Interview with Caleb Carr
It’s not every day that a novel comes along that has the power to reinvigorate and influence an entire genre, and become a timeless classic along the way. In the world of historical mysteries, only a handful of authors have managed to pull that off—Umberto Eco with The Name of The Rose, Matthew Pearl with The Dante Club, Erik Larson with The Devil in the White City, and in 1994, with a book that would remain on The New York Times best-sellers list for six months, Caleb Carr.
In The Alienist, Carr swept aside the conventions of the historical mystery genre, choosing to forgo the usual idealized backdrop, and instead set his novel in an infection riddled turn-of-the-century New York, under the grip of a horrific serial killer targeting prostitutes in the Lower East Side. A professor of military history, Carr leveraged his meticulous research and granular knowledge of history to mix a perfect cocktail of fact and fiction in his debut novel—“It was important to me that everything in my book was true, except for my story,” Carr told the New York Times the year it was published. The book introduced readers to a progressive yet emotionally conflicted child-psychologist named Dr. Laszlo Kreizler—the “alienist” of the title—and deals with issues still relevant today, including class distinction, police corruption, and immigration. Through Kreizler’s insight into human psychology, the novel also raises questions about the roots of violence and crime, and casts a light on how interfamily violence impacts children. Carr capitalized on the success of The Alienist with a follow-up novel, The Angel of Darkness (1997), in which Kreizler and his gang track down a female serial killer who is murdering children. The novel explores the lingering effects of childhood trauma and the societal violence it can engender, while offering a searing indictment of the disconnect between the haves and the have-nots.
One of the greatest challenges any writer can take on is writing a Sherlock Holmes pastiche. The Italian Secretary (2005) showed that Carr was equal to that challenge. Set in Scotland, where Holmes and Dr. Watson investigate a set of murders in one of Queen Victoria’s castles, the novel showcases Carr’s ability to plot heavily based on true historical events and people. The Italian Secretary not only earned rave reviews from critics but also managed to satisfy many die-hard and discerning Sherlockians.
In 2016, with the release of Surrender, New York, Carr proved his true versatility by crafting a critically acclaimed contemporary crime novel. Like his previous works, it was a deeply researched page-turner from start to finish, featuring bold and unforgettable characters. Carr’s narrative, set in the upstate New York town of Surrender, poses hard questions about the society we live in. He calls attention to the widespread epidemic of throwaway children, the blind faith crime investigators often place on forensic evidence, and the corrupt and powerful who will stop at nothing to silence the truth when it threatens to derail their agenda.
The television network TNT recently released a lavish ten-part series based on The Alienist, starring Daniel Brühl, Dakota Fanning, and Luke Evans. Amid the newfound buzz over the story that put Caleb Carr on the literary map, we caught up with this groundbreaking and versatile author . . .
AFG: Theodore Roosevelt is a character in The Alienist. I always feel that trying to capture the nuances of the personality of a nonfictional historical figure has to be a difficult task to pull off.
CC: This is where being a historian and a biographer before a novelist really came into play, along with the fact that I’d been fascinated with and studying TR since my high school days. The fact that he was attacked by many people in my left-wing family and schools for his supposed “imperialism,” without those people ever balancing such attacks out by acknowledging that he was the first and most important domestically progressive president in U.S. history, forced me to investigate the imperialism claims carefully. I eventually concluded [that they were] unfounded. Did he take control of foreign territory? Yes. Was it imperialism in the European sense? No. But that’s not the main point here. Personally and psychologically, I had always found TR one of the most compelling figures in U.S. history. Later I realized that some of this had to do with the fact that, as a young man stricken by physical ailments and the fears they inspire, he was brought through his darkest times by his father, a deeply compassionate and caring man. This is often key to great men with noble hearts: an overtly caring father. Having had the reverse—a father who was the chief cause of my childhood fears and ailments—I was drawn to what was, for me, an exotic upbringing. It wasn’t an easy realization, any of this, but it was an important one in achieving TR’s voice.
Then, of course, there were my years spent as a dramatist and scriptwriter, along with directing plays. This teaches you how to bring broadly drawn characters to actual life. The small details of voice, movement, and personal habits that are needed to humanize people.
At any rate it was gratifying enough to know that I achieved TR’s voice in a manner recognizable enough to his descendants and to the Theodore Roosev
elt Association that I became the first novelist ever invited to read at Sagamore Hill—that was a very big deal for me. There were so many family members there, along with experts, and I read the scene in TR’s brownstone, with Edith and all his kids, in the way that I always read, doing the voices (including TR’s, which I’d studied from recordings done with the old-style Edison recording drums), and everyone, even the family, found it note perfect. That made it all worthwhile.
AFG: What inspired you to write The Alienist?
CC: I had a lifelong fascination with all forms of violence, from war to personal violence, the latter being what I had the most experience with in my life, whether from the troubles with my father or battles on the streets of Manhattan . . .. And that interest eventually evolved into wanting to understand the roots of violence. . . . I found I was developing a particular interest in psychological profiling, and the work being done at the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit in Quantico, Va. . . . At about that time, some very successful novelists, mainly Tom Harris, were starting to deal with the subject, Harris most successfully in the first and best of the Hannibal Lecter novels, Red Dragon . . .. The genre was exploding, and I wanted to be part of the explosion . . ..
