This Weird Third Thing

We don’t see his expression. I think we all realize that we’ve failed to be the hero at various times in our lives. Sternbergh’s world is a dark one, populated with characters that wallow in its expansive gray areas. Okay, now a dash more Western! But as readers follow the case, spurred by a new, eager deputy, a greater mystery unfolds — one that might drag the sleepy town’s long-simmering secrets out into the light. Your earlier novels are more entrenched in the dystopian/post-apocalyptic space, while The Blinds takes a much more, I guess, cozy approach to a potentially dark near-future. Are there books or authors that inspired The Blinds in particular, or that you point to as major influences? How you knew this was the idea you wanted to actualize next, and the path you took to getting it published? I knew I wanted to accommodate multiple POVs, and employ a more descriptive writing style that could linger a bit on the landscape and the characters and the emotional quandaries they find themselves in. Sternbergh’s crisply written and well-paced novel is as much a crime piece as a speculative work, and uses a wider version of the same darkly futuristic lens he introduced in his two post-apocalyptic “Spademan” books Shovel Ready and Near Enemy. We just see the back of his car. All of that is a lead-in to asking: What went into The Blinds to start off with? There’s a lot of commentary on things like social media, the 24-hour news cycle, and the like in the book, if you want to find it. The results demonstrated that, when we think of others, we think in absolutes: that person is a greedy person, or a selfish person, or a happy person. Did you have the loose high concept first, a key moment, or were you thinking of a specific issue you wanted to explore? I love a narrative, like Herman Koch’s The Dinner, that takes place over one meeting, one dinner, one day, one week, that sort of thing. How much time, if any, did you spend pondering where your book would be grouped? All my novels, in some way, come back to the idea of redemption: can your present and future decisions redeem your past transgressions? See, Caesura — or, “The Blinds,” as the residents have dubbed it — is not your typical Texas burg. ¤
Alex Segura is a novelist and comic book writer. But we hold out hope that we still have the chance to be a hero in the future. The themes that kept popping up to me while reading all dance around privacy and identity, and the idea that not everything is as it seems and that we can’t really escape our pasts. Shovel Ready and Near Enemy are both written in a very spare, almost telegraphic style, which is in part to separate those projects from my journalistic writing, and in part the influence of my favorite stylists, ranging from James Ellroy to the great Canadian writer Derek McCormack. You do a great job of showing the spectrum of reactions to that, and how some of the characters can change over time. It feels very thought out and layered, without being needlessly dense. When we think of ourselves, however, we think situationally: i.e., I may act greedy sometimes, or sometimes feel happy, but really I am a multifaceted person capable of all those things, given the situation. We spoke over email following the novel’s release. The Blinds is a smart, savvy genre-blend of a story, with echoes of Jim Thompson’s desolation, the antiseptic loneliness and curated flashbacks of Lost, and a bit of the creeping anxiety of Stephen King’s early Bachman books for good measure. I’ve always been drawn to confined stories —   confined in space, confined in time, confined in the number of characters who are interacting. But one of the things that stood out to me while reading The Blinds was how natural it all felt, and I think it’s a testament to story trumping the urge to label or qualify. To me, that’s the most exquisite kind of moment possible. To me, a big part of the romance of frontier life —   whether in the Old West or on some future Mars colony —   is paring back to the essentials and leaving all the mental clutter of the modern world behind. The Blinds, which is set in a cut-off town in remote Texas, is about as far away from those other novels, geographically and otherwise, as I could get. He unfurls their secrets carefully, leaving a trail of revelations that exist as clues serving the plot but also make for crisp and memorable world-building in the style of Margaret Atwood and other masters of speculative fiction. There’s a shot in Fargo that is, hands down, my favorite moment in any film: when William H. The exhibit basically asked you to rate a series of attributes, such as “Greedy” or “Happy,” on a scale from Never True to Sometimes True to Always True. In conversation, Sternbergh is candid and reflective, quick to point out the works that influenced The Blinds and how he came to tell this story of lost souls and their attempts at redemption. Adam, The Blinds has a really dark, almost an early Richard Bachman vibe, where we find ourselves in a world a lot like our own, but slightly tipped in one direction. As the bigger mystery unfolds, the preconceptions of the reader — in terms of who to trust, who the hero is, and what the stakes are — get flipped in a gradual way that reminds me of the best domestic suspense and horror novels. Can you talk a bit about the characters, without spoiling anything, and what made them interesting to you as a writer? As for the main character, Calvin Cooper — there’s definitely a clue to his appeal in his name. (Whatever else you might say about the character of Spademan, he’s not someone who lingers on emotional quandaries.)
