Adam Sternbergh Talks 'Shovel Ready,' The Terrifying Dystopian Novel That's 'More Plausible Than People Think'

In a recent conversation, Adam Sternbergh discussed the inspiration for this dystopia, the challenge of getting inside the head of a killer, and the seedy world of televangelists.

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In a bombed out New York dystopia, a hardboiled hitman roams desolate streets while the rich suck feed-bags in an immersive virtual web sphere.

It's not a de Blasio attack ad. It's the basic thrust of Shovel Ready, the propulsive, aggressively paced novel by New York Times Magazine culture editor Adam Sternbergh, who claims his nightmarish vision is "more plausible than maybe people think." In a recent conversation with The Wire, Sternbergh discussed the inspiration for this dystopia, the challenge of getting inside the head of a garbageman-turned-killer, and the seedy world of corrupt televangelists.

The Wire: Like many readers, I've been really fascinated by the dystopian vision of New York City in Shovel Ready. Did you envision this as the future of New York or as more like a return to the crime-ridden 1970s New York?

Adam Sternbergh: Well, it's kind of a hybrid of both. In the book it takes place at a sort of unspecified amount of time in the future, which I imagine to be roughly 20 years. I specifically didn't want to specify a time because then it becomes very complicated and you're just inviting the reader to be like, "Wait a second, if this is 17 years after 9/11, then blah blah blah blah..."

So in that sense it's a future New York, but it definitely was inspired by that past New York from the '70s and '80s, though I was a kid in the '70s and '80s and I didn't actually visit New York City myself until the early '90s. But I had an older sister who lived in New York back then, who moved to New York in the 1970s, who still lives in the same apartment in the East Village, and who has seen New York go through all these crazy changes. So as a kid I was fascinated by New York City as a kind of mythical place, and most of what I knew about it I got from little snippets from TV and movies. Everything from all those classic 1970s movies about New York, like The Warriors

I was a big fan of this kind of obscure show from the '80s called The Equalizer, which weirdly makes a cameo in Wolf of Wall Street—there's a scene where Rob Reiner's watching The Equalizer. And that was a show that came out around 1986 or 1987. And the whole premise was there was this guy, you call him and he helps you solve problems. But the New York of that show was very much like this "urban-jungle lawless vigilante-land." It's so funny going back and looking at that because I realized that was the last moment when that's how New York could be portrayed to people outside the city in a plausible way. Because just a couple of years later you have Seinfeld, which is a very different idea of New York, and not too long after that you have Friends, and all of a sudden New York was reinvented as a playground for these beautiful people with these amazing, huge apartments they can somehow afford. And it completely transformed in people's minds, and simultaneously the actual real city was transforming. So that parallel transformation has always been very interesting to me. And I do think they're connected; our perception of a place does have real consequences to the place on the streets and stuff.

And your book transforms New York all over again.

It all started with me thinking, "This current iteration of New York right now—this post-Bloomberg silver-skyscraper playground of billionaires version of New York—would be so unimaginable to people 30 years ago. So what would the unimaginable New York look like to us?" That started the process of imagining the city that's in the book.

The timing seems so weird. Your book came out right after de Blasio became mayor, and there's been so much fear-mongering about New York being transformed back into a crime-ridden hellscape. 

Crown Publishing Group

I completely didn't anticipate that part of it, the fact that that would be a big part of de Blasio's campaign, this whole tale of two cities, and him tapping into what I think was a latent anxiety about New York [and] what the city was becoming under Bloomberg. Obviously [Bloomberg] was reelected twice and I think people for the most part were really pleased with the city, but I think there was this anxiety about disparity in the city and also in the country. The one thing that was going on while I was working on the book that definitely seeped into the book was the Occupy Wall Street movement and this very tangible demonstration of dissatisfaction from a large group of people about what was happening in New York and in the country at large in terms of this crazy disparity.

But when I started writing the book, I didn't imagine that this idea of the rich living in one world and the poor living in another world would be a big part of it. It just developed naturally because once you introduce the idea of this virtual escape, well, who would have access to that? Obviously it would be the kinds of people who have means. And the people who don't have means don't have access. And everyone in the middle sort of clears out, which is pretty much what happened to a lot of American cities in the 1960s, right? 

It's a really terrifying logical endpoint of the Internet that you depict.

It's funny, I didn't really intend for it to be so malevolent, this idea of this virtual escape. I'm really interested in things like online role-playing games, like Second Life, where people can have completely different personas and pursue fantasy lives. Twenty years ago I used to watch Star Trek: The Next Generation and they had this recurring element of the holodeck, where you could go and live out any fantasy you wanted. And I watched that and I was like, "Wow, that would be so cool." But again, it was a process of extrapolation where you think, "Okay, if this thing exists, what are people going to use it for?" Obviously they're going to use it for business meetings or very benign purposes, but that's always going to be a demand with any new technology to use it in the most malevolent and perverse way.

