A Conversation with Adam Sternbergh, culture editor of The New York Times Magazine and author of the debut novel SHOVEL READY (Crown, January 14, 2014)
Q) Shovel Ready is your first book. A genre-busting debut novel that can best be summed up as a futuristic-dystopian-virtual-reality-hit-man-noir. Set in the bomb ravaged center of . . . New York City. How did you come up with the conceit?
A) I’ve lived in New York for the last nine years, but I’ve been obsessed with the city since I was an American-born kid growing up in Toronto, Canada. Back then, in the ’70s and ’80s, New York existed in everyone’s imaginations, including mine, in a very different way than it does now. It was a real-life urban dystopia—and it definitely was portrayed that way in movies like The Warriors; Fort Apache, The Bronx; The Taking of Pelham One Two Three; and of course, Escape from New York, in which Manhattan is literally a prison. Then, in a shockingly short amount of time, New York was remade, both in reality and, much more dramatically, in pop culture. Suddenly we had shows like Friends and Sex and the City, in which New York was recast as a fabulous, glittering cocktail party with no end, rather than a borderline penal colony roamed by gang members dressed like clowns.
Q) While Shovel Ready is fiction, you were very much inspired by the idea of what it would take for the tourists to leave New York City and for the city itself to shut down. Tell us about that.
A) I worked at New York magazine for six very fun years, and much of that time was spent covering the early aughts real-estate boom, when segments of New York were being rapidly reshaped in a way that, thirty years ago, would have seemed unthinkable. As a writer, I’m intrigued by the unthinkable. So I’d often wonder: What kind of circumstance could possibly send New York back to the state it was in during the ’70s and ’80s? Or to an even worse, more desolate state? It’s hard to recall now, but at one point New York City was so desperate to lure tourists that it launched the now-famous “I Love New York” ad campaign, complete with Frank Sinatra in a TV commercial professing his love for the city. Now, New York draws over 50 million tourists a year, and just surpassed Disney World as the most visited domestic tourist attraction in America. Disney World! That’s amazing.
Q) The novel is set mainly in New York, Brooklyn, and Hoboken. As a Brooklyn resident who commutes to the city each day, was it fun for you to envision what the bars and parks and buildings in each of these communities would look like post (hypothetical) dirty bomb, and what kind of people would inhabit these communities?
A) It was disturbingly fun, in the sense that I included so many of my favorite, iconic New York locations in the book, though often in a very different form than they exist now. Not just Times Square, but Prospect Park, the Red Hook waterfront, the Public Library in Bryant Park—every corner of New York is already so suffused with mythology, both real and cultural, that it makes for an incredibly fun fictional playground. If you set a scene (as I did) in an abandoned bank building, it’s not just set in the financial center of the city, as it might be in, say, Chicago. It’s on Wall Street! Those two words alone come with so much history and resonance.
Q) Your protagonist, Spademan, is a garbageman turned killer-for-hire. An interesting choice of character. When did the idea of Spademan first pop into your mind?
A) Spademan is a character I dreamed up many years ago. Most hard-boiled books of the kind that I love feature a central character with a code: usually one that places him or her outside the normal bounds of morality. With Spademan, I thought: What if you took that idea of a code to its most nihilistic extreme? Basically, someone who will simply kill strangers, no questions asked? How would someone reach that point? And could that person possibly be redeemed?
Q) Spademan is a killer, but he has a very clearly defined sense of right-and-wrong. What made you imbue this character with a conscience and compassion? Was it difficult to weave into a thriller?
A) I think it would be hard to spend an entire novel with a central character with no conscience or compassion, or at least it would be for me (as for a villain, that’s another story). Plus, I think if you ask the question of a character “Where does he draw the line?,” it’s a much more interesting answer to say, “Here’s where—and here’s why” than it is to say “He doesn’t.” As it turned out, some of my very favorite parts of the book to write were the parts that address Spademan’s backstory: basically, the “why” of how he got to where he is. And over the course of Shovel Ready, he has to reevaluate his sense of right and wrong all over again.