It took a while and quite a bit of writing and rewriting to feel like I’d really hit the tone I wanted, but eventually I got there. I don’t think of my books as genre-bending —   they’re just stories that include the ideas and events and characters that I think will be the most interesting or thrilling. The irony is, we’re all heroes in our own stories, of course. The film holds, and holds, and holds, and then: The trunk pops open. Of course, my Calvin Cooper turns out to be much more morally conflicted than his namesakes. I’ve always loved the notion of a spiritually isolated community —   whether it’s an Old West frontier town like Deadwood, or a modern-day Amish community, or a penal colony. The book is influenced in many ways by Cormac McCarthy, but it doesn’t sound much like him, mostly because you can never imitate McCarthy without coming off as a bad parody. ADAM STERNBERGH: I’ve written two previous novels, Shovel Ready and Near Enemy, both of which feature a hit-man character named Spademan and take place in a near-future dystopian New York City. Basically, a place where the usual moral order does not apply and the residents are left to fashion their own kind of society. We don’t see Jerry’s face. I definitely knew I was ready to write something different: in setting, in tone, in approach. Here, the question had an interesting additional layer —   What is their past and how does it affect their present even if they themselves don’t now what that past is? It was definitely something I started with —   in a way, it’s what made the whole narrative compelling to me. So it wasn’t hard for me at all to imagine the appeal of living in an isolated place like the Blinds. In The Blinds, that notion goes further: what if you don’t even know what those transgressions were? If you were a villain in one story 20 years ago, can you still be the hero in the story that’s unfolding right now? If that means, in The Blinds, imagining a version of memory-erasure technology that doesn’t exist (yet), then I’ll do that. We join Caesura’s sheriff, the gruff Calvin Cooper, in the early stages of investigating an apparent suicide. You did it once for someone you know, then once for yourself. Calvin —   like the upright, uptight Calvinists (and their philosopher), and Cooper, like Gary Cooper, the most virtuous Hollywood sheriff of all. In that moment, Jerry’s made his moral decision —   to stash the body and further cover up his crime, rather than admit the plot and call it all to a halt —   and the fate of his soul is sealed. And I especially like the idea of a place like that which is then disrupted by a murder —   and the task of one gatekeeper trying to puzzle it all out. It starts simply enough, evoking classic crime fiction in the most direct way — with a dead body. It’s funny, because at first, the idea of having your memory wiped and being thrust into a place with no connection to the outside world sounds terrifying, but on the other hand, I can see how it might even be appealing. Do you want to take this home with you?”
That said, I don’t think I can write any differently than I do. Did you have the “real” histories for the characters pretty well mapped out before you started writing, or was it something that organically revealed itself to you? The plot of The Blinds is inspired in many ways by classic locked-room mysteries such as And Then There Were None —   except here, the “locked room” is a whole town. Did you have privacy on your mind? An influential play for me when I was much younger is No Exit, which is basically four characters in a room (or —   spoiler —   in Hell). I should probably think about this more, because I have been slightly frustrated in the past by the fact that I never quite know where Shovel Ready will end up in a bookstore: some stores shelve it under Crime, some under Science Fiction, and some under General Fiction. In short, The Blinds feels different, but also disturbingly familiar by pulling back the curtain on a world that isn’t that far removed from our own reality. It’s always bothered me a little bit —   and this is just personal preference —   when novels jump ahead 10 years or generally move quickly through time. I’m just drawn to stories that use all the tools in the toolbox, and so that’s also what I end up writing. (Where anyone reading this would be reading it in a zine.) I’m old enough to vividly remember life before the internet, and I’m likely the last generation who will be able to say that. In a sense —   and this is some writerly nitty-gritty here —   the biggest challenge for me in starting The Blinds was finding the right voice in which to tell the story. The entire neighborhood is loaded with criminals who’ve willingly chosen to subjugate their memories and take on new identities — combining the first or last names of old Hollywood celebs and former vice presidents — in the hopes of getting a second chance at life. So in The Blinds, I really wanted to push that idea to the limit: How much does one action or decision in your past define you? And it all unfolds in the most banal sequence imaginable, which makes it all the more haunting. That familiar door-open signal starts to chime: bing bing bing. Similarly, I wanted to find a way to recreate in prose some of those jarring, off-hand moments that I love so much in the Coen brothers’ noir films. If they leave the Blinds, they’ll almost certainly die. Whenever a novel or work appears that doesn’t fit naturally into a genre bucket, there’s some head-spinning about “mixing genres” or what have you, and I get that, being in publishing myself. Your prose is cinematic without feeling overly detailed, which — as a writer myself — is a hard balance to strike. Was it something you discovered yourself, as you set out to craft The Blinds? He’s too late — his father-in-law is dead. Early on in The Blinds, I realized the story would be structured around the idea of one week (technically, five days —   a work week) and as I wrote I really came to like the notion that each day ratchets up the tension and the stakes. ¤
ALEX SEGURA: Can you talk a little bit about the origins of The Blinds? In a regular novel, you spend a lot of time thinking, Okay, what is this character’s past and how would that affect their present? It makes for a really unsettling and up-close feeling, almost like being in a packed elevator. (Readers —   ask for it by name!) Plus, I’ve come to learn that, as a general rule, crime readers approach books with a slightly different set of expectations than speculative fiction readers do. But I’m not writing the book thinking, Hmmm, needs more science fiction! It struck me that The Blinds, while at first blush can be seen as a story of escaping your past, is also a tale of redemption for some. So, in some ways, genre-bending is not commercially a great idea, because it’s like opening a pet store and inviting people in and saying, “Sure, some of you like cats, and some of you like dogs, but who’s interested in this weird third thing? I want to see characters making decisions in a day, an hour, a moment. Was it something you didn’t really worry about until after the writing had been done? But I knew that wasn’t the right voice for this novel. The one thing they do know? Part of the genesis of The Blinds is my ongoing fantasy about becoming, basically, Digital Amish —   renouncing the connectivity of social media and the internet and returning to the bygone analog age of, say, 1994. There was a fascinating psychology exhibit I came across when I used to work, a long time ago, at a science museum in Toronto. NOVEMBER 6, 2017

IN ADAM STERNBERGH’S latest novel, The Blinds, readers are welcomed to the small, mysterious town of Caesura — and pulled into a tale littered with double-crosses, complex motivations, and the powerful desire to overcome one’s past to create a more peaceful, if not necessarily better, future. He is the author of the Miami crime novels Silent City, Down the Darkest Street, and Dangerous Ends. How much of that came during writing and revision? They live on with no knowledge of their past lives or supposed crimes. Do you think that’s a by-product of working in journalism? Macy, as Jerry Lundegaard, pulls up in his car to the rooftop parking garage to try and halt the meeting between his father-in-law and Steve Buscemi’s character.