Thriller writer Adam Sternbergh on spirtuality, redemption and making a living
The Blinds, a new thriller from Adam Sternbergh, takes place in a dusty, isolated West Texas town made up of former criminals and witnesses to crime. The memories and identities of every inhabitant have been erased and replaced with new ones, a system that works to create a tentative sense of order. Eight years of relative peace passes under the stewardship of Sheriff Calvin Cooper, until two violent, sudden deaths upend the community.
Sternbergh, raised in Toronto and now living in Brooklyn, is the culture editor at New York magazine. Below he answers eight questions about the writing life from fellow authors.
1. Grace O'Connell asks, "What themes or objects or activities do you see popping up repeatedly in your work? Is there anything you've included in multiple books or works, consciously or unconsciously?"
Another thriller writer who I quite like — Gregg Hurwitz — said in response to my current book that it lays out my "favoured themes: identity, loss, meta-reality." That sounds about right to me. The only one I might add is redemption: I'm endlessly interested in its possibilities and its limitations.
2. Nicole Lundrigan asks, "Have you ever used your fiction to explore an event you found confusing as a child?"
I found pretty much everything confusing as a child — from the mechanics of human reproduction to what exactly Charlie Daniels is referring to in "The Devil Went Down To Georgia" when he mentions "the house of the rising sun" — so I guess the answer is yes.
3. Hoa Nguyen asks, "What passages or pieces of literature have you committed to memory?"
I don't commit things to memory so much as certain images, metaphors and moments from literature brand themselves forever on my brain. There's one such passage in Blood Meridian; a harrowing image from J.M. Coetzee's Disgrace; and the opening lines of Joan Didion's Play It As It Lays: "What makes Iago evil? some people ask. I never ask."
4. Barbara Gowdy asks, "How old were you when you knew you would try to become a professional writer?"
This seems like a two-part question. How old was I when I realized I wanted to write all the time, as a job, if such a thing was possible? I don't know — maybe eight? And the other part: How old was I when I figured out how to write fiction full-time for a living — that one I'm still figuring out.
5. Scaachi Koul asks, "Is there any piece of writing you wrote in your past that you now regret?"
Having worked in journalism for over 20 years, there are not only many pieces I've written that I regret, but there are pieces I've written that I don't even remember. I've literally Googled articles as research, then started reading through them, only to realize halfway in that I wrote them.
6. Russell Smith asks, "What is the musical soundtrack to your latest book?"
I am not one of those writers, sadly, who can listen to music while writing — I'm very envious of writers who concoct elaborate playlists for each character. But at a certain point in writing The Blinds, I got stuck — not in the plot, but in the momentum — and listening to the Jonny Greenwood soundtrack for There Will Be Blood on repeat got me through. It strikes exactly the right mood.
7. Rudy Wiebe asks, "What do you understand by the word 'spirituality'?"
Those essential elements of human experience that fall outside the dominion of commerce.
8. Emily St. John Mandel asks, "Do you write full-time, or do you also do other work? And if you write full-time now, what other jobs have you had in the past?"
I do other work — all revolving around writing or editing other people's writing. I'm the culture editor at New York magazine and have spent my career writing about culture, so I've devoted a lot of time to the consideration of other people's creative labours. As an artist, this can be both inspiring and disheartening — inspiring that others are capable of producing such amazing work, and disheartening that they accomplish it with such apparent ease.