Injustice, Clarity, and Storytelling: An Interview With Scott Adlerberg

The slim, propulsive novels of Scott Adlerberg pack a hell of a punch. He’s equally at home writing characters displaced from the familiar and characters whose daily routine can turn suffocating. His latest novel, 2018’s Jack Waters, follows the story of a gambler who becomes involved in a revolution in the early-20th century Caribbean. What begins as an adventure story with an antihero at its heart slowly changes into something deeper and more unpredictable, yet no less thrilling for it. I spoke with Adlerberg about his use of setting, his literary lineage, and his penchant for splicing genres together. 

Your three most recent novels have varied considerably in their temporal and geographic settings. When beginning a new project, what part of it generally comes first for you?

A plot idea comes first, generally, along with the setting. The two form in my mind pretty much together. For my first novel, Spiders and Flies, I had been living in Martinique for a couple of years and was about to leave when I came up with the kidnapping plot for the book, but I most of all just wanted to write a story set on the island. Kind of a way to get down two years worth of sensations I had there. I didn’t have a camera – and no iPhones yet – so I walked all over and wrote down detailed notes about how things looked and smelled and sounded, and so on. I made diagrams of fences and doorways and houses – and I’m a terrible drawer. But my sketches got the job done as memory aides later. I did all that for about two months and it was a great way to immerse myself for a final time in the island before leaving. When I came back to New York City, I had Martinique in my pores, it felt like, and I used all that to sink back into the Martinique atmosphere while writing.

Jungle Horses sort of just came to me – a story set half in 1970’s London and half on a mysterious Caribbean island. So did the idea of the main character’s relation to horses, thoroughbreds in England, wild horses in the tropics. I’ve never had another story hit me so well-formed. A great feeling. Like something I dreamt and only needed to get right in writing it down. What’s funny is that after a couple books set mainly in the tropics, I was determined with the next book to write a story set in a very cold, wintry place. That was Graveyard Love, so that’s one where the setting came before anything else. Upstate New York in winter, so I wouldn’t be writing about all these luxuriant colors and smells. I felt I’d run out of ways to describe lush hot landscapes, and let me set this one in a place that’s white with snow. And I know upstate NY well from many vacations and holidays up there in all seasons, not to mention I went to college in upstate NY. So, yes, I love to really try to evoke a mood, an atmosphere, with a book’s setting so that the reader, and the characters in the story, feel it strongly.

Certain details in Jack Waters, from Jack’s family history to the amounts of various debts owed to him, are very specific — but the island on which the novel is set remains unnamed. How did you decide where to use specifics and where to avoid them for this book? And why did that seem to you to be the best way to tell this story?

The specific details about Jack and how much money he is owed and what the country’s dictator is like were essential for telling the story. They have to be there. But keeping the island unnamed is an old tradition. You find it in a lot of books. Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s The Autumn of the Patriarch comes to mind, and that’s set in the Caribbean. Or V.S. Naipaul’s A Bend in the River, set in an unnamed African country. Isabelle Allende’s The House of the Spirits. This way, though Jack Waters is set in 1904, I didn’t have to get into the specifics of a particular country’s actual history. I could make the island a composite of several real Caribbean islands and then use my imagination to invent what I wanted about the island’s geography and economy and political situation. As a matter of fact, I started writing the book, since it’s set in the past, saying “On the island of M-”, like you find in many 19tth century books and stories. In those works, the author names a place with an initial followed by a dash. That seemed perfect for Jack Waters, but then I wound up thinking that was too much like a pastiche of a 19th century novel when I wanted the tone of the book to be modern, not to read like a pastiche. So I just keep calling the island Jack Waters is on “the island” and leave it at that. I think that also lends the narrative a dreamy, legend-like quality, which I was hoping for.

Jack Waters is, in part, about a character whose own system of honor is ultimately at odds with the revolutionary fervor in which he becomes enmeshed. What are the challenges of writing characters with ideologies that harmonize right until they don’t?

