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.
See, Caesura — or, “The Blinds,” as the residents have dubbed it — is not your typical Texas burg. 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. They live on with no knowledge of their past lives or supposed crimes. The one thing they do know? If they leave the Blinds, they’ll almost certainly die.
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. 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. It starts simply enough, evoking classic crime fiction in the most direct way — with a dead body. We join Caesura’s sheriff, the gruff Calvin Cooper, in the early stages of investigating an apparent suicide. 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.
Sternbergh’s world is a dark one, populated with characters that wallow in its expansive gray areas. 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. 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. 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. We spoke over email following the novel’s release.
ALEX SEGURA: Can you talk a little bit about the origins of The Blinds? How you knew this was the idea you wanted to actualize next, and the path you took to getting it published?
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. I definitely knew I was ready to write something different: in setting, in tone, in approach. 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.
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. It feels very thought out and layered, without being needlessly dense. All of that is a lead-in to asking: What went into The Blinds to start off with? Did you have the loose high concept first, a key moment, or were you thinking of a specific issue you wanted to explore?
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. Basically, a place where the usual moral order does not apply and the residents are left to fashion their own kind of society. 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. 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.
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. How much of that came during writing and revision? Was it something you discovered yourself, as you set out to craft The Blinds?
It was definitely something I started with — in a way, it’s what made the whole narrative compelling to me. 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? 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? All my novels, in some way, come back to the idea of redemption: can your present and future decisions redeem your past transgressions? In The Blinds, that notion goes further: what if you don’t even know what those transgressions were?
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. It makes for a really unsettling and up-close feeling, almost like being in a packed elevator. Can you talk a bit about the characters, without spoiling anything, and what made them interesting to you as a writer?
I’ve always been drawn to confined stories — confined in space, confined in time, confined in the number of characters who are interacting. 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. 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). 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. 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 want to see characters making decisions in a day, an hour, a moment. As for the main character, Calvin Cooper — there’s definitely a clue to his appeal in his name. Calvin — like the upright, uptight Calvinists (and their philosopher), and Cooper, like Gary Cooper, the most virtuous Hollywood sheriff of all. Of course, my Calvin Cooper turns out to be much more morally conflicted than his namesakes.
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. 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. How much time, if any, did you spend pondering where your book would be grouped? Was it something you didn’t really worry about until after the writing had been done?
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. (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. 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? Do you want to take this home with you?”
That said, I don’t think I can write any differently than I do. 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. If that means, in The Blinds, imagining a version of memory-erasure technology that doesn’t exist (yet), then I’ll do that. But I’m not writing the book thinking, Hmmm, needs more science fiction! Okay, now a dash more Western! I’m just drawn to stories that use all the tools in the toolbox, and so that’s also what I end up writing.
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. You do a great job of showing the spectrum of reactions to that, and how some of the characters can change over time. Did you have privacy on your mind? 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.
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. (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. 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. So it wasn’t hard for me at all to imagine the appeal of living in an isolated place like the Blinds.
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. 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. 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 irony is, we’re all heroes in our own stories, of course. There was a fascinating psychology exhibit I came across when I used to work, a long time ago, at a science museum in Toronto. 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. You did it once for someone you know, then once for yourself. 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. 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. 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? 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? I think we all realize that we’ve failed to be the hero at various times in our lives. But we hold out hope that we still have the chance to be a hero in the future.
Your prose is cinematic without feeling overly detailed, which — as a writer myself — is a hard balance to strike. Do you think that’s a by-product of working in journalism? Are there books or authors that inspired The Blinds in particular, or that you point to as major influences?
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. 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. But I knew that wasn’t the right voice for this novel. 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. (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. 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. 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. There’s a shot in Fargo that is, hands down, my favorite moment in any film: when William H. 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. He’s too late — his father-in-law is dead. We don’t see Jerry’s face. We don’t see his expression. We just see the back of his car. The film holds, and holds, and holds, and then: The trunk pops open. That familiar door-open signal starts to chime: bing bing bing. 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 it all unfolds in the most banal sequence imaginable, which makes it all the more haunting. To me, that’s the most exquisite kind of moment possible.