Friday, March 02, 2018

How I Came to Write This Book: JACK WATERS, by Scott Adlerberg

Scott Adlerberg lives in Brooklyn. His first book was the Martinique-set crime novel SPIDERS AND
FLIES (2012). Next came the noir/fantasy novella JUNGLE HORSES (2014), followed by the psychological thriller GRAVEYARD LOVE (2016). He is a regular contributor to sites such
as Lithub and Criminal Element, and each summer he co-hosts the Word for Word Reel Talks film commentary series in Manhattan.His new novel, JACK WATERS, a historical revenge thriller, is out now from Broken River Books.

How I Came to Write Jack Waters

My novel Jack Waters derives, at bottom, from childhood summer vacations.  I dedicated the book to "Chaits", and Chaits happens to be a bungalow colony in the Catskill Mountains of New York State where I went for part of every summer, usually August, from infancy till college.  The titular character of Jack Waters, living in 1904, plays poker to support himself, and poker was an essential activity during the summers at Chaits.  We’re talking the 1960’s and 70’s here, and we’re talking friendly games for money.  My father played and so did many of my parents' friends and the members of the bungalow colony staff who were in their late teens.  And yes, these teens played with the adults, using their summer earnings to bet with, and the teens were serious about their poker and could play well. Then at some point, around when we were twelve or thirteen, my friends and I started playing our "kids" games, with the stakes being nickels, dimes, and quarters.  Later, when we ourselves reached our teens, the stakes rose a bit, though our games never included adults.  Poker was a regular nightly activity during those summers, and it's a game, from childhood, I thought a good bit about.  Though I’ve never played professionally, I know a few people who have, and I spent time talking to them about the game and their mentality towards it.  It’s probably not remarkable, when all is said and done, that at some point I came to write a novel with a poker player as the main character.

The novel's setting is the Caribbean, and it so happens that of my four books so far, three take place mostly in this region.  I'd say this stems from the two week trips my parents and I went on, starting when I was 11, to the Virgin Islands.  We went several times, and it's there I became acquainted with the Caribbean's beauty and complexity.   We vacationed in Jamaica one August, and when I was in college, and my parents separated for a while, my mother moved from New York to St. Croix, so I would visit her there.  All this time and later, I was reading about the Caribbean, its complicated history and tangle of cultural influences, and this reading continued on when, in my late twenties, I spent two years in Martinique.  I got a Master's there in Literature of the English-Speaking Caribbean and I just soaked up more of Caribbean life.  By the time I came to write Jack Waters, even though it's a historical novel, I didn't have to do much research to prepare.  Over many years I’d done all that reading about the region, and I had a strong sense of the look, smells, and feel of the tropics from my time spent there.  I started writing Jack Waters, and only when I had a specific question, like what kind of warships was the United States using in 1904, would I need to look something up.  Other than that, I wrote based on what I knew, what I’d experienced, and what I imagined.

So merge an early poker fascination with exposure to the Caribbean from a young age, and you have the genesis for Jack Waters.  Or maybe I should say the non-literary genesis, because, as should go without saying, the book was born from a host of literary influences also. I’ve mentioned elsewhere how Heinrich von Kleist’s classic novella, Michael Kohlhaas, served as a model.  But in terms of a whole chunk of fiction that I drew upon while I was writing, I can’t not mention certain Latin American authors and the stories and novels they’ve produced that rank among my all-time favorites. There’s Gabriel Garcia Marquez and the way he sucks you into a tale with his long paragraphs, abundance of incident, and sheer storytelling genius. There’s the Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier, whose novel about the Haitian revolution and its aftermath, The Kingdom of this World, from 1949, tells an epic historical story, following many characters, and does it in a 180 elegant pages.  Jorge Luis Borges, though his fiction consists of short stories only, wrote some great essays about novelists and novel writing, and I remember a phase from one of his pieces where he talks about a specific kind of novel he likes to read, which is a novel of adventure that moves fast, and has gaps.  Jack Waters is a novel of adventure in part and I made every effort to keep it moving fast.  And the gaps Borges is talking about?  I take that to mean narrative elisions, omissions in the story that the readers, through clues and suggestions provided by the author, can fill in themselves.  This is a way to help achieve compression, something Borges excelled at and which I always strive for. Why say in five hundred pages what you can say in eight? Borges also wrote (or something quite close to this), and even though I don’t think many people, myself included, can do what Borges does and get novelistic depth and complexity into a seven or eight page story, the ideal of wasting no words, even in a form where there’s no limit on page length, remains paramount to me. It preoccupied me when I was writing Jack Waters.  Compress, compress, compress, I was thinking as I wrote, and I was glad I could get my story told in 48,000 words.  In any event, as I was saying, I’d been reading and loving the Latin American writers for years by the time I dreamed up Jack Waters, and that feel of a ripe, strange, violent world they frequently conjure up is something I wanted, in however small a way, to shoot for myself.  Their works were embedded in my imagination when I decided to set my own novel on an unnamed Spanish speaking island where a military man is president, the United States often interferes, and a rebellion is brewing in the backlands. 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Very glad to see this feature come back, Patti! And this one's really interesting. I like learning how different authors' stories come about.