Flavorwire Interview: Adam Sternbergh on Bridging Dystopian Fiction and Harboiled Noir in ‘Shovel Ready’

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In his debut novel, Shovel Ready, New York Times Magazine Culture Editor Adam Sternbergh has created a dystopian noir that recalls William Gibson, and conjures imagery from film adaptations of Philip K. Dick and Raymond Chandler works — which makes sense, considering that a movie adaptation of the book (starring Denzel Washington) is already in the works. Emerging from his short, sparse sentences, the bombed-out and ruined New York City that Sternbergh portrays is easy to imagine, possibly because ruins are, by nature, minimalist.

Shovel Ready is a highly entertaining addition to the crop of new dystopian fiction released in the last decade, and one that, in some ways, feels eerily familiar. Flavorwire spoke to Sternbergh about crafting a novel that juxtaposes cyberpunk and noir, the resemblance between his fictional New York and the city ca. 2014, and what we can expect from Shovel Ready‘s in-progress sequel.

Flavorwire: Reading Shovel Ready, I thought about how books that fall under the label of “dystopian ficiton” tend to come in two types: they either carry some sort of message, or the author uses the post-apocalyptic setting simply because it makes for an interesting story. You seem to have found the perfect middle ground with Shovel Ready — the setting enhances the story, but you also seem to be commenting on the direction New York is going in (hopefully sans dirty-bomb attack). Why did you originally decide to set the book in a dystopian version of the city?

Adam Sternbergh: I didn’t initially intend for the dystopian New York of Shovel Ready to act as an allegory or a cautionary tale — it was really born more of the pure thought experiment: “Could New York ever go back to something like what it was thirty years ago, and if so, how would that happen?” And, of course, the New York of 30 years ago that I was thinking of was partly the real, bankrupt, 2000-murders-a-year New York, but also the mythical NYC of the 1970s, the one in films like The Warriors and Escape from New York. I mean, back then they literally made a movie in which Manhattan was a penal colony. That’s what people in the rest of the country thought about the city, in its pre-Friends, pre-Sex and the City incarnation.

However, I was also writing the book at a time when the 2008 financial meltdown was still resonating, and Occupy Wall Street was just starting — so all of these issues about what New York, and America, is becoming were obviously in the air. (There is a scene in the book that involves pepper spray that was almost directly inspired by the pepper-spray attack on student protestors at UC Davis.) And it’s been really interesting to have Shovel Ready come out essentially concurrently with the de Blasio election, with its Tale of Two Cities narrative — which I think has shown just how much latent anxiety there is about the growing disparities in the city (and the country).

The short-burst sentences made the book read like William Gibson as edited by Gordon Lish, and the sparseness suits the story. Was it your plan from the start to write the book that way?

I love the idea of Lish and Gibson locked in a room somewhere, hashing out edits! I knew I wanted the story to be told in the voice of Spademan, the main character, but I wasn’t entirely sure at first what that voice would sound like. There’s obviously a tradition in hardboiled writing of short, clipped sentences, and in some way, I wanted to see just how far you could push that style. I was also very inspired by Twitter and the forced brevity of it — Twitter is like a crucible that forces you to melt away any extraneous language. Yet what you’re left with often has a higher impact — a much higher linguistic purity.

For me, it was that minimalist language that made the bombed-out dystopian city so easy to envision. In your mind, how much different does the New York City you write about look from real NYC, 2014?

I’m so glad to hear that, because that was a real challenge for me — trying to convey the look and feel of this city without it turning into a kind of tour bus ride: “On your right, you’ll notice that the Port Authority bus station has been shut down and demolished…” I hoped certain well-chosen details could convey the desolation. In this NYC, some parts of the city are more scarred than others — in the same way that, if you go to modern-day New Orleans, some parts of the city show no scars from Katrina and others have never recovered. For example, in the Red Hook section of Shovel Ready, it was easy for me to imagine a really battered version of Red Hook, since that neighborhood (and others) was hit so hard by Sandy, and we’ve all seen photos of NYC that looked very apocalyptic. But in other parts of the city — say, the east side of Midtown — I really do picture it as basically just like today, but with half as many people. One characteristic of modern NYC is just how crowded it is, especially in Manhattan, especially with so many tourists, so imagining the same streets with no tourists and half the citizens seemed apocalyptic in its own way.

Although I can trace a relationship to certain cyberpunk works from the ’80s and ’90s, more than anything, Shovel Ready reminded me of Repo Man, and evoked Blade Runner more than Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? But there’s also the pronounced noir influence. Do you think the book leans towards one genre more than the other?

I would definitely characterize it as a noir book with a sprinkling of cyberpunk, rather than cyberpunk with a sprinkling of noir. I see its roots pretty firmly in books like the Parker series by Richard Stark, or a few Cormac McCarthy novels, or going even further back to Chandler and Hammett and Cain — i.e., a hardboiled antihero in an inhospitable terrain. It just happens that, in this case, the terrain is near-future New York. Technology is an intrinsic part of that terrain because it’s already such an intrinsic part of the world we live in now.

I was very conscious while writing it that there are practitioners of cyberpunk and other speculative fiction who are incredibly well-versed in current trends and technology, but that’s not something I was looking to bring to this book. I wanted Spademan to basically have the same comprehension of his technological world as an average person today (i.e., me) has about our world (i.e., not that much). He can tell you what something’s called, and what it does, not so much about how it all works — just like I can tell you there’s a thing called an iPhone, and what it does, but I don’t have much insight into its operating system or the details of how it was developed.

You’re at work on a second Spademan novel. Where do you see the story going?

It’s a true sequel, in that it picks up the story roughly one year after the events of Shovel Ready. I’d originally thought a second book would be more in the spirit of a series, in that it’s basically another Spademan adventure with new situations, but it seemed like there were too many big issues left unresolved in the first book to not explore them further. I’m loathe to give away too much about the plot, since that would give away a lot of what happens in the first book — but there are certain circumstances in Shovel Ready that would naturally progress over the course of a year and then present new and interesting consequences. Also, Spademan’s now dealing with the fact that, as a hitman, he’s used to ending people’s lives, not becoming tangled up in them. His life has been totally upended — and now we’ll see just what that means for him.