What: Scott Adlerberg grew up in the Bronx and a wooded suburb just outside New York City. His debut novel was the Martinique-set crime novel SPIDERS AND FLIES. His short fiction has appeared in THUGLIT, ALL DUE RESPECT, and SPINETINGLER MAGAZINE. Each summer, he hosts the Word for Word Reel Talks film commentary series in Manhattan. In 2014, his novella JUNGLE HORSES was released by Broken River Books. It’s his second longer work that has to do with the Caribbean, a place where he spent a good bit of time.
Interview conducted by email. Some questions and answers have been edited.
I just read your novella JUNGLE HORSES and was really blown away by the mix of Noir and Magical Realism. How did you come up with the idea for this story?
Well, I’ve often found that the best story ideas come from linking two unrelated ideas you have kicking around in your head. They could be ideas that came to you weeks, months, even years part. You make a connection between these different ideas, and you may just have the seed for an intriguing tale.
JUNGLE HORSES developed like this. It began as a story about a guy in London who’s addicted to horse race gambling. I knew how it would start and where it would go up to a point. He’s middle-aged, this guy, tired, not much energy in him, and his best friend is his wife’s lover. He sees his life change because of his betting fortunes. But the change doesn’t happen as he’d hoped or expected. Then what would happen? I wasn’t sure. But at some point something clicked in my head and I thought of another story idea I had. This one had to do with a sinister island in the Caribbean. Certain weird phenomena were happening there. Would it be possible to send my struggling London guy to this island for the second part of the story? If so, what would make him take this trip? Why would he go there? I had to think about that for awhile and eventually I came up with an answer. I found a reason to send him to the tropical island. So the second part of the story would unfold there, far from the guy’s familiar surroundings. And he would have to deal with very different horses there, not racing thoroughbreds like he bet on in London. They’d be a mysterious breed and would impact on him in a big way.
But, yeah, the London part of the story was realistic and the island part, as I imagined it, fantastic. What to do about that? I decided “blend them”, just go with it, especially because the fantastical part would and could happen in the new environment. It’s an island, self-contained, and what happens there transforms his character.
Was it difficult for you to strike the balance between those two distinct genres?
Not really. As I say, I didn’t sit down from the start and say, “I’m gonna write something that’s part noir, part fantasy or magical realism” just to see how that works. But when the two separate ideas clicked, they seemed like a natural fit somehow. Almost exactly half the story is noirish, half on the fantastical side. But the shift of tone comes about as imperceptibly as possible. And once I decided to go with the genre fusion (sounds like we’re talking about trendy food), I knew that writing it that way should be a lot of fun to do. In one section, I’d try to create the dark, brooding mood you get in noir fiction, in the other the uncanny atmosphere you find in a certain type of fantastic fiction. They’re two strands of fiction I love, and I guess it so happens that those two strands aren’t combined all that often. It felt a bit like writing two books in one, which was enjoyable. Why write two long novels, one noir, one fantastical, when you can have the fun of putting both in a short novella, and then get on to something else?
As a New York native, why did you choose London as the juxtaposition to the other tropical setting in JUNGLE HORSES?
Arthur, the main character, just came to me as English. But I’m sure he did because as a reader, as well as a TV and movie watcher, I’m a complete Anglophile. Since I’ve started reading, I’ve loved English fiction, and I don’t really mean the BIG novelists like Dickens and Hardy but writers like Conan Doyle, H.G. Wells, W.H. Hudson. I like the writers from the Victorian and Edwardian era who write these weird adventure stories. And then there’s the twentieth century ones like Conrad and Graham Greene, and Arthur’s a guy who comes out of that tradition. These quiet, polite English guys who wind up in remote places, the back of the beyond, somehow. They seem like nothing, but then it turns out they have balls of steel. In JUNGLE HORSES, I don’t state outright when the story’s taking place, but it’s implied that it’s the 1960’s or 1970’s and Arthur should seem like a man from an earlier era, when Britain was a power. He’s a World War II veteran and a former landowner in colonial Kenya, but he’s gone to hell with himself since returning to London. He gambles, he drinks too much. His era has passed and he starts out in the story as a burnt-out case, if you want to say it like Graham Greene might. But all of that is to say, his whole character is totally British and so the story had to be set in London, and anyway I just wanted to set it there after all the years and years of traveling there mentally through novels and everything else.
Your previous novel SPIDERS AND FLIES was more of a straight Noir tale. How did that one come about? How is it different from JUNGLE HORSES?
