Much like chocolate and peanut butter or Anthrax and Public Enemy, the idea of mixing of cyberpunk atmospheres and pulp crime aesthetics probably seemed weird before someone tried to do it (that someone being Philip K. Dick with his novella “Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?”). But we’re glad someone did since it’s led us to Shovel Ready, a new novel by Adam Sternbergh (Crown Publishing). In it, a hit man in the not-so-distant future is hired to whack an evangelist’s daughter, and, suffice it to say, it does not go well for our “hero.”
The book has been compared to the works of cyberpunk writers Philip K. Dick and William Gibson, as well as such pulp crime authors as Dashiell Hammett and James Ellroy. Do you agree with these comparisons?
Anytime anyone compares anything you’ve written to any one of those authors, I think you accept it gladly and with great gratitude. As it happens, that quartet is all writers I’ve read and admired greatly…and all for different reasons. Dick is a mad genius; Gibson is a visionary, both in imagining the world to come and then expertly cross-combining genres in order to best depict it; Ellroy is a modern master crime stylist, maybe the modern master crime stylist; and Hammett is, well, Hammett. I re-read The Maltese Falcon right before starting Shovel Ready, and, in fact, there’s a Maltese Falcon allusion buried deep in Shovel Ready, like an Easter Egg.
Who else do you think was an influence on the book, and on your writing style?
Thematically, some of the usual hardboiled suspects, in particular James Cain, the patron saint of minimal-words-and-maximum-impact, and Richard Stark [a pen name of Donald Westlake] and his Parker novels. There’s also a pretty clear Cormac McCarthy influence that I cop to freely and happily. Two Canadian writers, Derek McCormack and Howard Akler, are both huge influences on me; McCormack for his perfectly distilled prose and Akler for his ability to suffuse hardboiled stories with true tenderness. And though she’s not typically thought of as a crime writer, I’m definitely influenced by Joan Didion, whose Play It As It Lays has one of my favorite opening lines ever: “What makes Iago evil? some people ask. I never ask.”
I’m a big movie fan, especially brooding action films, so there’s definitely a lot of Christopher Nolan rattling around in my brain at any given time. I love the Joss Whedon’s TV show Firefly, which mashes up the Western and space opera in an incredibly satisfying way. And the Coen brothers are, to me, the foremost hardboiled cinematic practitioners, particularly Fargo and No Country For Old Men.
As for other things out there, it’s funny, there are a few things, especially in the cyberpunk genre, that have been cited elsewhere as obvious influences on Shovel Ready, but which I haven’t actually encountered, which I think speaks to how completely some of these ideas have suffused into our culture. If nothing else, these citations serve as excellent recommendations to me for things to seek out. One thing I love about both the hardboiled and the cyberpunk canons is that there’s this accumulated trove of tropes that’s built up over time — thematic, stylistic, narrative — that can now be mined, plundered, reinvented, and combined across different genres, whether video games, comics, movies, novels, or TV.
That said, I have to protect myself against video games the way a heroin addict avoids methadone. I don’t think my impulse control is evolved enough to dive in with any measure of self-discipline. Though I just got an Xbox this past Christmas, so check back in a year.
Manga, similarly, is a world I’d love to explore but I need an expert tour guide to accompany me and direct me where to start.
After I finished Shovel Ready, I did indulge in a self-directed crash course in interesting crime writers working today who I hadn’t yet discovered, and a few absolutely blew me away. In particular, Don Winslow and his gonzo-bonkers masterpiece Savages, and Ken Bruen, an Irish crime writer whose books are like poetry written in shards of jagged glass.
Do you think Shovel Ready would work as a video game or comic book?
I definitely think it could work as either, and it owes a debt to both. I often thought of the Grand Theft Auto games while imagining this future, dystopian, bombed-out NYC. Specifically, this idea of a world which is fun just to roam and explore on its own. And Shovel Ready is hugely indebted to comics, which I am well-versed in. Especially those classic Frank Miller Batman books from the 1980s and all things Wolverine.
You work at The New York Times Magazine, so I assume you live in or near the city. Which is, I’m also assuming, why you set the book there. But did you ever consider any other locations?
I do live in New York — in Brooklyn, like all writers, as required by local ordinance — and have for ten years. I never considered a different setting. New York is fascinating to me, though the New York I’m most interested in is less the physical city than the mythological one, the one that’s been erected, brick by brick, in bits and pieces, across tens of thousands of films, novels, comic books, and TV shows over the past century. For example: compare the New York of The Warriors and the New York of Sex And The City. Same city, but obviously hugely different places in our collective imagination. New York is home to Donald Trump, Dorothy Parker, and Spider-Man, to name just a few. I think it’s as close to an actual Emerald City as we have outside of Oz.
Along the same lines, why did you set the book in the near-future, as opposed to the far future?
