Adam Sternbergh

Author of Shovel Ready and Near Enemy

THIS CHAT HAPPENED ON October 06, 2015

Discussion

Adam Sternbergh@sternbergh · author
I'm the author of two near-future dystopian crime novels set in New York: SHOVEL READY, which was nominated for a 2015 Edgar Award and was a Newsweek Favorite Book of 2014, and its sequel NEAR ENEMY, released this year. I'm also a contributing editor to New York magazine and its culture website Vulture, and the former Culture Editor of the New York Times Magazine. I usually write about movies, TV, celebrity, and the culture of pop culture. You can find me at adamsternbergh.com
Russ Frushtick@russfrushtick
@sternbergh What's your favorite book from the dystopian genre?
Adam Sternbergh@sternbergh · author
@russfrushtick There are a few dystopian books I really like — THE ROAD by Cormac McCarthy, for example — but I'm probably more influenced, dystopia-wise, by movies. I think CHILDREN OF MEN, for example, is a great example of an imagined dystopia that feels very real.
Adam Sternbergh@sternbergh · author
@sternbergh @russfrushtick I also love BLOOD MERIDIAN, which is sort of a backwards-looking dystopia.
Erik Torenberg@eriktorenberg · Former Product Hunt
@sternbergh @russfrushtick what'd you think of The Circle? or the TV Show Black Mirror?
Adam Sternbergh@sternbergh · author
@eriktorenberg @russfrushtick I did not read THE CIRCLE! I read an excerpt that ran in the Times Magazine. I kept wondering, What would I think of this if I actually worked in that world? It seemed… outsidery.
Erik Torenberg@eriktorenberg · Former Product Hunt
@sternbergh @russfrushtick indeed it was. but certainly had its moments.
Erik Torenberg@eriktorenberg · Former Product Hunt
http://nymag.com/realestate/feat... This is one of my favorite pieces I've read period. How do you look at this piece years later? Tell me more about this.
Adam Sternbergh@sternbergh · author
@eriktorenberg Thanks! That is a particular favorite of mine. I can't claim credit for the idea — an editor at New York magazine noticed this particularly effective troll who was just torturing everyone in the comment section on a Brooklyn real estate blog. I was very skeptical about it as a magazine story — until I read the comments, and realized there was a whole novel's-worth of material, right there in these anonymous posts, about people's hopes, fears, dreams, and anxieties, all wrapped up in the metaphor of real estate. I haven't re-read the piece in awhile but I do have a souvenir of it in my home office — the cover of the issue it appeared in.
David T. Cole@glark · Through Methods
@sternbergh In Near Enemy there is no reference to Wookiee sex in the Limn. When did Lucasfilm get to you? Thanks.
Adam Sternbergh@sternbergh · author
@glark The Chewbacca sex was very popular! See this: http://www.esquire.com/entertain...
Adam Sternbergh@sternbergh · author
@sternbergh @glark There is definitely an untapped market there or, more likely, an already tapped market there.
David T. Cole@glark · Through Methods
@sternbergh May the force be with them. Thank you for your answer.
Adam Sternbergh@sternbergh · author
@glark Thank you for your interest in Wookiee sex.
Rick Chang@rickchangto
@sternbergh Which "Hey, it's that guy(s)!" would you like to see in the Spademan movie adaptations?
David T. Cole@glark · Through Methods
@rickchangto Clint Howard as Do-Best.
Adam Sternbergh@sternbergh · author
@glark @rickchangto Clint Howard would make a great Do-Best! I actually thought quite a bit about James Rebhorn as the pastor from SHOVEL READY — he would have been perfect. He is who I was picturing in my mind. Alas, he passed away recently. But he is awesome.
Rick Chang@rickchangto
@sternbergh @rickchangto There must be a place for Al Leong!!!
Adam Sternbergh@sternbergh · author
@rickchangto ALWAYS.
Melissa Joy Kong@melissajoykong · Content, Product Hunt
Piggybacking on Emily's question above! I'm in the middle of writing a book (non-fiction). I don't often get "writer's block" with blog post-style writing; it usually just pours out of me. But I find myself wrestling intensely with resistance when it comes to book writing. I sense the solution is to not wait to "feel" like writing, and consistently engage in a behavior that gets me in the habit of writing for a significant chunk of time each day (e.g. waking up two hours early to write first thing when I wake up every day without fail). Do you have a process/habit that keeps you writing? Do you create an outline first, or just write and see where the characters/story take you?
