MysteryPeople Q&A with Adam Sternbergh

 

  • Interview by Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery

I’ve often described Adam Sternberg’s The Blinds as if Sheriff Walt Longmire’s jurisdiction was Twin Peaks. The Blinds is a small Texas town that contains former criminals whose memories have been erased and and who’ve been given new names. The law is Sheriff Calvin Cooper who has to solve the town’s first murder that occurs after another resident commits suicide. I talked with Mr. Sternberg about building this world.

MysteryPeople Scott: The Blinds is such a unique novel. How did the idea for it come about?

Adam Sternbergh: The Blinds was the culmination of three different ongoing obsessions of mine: 1) The idea of the Witness Protection Program, and how you go about starting a new life after a life of crime; 2) the notion of insular communities that live by their own moral code, whether it’s the Western town of Deadwood or the Branch Davidian compound at Waco; and 3) the ongoing research into changing, or even deleting, certain memories for victims of trauma — and what kind of memories each of us would choose to change, or erase, if we could.

MPS: How did you tackle the challenge of building the town of the Blinds?

AS: In thinking about a community of this size — less than 100 people — that’s cut off from the world, I had to decide: What’s important to its survival? Would the town have a sheriff? A mayor? A library? A dance hall? What kind of things can people live without, and what is absolutely essential? A big part of the allure of the Blinds to me is this fantasy of being completely unplugged — in a sense, they’re free of all the online obligations and distractions that many of us (me, anyway) struggle with everyday.

MPS: Was there something you always had to be aware of as a writer when dealing with this community?

AS: I spent a lot of time thinking about what a community in which every member essentially arrives with little or no past would be built on. For example, what do people talk about? How are relationships formed? But I realized it’s not so different from many situations we find ourselves in, when we have to find common ground with people of various, or even mysterious, backgrounds. There’s mystery to not knowing someone’s backstory, but a kind of freedom to — you can be whoever you want to be, or whoever you can convince people you are.

MPS: Each member of the Blinds has to pick the name of a movie star and one of a vice president to come up with. Do you have favorite one you came up with for a character?

AS: There’s a minor character named Errol Colfax — a combination of Errol Flynn and Schuyler Colfax, our 17th Vice-President — and I really loved that name when I came up with it. To me, “Errol Colfax” was the proof of concept for the whole naming idea. Movie star names have a natural charismatic aura to them — whether its Humphrey or Errol or Marilyn — and the Vice President names tend to have a whiff of historical formality, like Colfax or Burr or Calhoun. So I really loved that combination —Bette Burr or Orson Calhoun.

MPS: While the book is literary in nature, it also has a style and tone that I associate with film and music as well. Are you inspired by media outside of novels?

AS: Absolutely. The book was definitely inspired by the look and feel of films from Unforgiven to No Country for Old Men. And when I was writing, for a stretch I listened exclusively to the Jonny Greenwood soundtrack for There Will Be Blood, which evoked a feeling I found really inspiring. I’m very interested in cultural mythologies — the rules and tropes and familiar elements that appear in different genres, and why they are resonant — and possibly no genre is more rich in that kind of mythology than the Western, whether it’s the old John Wayne films or the more modern, more bloody iterations.

MPS: I hope this doesn’t become a question you’re going to get sick of, but I am curious. What name would you pick for yourself in The Blinds and do you have any idea of what your crime would be?

AS: My publisher, Ecco, rather ingeniously put together a website, welcometotheblinds.com, that will automatically generate a Blinds name for visitors. On my first visit, playing around with it, I got the name Harry Harlow after a minute or so — a combination of Harry Truman and Jean Harlow — and I immediately wished I’d used that name somewhere in the book. Who knows? Maybe Harry Harlow will turn up in the Blinds in some future continuation of the story. As to my crime: We all have things we regret, or choices we wish we’d made differently. To me, the most appealing thing about a place like the Blinds is leaving those regrets behind — which is not an option we have in regular life.

You can find copies of The Blinds on our shelves and via bookpeople.com

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