Crown editor Zack Wagman acquired New York Times Magazine editor Adam Sternbergh’s first novel, Shovel Ready, a “futuristic-dystopian-virtual-reality-hit-man-noir,” two years after the two first met. In this author-editor conversation, Wagman and Sternbergh talk about the pleasures of pulp, the challenges of editing an editor, and avoiding the phony voice of failed novels past.
Adam Sternbergh: I imagine that for most editors, their relationship with a novel starts after it’s already been written—for example, when the manuscript first crosses their desk. You, however, played an integral role in inspiring this book even before I knew I was going to be writing a book at all. Do you recall that?
Zack Wagman: Absolutely. It happened almost four years ago. I had pitched a book idea to your former New York magazine colleague Jennifer Senior. She politely—wisely—declined the idea, but we had a very fun lunch. Then, shortly after that, I get an email from you saying that Jen thinks we would like each other. What I remember most about that first meeting was that you were genuinely searching for a book idea, which is not always the case with magazine writers. You seemed to be getting a lot of advice to churn out a quick pop-culture nonfiction project ... and yet all we were talking about were thrillers, sci-fi movies, and addictive television. You were clearly more interested in fiction, but you were hesitating. What was going on?
Sternbergh: I was probably doing what I was habitually and temperamentally inclined to do in the presence of book editors, which was mumble some half-baked ideas for nonfiction books that I thought might be commercially appealing, but which, upon further reflection, I’d realize I didn’t even want to read, let alone write. You recognized this, and forcefully reiterated the question: No, Adam—what do you want to write? At which point I think I mumbled, even more sheepishly, something like: “Well, I’d like to write fiction.” The fact that you didn’t at that point fold your napkin neatly, rise from the table, and leave the restaurant was very encouraging.
Wagman: I’ll admit to being totally unsure of what kind of novel you’d write, or if you’d write one at all. I had a nagging worry that you’d call me up one day and say, “I did it! I wrote a screenplay!” Which of course would have been great ... for you.
Sternbergh: Well, in the two years or so between that lunch and me sending you Shovel Ready, I fiddled around with a lot of different stuff. I even wrote a screenplay! No lie! It was mostly a personal exercise—though a lot of the thinking I did for it, about story and plot and pacing, etc., did make its way into Shovel Ready. You should be thankful I never sent you the screenplay. But I did ask my agent specifically to send you my book.
Wagman: I’m curious how the writing process went for you. My experience is that first-time novelists often start off strong, and then peter out, unsure of how to wrap everything up. But you were the opposite. You seemed to get more confident as the book progressed so that, suddenly you had this layered and surprising character in a twisty and swift thriller plot.
Sternbergh: I figure there’s roughly two ways to write a novel (of course, that’s not true, there are a million ways, what do I know, but bear with me): the plot-it-all-out-on-index-cards-ahead-of-time way and the E.L. Doctorow, headlights-on-a-foggy-night way. Which means basically: You can’t see the whole journey, but you can see just enough road ahead to keep moving. I definitely embarked on that second one. Which is not to say I had no idea where it was going or what was going to happen, but in the first draft I was definitely discovering this world—and this character—as it went along.
Wagman: Where did Spademan’s voice come from?
Sternbergh: In hindsight I can see a bunch of influences, some obvious, some otherwise, from classic clipped, hardboiled prose to some poets I really admire to my complete obsession with Twitter as a communicative medium. (It is perhaps the greatest linguistic corset devised since the sonnet.) But, honestly, I started out by deciding what I didn’t want the voice to be: I wanted to completely avoid a kind of self-consciously “writerly” and often phony voice I’ve recognized in my own failed fiction writing in the past, and seen too often elsewhere.
Wagman: Was it weird for you as an editor to be edited?
Sternbergh: Not at all—my first reaction to your edits was, obviously, to hurl myself onto my fainting couch and mutter something unkind about your failure to recognize the infallible greatness of my prose. Once I got past that, though, I realized you were truly in my corner, like a cut man, seeing the strengths and weaknesses in my approach and helping me correct them so we could go out and win the fight together. (In this analogy, I’m not sure who we’re fighting. Torpor?) I’m also impressed as hell by the process of editing a book, since you have to keep so much in mind—from the granular, line-editing level to the galactic, does-it-all-hang together level. I imagine that’s tough, to say the least.
Wagman: It’s actually a lot of fun. It’s such a different muscle than reading for pleasure or plowing through a stack of manuscripts. It’s refreshing to slow down and look at the nuts and bolts of the thing, or in your case: the interlocking box cutters.