People have often remarked that if you look over the last 40 years, there's a way in which the porn industry has been driving all the technological innovation. As soon as Google Glass came out, there was a Google Glass porn app. There's always going to be that side of every new technology.

How did you get the idea of the bomb in Times Square?

It started with thinking about 9/11 and how quickly the city rebounded from that. I moved to New York in 2004, so 9/11 had happened a few years previous and there was a real moment, certainly from outside the city, where there was this idea of, "What is this going to mean for New York, to have this catastrophic terrorist attack right in the heart of the city, so unimaginable? Is this really going to change people's idea of the city? Is it going to affect tourism? Is it going to affect people's willingness to live downtown, to do business downtown?" To kind of an amazing degree, it didn't. Which I think speaks to the resilience of New Yorkers and the city. But I think if you told someone the day after 9/11 that ten years later New York would be the biggest tourist attraction in America, that would've been hard to compute. Because aren't people going to be scared away?

I was basically thinking, what if there was a second 9/11-style terrorist attack, but one with a more lingering effect? Obviously there was a lingering toxicity around the 9/11 attack, but this idea of the dirty bomb, this sort of fear of that happening and all the fear that drove a lot of the talk around the invasion of Iraq. So to imagine something like that happening right in the heart of the city in Times Square and then this lingering devastationthat seemed like the kind of event that might permanently alter the course of New York City and certainly it would permanently impair the tourism industry. Times Square is sort of the center of tourism in New York. So what would it take to convince everyone in the world that they no longer wanted to come to New York? It seemed like it would take something really big. That's where this idea of the dirty bomb came from.

But, simultaneously, there was a guy who tried to set off a bomb in Times Square in the last 10 years. So it's not so farfetched, it's not like someone opening up a sewer and demons come out from another dimension. These are real anxieties that New Yorkers kind of live with all the time.

Did you find it hard to turn a cold-blooded hitman into a fairly sympathetic character?

It definitely felt like a writerly challenge. I wanted to start with the character pretty far in a dark place, with the idea that eventually you have to reel him back towards his own humanity. There's a long tradition in hardboiled literature of these damaged heroes. Once upon a time it was the private detective who bends the rules a little bit, is willing to sock a guy in the jaw to get information. But that character became so familiar that to me for it to be at all interesting or revelatory, the character needed to start pretty far out in the sea of darkness. And then A) slowly inform the reader how he became this way, and B) tell a story where he could plausibly come back towards some semblance of humanity.

That character has always been an appealing character to me, that sort of antihero. In this particular scenario, once you start with a dystopian, lawless scenario,  it makes sense to have a character who is as lawless as their environment and then begins slowly to rebuild themselves morally and humanistically.

Did you always intend to write it in his voice?

Yeah, I did. It's funny, because the first sentence of the book—"My name is Spademan and I'm a garbageman"—really sat on the page and it felt like a starting gun in a way. I really knew that I wanted it to be in his voice. My favorite hard-boiled novels are often in the first-person, though I guess the Chandler novels are in the third-person. In a sense, this character is a sort of narrator to his own world, so I wanted it to be filtered through him. I also felt like because he starts out as such a dark character, it would be easier to identify with him if he's speaking in the first-person. His actions are pretty despicable, especially at the beginning. If you put the reader in the mind of the character, it might feel uncomfortable at first, but they're along for the ride with this guy. And I feel like in this book, there's a way in which the voice is everything.

Oh, totally.

This is going to be either what draws you in or doesn't. I definitely felt like I needed to use all the tools at my disposal. One of them was giving this guy a distinctive voice that will hopefully be appealing.

And I understand you're already writing a sequel?

Yes, I am. It's been slightly waylaid by the arrival of my baby two weeks ago.


Thank you! I knew both the first book and the baby were set to arrive in January, so I had been working previously on the second book. When I first made the deal with Crown [Publishers] to do Shovel Ready, the deal was for two books. I'd given them an outline for the second book, which is a sequel to the first book. It picks up with the same characters and takes place about a year after the first book ends. I really liked the character and I liked his world, so it seemed like it could be a series where he has different adventures, has different clients and stuff like that. And, knock wood, maybe down the road it will be that. 

Children of Men/Hit and Run

Were there any dystopian or futuristic novels that inspired the writing of the book? 

In some ways, on the spectrum of dystopias, I've read a lot of those books and I really enjoy them. [But] I see this as much more similar to that book Children of Men by P. D. James. And then there was that movie with Clive Owen, about this future where people for some reason stop having children. To me, that's just current society, plus one. It's extrapolation, you're just extrapolating slightly more, whereas something like [Cormac McCarthy's] The Road—that's a book about devastation, and it's a completely apocalyptic book.