Adam Sternbergh@sternbergh · author
@melissajoykong Good luck with the book! I also do the "write very first thing in the morning before you've even read your emails/opened Twitter/allowed the latest headlines to send you into a tail-spin of despair" method. I do think that if the writing feels hard, you're not approaching it exactly correctly — that good writing should flow pretty freely. However, it's getting that flow started that can be difficult. A pretty good piece of advice I've heard is to stop "writing" it and just imagine you're sending a letter or long text to a friend. That will at least free you up and start to allow your brain to do the work of ordering the information, figuring out what is important and what isn't, etc — all stuff we do pretty naturally when we're, say, telling a story in a bar.
Emily Hodgins@ems_hodge · Operations @ Product Hunt
Hi Adam, thanks for joining us today. How do set out to write a book - can you talk us through process? Were these stories you something you always wanted to write, or did they develop as you started writing them?
Erik Torenberg@eriktorenberg · Former Product Hunt
@ems_hodge i'd be curious to know your process for books vs magazine pieces
Adam Sternbergh@sternbergh · author
@eriktorenberg @ems_hodge WIth magazine pieces, you always have something to start with: It's about corralling all this information, and all these interviews, then trying to winnow all that down to the essential parts of the story that is there to be told. Fiction is sort of the opposite: You start with nothing. From there, it's a kind of a Big Bang — you create this whole universe, full of characters, circumstances, everything is under your control. Fiction is obviously more freeing. But non-fiction is very satisfying as well — ironically, in my experience, it's a lot more like detective work than writing detective stories is.
Adam Sternbergh@sternbergh · author
@sternbergh @ems_hodge I also think that with narrative non-fiction, you have a certain responsibility to write with style, but to also make sure the language isn't impeding the telling of the story. With fiction you can go to town. Style is one of the primary enjoyments I get from reading fiction.
Jake Crump@jakecrump · Community Team with Product Hunt
@sternbergh Where did you get the idea for Spademan? More specifically, what made you decide to make him a former garbage man?
Adam Sternbergh@sternbergh · author
@jakecrump Hey all — thanks for the questions! I'll answer this one first because it's the easiest. When I was a kid, there was a waste disposal company in Canada called Spademan Waste Disposal. As a young Dashiell Hammett fan, I liked the resonance with Sam Spade, naturally, plus it just sounded cool. I always liked the name… so it seemed only fair to make him a garbageman in honor of that inspiration.
Melissa Joy Kong@melissajoykong · Content, Product Hunt
In the last five or so years, there has been a resurgence of the dystopian genre (both movies and books). (1) Why do you think us humans are so attracted to dystopian plots? (2) Do you think our world will evolve to become more dystopian in the next 100 years?
Adam Sternbergh@sternbergh · author
@melissajoykong This is a good question — I think we're in a golden age of dystopias, which must mean something: Maybe we're anxious about the future, or about our relationship to technology, or the speed at which things are changing. It's telling that dystopias from the early 20th century, like 1984 or BRAVE NEW WORLD, where often about totalitarian regimes, and today's are almost always about civilization's collapse. We all fear the super bug.
Melissa Joy Kong@melissajoykong · Content, Product Hunt
What books have most shaped your personal literary style?
Adam Sternbergh@sternbergh · author
@melissajoykong There are some pretty obvious influences — James Ellroy, James Cain, Raymond Chandler, the Frank Miller of Marvel Comics in the 1980s. There are a few poets I really like and admire in their use of language: Anne Carson, Frederick Seidel, Michael Robbins. I really love a Canadian writer named Derek McCormack who writes with incredible precision and economy. His novel THE HAUNTED HILLBILLY is fantastic and well-worth checking out.
Erik Torenberg@eriktorenberg · Former Product Hunt
@sternbergh In tech it's pretty common to copy other companies/business models or even modify them slightly, and, as long as it's recognized, people don't really look down upon it (e.g. Steve Jobs was the great tinkerer, not inventor). How do you make sense of this as it relates to writing? Is originality important? What does it even mean?