Everybody I knew was reading The Silence of the Lambs before I had a chance . . .. Eventually, I made the time to read it myself. At first, I was delighted by the setup. How much better could it be than to have Lecter offering to help a young female FBI agent catch a serial killer by working from within a cell from only case notes, in effect creating what I later wrote about in The Alienist . . .. But to my shock, that was not what happened in Silence. The whole book ended up turning on the ridiculous contrivance that there was some secret pen-pal group of gay serial killers in the U.S. who all knew each other, and by the end, it really was nothing more than a horror story. I was beyond disappointed; I was outraged, especially since I respected Harris so much for Red Dragon. I later learned that there was probably a reason for this collapse in Silence and for the absurdity that was Hannibal. Authors, like FBI agents, if they do their research extensively enough, become saturated with serial killers, and quite dispirited. It’s not like writing cozy mysteries; it gets to you, exhausts you, makes you lose your perspective, and then you start to take an even more awful view of mankind.
I still was fascinated by the dual notion: the psychiatrist who can see into the minds of evil, not because of training but because of dark personal issues of his own, violent experiences in his background, and the serial killer who, with the same sorts of issues, goes on to become a butcher. What made them go different directions? Could the first catch the second with little or no initial forensic evidence to go by, no interpersonal motivations to identify, with absolutely nothing but a blank canvas?
[But] what could I possibly bring to the project that would separate it from what was becoming a glut of serial-killer books? The answer was my first discipline, history . . .. I did quite a bit of preliminary research, to choose a time period . . .. I did not set out to do a story about Gilded Age Manhattan; rather, I traced the science of profiling back to its earliest beginnings, to the point at which experts could feasibly have been having conversations about solving seemingly insoluble “stranger crimes” in this way. The 1890s fit the best, because it was possible that psychological specialists could have been studying the work of noted teachers and research scientists like Josef Breuer, Emil Kraepelin, of course, William James. When I found out that TR had studied comparative anatomy under James at Harvard, [I knew] I had my time period; my main characters could also have been there then and known both TR and James. Off to the races.
Still, I had to know it would pass as very close to real. I wrote up my proposal and submitted it to my agent and then to my publisher as a nonfiction. They both wanted me to continue to pursue nonfiction after the decent success of my last book, a biography of soldier-of-fortune Frederick Townsend Ward [The Devil Soldier], so when they saw this proposal about a hidden, salacious case, they were eager. Both were fooled, but then I had to tell each in turn why it had to be a novel. And both were shocked, but to their credit, both were ready to go forward, and we did.
AFG: What inspired you to write The Italian Secretary?
CC: I was asked by my good friend Jon Lellenberg to contribute a story to an anthology they were doing about Sherlock Holmes and the supernatural. I decided I could do it if I could rely on my usual method: a historical approach. Enter Holyroodhouse and the story of David Rizzio and the “blood that never dries.” I’d been to Holyrood a couple of times and seen the bloodstain (and to me, if it’s not a bloodstain, it might as well be, especially given the horrifying aspects of the tale behind it), and so I spun the story around that . . .. And I felt I could write Holmes and Watson—I’d grown up with the books and then the movies and TV shows.
AFG: How did you go about the research for Surrender, New York? The book shows a side to the state that most people don’t really associate with New York.
CC: Yes, and quite deliberately. Much as I loved growing up in what I call “the old New York City” (the city I grew up in had much more in common with that of the ’40s, the ’30s, or really, even with the 1890s than it does with the city of today, which is a terrible tragedy), it’s important to remember how big New York State is and how much of it is comparatively divorced from life in the metropolis—to the mutual satisfaction of both parties . . .. For me, the most important part of the state is its rural regions, which have fallen on very hard times . . . due to the concentration of agriculture in just a few corporations in-state, a development that has virtually killed off the independent farming industry which was such an important part of building this country and its character, right up to the early twentieth century.
As a boy, I spent about a third of my life up here in Rensselaer County, one of the poorest and most rural districts in the state now but in those days a place where small farmers still had at least a chance. And the local farmers who worked our hollow generously allowed us to participate in the harvest season, and they were pretty demanding—anybody who took up space was expected to work. It was a polar opposite to life in the city, which was also tough but for very different reasons . . .. The balance was ideal for learning what were increasingly becoming two sides of the nation. And on a personal level, it was an important kind of rugged rite of passage for my brothers and me, one that most of our friends in the city never got.
The specifics of the story came from fleshing out its details through research . . .. The entire unexplored (and officially shielded) tale of “throwaway children” fit perfectly into the central overarching question of the story, which had grown out of the tale of the Kurtz siblings and their relationship to Trajan Jones and Michael Li: have we reached a point where it is more expedient for political apparatchiks of both parties to propagate panic-inducing stories on the twenty-four-hour news cycle than it is to acknowledge the terrible way in which both parties are failing an enormous percentage of our citizens? I think my answer to that question is fairly obvious from the book. In both general and intimate ways, that answer is the book.
AFG: Was their any real-life figure who inspired Dr. Kreizler?
CC: Not directly. There were people in many countries who were doing the kind of work that he would spin his theories off of, either in emulative or combative terms, such as William James (again, obviously) but also Josef Breuer, Emil Kraepelin, and others, and there were people who would have been colleagues of his—people like Adolf Meyer and Hugo Münsterberg. But models in terms of personality? No. He came from a place deep in my own psyche and represented both an amalgam of many characters I admired—historically, in fiction, in movies—and a projection of character traits I both hoped I occasionally embodied and also thought I saw in other people and characters I admired.
AFG: What do you think of the television adaptation of The Alienist?
CC: It’s very brilliantly set and shot, visually, but in terms of story, dialogue, and character, is it the book? Only tangentially. The story is generally correct, but the dialogue is seldom the same, and the characters are given new traits that betray a central misunderstanding of the people in the book. The real question is, do I think it is good enough and close enough that it will attract an audience and bring people to the book to explore in greater depth the themes the show often only touches on in elementary, brief ways? That remains to be seen. But in general, I can think it’s safe to repeat what Michael Connelly has said of the Harry Bosch series: it’s their show; they’re my books.
AFG: What are you working on now?
CC: On another Alienist book or two; though more than that, I can’t say. Yet.