It’s a challenge in that you have to get the competing ideologies, and the different value systems involved, in the right proportion. The goal was to make clear that Jack Waters has a very definite honor system. As a professional poker player, he cannot abide people who cheat at cards or welsh on debts. When it comes to these things, his sense of justice is pronounced and he’ll go to almost any length to avenge himself when he feels he has been wronged. But then he winds up in a place where there are bigger injustices going on than the one he faces over poker. The challenge, but also the fun part, was to show how he sticks to his narrow range of focus over what he wants even as he gets more and more embroiled in a cause much larger than himself. The notion of someone getting caught up in a country’s political revolution for a reason completely unpolitical was one I found amusing. He’s doing what he’s doing for his own reasons, and since he’s an outsider on the island, a gringo no less, his motivations are suspicious to the islanders around him, including the people fighting alongside him. There was a lot to work with there. But it was important, and this was a challenge as well, to make sure that the entire novel is told in a deadpan tone. No matter how outrageous the situation gets, or how it touches on the absurd, there is no deviation from that deadpan style. There’s no magical realism in the book – it’s not that kind of story – but obviously I learned a lot from Marquez and Alejo Carpentier and a number of the great Latin American authors when it comes to maintaining that kind of tone. Not to mention Kafka and the great German author from the early 1800’s Heinrich von Kleist. His novella, Michael Kohlhaas, about a horse trader who goes on a countrywide terror spree after a nobleman wrongfully takes his horses from him – was a major inspiration for Jack Waters. And Kleist is a master at telling the most incredible and horrific events utterly deadpan. It can create a disturbing and uncanny effect.

In addition to your work as a writer, you host a film series in Manhattan. Would you say that your knowledge of cinematic storytelling has influenced your literary storytelling at all?

I don’t see how it can’t. But I think that’s true for more writers than not these days. We are after all saturated from waking till bedtime with images, and who doesn’t watch lots of movies and TV? With me, I’d say the main influence would be in how I envision my story flowing, and then in the writing try to make it flow – fluidly. You want the reader to see the scenes unfolding with something like the clarity they see the scenes in a film. You’re using words of course, but when you’re working on the story, you often see the events in your head like a film, a stream of images. Or maybe, in actuality, you’re seeing it like a dream. My old writing teacher, John Gardner, who I had at Binghamton University the semester he died in a motorcycle crash, wrote that fiction should be a vivid and continuous dream – and for me that sums it up. Film is the art form most like dreams, so I guess you could say I’m highly influenced by film and also by dreams, dream logic, the way the subconscious works.

Several of your novels have been set in the Caribbean. What attracts you to this region as a setting — and do you see yourself returning to it in the future?

Well, I began going there on summer vacation trips with my mother and father when I was a kid. We went to Jamaica once and we went to the US Virgin Islands several times. There was a period when my mother and father, after over 25 years of marriage, split up (they later got back together), and my mother went to live in St. Croix. I was in college and would go down to visit her during summer and winter break. Neither of parents was from the Caribbean, by the way. But that region had a big formative influence on me, going there year after year. And when I got a bit older, I became fascinated by the region’s history. It’s been a bloody one, but the mix of cultures that have mingled there, however they got there, by choice or not – Amerindian, African, English, Spanish, French, Portuguese, East Indian, and on and on. Then you throw in the United States imperialistic history there. What a historical brew! I went to Martinique in my late twenties to get a master’s degree there, and I studied Literature of the English-Speaking Caribbean, though I was in a French University. I read a slew of authors from the region and finally did my final paper – over 100 pages – on Jean Rhys and her Caribbean work, stuff like Voyage in the Dark and the incomparable Wide Sargasso Sea. An absolutely remarkable author! But anyway, it’s just a rich and fascinating area and even though I’ve written three books now set there, I could see myself returning to it in the future, yes.

Some of your characters are morally compromised, while others are outright unsettling. Have you ever found yourself writing a character who’s scared you?

Not quite scared, but Paul Raven, the American expatriate in Martinique who plots a kidnapping in Spiders and Flies gave me the creeps sometimes while I was writing. He is one cold and calculating human being. And Kurt Morgan, the stalking voyeuristic narrator in Graveyard Love, did some things in that book that I found unnerving. You laugh to yourself afterwards though when reading back what you wrote. You know, I’m reading something Kurt Morgan’s saying, all pent up and frustrated, and I’m thinking, “Poor guy. Stop being so obsessive, Kurt. It’s not going to bring you much satisfaction of any kind in life.”

Do you have a sense of what your next project will be?

Yes, I’m about halfway through a new book. This one’s about a mother whose child has apparently been abducted, and perhaps killed, who moves out of the city where she lives with her husband and out into a distant rural valley to find out what might have happened to her son. She’s also writing a book about a mysterious woman explorer who passed through the valley sometime back and got killed in the area. The mother’s got odd and menacing people in the valley to deal with and her difficult husband to contend with, all while dealing with her grief over her missing son. It’s part mystery/part horror and the mother’s the narrator. It’s coming ever so slowly, but it’s coming.

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