In many ways, the only reason I set Shovel Ready in the future at all is that, if it was set in the present, you’d obviously get into all these questions about an alternate history or a parallel timeline, which seemed like it would be distracting to me. Plus, setting it just a bit into the future gives you the leeway to invent new things here and there, without having to completely reimagine society from the ground up. So I wanted to set the story in a New York that feels just around the corner, time-wise. A New York you could imagine existing, maybe not tomorrow, but in the day after the day after tomorrow.
In the book, the main character, Spademan, is a hit man. How do you research something like this? Did you just base it on hit men you’ve seen in movies, or did you talk to people in the NYPD or FBI?
I wanted Spademan to fit in the lineage of fictional hit men rather than real-life ones. He shares more DNA with, say, The Punisher than he does with Richard “Ice Man” Kuklinski. My hunch — and it’s only a hunch — is that being a real-life hit man is actually a relatively dull undertaking, if you pardon the pun. But in pop culture, the hit man has become a symbol of some enduring romance, a lone figure roaming the earth like some existential cross between a Ronin, a shamus, and The Grim Reaper.
Were there any specific hit men in movies and whatnot that that were especially influential?
Maybe my favorite Spademan comparison from elsewhere so far has been with the character of Mike Ehrmantraut on Breaking Bad. Someone who does things that, in real life, would be unforgivable and reprehensible and abhorrent, but who, in a fictional context, you can feel affection for and even root for. I definitely knew I didn’t want Spademan to be some sort of super-killer, the kind of guy who travels with a high-powered sniper rifle disassembled in a pool-cue case, or who walks into a room of fifty adversaries and walks out brushing off his shoulders, barely having broken a sweat.
In some ways, my favorite model is Bruce Willis in Die Hard: a regular guy in an unusual circumstance. Spademan is a working man. He’s a former garbage man. He’s used to doing the things no one else wants to do. He fell into his current profession by chance and excels at it by circumstance. After all, he lives in a world where most of his targets are already comatose and adrift in a virtual dream.
In the book, Spademan is hired to kill an evangelist’s daughter. In doing this, were you at all worried that someone might accuse you of having an anti-religious bias? Or of perpetuating the stereotype that New York journalists have an anti-religious bias?
Religion is something I grew up with and have been deeply immersed in all my life, and many of the people with whom I am, or have been, closest to are very religious, and very admirable, people. So I’ve seen first-hand the benefits of a strong faith. But I’ve also seen the pitfalls of a worldview that can be too easily corrupted. I grew up in the era of Jim and Tammy Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart, after all, so the idea of a well-known evangelist who loses his way and slides into corruption and charlatanism has, for me, many real-life inspirations.
Fictionally speaking, I think often of the work of Flannery O’Connor, who was herself deeply religious but also very interested in personal morality, and how religion can both foster it and hinder it. T.K. Harrow, the evangelist in Shovel Ready, is himself a fallen, corrupted figure, but he’s by no means the only religious character in the novel. His daughter, Persephone, retains the best of her faith — even as she flees her father and his kingdom — and Mark Ray, a close ally of Spademan’s, is a former youth pastor who’s deeply conflicted about, yet still strongly connected to, his faith.
My understanding is that you are already working on a second novel about Spademan. Without giving anything away about either one, will the next book be a direct sequel to Shovel Ready — Shovel Ready 2: Electric Boogaloo or something — or will it be another adventure for the character like what Ian Fleming did with James Bond or Richard Stark did with his Parker novels?
It is in fact titled Shovel Ready 2: Electric Boogaloo, though now that you’ve blown the lid off that, I’ll have to go with my second choice: Shovel Ready 2: The Shoveling.
There is indeed a second book in the works — which has an actual title that I’m way too superstitious to share — and it is a true sequel, in that it picks up the story roughly a year after the end of Shovel Ready. I’d initially thought of doing any subsequent books in the spirit of a series, much like the ones I really enjoy, such as Parker or Jack Reacher. But I soon realized that there are too many threads in Shovel Ready that need to be picked up and resolved, and it seemed too fun not to do that in the second book.
Finally, as someone who is clearly an avid reader, what is your favorite bookstore in New York? I’m partial to The Strand, myself, but am always looking for good places to go, especially in the village or midtown.
Such a good — and hard — question. New York, thankfully, still has many thriving indie bookstores, so my affections tend to be regional. I used to live quite close to BookCourt in Brooklyn, so it will always be close to my heart. There’s also a fantastic and quirky used bookstore in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, called Unnameable Books that’s well-worth seeking out. If you can, ask the owner about the origin of the name. The great, sprawling, wonderfully curated McNally Jackson in Soho is the one I’d be most likely transport to a desert. Three Lives, in the West Village, is so charming that it feels like the bookstore you’d want to play a bookstore in a movie about a bookstore. And, of course, The Strand; it’s the Taj Mahal of books. One of its few rivals in that sense is Powell’s in Portland, which I just visited for the first time last year. As I roamed its aisles, I felt a bit like I was having an illicit love affair while away on business, cheating on all my beloved bookstores back home.