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Jason Starr on Satire, Alternate Realities, and Failing Marriages

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Always versatile, a writer of contemporary noir, domestic thrillers, horror, graphic novels, and both Marvel and DC tie-in novels, Jason Starr has now turned to the sort of alternate-reality nightmare story Philip K. Dick might have dreamed up.  A criminal attorney named Steven Blitz, who lives in the New York City suburbs, is in the middle of a murder trial for his serial killer client. At the same time, he is undergoing a difficult period in his marriage.  When his wife, one evening, declares that she wants a divorce, Steven leaves the house and drives away to spend the night someplace else.  A stop at a local gas station leads to an altercation with a man, and a sudden spasm of violence puts Stephen in a different reality than the one he knows.  In this world, to his utter confusion, Steven’s life is almost nothing like the one he’s been living. It’s as if history, both his own and the planet’s, somehow took a weird turn while he lay unconscious after being injured at the gas station…

Starr melds noir and a multiverse narrative to create a sinuous, high-wire act of a novel.  It’s an unabashed page-turner that has the author’s usual dark and often satiric humor.  I interviewed Starr by email about the book, and we discussed its inspirations and how Starr took a more seat of the pants approach to the writing than he usually does when working on a novel.

Scott Adlerberg: In The Next Time I Die, you write something that starts out like a Jason Starr novel of the sort we know – first person narrator, contemporary, someone who fancies himself quite rational and balanced and decent but who despite all that is having marital problems – but which then goes in a direction completely new for you.  The central conceit is of a type you’ve never used before, where, after a chapter, time and space subtly change.  Is that where the book started for you, with you coming up with this conceit?

Jason Starr:  Yeah, I definitely wanted to do something very different with this book. I’m a big Philip K. Dick fan and for a long time I’ve been mulling how I’d approach writing a reality bending novel, that could also be a crime thriller, and I decided to just go for it. I knew where the plot was heading when I started out, that there would be that big shift in chapter two, though then the plot had some twists and turns that even I couldn’t anticipate. This is unusual for me because I usually plot in advance pretty meticulously.

Scott: What are some of the Philip K. Dick books that you like the most? Or that inspired you for The Next Time I Die?  He’s certainly a writer who tackles the question of identity and its fluidity, not to mention alternative reality narratives, as well as anyone.

Jason: Of course I love the best known ones like Do Androids Dream of Electric Sleep?,  A Scanner Darkly, and The Man in the High Castle, but my favorite has always been Time Out of Joint. It was actually one of the first Dick novels I read. I found an old battered mass market paperback of it at a used bookstore and was blown away. It has everything that’s great about Dick’s fiction—extraordinary stories that come out of ordinary situations. Dick has had a big impact on my writing in general. Aside from the sci-fi tropes, I think his stories at their core are psychological thrillers.

Scott: That’s interesting. We’ve known each other since we were kids, and I didn’t know you were a Philip K. Dick fan.  You’ve been holding out on me. But yes, I think you’re right. Among writers you’d brand as sci-fi authors, he’s extremely psychological in his focus. Much more interested in the internal, what goes on inside people, their minds, than in gadgets or the possible technologies of the future, though he has that sometimes, too.  

In your book, you have a very plausible laying out of how someone in your narrator’s predicament might react to something unprecedented to them, something truly mind-boggling in their experience.  You say that this novel you didn’t plot out as meticulously as you generally plot out your books, but the world that Steven Blitz, your main character, inhabits is a layered, detailed and internally consistent one.  I assume a good bit of that, the world-building (I hate that phrase, but I suppose it fits) must have been thought out in advance.  The technology people have, the world political situation, who the US president is, and so on.

Jason: Actually, I didn’t have all of those details worked out in advance. I had an idea where the plot was going, but I wanted to experience this “world” as Steven, the narrator, does, in real time. Without giving anything away—the time when this book takes place is very specific, I knew it had to be for the plot to work. I was writing the book in late 2019, early 2020 and for whatever reason I decided the book would begin on a specific date in late February 2020. I had that date in the book the whole time. Then late February arrived, and this timing took on much greater significance as it turned out that the pandemic was starting.  I had to make some adjustments but somehow it all came together.

Scott: You once told me that satire, at least some satire, infuses virtually everything you write. That’s certainly true in The Next Time I Die in a number of ways, especially in the ways the world is politically different than the actual world we live in.  Is this, under the surface, your way of writing an “if only” book.  Things may be tough for Steven Blitz and there are problems in the world, but overall, it’s sort of like alternate history as improvement.  “If only, at a certain point, history had not gone this way…”  I couldn’t help thinking that as I read.

