In his novels Shovel Ready and Near Enemy, writer Adam Sternbergh blended elements of cyberpunk, science fiction, and pulpy crime. But for his new novel, The Blinds (hardcover, digital, audiobook), he’s swapped the cyberpunk elements with the tropes of Westerns and Western hybrids. In the following interview, he discusses the origins of this new novel, what inspired and influenced it, as well as his plans for a third book in his Spademan series.
Photo Credit: Edwin Tse
To start, what is The Blinds about?
The Blinds is about a remote town in West Texas that’s populated entirely by criminals who’ve witnessed terrible crimes and have had their memories altered or erased in exchange for their testimony in order to give them a fresh start. So it’s a place full of very bad people, but none of the people know exactly what they’ve done to wind up there. Then there’s a murder. It’s up to the town’s sheriff, Calvin Cooper, to solve it.
Where did you get the idea for The Blinds, and how different is the finished novel from that original idea?
There were a few ideas I’d been playing with for a while — the notion of an isolated community made up entirely of prisoners; the idea of memory erasure as a technique to deal with traumatic experiences; and the notion of witness protection — and one day they all just coalesced into this one idea. The a-ha! moment was when I thought: What if you had the witness protection program, except instead of the people around you not knowing what you’ve done, you don’t know what you’ve done? That central conceit didn’t change a lot over the course of writing the book, though. It was more a question of exploring the possibilities contained within the conceit.
In the press materials, it says, “The Blinds is a Western for the Trump era.” But how much of a Western is it? Like if someone doesn’t like Westerns, but they like pulpy thrillers — which The Blinds has also been called — will they appreciate it?
Yes, definitely. In terms of Westerns, it’s much closer in tone to, say, Jim Thompson’s Pop. 1280 or [Cormac McCarthy’s] No Country For Old Men than to Rio Bravo or Shane. It’s a Western in the sense that I pay homage to, or at least cast a sideways glance at, classic tropes of the Western genre, from the notion of the isolated outpost on the edge of civilization to the idea of a fortress under siege.
But those tropes have also been used, abused, and adapted a myriad of times; in Outland, for example, which takes place in space and is basically High Noon, or Assault On Precinct 13, which is an urban Rio Bravo.
To be honest, I was never a huge fan of straight Westerns. They seemed corny and old-fashioned. But I always loved the way other genres can strip the Western for parts to be refashioned in new and interesting ways.
The press materials also say The Blinds is like “Cormac McCarthy meets Lost.” Do you think Cormac McCarthy and/or Lost were a big influence on The Blinds?
I’m a big fan of what I think of as Middle Period McCarthy; the novels that came after his earlier, baroque works like Child Of God and before the more spare, romantic works like All the Pretty Horses and The Road. Basically, the two books I treasure most are Blood Meridian — an extremely blood-soaked novel-length obliteration of Old West mythology — and No Country For Old Men, which is a lean, sinewy disquisition on fate disguised as a man-on-the-run-with-a-bag-of-cash thriller. I also really love the flawed but fascinating movie The Counselor, which McCarthy wrote, and which is totally bonkers in the best way.
What about other authors and other movies? And TV shows and games for that matter? What else do you think had a big impact on The Blinds, but were not a big influence on your earlier novels?
My earlier Spademan novels [i.e. Shovel Ready and Near Enemy] draw from a particular set of inspirations, both in form and style, so it was fun to expand and explore other inspirations for this book. For example, the aforementioned Jim Thompson and his bleak, rural noirs; the TV show Deadwood, which is a gothic-tinged take on the Western frontier town as lawless social microsystem; the film Unforgiven, which put a stake in the classic Western and is a disquieting rumination on the uses of internal moral chaos; and the TV show Justified, which I always felt was the perfect brew of classic Western mythos infused into a contemporary setting.
Now, pulpy thrillers like The Blinds are often not stand-alone novels, but part of a series. Is that also the case for The Blinds?
The Blinds was always conceived as a stand-alone story, and the arc of the story is such that it fully describes a pivotal moment — the pivotal moment — in the history of this town and these characters. That said, some people have remarked that the place where the novel ends suggests there could be more stories to come. If people want to read those stories, I’m more than happy to write them.
As we mentioned, prior to The Blinds you wrote two novels in your Spademan series: Shovel Ready and Near Enemy. Are you planning to write any more Spademan novels?
Speaking of “if people want to read them I’m happy to write them…” There will definitely be another Spademan novel, in some form or other. Midway through writing Near Enemy, I realized, partly to my chagrin, “Oh, wait, I’m writing The Empire Strikes Back. This is clearly a middle chapter, and it ends with much still to be resolved.” As to the nature of that resolution, I’m working that out now.
Cool. So do you think people who liked Shovel Ready and Near Enemy will enjoy The Blinds? Or that people who enjoy The Blinds will like Shovel Ready and Near Enemy?
I definitely think people who like Shovel Ready and Near Enemy will like The Blinds. It’s a different book, more expansive in its storytelling, and less lean and spare in its prose style. But ultimately, the guiding sensibilities are the same.
As to the other way around, I’d be very interested to hear from someone who reads The Blinds and then reads the earlier books, and how they’d compare them.
Like The Blinds, both Shovel Ready and Near Enemy were pulpy, but instead of being Western flavored, they were cyberpunky. Did you ever consider writing The Blinds as a cyberpunk novel, maybe even as a Spademan novel?
This book was always what it was going to be. In fact, part of the fantasy of The Blinds is that it’s an isolated community completely cut off from the larger society, for its own protection: No internet, no digital presence in any way. So sort of the opposite of cyberpunk. And that was always an intrinsic part of the conception of the story.
Now, two years ago, when we talked about Near Enemy [an interview you can read here], you said that there was a Spademan movie in the works, with Denzel Washington attached to star in it. Is that still in the works?
In the way of these things, Shovel Ready is still in development as a film, though it’s passed through a few different hands. Without saying too much about its current state, I’m very excited about whose hands it’s in now. Hopefully I can say more about that soon.
Cool. What about The Blinds, has there been any interest in turning that into a movie? Or maybe a TV show or video game?
Yes. The Blinds is being developed as a TV show as we speak, by the same producers who brought you Preacher on AMC. It’s funny, Shovel Ready always felt like a potential movie, and The Blinds always felt like a potential TV show, in part because it’s about this community of people, each with their own dark secrets, which is a rich topic for an ongoing series.
If it was up to you — which it won’t be, but if it was — who would you like to see them cast in The Blinds TV show?
I often have ideas in mind, but I like to keep them to myself. Not out of any particular sense of secrecy, but because I really love being able to read a book before it’s been adapted for the screen. That way, you can still imagine your very own version of each character. I really envy people, for example, who read Game Of Thrones long before the TV show, and had their own personal mental versions of Tyrion, Jon Snow, Daenerys, etc. Now it’s impossible to read those books without picturing the cast from TV.
Finally, if someone has read The Blinds, Shovel Ready, and Near Enemy, what would you recommend they read next and why that?
My next book, obviously. Whenever that comes out.
In the meantime, if you like The Blinds, read the screenplay for The Counselor — or rent the film, especially the extended, non-theatrical cut — it’s really kind of delightfully crazy. And if you like Shovel Ready and Near Enemy, read Ken Bruen’s The Guards. It’s a fantastically spare, smart, poetic murder mystery with a very damaged hero. I loved it.