SPIDERS AND FLIES was written after I’d spent about two and a half years living in Martinique on and off. That was from 1988 to early 1992. I went there to study and just hang out and had a great time. When I was about to leave for the last time, I spent a bunch of time going around taking notes on everything there, how things looked, smelled, sounded and so on, because I had an idea for a novel I’d write when I got back to New York. SPIDERS is more of a straight crime tale, being about a kidnapping, but it’s hardly a gritty crime tale in the realistic mode. It takes place mainly in Martinique, with parts in New York City and parts in a hallucinated Hudson Valley north of the city where a wealthy family keeps an island full of slobbering, shambling ancient relatives who subsist on powerfully fermented apple cider. It’s a cider even the horses there like to drink. There’s a number of eccentric characters, including an East Indian yogi who doubles as a killer and his midget assistant who’s lethal at karate. Overall, I’d say SPIDERS AND FLIES is darker than JUNGLE HORSES. And it’s told, I think, with a very calm, unblinking tone. I know when I was writing it, the books I had in my mind were Paul Bowles’ stuff, especially UP ABOVE THE WORLD, and Ian McEwen’s THE COMFORT OF STRANGERS. Those two are great at presenting strangers in a strange land type of stories where the most horrifying things are told in a totally cool, detached manner. I can’t tell you how much I like that.
SPIDERS is set up so that all the characters in it, with the exception of maybe one, are both victims and victimizers, depending on who you look at them in relation to. And I tried to construct it so that the whole story unfolds like a nightmare. Everything’s just a little bit off, dreamlike, phantasmagorical. But again, like with JUNGLE HORSES, a good bit of the story takes place in the Caribbean. The main character in SPIDERS is a guy named Paul Raven and he’s a fugitive from New York who’s in exile on Martinique. So again, that idea of the person in a foreign place, a hot tropical place, adapting to his new environment, doing what he has to in order to survive.
You have also published short stories with hardboiled magazines like Spinetingler, All Due Respect and Thuglit. What are your feelings about genre in general?
My favorite genre obviously is crime fiction. I like most of its permutations – noir, hardboiled detective stories, procedurals, psychological thrillers in the Ruth Rendell or Patricia Highsmith vein, locked room mysteries, the Golden Age mystery stories I read a ton of when I was a kid, and so on. Can’t say I read many cozies. And I like horror fiction a lot. I read sci-fi occasionally, especially if the book is by J.G. Ballard. Westerns hardly ever, though I love movie westerns.
Probably the only genre I never read is romance novels. But the whole genre versus non-genre talk that goes on sometimes is ridiculous, I think. From time to time, you still hear so-called literary types say something to the effect that “Within the limitations of its genre, this is a superb novel.” What does that even mean really? So there’s that kind of snobbery, but I also find sometimes among so-called genre devotees, a reverse snobbery that’s just as irritating. “Well, that’s literary.” Said in a derogatory way. And what the hell does that mean? Literary is supposed to imply “pretty” writing and not enough of a strong plot and too much time with characters discussing relationships and contemplating their navels? Also if it’s a literary novel about down and dirty struggling types, if it’s gritty, that’s okay. But if it’s a literary novel about middle-class people in the suburbs, that’s not okay. Whatever.
Needless to say, a novel can be about anyone of any social class, and it’s up to the writer to find a way to make it compelling, make it about something that matters to the reader. Otherwise, it’s just boring, crummy, superficial writing. As a reader, I’m open to just about anything and it has nothing to do with literary, not-literary, genre, not genre. At this point, that whole argument seems passe. Seems like now you have more “genre” writers who are just strong writers, period, working than ever before. Writers who can really write, with strong styles, who create real people and explore tangled moral questions and all the problems in the world—just like “literary” writers have always done. And you have “literary” writers who have the freedom to play around with genres, mixing and matching, subverting tropes, like they never have before. You have so-called pulp writers, or new pulp writers, but that’s a label, too. Because it took a long time for critics to catch up with Jim Thompson and David Goodis and all the others doesn’t mean they were ever lesser writers. The limitation there was in the minds of the readers and had nothing to do with the writers. The whole Richard Price-Harry Brandt thing is a funny example of the situation in a nutshell. Who wrote “The Whites?” A literary writer or a literary writer writing as a crime writer? Answer, both: it’s a floor wax and a dessert topping. It’s an easy quote but still true—what Duke Ellington said about music holds for writing. “There’s good writing and the other kind.” End of story. Beyond that, who cares about genre?
