FEBRUARY 9, 2016
CRIME WRITER SCOTT ADLERBERG is no stranger to the dark, psychological corners of noir. His most recent novel, Graveyard Love, tells a menacing, obsessive tale that rises, fully formed, from its frigid upstate New York landscape.
Its mood both deadly and inescapable, Graveyard Love introduces readers to the reclusive writer Kurt Morgan. Morgan, living with his mother, spends most of his days obsessively watching a mysterious woman visiting the graveyard across the street. When not fulfilling his voyeuristic fantasies, Morgan finds himself pressured into penning his mother’s long-gestating memoirs. Billowing up from this setup, Graveyard Love creates a dangerous and unexpected triangle between Morgan and the two women — one that results in a surprising psychological thriller that lingers with you well after reading.
I had the chance to chat with Adlerberg about Graveyard Love and his influences over email. (This interview was edited for clarity.)
ALEX SEGURA: Scott, you’re not only a student of crime fiction but also of film and art — can you trace some of the inspirations that propelled you to write Graveyard Love?
SCOTT ADLERBERG: Well, an early version of Graveyard Love was a lot different from what the book is now. It was a kind of mixture of an “underground man” novel with a crime novel. So one definite inspiration was Dosteovsky’s Notes from the Underground — a bitter narrator living in his little hole whom life has left behind. But as I kept working on the story, I cut and cut and cut, and all these early parts with the narrator interacting with former friends who’ve done better than him in life were taken out. But from Dosteovsky and the Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard through Jim Thompson and Charles Willeford — that type of story where you have a driven, completely obsessive narrator and you are locked in that person’s head — that’s what I was shooting for.
It’s funny you mentioned art, because I hadn’t thought of that as an inspiration for this story. But yeah, looking back on it, there are all these paintings in the house where the story takes place and the main character’s mother is artsy, a pottery maker, that’s true. There’s one thing that I did really try to keep in mind throughout the book, to keep sex and death linked, close, page after page after page, as a kind of thematic thread, if that doesn’t sound too pompous — and that’s a coupling I’ve long been fascinated by, going back to when I first discovered my favorite painters, the old surrealists. Dali, Magritte, Paul Delvaux, and on and on. If I could get a little of that quality of menace and fright and weirdness mixed with sexual desire that they show, the idea of the attraction to something that might kill you, the idea of l’amour fou, mad love, which is not a romantic love at all and pretty much indistinguishable from psycho stalking. All core ideas of the surrealists. Those were the type of things in the back of my mind working on this, though how much any of that comes through in a lean thriller I don’t know. It’s just the stuff that fuels the story for the writer and probably has little to no bearing for the reader. And none of it means anything of course if the story’s weak and doesn’t grip the reader.
From film, definitely Hitchcock, with the emphasis there is in Graveyard Love on watching and voyeurism and stalking. Oedipal issues pop up in Hitchcock often, and above all, I thought about Vertigo, as great a film as there’s ever been about erotic obsession. And then I had a few horror films in mind. There’s a French director named Jean Rollin who mingles sex and death, and sometimes graveyards, Gothic trappings, in his films but does it in a way both erotic and poetic. His films have a peculiar atmosphere that I’d think about sometimes while writing, and there’s a famous American horror movie that gets mentioned in the book and is even important for understanding a key thing in the story, but I’d rather not give that away.
Yes, definitely save that twist. Now, your last book, the excellent Jungle Horses, was noir with a fair dose of other genres. How would you classify Graveyard Love? How would you pitch the book to a reader who might be coming in blind?
A quick classification, if I had to, I’d say it’s a dark psychological thriller. Or maybe better to say psycho-noir.
A pitch to a potential reader: in upstate New York, a guy in his 30s living with his mother becomes obsessed with a woman he keeps seeing visit the graveyard by their house. He’s a writer ghostwriting a book for his mother, her memoir, and she’s obsessed with getting the book completed. Distracted by his own fixation, he starts stalking the graveyard visitor. This woman in turn is obsessed with somebody buried in the graveyard. Three people, each with their specific obsessions, and a twisted triangle develops that engulfs them all.