I wanted this to definitely feel a bit like the New York that could be around the corner. That hopefully is not around the corner, but could plausibly be, like, the New York we wake up in 20 years from now.

That's interesting. I imagined it to be quite a bit further in the future. I would have assumed more like 100 years.

Oh, really? That's interesting. One of the funny things I decided early on was about this idea of technology. I've always really liked things that take place in an indistinct time period and have a mishmash of old and new technology. The movie Seven is a good example: you don't know what city it is, you don't really know what time period it is, it's very moody, they have some modern technology, and they also use some outdated technology. I kind of wanted the book to have a bit of that feel. On the one hand there's this extrapolated version of the Internet that's completely immersive. But on the other hand people are using cell phones and pagers and there's all this technical detritus that's still around.

It's interesting how people have reacted to the city in the book as a sort of almost outlandishly apocalyptic scenario because in some ways I feel like, minus the dirty bomb part of it, there are actual real world parallel examples of this now. There are cities all over the northeast that were thriving cities 30 or 40 years ago and now have lost half their population. Not because of any huge terrorist attack, but just because of social or economic forces, and now you go to the city and drive around and there are whole neighborhoods that are completely boarded up.

I did a story for New York Magazine a couple years back about Buffalo and its efforts to lure some of its former citizens back. There's a lot of really great things about Buffalo, but this woman gave me a tour in her car and showed me the neighborhood she grew up in and she's not that old. She was, like, in her 30s. This was a neighborhood that 20 years ago was thriving full of families, and it literally looked like a movie set. We were driving down the main drag, every store boarded up. Turn the corner, every house with a demolition "X" on it. Once in a while you'd see one last stubborn family still mowing their lawn even though there were vacant lots on either side of them.

So it's fascinating to me that you can have on the one hand this tenacity but on the other hand this almost unimaginable decline to this city that was thriving so recently. That's true of Detroit, it's true of a lot of cities in the U.S. In a weird way, I'm happy that this book seems more implausible, because I secretly feel like it's more plausible than maybe people think.

What about the T.K. Harrow character? Did you base him on any particular religious figures from the past?

Associated Press

I wouldn't say he specifically is based on any one person. It's funny because I sort of picture him—if you Google this guy, you'll recognize him. There's a very successful character actor named James Rebhorn (right). He's very tall, he looks very severe, he looks kind of like a scarecrow. He often plays government agents or stern dads. He was the guy I pictured the whole time I was writing that character of the preacher.

I think he's a combination of the sort of charlatan preacher character who you see everywhere from Flannery O'Connor fiction to [1955 film] Night of the Hunter. But also, and I've only realized this in talking about it since the book came out, when I was growing up it was the era of the Jimmy Swaggarts, Jim and Tammy Bakker. [It was] the real heyday of the televangelist, and I think I certainly had almost forgotten what huge cultural figures these people were and how decadent their empires were and how they were able to build these insane empires based on small donations from devout people from across the country. Next thing you know, Jim Bakker's buying an air-conditioned doghouse, and his followers are like, "Oh, that makes sense, I'll send him 10 percent of my paycheck!" That kind of character looms very large in my childhood to me, and watching them rise and fall really informs the idea of this guy Harrow in terms of how someone so popular with such widespread influence could be revealed to be so corrupt and out of touch with the tenets of the faith that he professes to be spreading.

So you've spent most of your professional career writing and editing nonfiction. Have you wanted to write a novel for a long time? I'm curious what your background in fiction is.

I came out of college wanting to be a writer. I was interested in a few different arenas of writing: I was interested in playwriting, I was interested in nonfiction magazine journalism—and this was pre-Internet, so I was super into magazines of the late '80s and early '90s—and then I always loved fiction and worked on writing fiction at the same time.

Of those three pursuits, the one that usually offers you a clear path towards some kind of vocation was the journalism. So I pursued the journalism and was able to do a lot of very satisfying writing through that. But I think in some ways it impaired my interest to do fiction, because it was very difficult for me to separate the journalistic voice from the fiction voice. I worked on several projects, I wrote an entire novel over the course of 10 years, which now lives happily in a drawer. And it took me a while to realize that if I was going to do fiction, I needed to do something completely stylistically different from the nonfiction and to really think hard about what kind of book I wanted to write.

In journalism, you're often following your own interest but also following the dictates of other people who set you on a story and say, "Why don't you go investigate this?" With the fiction, you're really just staring at a blank page. You can write any kind of story with any kind of characters in any kind of setting. To me, that was very paralyzing. It took a long time to realize, "Oh, this is the kind of story I really love the read, these are the kinds of books I really treasure." Like, when I've done all my homework, the book I want to pick up is a great hardboiled story with a cool hero and interesting scenario.

So it just took me a surprisingly long time to give myself permission to actually try and write something like that. But then when I did, it felt very natural.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.