Is it important to you as a writer to jump between genres?
Is it important to me? It’s not so much important as a question of what works for a particular story. With JUNGLE HORSES, as I was doing it, it seemed to work. The second part, the fantastic part, just grew out of the noirish part, without strain, I felt. I wouldn’t try to force genres together just to be odd or “different.” But what’s fun about genres is how fluid and flexible they are and how you can play around so much with them. There’s a lot of ways to be inventive. On the other hand what’s more satisfying to read than a good straight noir story from the criminal’s point of view, or a strong private eye tale, or a procedural that keeps things moving and really digs into its world with great characters—nothing super inventive, not trying to reinvent the wheel, but just a good plot, suspense, believable psychology, a narrative you get into—a genre work as everyone would think of it, and well done. I have no objections.
I don’t know exactly. Who isn’t influenced by films? Plot ideas, great scenes, shots—they seep into your subconscious and you call up movie stuff without even realizing it. Sometimes it may be just how you see a scene in your head, like a movie scene, and you try to make it very visual when you write it. Or the way you cut from scene to scene in a story. Or there was a mood in a movie you remember and would like to capture. When I was writing SPIDERS AND FLIES, I had an idea of trying to get some of the feeling you get watching David Lynch—Eraserhead, Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks. A dreamlike quality. And speaking of which, I definitely find dreams or just an individual image you remember from a dream very useful for ideas.
What are your publishing plans in 2015?
Broken River Books, which published JUNGLE HORSES, will be publishing a new novel I have called GRAVEYARD LOVE. It has nothing whatsoever to do with the Caribbean. No rum in this one and no hot weather and nobody sweating. It’s set in the dead of a very cold winter in upstate New York. This story is actually more of a straight crime tale than the earlier two books. First person narrator. Psycho-noir, you could probably say, but with a touch of the Gothic, since a lot of it takes place in a cemetery. Should be out in late 2015.
You and I met at Bouchercon, and I understand that you will also be attending Left Coast Crime this year. Why do you think writing conferences are important for established and aspiring writers?
This will be my first time at Left Coast Crime and I’ve been to one Noir Con and three Bouchercons, so it’s not like I’m a conference veteran. But I’ve certainly had a lot of fun at them. It’s great to meet so many writers and just hang out. You get that weird experience of finally meeting people you’ve been talking with on Facebook for a long time. So that’s how I approach it.
It’s a blast. Lots of great conversation, learn stuff attending panels, yap a bit while doing a panel, not much sleep, drink, lose my voice, drink some more, push through, talk some more. Overall, I’ve just found the Bouchercons, and Noir Con, to be a great escape from regular life, work life, where you’re submerged in the stuff you love to talk about and think about. Books, writing, crime writing, movies. And I always return home feeling really pumped and eager to get back to work. As far as making professional connections with publishers or agents, I barely even think about that or pursue that at these conferences. And I certainly can’t say at this point it’s about meeting fans. So it’s basically a very stimulating mini vacation among like-minded people.
What advice do you have for writers trying to break into publishing in 2015?
Just write whatever you want to write. Don’t worry about the market and what’s hot on the market. I think it’s about trying to write the ideal version of what you’d most like to read, whatever the genre or mix of genres or lack of genre. That’s essential. If it’s something you’d want to read, then hopefully you’ll avoid bad writing, sentimentality, self-indulgence and so on and so on—all that crap that makes something unreadable. But something YOU want to read, not what you think others want to read or what MIGHT sell well or MIGHT appeal to an agent. Forget that. Then you’ve done your best and you hope others will like your book also. And right now, what’s great, besides the big five publishers, there are so many indie publishers around that have a sense of adventure and openness. You really feel you can cut loose and there may indeed be a publisher out there who likes your stuff.
Don’t have any expectations about making a lot of money, though, of course.
If you recommend one piece of your writing, long or short, what would it be?
I’d have to say JUNGLE HORSES. And it is, by the way, a short quick read.
S.W. Lauden is a writer and drummer living in Los Angeles. His short fiction has been accepted for publication by Out of the Gutter, Akashic Books, QuarterReads and Crimespree Magazine. His novella, CROSSWISE, will be published by Stark Raving Press in June 2015. He is currently putting the finishing touches on his debut novel, BAD CITIZEN CORPORATION. You can read one of his recent short stories right HERE.