Q) There is so much religious iconography in the book: Harrow’s evangelism, his version of heaven in the limnosphere, Simon the Magician, etc. Do you think that conservative religion will play a big part in the apocalypse?
A) Evangelical religion is certainly very concerned with the idea of the apocalypse—the Greek root of the word “apocalypse” refers specifically to Revelations and the Christian end-of-the-world story. Because of my upbringing, I’m very familiar with this terrain, and I find it all to be incredibly potent, resonant material (it’s a cliché to say “The Bible is great literature!” but the Bible really is great literature). Once I’d figured out that there was going to be a virtual-world component in Shovel Ready, the religious material naturally dovetailed with that. You have to think that, for a certain kind of person, the very first virtual realm they would want to build is some imagined version of heaven.
Q) You seem to blend a lot of different genres to make something totally original: mystery, noir, sci-fi, dystopia. Are you a fan of those kinds of books? What made you want to mash them all up for your first novel?
A) Definitely. I love hard noir like Richard Stark’s Parker novels and the crime fiction of Jim Thompson, and I also love speculative fiction like Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson and the work of William Gibson, which is increasingly less about “the future” and more about the overwhelming strangeness of the contemporary world. For my own book, it wasn’t so much a case of mashing these genres up than of simply not drawing any boundaries. To never say to myself: Wait, you can’t do that because this isn’t that kind of book. One inspiration was Colson Whitehead’s brilliant novel The Intuitionist, which refuses to play by any established rules. My favorite movies, too, engage in this kind of brazen cross-genre sampling: Inception is a sci-fi near-future heist movie; Children of Men is a hard-boiled dystopian mystery.
Q) Why do you think that thrillers, which used to be consigned to the pulp racks, have become so mainstream? Do you think the storytelling has gotten stronger, the audiences more willing to accept the high concepts, or some combination of the two?
A) All of the above. Plus I think you have a generation of writers, led perhaps most prominently by Jonathan Lethem, Michael Chabon, and Colson Whitehead, who grew up experiencing a certain kind of unadulterated pleasure while reading pulp novels and thrillers and comic books, and who not only refuse to feel apologetic about that, but strive to infuse their own work with those same pleasures.
At the same time, you’ve got a critical revisionist movement that reconsiders writers like Jim Thompson or Patricia Highsmith or even Stan Lee—you could easily name a dozen more examples—and recognizes they were working at a very high level of craft. And then you’ve got a reading public that has grown out of antiquated classifications and is simply hungry for a thrilling, engaging, visceral read.
When I was working at New York magazine, I edited the Approval Matrix for many years, a chart which classifies current cultural events as Highbrow, Lowbrow, Brilliant and Despicable. One day, another editor, who I can safely say was of an older generation than my own, complained that we were being out of touch by calling things like comic books “lowbrow,” as if this was the greatest insult possible. The thing was, to us, the phrase was not pejorative at all. It never occurred to us that calling something “lowbrow” was an insult—or that comic books couldn’t be art. So this distinction between “pulp” and “art” is one that, I think, only really persists in the world of literature. No one seems to have a problem with the fact that a film like The Maltese Falcon is a classic, full stop, no asterisk. Increasingly, I think writers—and readers—feel the exact same way about the books they write, and read, and love. They’re less interested in what category a book falls into than in whether or not it thrills them to the core.
Q) Shovel Ready was recently optioned by Warner Bros. for a film, with Denzel Washington now attached to the project. What was your first thought when you heard the news? When you pictured Spademan during the writing process, what did he look like?
A) I’m pretty sure my first thought was HOLY SHIT DENZEL WASHINGTON IS ATTACHED TO THE PROJECT. I have my own mental image of Spademan, obviously, and I hope the reader will, as well. Warner Bros. has been responsible for some of my favorite movies in recent years, several of which had an influence on the novel—The Dark Knight and Inception, for starters—so I was thrilled they were interested in Shovel Ready. As for Denzel Washington, what can you say? The list of actors who can carry an excellent action film and have also won multiple Oscars is essentially one person long.
