Scott Adlerberg on the Haunted Landscapes of “The Screaming Child”

Scott Adlerberg

It’s very likely that, when you start reading Scott Adlerberg’s The Screaming Child, you think you have a sense of where it’s going. The narrator is a writer who’s become obsessed with a project of her own: researching the life of a doomed author whose own obsessions got her killed. The narrator is also struggling with the disappearance of her son, a mystery that looms over the proceedings. But the way these different elements come together is repeatedly surprising — and transforms this book into something unpredictable and revelatory. I spoke with Adlerberg about the process of writing this novel and the real-life inspirations for some of its most surreal components.

One of the things that really really impressed me about this book was the way that it begins as a relatively  straightforward suspense narrative and turns into something much, much stranger by the end. Did you always envision it undergoing this metamorphosis, or did that just emerge out of the writing of it?

It more emerged from the writing. I mean, the original germ of the idea literally came from a dream. I had a dream many, many years ago, and I wrote the dream down, which I used to do more than I do now. But if I have something really good, I write it down. In the dream, a woman is standing in this barren valley and she hears this child — who she knows is her own child — screaming. Like the way it is in dreams, I was the woman and I wasn’t the woman. I was looking at the woman, that kind of thing. And I wasn’t a parent. This was really many years ago.

I wasn’t married yet, I wasn’t a parent yet, nothing. And I sat on it for a long time thinking, “That seems like a really good idea. I could develop that.” But I really didn’t know how. One of the main hang ups was that I wasn’t sure whether to make it set in the real world, like it’s going to take place in upstate New York, or kind of as it is in the actual book, where  nothing is named.

Then I became a parent. I think it was Ramsey Campbell or somebody who said that one of the things that he does is he writes about his worst fear. As a parent, that’s pretty obvious. It’s universal. Sometimes it doesn’t have to be something obscure. That’s something that a lot of people could tap into clearly if you do it well. 

I finally figured out how to just do it in this dreamlike world. It’s not a specific place. And I had the idea of how to begin it. But I was pretty clear in my mind that it would start as a mystery, but it is a bit more about the character and what she goes through. I didn’t have the ending completely worked out. The last part in the last section and the very final climactic event came to me as I was about halfway through. It was an image and it was from another thing I thought of years ago.

I did think of it less as a straight genre thing than something that would be partly a genre thing, but more of an exploration of her character, and what she’s going through. That was pretty well thought-out before I started.

I knew a little bit about what the book was about when I ordered it, but I noticed when my copy came in the mail that the back cover was all blurbs. There’s not really a plot synopsis.

That was Max [Booth III]’s idea and I said, okay — because we got some good blurbs. Let’s go with it.

In the very early parts, the city feels very familiar. It was very easy for me to just sort of see the city as New York, and to see the trip the protagonist takes as being to somewhere upstate.  Then, all of a sudden, there’s a border and a war happening on the other side of it. I had that moment of the bottom dropping out and losing all bearings on where I was — which also reflected some of the emotions that were happening in the story.

I like in other people’s writing, where landscape and geography merge with the character’s psychology, whether it’s more of a horror book or even something like Paul Bowles’s The Sheltering Sky, which is one of my all-time favorite books. I love that when it’s done well.

You do a lot of writing about film and you run a discussion series on film. Do you see this book as taking creative inspiration from any particular films or cinematic storytelling in general?

I didn’t think of films that much while writing this. Someone wrote about this book saying that  it reminded them of an answer to Michelangelo Antonioni, which was amazing. I could see what he’s talking about. And maybe in the end, when she goes into the forested area, there’s a kind of Joseph Conrad/Apocalypse Now thing going on — going up the river, that’s kind of an archetypal kind of journey. It’s in a lot of things.

But for this one I didn’t think about movies. For some of my other stuff, I have a little bit more — but not so much this one. I thought more in terms of a literary look, for lack of a better word. We all see so many movies now I’m sure it saturates everything we do.

In terms of the geography of this, how much of it did you have kind of figured out and how much of it was more instinctual or a case of embracing the more dreamlike aspects of it?

That’s one reason it took a long, long, long time to figure out how to do it, even though it’s a short book. I really was hard pressed to figure out how to do it. But once I started, I had it pretty clearly delineated. She’s in the city, which is very New York-like. I mean, it’s based on New York. And then something important happens in this park near where she lives.  I was thinking of this park that’s right near where I live in Brooklyn, Von King Park in Bed-Stuy.

