebrity breakups and spats and gossip, while ignoring news that actually does make an impact on our life; a world where a leaked sex tape could make a wannabe actress into a household name and global brand, but one where most people couldn’t tell you who the Leader of the Opposition was.
But while working in the industry and seeing some questionable things at some of the after parties that are held during the Cannes Film Festival I started researching sex trafficking and was shocked to discover how widespread this modern slavery is—especially in some elite circles. That’s when I decided to still go forwards with the satire on Hollywood culture, but combine it with the much darker story of sex trafficking among the Hollywood elite.
What aspects of the storyline did you find the hardest to write?
The things in the book about sex trafficking which are true, versus situations I’ve made up for the story. What happens to these victims—and they aren’t only young girls, they are boys as well—is horrifying. These slaves are physically and mentally abused hour after hour, day after day, sometimes for years. It’s suffering of the worst kind.
People always ask me what I’ve made up and what is real that I’ve learned from my research. I never tell them, but when they guess, they’re usually wrong. It’s easier for people to believe suffering of that scale doesn’t take place.
There is a dark (and often laugh-out-loud) humour pervading the book. Why did you choose to write it like this?
I wanted to explore sex trafficking via a protagonist who wasn’t a hero; who doesn’t even at first realize modern slavery exists or have a desire to fix it. But I also wanted this person to be the worst personification of our addiction to celebrity. Jerry has an incredible arc throughout the book, but he is very messed up in the beginning and I knew people wouldn’t bond with him right away so I needed to make him, if not likeable, then at least funny. If Jerry is funny you’ll stick with him because he’s entertaining and you’ll stick with him long enough to where, as you find out more about him and why he is the way he is, you actually not only start to like him, but feel for him, and even love him.
At a recent panel, you discussed the ‘reverse geography’ of the book. Can you explain this?
Sure. Sex trafficking is a global problem and like any illegal trade there are a myriad number of trafficking routes. One of those routes—and there are several—for victims that end up in the US begins usually in Eastern Europe where the victims are moved west to the Iberian Peninsula. They then board a boat, are shipped to Mexico and then, eventually, cross the US-Mexico border.
In the book, Jerry is blackmailed by Epiphany to go from place to place and the route they travel is the exact opposite of the trafficking route I just described. It begins in Chicago and ends in Europe. Because of Epiphany’s hold over Jerry, he has, in effect, become “reversed trafficked” in the book.
Describe Jerry in three words.
Broken but redeemable.
How long did it take to write Epiphany Jones before you submitted it to your agent/publisher?
I first started taking notes for what would become EPIPHANY JONES way back in the year 2000. In 2003 I wrote the first three chapters in one night, then I put the book away until 2007 and wrote the first draft over the course of two years. Then I became very busy with journalism work and put the book away again. I dusted it off in 2013, got an agent, and here we are.
What can we expect from you next?
I have a rule where I never discuss the plot of the book I’m current working on even with my agent, but the larger themes of the book involve national identity and infidelity.
Do you think your journalism experience helped when writing/editing a full-length manuscript?
Probably not. It helped with research, but as for prose and the overarching beats of a novel-length work, journalism and novel writing couldn’t be any more different.
Describe your writing style, are you a plotter or a pantster?
I generally don’t plot. Plotted writing is too mechanical. I write to rhythms and beats in my head and I make stuff up as I go along.
Have you treated yourself to something to celebrate publishing your debut novel?
No, I’m way to busy. But I might take a trip to Japan next year to celebrate.
A man with a consuming addiction. A woman who talks to God.
And the secret connection that could destroy them both…
A complex, page-turning psychological thriller, riddled with twists and turns, Epiphany Jones is also a superb dark comedy with a powerful emotional core. You’ll laugh when you know you shouldn’t, be moved when you least expect it and, most importantly, never look at Hollywood, celebrity or sex in the same way again. This is an extraordinary debut from a fresh, exceptional new talent.