Q) As the culture editor for The New York Times Magazine it must be hard to find time to work on your own projects. Tell us a bit about your writing process. In what way does your experience editing other people’s writing affect how you approached your debut novel?
A) For a long time, no one knew I was working on Shovel Ready, not even my wife. I would just wake up very early—pre-sun-up, in the wintertime—and work on my Project X. Then I’d head off to work at the Times Magazine and put on my editor’s hat, which was actually a really satisfying and beneficial shift. Editing great writers, as I often get to do, is helpful because you spend a lot of time reading great writing and you get a firsthand look at how the sausage is made. In fact, you’re often right in there, hands covered in sausage guts.
Q) Shovel Ready is written in a spare, stripped-down style, that’s quite different from the journalism you’ve written. What explains that difference?
A) One thing I love about the best noir writing is how it flirts shamelessly with poetry. Not just the obvious examples, like Raymond Chandler, the Godfather of the American Simile, but writers like James Ellroy, or James Sallis, or, more recently, Megan Abbott. With a writer like Ellroy, you get exhilarating, fantastically crafted prose and a breakneck story to boot, which to me is an irresistible combination. Also, as a kid, I was always intrigued by the power of words —especially two words placed in juxtaposition. The shortest Bible verse, famously, is “Jesus wept,” which is a really enviable model of literary economy. In the modern world, I absolutely love Twitter and the brevity it forces on you. And I love hip-hop lyrics, which seems like one of the last American frontiers for pure linguistic playfulness.
Q) Beyond crime and science-fiction writers, what were the other influences on Shovel Ready?
A) I’ve loudly and publicly professed my love of ’80s America action films, in particular what I consider the Holy Trinity: Commando, Aliens, and Die Hard. So much has been written, justifiably, about the Golden Age of American Cinema in the 1970s, but I think the ’80s were, in their own way, another Golden Age. A whole new, distinctly American genre was born. Unfortunately, these movies—and, in some cases, the actors who starred in them—slid very quickly into self-parody. But if there’s a more entertaining movie in existence than Aliens, I’ve yet to see it. And Die Hard is like a perfect machine for the manufacturing of joy.
Q) You’ve interviewed authors, writers, celebrities, and movie directors for your work at The New York Times Magazine. Who was your favorite? Or who is the one person you’d love to interview?
A) They are all my children and I love them all equally. That said, some were a very great thrill. I had the fortune of profiling Mark Leyner, a writer who’s long been a personal hero of mine. I really loved talking about science fiction and storytelling with Rian Johnson, the director of Brick, The Brothers Bloom, and most recently, Looper. And it was exceptionally enjoyable to profile Stephen Colbert. He’s an extremely bright and articulate guy—and, of course, hilarious.
As for the one person I’d love to interview, it’s a tricky question. I certainly have people I admire, but I’ve also learned that meeting your creative heroes, especially in a journalistic context, can be a mixed blessing. That said, as of this writing, I have an interview scheduled with Harrison Ford, who played basically every character I adored as a kid (and more than a few as an adult). So my 10-year-old self is absolutely beside himself.
Q) What’s next for Spademan?
A) Once I started building this world, I knew I would not want to leave anytime soon. Thankfully, Crown has agreed to let me write a Spademan follow-up to Shovel Ready, which will continue the story. I would love to tell you what’s going to happen in it, but that would give away too much about the first book; and we would both ultimately feel disappointed. So go read Shovel Ready and then we can talk.