Speaking of the setting: you paint a really vivid picture of upstate New York — a seemingly tranquil area that boasts its fair share of dark corners and dangerous history. Can you talk a little bit about why you chose to set the book here?
I wanted to write a book set in the dead of winter. That’s because I’d set my first novel, Spiders and Flies, in Martinique, and then set a good part of Jungle Horses in the Caribbean also, and I just wanted a change and to write a story that takes places in a cold place. Enough with the heat of the tropics and enough with all the island colors. The predominant color in Graveyard Love is white, between the cemetery tombstones and all the snow. So that was one thing. I chose upstate New York because it’s a place I’ve spent a lot of time. Every single summer from infancy through my early 20s I spent at least some weeks at a bungalow colony in the Catskills. And I went to college upstate and just have never stopped visiting or spending time up there, whether in the Woodstock area or Saratoga or even farther up near the Canadian border. I’ve always liked upstate New York for the landscape, the houses, how different things look depending on the season, and it’s just an interesting place. Not necessarily an economically vibrant place everywhere, but that adds to the interest. Upstate just seemed a natural fit for this particular story, and I felt that with my familiarity, I could capture it a bit.
Graveyard Love is a sizzling bit of noir — it lulls you into a false sense of calm and then really catches you off guard. It’s not domestic suspense, per se, but I do get a strong Highsmith and Hitchcock vibe from a lot of the descriptive passages. Did you have a particular tone in mind when you set out to write it?
I found the tone as I wrote, I’d say. The main goal was to have a narrator’s voice that’s obsessive and, hopefully, compelling. There was a challenge in writing a narrator who repeats himself, as obsessive people tend to do, and digresses sometimes as he narrates but whose storytelling, for the reader’s sake, remains tight and forward-driven. That was something I worked hard to get, and I hope I did. Besides that, it’s the old thing: whether you like a character a lot or not, the important thing really is you have to understand where that character is coming from. And I think the reader should have no trouble understanding Kurt. Whatever he does, he’s not without a sense of humor and he has some self-awareness, though that quality doesn’t stop him from doing what he’s compelled to do.
The trio of characters we meet and learn about as the novel progresses — Kurt, his mother, and the mysterious visitor — form an interesting triangle. Without spoiling anything, can you talk a little bit about their dynamic and how it came to be?
What’s more classic to noir, or fiction in general, than a triangle? It never fails to provide possibilities. The one man, two women scenario in particular occurs frequently in Jim Thompson, and he always makes it the most unhealthy scenario imaginable. Think of The Grifters, Pop. 1280, The Killer Inside Me, This World, Then the Fireworks. One guy with his particular hang-ups and two women with specific agendas of their own. Graveyard Love is a variation on that set-up. What I wanted to make sure of is that each person in the triangle has their own preoccupation. Each is strong and focused, with their own motivation for doing things. What’s the great line from Rules of the Game, Jean Renoir’s film: “The awful thing about life is this: everyone has their reasons.” That’s it in a nutshell. In any story worth its salt. In this one, you have three obsessed people each with his or her own reasons. They’re each working at cross purposes, so you know that something’s got to give and that when it does give, it won’t be pretty.
It definitely isn’t. What are you working on next?
A change of direction from Graveyard Love. It’s a novel called Jack Waters. This one will be set around 1900 and concerns a Creole guy in New Orleans who makes his living playing poker. One day over a poker debt, he loses his temper and kills a man. He flees the United States and settles on a Caribbean island where he winds up in a poker game with the country’s president. When the president refuses to pay him poker debts he owes, Jack Waters vows revenge and winds up joining the government rebels on the island. It’s the only way he can strike back at the president. So, he’s a gringo of color who gets involved in a foreign country’s political revolution for a completely non-political reason. For this one, murder is central to the story — Jack Waters is a killer — but it’s also a historical adventure type of tale. I’m about halfway through it now and hoping to have it done in 2016.