Look who's talking in BookPage!
Ellen Alderman & Caroline Kennedy
J. Carter Brown
Rita Mae Brown
James Lee Burke
James C. Christensen
Lolis Eric Elie
Melissa Fay Greene
Susan Fisher-Hoch & Joseph B. McCormick
Robert B. Parker
Brenda J. Ponichtera
Carol Saline & Sharon Wohlmuth
Caroline B. Cooney
On the Lower East Side with Caleb Carr,
talking about a dark obsession
Interview by Laura Reynolds Adler
"If anybody had said to me when I was an adolescent, 'You're going to write fiction one day,' I would have said, 'You're out of your mind!'" says Caleb Carr. "Because I thought all fiction was this kind of confessional, drunken, contemporary . . . BLECCCHHH!!" He sticks out his tongue as he says it, then lets loose a cackle. "If that isn't too fine a word to put on it."
It was not until 1991 that Carr found a form of fiction to suit him, some 11 years after publishing his first novel, entitled "Casing the Promised Land." "It was one of those bildungsroman, coming-of-age things," he says dismissively of his literary debut. "That kind of pseudo-autobiographical contemporary fiction." The 42-year-old author feels that fiction should be about more than "just what happened to you. If you can't find a way to make it a more universal truth and a more universal experience," he explains, "you're not doing your job as a writer."
Carr clearly did his job with his next book, "The Alienist." The tale of an emotionally and physically scarred serial killer stalking boy prostitutes in 1896 New York City, "The Alienist" and its truths struck a resonant, emotional chord with readers, who kept it on the bestseller lists for months. Chief among the novel's truths is that the cruelties visited on children reverberate for years, especially when those cruelties are inflicted on children by those who should love them best: their parents. It is a truth that haunts Carr, who has written a probing and heartfelt sequel to "The Alienist." Entitled "The Angel of Darkness," the novel reunites criminal psychologist Dr. Laszlo Kreizler (aka "the alienist") and his unconventional investigation team, this time in search of a woman suspected not only of kidnapping a child, but of killing her own children. Like its predecessor, it is a novel that explores truths pertaining to Carr's linked obsessions -- childhood and violence.
Though not autobiographical in the events depicted, both novels are, Carr concurs, "emotionally autobiographical." "Absolutely," he says. "That's why I settled on this kind of writing. Because I could write books that dealt with themes that were very autobiographical, but not with specifics that were very autobiographical. Partly because I don't want to deal with the specifics of my life in print," he says, his eyes fixed on something out of view. "These are immensely personal books to me." Dressed in baggy beige slacks, a white oxford shirt with pink ink stains on the pocket, and blue canvas sneakers, Carr is a slim, unpretentious man who has apparently just gotten out of the shower: his shirt clings to his limbs and his long straight hair is wet and slicked back. Behind silver-framed glasses are startling green eyes set off by long dark eyelashes and arched bushy brows. He speaks in a resonant baritone that cracks when he gets especially animated or excited, which is frequently, and he is charming without trying.
We are sitting on his aunt's and uncle's small, shaded terrace overlooking a public housing complex for the elderly and its adjoining park. Carr lives on the top floor of this five-floor walkup, one of the better tended buildings on the sort of block that is perpetually labeled "in transition." His description of the neighborhood in "The Alienist" is still fairly apt today: "that quarter of Manhattan where . . . life became, the further one progressed into the area, ever cheaper and more sordid: the Lower East Side." Asked why he remains here, Carr says the main reason is that it fuels his writing. "It keeps me angry in a way that I seem to feel is useful in my work. It's like I walk outside my building and I will ALWAYS find something to be outraged by, and always, therefore, go home and feel like I have to sit down and write something."
It was anger, too, which first impelled the young Carr to write; writing was the escape valve through which he eluded his own potential for violence. "I had a TERRIBLE temper when I was a kid," he says. "And I would take anger and say, 'OK, you can't smash the window again or scream at somebody or kick somebody or whatever. You've got to sit down and try to organize your thoughts into a well-reasoned argument.'" The Carr household was one shadowed by violence. Caleb's father, Lucien, friend to Beat generation writers William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac, fatally stabbed his former scoutmaster, who was obsessed with the Columbia University student, after the man reportedly made an advance. (He served two years for manslaughter.)
Carr is famously reluctant to discuss his childhood, but he will say this: "I think the depictions of violence in the books show -- exhibit -- that whoever wrote them knows a little bit about what violence, particularly towards children, is like." He concedes that he "experienced a fair amount of it. Not as much as many people," he is quick to add, "but more than most."
Like 13-year-old Stevie Taggert, the reformed petty thief who narrates "The Angel of Darkness" and whom Kreizler took into his heart and home at a pivotal age, Carr had a family friend who "sort of took my side, you know, and realized that I had something to offer" while he was still young. The killer in "The Angel of Darkness," had no one positive and encouraging in her corner, particularly as a child, which Carr sees as crucial to her pathology. "It tends to be hopeless," Carr says of the killer in "The Angel of Darkness" and her ilk, whom the psychologically astute Carr refuses to portray as simple monsters. "She was a person," he writes, "one who'd been made capable of unspeakable things by unknown events what [sic] we would never really appreciate if we couldn't see them through the eyes of first the girl and then the young woman she'd once been."
What the detectives finally see through her eyes is society's insistence "that there was only one way for her to be a full, complete woman" -- through motherhood -- a role she is neither good at nor enjoys, and which partially propels her violence.
Further compounding matters is society's equally damaging belief that no mother could ever kill her children. "Everybody wants to believe there's at least one relationship in life that's sort of sacrosanct. And when you discover that it isn't, in many ways it's the most terrifying kind of betrayal."
Although the children in Carr's books are frequently betrayed, there is a melancholy sweetness about them that is ineffably moving. It's in "Hickie the Hun," an orphan and petty criminal who questions the ethics of loaning out his partner in crime, a ferret named Mike. "Don't know ath I'd feel right about it, thomehow," says the lisping boy who will end up in Sing Sing. "Mike'th hith own man." It's in narrator Stevie Taggert, young enough to mischievously slide down a banister, but old enough to be saddened by his first sexual encounter with a girl prostitute he loves. And it's in Joseph, a tired boy prostitute who scrubs off his makeup before facing that rarity -- a caring and concerned adult. "Childhood is a tremendous trial for most kids," says Carr. "And their bravery in trying to be decent through most of it, is to me, really, the most admirable quality in all of the human species."