Adam Sternbergh’s debut novel, Shovel Ready, grew out of failure. That failure was an altogether different book, one set in New York and centred on what Sternbergh, the 43-year-old Canadian-born culture editor of The New York Times Magazine, now describes as a “vaguely satirical look at the media world.” But while working on that book, Sternbergh realized that not only did he not want to write it. He didn’t even want to read it.
And so he turned instead to telling the kind of story he’s always loved: one that is unabashedly intelligent and plot-driven. And as part of the creative process, he sat down and reread The Maltese Falcon, one of his favourite novels. “I was so heartened,” he recalls, “by how shameless Dashiell Hammett is in that book with just propelling the story forward. Every chapter shamelessly ends on some kind of nutty cliffhanger.”
Shovel Ready, which came out earlier this month, has already been optioned by Warner Bros., with Denzel Washington set to star in the film adaptation. And the book clearly shares the DNA of Hammett and other masters of hard-boiled fiction, with a few strands of the dystopian science fiction of Philip K. Dick in its genetic makeup. Set in a near-future New York hollowed out by the explosion of a dirty bomb in Times Square that has sent the rich to seek escape in virtual worlds, the novel follows a garbageman turned hit man hired to kill the daughter of America’s most powerful televangelist.
Ditching that first book wasn’t the only way Sternbergh had to escape the media world. To write Shovel Ready, he also had to shut off the editor’s voice inside his head, a critical perspective that had been “paralyzing” him in earlier efforts. That was hardly an easy task for someone who’s spent a career analyzing pop culture. “I would literally have moments where I would catch myself writing a negative review of the thing I was working on,” he says. “It was a real problem.”
At the same time, he had to channel another set of voices. Alongside Hammett, they included crime-fiction masters James Cain and Elmore Leonard, as well as such disparate literary influences as Martin Amis, Nicholson Baker, Toni Morrison and even the movie Children Of Men, based on the P.D. James novel and itself a great story about a dystopian future that doesn’t waste too much time letting common sense get in the way of a gripping plot.
The result, he says, is not what he’d call “genre” but rather “pulp.” Adds Sternbergh, “What unifies all of it to me is more a sensibility than a set of rules or set of tropes that you might expect to encounter.”
Key to pulp’s sensibility, according to Sternbergh, is the desire to grab and thrill the reader, capital-L literature be damned. “The thing I’ve always liked about the pulp tradition in American literature is that it happily existed outside of the mainstream,” Sternbergh says. And yet mainstream Hollywood has already come to call. Last spring, months before Shovel Ready hit bookstores, Warner Bros. snapped up the film rights, signing the two-time Oscar-winning Washington to star as Sternbergh’s killer with a conscience.
Not that such A-list interest has really changed the magazine editor’s life all that much. At the New York launch party for Shovel Ready, Sternbergh had to break it to some of his older relatives that the Oscar-winning actor would not be making an appearance: “As I had to explain to my parents,” who figured their son and Washington must now be pals, “developing a movie and making a movie are two very different things.”
Kind of like writing the book you thought you should, and writing the one that everyone wants to read.