Jason: Well, I think satire is part of my personality that sort of slips through while I’m writing. I think satire is a general attitude about the world, an undercurrent. It’s seeing the lighter side of even very dark situations. I’m not sure everyone gets the satire at times, because that’s the thing about satire, it’s a very delicate line for a writer to toy with—like humor, but without a punchline. Charles Willeford, Elmore Leonard, Jim Thompson and Patricia Highsmith jump to mind as crime writers who excel with satire—especially Willeford. I always picture him writing his books with a sly, ironic smile. There’s a lot of satire in Philip K. Dick’s work as well. In The Next Time I Die there were some juicy opportunities for satire that I couldn’t resist, but I didn’t intend to do it with any defined point of view. Some things about the alternate history are much better, but some are much worse. There’s also an alternate history to Steven himself that has its positives and negatives.

Scott: And the positives and negatives extend to Steven’s marital situation.  One day maybe someone will do a study of the work of Jason Starr from the marital perspective, a writer who created as full a gallery of unhappily married people as just about any writer of any kind of fiction. Read the Starr collected works and no sane person would ever want to commit to marriage with anyone. I suppose it’s in line with what Tolstoy said about families: All happy marriages are probably more or less the same.  Unhappy marriages are more interesting and give the writer more to work with dramatically.  But can I ask: How do you keep finding new wrinkles to present marital dysfunction?

Jason: Yeah, for me it’s definitely the Tolstoy idea. As you know, I started out writing plays, so I’m always looking for the conflict when I’m writing because that’s where the drama is. In real life happy relationships are the ideal and I hope I’m not turning you off to marriage, Scott. It’s just that in fiction, I think Tolstoy was right, happy marriages are usually pretty boring. You need some drama and tension because that’s where the stories come from. I mean if the characters in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? agreed on everything it wouldn’t be much of a play. I don’t consciously look for new wrinkles, though. For me, it’s more about creating a plot, or plot twists, out of the conflict. The thing I’m mainly concerned about is making relationship conflicts feel as real and as relatable as possible.

Scott: Without giving too much context to this question, since it would reveal a bit too much, do you have any particular favorite stories or movies that link murder and art?  You link the two here in a particular and quite creepy way, and I was wondering where that derived from.  I may be wrong, but I don’t remember that idea – the artist as murderer – figuring so much in your books before. 

Jason: Art has been a theme in some of my other books, in particular Panic Attack, and the artist character in The Next Time I Die is probably my favorite character in the book.  I really loved writing those scenes. My mom paints and there are other artists in my family, and I go to museums frequently, but I think there is just something about “the complicated painter” that fascinates me—of course if the artist were happy and conflict-free they wouldn’t be nearly as interesting. In fiction, some of Highsmith’s Ripley books come to mind, and a big shout out for Willeford’s The Burnt Orange Heresy, a great noir novel about the art world. And I love Max von Sydow as the cheated-on abstract artist in Hannah and Her Sisters.

Scott:  Yeah, von Sydow is great in that, as he is playing a tortured artist or two in Bergman’s films.  But I’ve been wondering…Since Cold Caller, your first novel, you’ve worked in a number of different areas. Two hundred percent proof noir, crime where the emphasis is more on the blackly comic, one or two domestic thrillers, two werewolf novels, and both Marvel and DC tie-in novels as well as graphic novels.  You keep trying new things, but as I mentioned, you also have a lot of consistency in your preoccupations from book to book.  The Next Time I Die brings something of a sci-fi speculative fiction slant to your fiction, but not without noir, naturally.  Any particular type of story you’re thinking about writing that you haven’t yet?  A cozy with a dark edge?  Hard sci-fi?  An ecological disaster novel where nearly every marriage crumbles facing the pressure of imminent global devastation? Where do you think you’ll go next?

Jason: Ha, the eco disaster book is a great idea, Scott, you should write that!  Maybe in the end I’m more of a relationship optimist than you are, though, because I think this is one story where the surviving couple should be happy—you need to contrast all of that bleakness with some hope. As for what’s next, right now I’m working on a new psychological thriller that’s also much different from any of my previous books, at least in style. I do like to mix things up, you’re right, but in the end it’s hard for me to get away from writing noir with an ironic slant, so I think the overall tone is similar. I’d like to write a series of at least several books. That’s one thing I haven’t done yet, and when I come up with the right idea, I’ll give it a shot.

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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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