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Past perfect, future tense

Caleb Carr finds it 'very irritating' that critics won't
'let you out of the box,' he tells MICHAEL POSNER.
'People really want what they want. Now, I understand
why John Grisham does all lawyer books and Tom Clancy
does all high-tech books and Michael Crichton
has had the most success with one form.'

Saturday, December 23, 2000

I greet Caleb Carr in his Toronto hotel suite with the obligatory extension of congratulations -- for his new novel, Killing Time.

"Well," he says with a little chuckle, settling his lanky frame into a chair, "if congratulations are really in order."

The conditional structure is no accident. Carr's futuristic book has generated many positive reviews, but a greater number of rather nasty dismissals. "It's been a rough ride with this book," he concedes. "People really expected another one of the other books."

The other books, of course, are his suspense novels, The Alienist (1994) and The Angel of Darkness (1997), works of historical fiction that credibly re-created turn-of-the-century Manhattan and became bestsellers. No one mistook them for literature -- just well-researched, entertaining, commercial reads.

Killing Time, set in 2023 A.D., is a kind of Jules Vernian theme-park ride through the undiscovered country of the future, complete with an amphibious airship that can move from deep-sea mode to the stratosphere in seconds. Here, character development seems to yield to the exigencies of a cartoon plot, and Carr's oft-repeated but scarcely original message that the world is suffering from the effects of too much information.

"People who've never read my books before are the biggest fans of this one," Carr says, analyzing the popular vote. "People who have read the other two are running about 50-50, either very pro or very con. And obviously, I've taken a certain amount of critical flak."

Although the book recently penetrated the lower echelons of the bestsellers list, Carr finds it "very irritating" that critics won't "let you out of the box. People really want what they want. Now, I understand why John Grisham does all lawyer books and Tom Clancy does all high-tech books and Michael Crichton has had the most success with one form."

Killing Time came to life after Time Magazine commissioned him to write a futuristic book that it could serialize. But Time could never be quite sure when it would publish a new instalment, making it hard for readers to stay involved with the story. The first chapter appeared in November, 1999, the second in February, 2000.

Although Carr's standing in the literary world is based principally on his fiction, he has also produced two volumes of non-fiction, including (with James Chace) America Invulnerable: The Quest for Absolute Security from 1812 to Star Wars, and The Devil Soldier: The Story of Frederick Townsend Ward, a biography of a U.S. soldier of fortune. And he continues to contribute essays on military and diplomatic history to various publications.

Carr is not the first member of his family to gain notoriety. In 1944, his father Lucien, a United Press International editor and close friend of beat writers Jack Kerouac, Alan Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs, was convicted of murdering one David Kammerer. He spent two years in jail, but was subsequently released when the court ruled the crime had resulted from an attempt to thwart unwanted sexual advances.

Carr's parents divorced when he was 8, and he and two brothers lived in lower Manhattan with his mother, Francesca, and her second husband, novelist John Speicher. He earned his history degree at New York University. In 1980, he produced his first novel, Casing the Promised Land, a work that now largely embarrasses him. Submitting his own review to the Web site, he wrote: "I am the author of this book. It has a few good scenes, but is essentially roman à clef nonsense that every writer has to get out of his system early on. Do yourself a favor and read ANYTHING else I've written (you'll be doing me a favor, too). Forgive the follies of youth."

As a student of history, Carr was mesmerized by the long-running Bush-Gore presidential circus. The key point the media missed, he says, is that Florida, "the most corrupt state in the union, is run by Jeb Bush, the brother of George W., and they're losing and then magically, in the middle of election night, they seemed to have won. Now it's a very simple process. George picks up the phone to Jeb and says hey, we're behind, but only by a little. And Jeb calls the state troopers and tells them, take 20,000 votes out. It happens all the time, all over the country."

Of course, Carr expects nothing more of the media, since "they are absolutely the paid servants of the corporate class, which is also the master of the political class."

Wearing his political-analysis hat, Carr thinks that the United States doesn't have the stomach for imperialism. "We learned in the Philippines that we don't really have Rome's ability to engage in savage wars of repression."

Washington, he notes, spent a little more than a decade in Vietnam. "They kept it up for as long as they could. And what are we talking about -- 58,000 soldiers died? If you're going to be an imperial power, you've got to be ready for a lot more damage than that."

Carr has demonstrated his own form of power on bestseller lists. But he's had little success converting the novels into film. Director Ridley Scott has expressed interest in Killing Time, but may have problems turning an idea-heavy text into an action-adventure flick.

The Alienist, which might have seemed the ideal cinematic property, is a classic definition of development hell. Producer Scott Rudin persuaded Paramount to pay $500,000 (U.S.) for the rights -- in manuscript. But playwright David Henry Hwang's screenplay failed to attract a director. Then director Curtis Hanson and screenwriter Steven Katz were retained to draft an adaptation, but Rudin and Hanson had a falling out. Director Phillip Kaufman wanted to write his own adaptation.

"Rudin had about nine horrible scripts that I've had to fight him on," Carr says. The main difficulties have been convicing Rudin that "it's okay that there is no love story in The Alienist, and that it is an ensemble piece with no central figure."

As for the money the book has earned, Carr insists that it has not changed his life. "I still live in the same apartment in the East Village I've always lived in." However, a few years ago, he did buy a 1,400-acre farm in upstate New York, where he now spends much of his time. "I hate what New York City has become," he says. "They've killed all the character that it had. The streets are cleaner and safer, but with it comes homogenization."

When he wrote about the past, Carr says, no matter how dark the portrait of Manhattan, "people always had the comfort of believing -- well, that's the past. Things are different now. So that's partly why I've set this book in the future -- to show that those sort of people are still around."

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