“Bogart-cool. . . . Razor-sharp. . . . The page-turning mood of Shovel Ready is addictive, by turns death-metal brutal and darkly hilarious.” —Entertainment Weekly
“[Sternbergh] skillfully blends elements of noir, sci-fi, and speculative fiction, and keeps the action and the dialogue energetic.” —The New Yorker
“A searing debut. . . . Stark dialogue and high-volume grit, which Sternbergh enhances with sci-fi and dark humor. . . . [This] shady antihero may have a long life ahead.” —USA Today
“[A] sardonic thriller that serves up lots of barbs. . . . Uniquely engaging. . . . A great read, and its world still manages to hold you in its dirty clutches until the violent, fascinating conclusion.” —io9.com
“Energetic. . . . An enjoyable read.” —The Boston Globe
“A fast-paced thriller. . . . Darkly humorous, darkly cynical and darkly violent. Yeah, pretty dark. But the spare prose and no-nonsense voice of the troubled hitman narrator is so riveting and sympathetic that it is really difficult to put this book down.” —Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, The Orange County Register
“The best of two dark, amoral, existentially empty worlds!” —Time
“Boy, does this plot drive. It’s one of those books so gripping you read the whole thing in a single go. . . . Swift, [with] expertly timed twists and shocks, very hard to put down.” —The Guardian (UK)
“A lean thriller. . . . Sternbergh knows his way around the style, matching the staccato rhythms of violence to those of language. . . . [If] you want to know if it’s as awesome as it sounds. It is.” —Chicago Tribune
“Reads like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road set in New York. . . . [An] agreeably macho dystopia.” —Newsweek
“Sternbergh’s prose is lean and sparse. . . . Shovel Ready is exciting. It starts fast and the author keeps his foot on the gas. The thrills feel earned.” —The Globe and Mail
“Darkly funny.” —New York
“Memorably entertaining and garishly funny, Sternbergh’s debut novel is a winner.” —Cleveland Plain-Dealer
“The best kind of hard boiled noir.” —GQ
“Sternbergh comes busting out of the gate with this gritty noir.” —Flavorwire
“Thrilling. . . . Like Raymond Chandler on a sleepless cyberpunk jag. . . . Sternbergh adroitly delivers shadowy adventure tropes within a surprisingly breezy read.”—Time Out New York
“Gripping. . . . A sharp, thought-provoking thriller. . . . The strongest impact of the book is the constant feeling it gives that the ghosts of 9/11 still haunt New York.” —National Post
“Stunning. . . . Mixing dystopian science fiction and urban noir with a Palahniuk swagger, this could well be the first novel everybody is talking about.” —Booklist (starred review)
“Spademan is an unlikely yet tragic hero, and it takes a talented author to make a reader root for such a damaged and ruthless man. Lean prose is punctuated by moments of shocking violence that only serve to underscore the novel’s underlying humanity. . . . This is a gripping genre mash-up and a stunning debut.” —Library Journal (starred review)
“Hardboiled as f*** with writing as fierce and sharp as a paper-cut.” —Lauren Beukes, author of The Shining Girls
“With prose chiseled to hardboiled perfection and a tale that throbs with the keen ache of noir, Adam Sternbergh’s Shovel Ready reads like William Gibson as directed with inky brilliance by Christopher Nolan. Debut novels as sleek, resonant and accomplished as this are a rare gift.” —Megan Abbott, author of Dare Me
“Shovel Ready tosses you off a precipice and you don’t know where you're going to land. Dark and often funny, with sparse, sharp language. Think Charlie Huston’s dystopian New York meets Richard Stark’s anti-hero— this is good, bitter fun.” —Toby Barlow, author of Sharp Teeth and Babayaga
“Shovel Ready is an elegant, lean and clever noir. It’s the best sci-fi thriller I’ve read since Snow Crash.” —Roger Hobbs, author of Ghostman
“A terrific debut. It has the grimy neon feel of Warren Ellis’s Transmetropolitan combined with a touch of Philip K. Dick’s gonzo cyberpunk.” —Austin Grossman, author of You and Soon I Will Be Invincible
“Compulsive! Savage future noir that crackles with deadpan wit.” —Nick Harkaway, author of The Gone-Away World and Angelmaker