I did have that pretty well thought out. She’s in the city and then she goes up to this rural area and then there’s the Timberland: three distinct places. It took a long time to start. But once I did thatwas well thought out. And then there’s a part where she talks about how she and her son went to the canal city and that’s clearly Venice. 

There was also a part where the main character and her husband go to this oasis town and something important happens there. And that place is directly based on a trip I took years ago with a friend in Egypt. There’s an oasis there called Siwa, which is one of the most beautiful, fascinating places. It’s about five hours from the Mediterranean straight through to the desert near the Libyan border. You’re literally driving five hours through sheer desert and then suddenly it’s like you’re in paradise. The oasis is actually 20 to 30 square miles of villages and water and palm date growing. It’sincredible. Alexander the Great went there because there was an oracle there — that’s how far back it goes. 

We hung out there for a week or two bicycling around. It’s got a very weird history because through the early part of the 20th century, they had open homosexuality there. We spent a few weeks there; we were invited to drink date wine. It was like a Paul Bowles story, but without something bad happening.  It was about 30 years ago, so I googled it to see if it had changed. And I saw now they do ecotourism, so I was thinking for years how I could ever incorporate that into a story, even if for a few pages. So that aspect of the geography was pretty well thought out before I started.

With you bringing up things that happened about 30 years ago, I was curious about the war scenes in the novel. Were you thinking at all of the conflict in the Balkans as a reference point for that?

In general, for the war aspects, I was thinking of the Balkans and conflicts in Africa. The idea of wars and children, and child soldiers and those kinds of things. That was in my mind a bit, yeah. The victimization, children being treated not well and that kind of thing. It’s something we’ve grown used to, at a certain point, hearing these kinds of stories out of the Balkans, Africa, Liberia, Sierra Leone… So that was definitely something I thought about.

The narrator is going into this isolated upstate area to research the work of a writer. Was there someone you had specifically modeled on this sort of well-known but ultimately doomed writer whose journey predated the narrator’s own work? 

Oh, not specifically, but I used to read a lot of books about travelers and explorers in particular. I’ve always been fascinated by these weirdo oddball people who go into the middle of nowhere. Some of them come back, some of them don’t come back. What happened to them? What drove them to even go to this, put their lives at risk?

Often they used to be aristocratic guys. They’re the only ones who can afford to do that kind of thing. But they were very strange people. I mean, why would you leave a life of comfort to go to these places? So it was sort of a composite.

The main character — it’s mentioned that she used to work for an auction house. And that was based on Bruce Chatwin. I mean, that’s what he did. He worked at the auction house. He quit and started traveling around. So that was a little bit of a nod to Bruce Chatwin. But the explorer herself was a composite of like all these stories —  this person disappeared in Brazil, this person was eaten by cannibals in New Guinea. 

Your previous novel, Jack Waters was set explicitly in a specific time and place — the Caribbean in the past. What is it like to go from working on a book that’s very rooted in a certain time and place to The Screaming Child, where a lot of the places are without names and there isn’t necessarily a year given or a names of certain places given or anything else. Was it a conscious decision to go from one to the other?

I don’t know if it was such a conscious thing. I’m not that prolific or anything, but with five books, I really do try to do something different with every single book. That’s a conscious thing. Whether it’s in the style or the way the story’s told or the locale, it just makes things interesting.

I found with an historical one set in the Caribbean, there are challenges — you’ve got to  make sure you get everything right.  I just do as much research as needed. I’m not someone who goes down rabbit holes, doing tons of research. The challenge is make sure that everything is fairly true, at least true to what was going on at the time.

Here, it’s inventing a world — especially since they’re not specific places. So that’s more the challenge. You have a lot more freedom, perhaps because you’re not bound by this happened in 1910, or whatever. On the other hand, you have to make it very clear to the reader that this is pretty much the world that we have — more or less until the very end. But you have to make clear what the parameters are and what the rules are.

The challenge there is — there’s more freedom in a way, but at the same time, the reader is in unfamiliar territory and you’ve got to make it clear what’s going on and where things stand in relation. Whereas when there’s an historical thing, people will know more or less what the world was like at that time. As for trying something different… I have nothing against people who write series novels or anything. But one reason I wrote Graveyard Love  was because I’d written a bunch of books in the Caribbean. I wanted to write something set in the winter. 

Do you have a sense of where you’re going to go next? Do you have another project lined up that you’re working on now?

I have a bunch of notes. I’m trying to decide between a couple of things. I haven’t really plunged into anything yet, but I’m debating between writing something that might be in the horror-mystery vein or something that’s more set in this world right now, a little bit more of a social satire. That would be a change, so I’m thinking I might try that.


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