Adam Sternbergh@sternbergh · author
@eriktorenberg @melissajoykong Tough question. I think originality is very important — but sometimes that originality comes through in how you tackle material which itself may seem familiar to fans of a particular genre. For example: There are many, many Private Eye novels that start with someone in distress contacting or visiting a private eye. Yet some of these novels are classics, and some are entirely disposable. A smart writer and critic, Lev Grossman, once likened genre writing to a chess game: You often start with familiar pieces, but it's what you do with them that counts. I think that's about right.
Erik Torenberg@eriktorenberg · Former Product Hunt
@sternbergh @melissajoykong @eriktorenberg is work that's deritative inherently less interesting? for example I was inspired by your Brooklyn "What" piece to write a piece on Detroit, but it came out ...looking awfully similar to yours. Do you ever start pieces this way - by being inspired by another piece and modifying it to fit your goals?
Jacqueline von Tesmar@jacqvon · Community at Product Hunt ⚡️
What five authors/writers, living or dead, would you want to have dinner with?
Adam Sternbergh@sternbergh · author
@jacqvon This is such a tough question because all I can think of is, What would I possibly say to that person? There are authors I admire, and authors I'd love to eavesdrop on, but I just picture myself sitting at the table saying, "Thanks for the books… Mister… Hemingway. They're… really… good." I would love to meet Raymond Chandler in any context, as his collected letters are as entertaining as his novels. But I imagine he'd get bored with me in about eight seconds. There's a writer named Ben Hecht who was this fantastic, swashbuckling screenwriter/novelist who wrote a great memoir called CHILD OF THE CENTURY, and from that, he seems like very decent company. Also, I think an hour with Kurt Vonnegut would make anyone a more humane person.
Jake Crump@jakecrump · Community Team with Product Hunt
If you weren't a writer, what other passion would you pursue?
Adam Sternbergh@sternbergh · author
@jakecrump If I had even an ounce of artistic talent, I would love to design book covers, no word a lie.
Jake Crump@jakecrump · Community Team with Product Hunt
@sternbergh @jakecrump Very cool. Any favorite book covers that stick out in your mind?
Ryan Hoover@rrhoover · Founder, Product Hunt
What apps or tools do you use to write? Personally, I love Draft for writing and storing all my blog posts.
Adam Sternbergh@sternbergh · author
@rrhoover I am old-fashioned — I not only use MS Word, but I purposefully use a very old version of Word that isn't (or at least isn't entirely) junked up with widgets and whatnot. I don't actually love it — and would love to either discover a new tool or even have someone develop an actual new piece of hardware just for writing. Some guys are trying, with that huge lovable clunky word processor The Hemingwrite, which was thankfully renamed Freewrite: https://www.facebook.com/hemingw...
Melissa Joy Kong@melissajoykong · Content, Product Hunt
@rrhoover I've been using Scriviner (http://www.producthunt.com/tech/...), and love it a lot. Think it's the same tool Tim Ferriss and a number of other prolific writers use as well.
Adam Sternbergh@sternbergh · author
@melissajoykong @rrhoover I've heard it's quite good. I still have a romantic attachment to typewriters and all that jazz but, you know, those days are long past.
Erik Torenberg@eriktorenberg · Former Product Hunt
what is your writing advice to yourself 5 yrs ago? 10 yrs ago? how much of it do you think is talent vs learned?
Adam Sternbergh@sternbergh · author
@eriktorenberg 5 years ago: Go write a novel. 10 years ago: Stop worrying so much about writing a novel.
Adam Sternbergh@sternbergh · author
@sternbergh @eriktorenberg Writing is very deceptive because unlike, say, playing the piano, literally almost everyone can do it and does it all the time. That's an asset and a trap. An asset because everyone is already halfway to being good at it. A trap because you have to work really, really hard to be all the way to being good at it.
Adam Sternbergh@sternbergh · author
@sternbergh @eriktorenberg PS The Internet has 100% made people better, more interesting, more daring writers.
Erik Torenberg@eriktorenberg · Former Product Hunt
@sternbergh @eriktorenberg how about when you were starting w/ magazine pieces - how were you when you started and how did you get good at it (besides just repetition)
Adam Sternbergh@sternbergh · author
@eriktorenberg I was not that good! I thought I was okay, but I wasn't even okay. I read that early stuff now and I just cringe. The best way to get better at it is to read people who are better than you at it, and then try to figure out what they're doing. I guess this is like anything — except I think it's hard to watch someone who's really good at, for example, tennis and see WHY they're so good. You just see THAT they're good. With writing, you can analyze it a little more because it's all there on the page.
