Last year, writer Adam Sternbergh caught a lot of people’s attention when his debut novel, Shovel Ready, mixed Richard Stark-esque noir crime with William Gibson-style cyberpunk. Now, almost a year to the day, he’s releasing Near Enemy (hardcover, digital), another adventure for the garbageman-turned-hitman “hero” Spademan. Though in talking to Sternbergh about the new book, it seems Stark and Gibson aren’t the only big influences this time out.
For those who haven’t read it, what is Near Enemy about, and how does it connect — both chronically and narratively — to your previous Spademan novel, Shovel Ready?
Near Enemy is a true sequel, in that it picks up the story of Shovel Ready roughly one year after that book ends. Spademan, our garbageman-hitman-hero, is hired to kill a sleazy peeping tom who pervs out by hacking into and watching other people’s virtual fantasies. But Spademan quickly gets drawn into a larger conspiracy involving operatives, or possibly terrorists, who may have figured out the last secret of the virtual world known as the limnosphere: How to kill people using the limn.
Also, there’s a baby. There’s literally a diaper-changing scene.
Yeah, we’ll get into the baby thing later. But looking at Near Enemy, if someone read that before reading Shovel Ready, would they be lost, or did you intentionally write Near Enemy in such a way that it could stand on its own or could be read first?
I would strongly, strongly recommend you read Shovel Ready first, because why not? It’s great. And not long. But I did write Near Enemy to stand alone, in that it should make sense even if, for some unfathomable reason, you didn’t read Shovel Ready.
When I interviewed you about Shovel Ready, which was before it came out [and you can read here], you said you were already working on what would become Near Enemy. Did the reaction to Shovel Ready, either by readers or reviewers, have any impact on Near Enemy?
I specifically made the decision to try and finish the first draft of Near Enemy before Shovel Ready came out, precisely because I didn’t want to be unduly influenced — or, worse, paralyzed — by any reaction or lack of reaction to the first book. Then, in a delightful development, I found out I’d be having a baby of my own in the same week that Shovel Ready debuted; these two debuts were four days apart. That made it even more imperative that I finish a draft because babies, it turns out, are not at all sensitive to requests for just one more hour of quiet writing time.
When you did look at what people were saying about Shovel Ready, did anyone suggest anything just ridiculous or outlandish that just made you laugh until you realized, oh, wait, they’re being serious?
The reaction was, for the most part, very warm and I truly appreciated everyone’s thoughts on the book. One common question — asked with varying levels of vehemence by readers — was why I didn’t use quotation marks to delineate the dialogue. I have many thoughts on this, too long and complex and frankly brilliant to go into here, but I will say I did work hard in Near Enemy to address some of these concerns about clarity. Although: Still no quotation marks. Sorry.
So are you already working on a third Spademan novel? Shovel Ready 3: In 3D, perhaps.
God willing and the creek don’t rise, there will be more Spademan adventures. But I have not yet broken ground on book three. It will, however, take place in 3D. 4D, actually, and the fourth dimension is…love.
Actually, that does raise a question. If this was a series of movies or games, Near Enemy would’ve been called Shovel Ready 2: Near Enemy. Was there any pressure to do this with the book?
I think in literary circles there’s not the same tradition of titling sequels that way. Most ongoing series — from Raymond Chandler’s Marlowe novels to Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series — have standalone titles. I like this because I like good titles, and if Chandler had just written The Big Sleep 2: Bigger And Sleepier we’d have been deprived of titles like Farewell, My Lovely.
However, my publisher did add “A Spademan novel” to the paperback cover of Shovel Ready, and to the cover of Near Enemy as well, to let you know that it’s part of a series.
Now that you’ve written a second novel, is there anything you think you’ve learned about writing that would’ve made the first one better?
It’s a very different experience writing number two than writing number one. With number one, you are working under no deadlines and, really, no pressure. You may occasionally allow yourself to think “I wonder if anyone will actually publish this?” but it’s basically just you, in a room, with the silence, and the words. With number two, there are deadlines and expectations and slightly anxious emails from people wondering when exactly you’re going to deliver that draft that’s two months overdue. However, the advantage is that, for better or worse, you’ve done it once already. So writing the second novel is like running your second marathon: it’s not so impossible to imagine you’ll reach the finish line.
Please note: I have never actually run any marathons.
When I interviewed you about Shovel Ready, you said you thought it could work as a comic book or video game as well. First, do you feel the same about Near Enemy?
Did I say that? Remember, I had a new baby, I deny everything.
Near Enemy is much more of an homage to the classic gumshoe novel. There’s a mystery, and a conspiracy, and a femme fatale, and lots of shifty figures who can or can’t be trusted. I often thought of Shovel Ready as like a bullet shot from a gun: fast, direct, and hopefully high-impact. Near Enemy is more of a classic mystery, with twists, misdirections, surprises, and blind alleys. The next book is going to be a classic revenge tale, just literally mayhem.
So…what? It would work as a comic but not a game?
In the right hands it could work as either. Though I think Near Enemy would be less a first-person shooter type game, and more like one of those old text adventure games like Zork. Though there is one long climactic sequence near the end of the book that takes place on a subway and which would, in my opinion, make a kick-ass video game. It’s actually very much modeled on the boss-battle format of video games, and involves three virtual assassins named Do-Good, Do-Better, and Do-Best, names I stole from an allegorical morality poem from the Middle Ages. Where boss battles meet Middle Ages theological allegories…that pretty much sums up my aesthetic.
Has anyone come to you about making Shovel Ready, or Near Enemy, or both, into a comic book or game?
They have! Well, actually a movie. Very quickly after Shovel Ready sold as a novel, it was optioned by Warner Bros. Eventually, Denzel Washington became attached as a potential star. Of course, from that point you still need small things like a director and a screenplay and a green light and a budget. So all of this is still ongoing, it’s moving through the grinding gears of Hollywood.
This would never happen, but if they asked you who should direct the Shovel Ready movie — and, thus, the potential sequel, Shovel Ready 2: Near Enemy — who would you want to direct it and why?
It’s tough to say because there are smart people in the real world worrying about that very question right now. There are certain modern films that are close to my heart that definitely influenced both books, from Children Of Men by Alfonso Cuaron to Inception by Christopher Nolan to Looper by Rian Johnson. I like to think either book would be a really fun playground from some imaginative director to muck around in.
By the way, I keep wanting to say “spaceman” instead of Spademan. In writing these books, did you type “spaceman” instead of Spademan as well?
I do not believe I have ever typed “spaceman.” But I reserve the right to set one book in space, and title it Spademan: Spaceman.
Or call it Spademan The Spaceman…IN SPACE, and do that last part all “Pigs In Space”-like. Anyway, last question. I usually end my author interviews by asking which of their other books someone should read next. But since you only have the one other book, I’ll ask this instead: If someone’s read Shovel Ready and Near Enemy, what would you suggest they read next and why?
You mean I’m free to recommend anything at all? I am absolutely loving the crime fiction of James Sallis right now. He’s best-known for writing Drive, which inspired the movie. But his Turner novels are a big influence on Near Enemy. Which is funny, because they take place in the rural South, not bombed-out dystopian New York. But they’re funny, smart, and beautiful. We’ve never met, but James Sallis is my co-pilot. Also: Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes, who is singlehandedly tearing thrillers apart and then Frankensteining them back together into something beautiful and new.