Erik Torenberg@eriktorenberg · Former Product Hunt
How and when did you know you had a gift for writing? or was it something that you knew you wanted to be good at and then you got good at it?
Adam Sternbergh@sternbergh · author
@eriktorenberg It was a weird instinct when I was a kid. When I was little, I really liked BATTLESTAR GALACTICA (the first version) and the way that affection manifested itself is that I sat down and wrote a script for BATTLESTAR GALACTICA. I wanted to *make* it. I was, like, ten. Another kid might, I guess, try to act like BG, or build a ship from BG. I wrote a script. It was all over after that.
Jake Crump@jakecrump · Community Team with Product Hunt
Of all your writings, which work would you say you are the most proud of and why?
Adam Sternbergh@sternbergh · author
@jakecrump They are all my children and I am proud of all of them! But actually I like the novels the best. It's a very satisfying process, creating something from scratch.
Erik Torenberg@eriktorenberg · Former Product Hunt
is writing a novel an entirely different mindset than writing a short story/magazine pieces or is it something like writing a lot of short stories/magazine pieces and fusing them together.
Adam Sternbergh@sternbergh · author
@eriktorenberg For me, it was a totally different mindset, but that's in part b/c my novels access, and are sprung from, a very different part of my brain. Journalism can be very analytical — like solving a problem, or untying a knot. Making sense of a lot of disparate information. I don't think you can really be analytical at all when writing fiction — you are following a different instinct. It's much more intuitive, at least for me. E.g., you're thinking, "Okay, he's at a door--what's behind the door?" And you don't go through 100 possibilities, analyzing each one for pros and cons. You just feel in your gut what is the very worst/most terrifying/most exciting/most unexpected thing lurking behind the door. And then you open the door.
Rick Chang@rickchangto
Is there a non-fiction topic that is firing up your interest enough that you'd want to write a Pulitzer prize winning book on it?
Adam Sternbergh@sternbergh · author
@rickchangto Not as of yet. That's actually a lie. There is one topic I am really interested in, but I've found that ideas for books are like soap bubbles: If you speak it out loud, it pops. Actually, that's a terrible simile, because you can say "soap bubble" all you want and nothing happens to the bubble. Suffice to say, the book is not about soap bubbles.
Rick Chang@rickchangto
@sternbergh @rickchangto Well, would using one of the 5 Trivial Pursuit categories be narrow enough to pop the bubble?
Erik Torenberg@eriktorenberg · Former Product Hunt
not to, like, hog this AMA session, but I'm curious: if you had a database of fantastic sentences/descriptions of people, places, situations, feelings etc, from other great works of literature, would that be super helpful. forgive the weirdness of this question. i've sort of done this and wonder if this is a good way to write pieces/stories (i sometimes collect sentences/paragraphs people have written on a particular topic and synthesize based on what i think about it and write a piece from there).
Adam Sternbergh@sternbergh · author
@eriktorenberg Yes, definitely! I always scribble down great sentences, quotes, snippets of things I really like. Re-reading those things can be just as inspiring to me as reading anything I've done — way more so, actually. Like: Someone's doing this right.
Adam Sternbergh@sternbergh · author
@sternbergh @eriktorenberg I do think the goal is to apply the lessons of other people's writing, rather than try to replicate exactly what they've done. Like, remember SEINFELD? That was this huge unexpected hit, and there were two lessons you could take from it: 1) America wants shows about shiftless urbanites hanging out a lot, or 2) America wants shows that spring from a singular vision and take interesting risks. The first one just leads to a bad imitation, while the second one leads to someone maybe coming up with something as refreshing as SEINFELD, but in its own way.
Erik Torenberg@eriktorenberg · Former Product Hunt
@sternbergh @eriktorenberg can you think of an example where you've done that?
Adam Sternbergh@sternbergh · author
I see the hour is up! Many thanks to you for your great questions. I really enjoyed this. Thanks to Product Hunt for hosting it. Have a great night, all.