July 2014

Jonathan Aldridge


An Interview with Warren Adler

Warren Adler is somewhat of an enigma, as a writer and a person. He is eighty-six years old -- born in Brooklyn, in 1927 -- but working more than ever. He writes bestselling page-turners, but he is "not a genre writer." He didn't publish his first novel until he was forty-seven, but since then writing has been his "oxygen." Ten of his thirty-two novels and short story collections have been made into films and TV series, including The War of the Roses starring Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner, but he hasn't been anywhere near a film set. He is a cutthroat businessman -- having owned NBC and three radio stations and founded an ad firm and a celebrity magazine, The Washington Dossier -- but he is truly romantic and even superstitious about the "mysterious process of writing itself."

For Adler, the work never stops. This year alone, his Fiona Fitzgerald crime series is being adapted into a television series called Capitol Crimes starring Bo Derek, and The War of the Roses: The Children is in production as a feature film.

As Adler and I were separated by the Atlantic -- with me in London and him between Washington and Jackson Hole, Wyoming -- we spent a few weeks talking about his writing career by email. To me, his novels have always been shocking in their violence and brutality, depicting sexism and racism so unflinchingly, overshadowed by the death or demise of their characters. I wanted to find out how Adler viewed the huge themes of love and death in his own work.

Does your recent work deal more with themes of aging and mortality? What other differences are there with your earlier work?

There is no difference. We keep releasing my earlier work and my latest work and neither I nor anyone else can tell the difference. I wrote stories about aging thirty-odd years ago and they continue to resonate and attract readers. 

The short stories in The Sunset Gang are very upbeat about old age, but then your novels and poems feature pessimistic lines like "aging people with their pallid, dead dreams." Does your own outlook on old age change this dramatically from day to day, or are you simply capturing two sides to an issue (as a good novelist should)?

Not all aging people have "dead dreams," but most do. Many dream on. But one must recognize the impending end of life. Time is always running out and optimism for a productive future shrinks as life goes on. On a personal note, my optimism continues since I am projecting my life achievements beyond my lifetime, through my books and movie developments. In the writing life I have lived, I know that my voice will be available long after I'm gone, and I have taught myself to believe it implicitly.

When Oliver has his heart scare at the beginning of The War of the Roses, Barbara seems to instigate the family's demise by not coming to his "deathbed," leaving him "empty, betrayed" on waking. It strikes me that this non-death is a common literary trope, from the failed suicide in James Salter's Last Night to Shakespeare's Juliet who "freezes up the heat of life." What was your thinking behind this scene?

For me, the "non-death" is not the issue. Instead, I ask: what is one to think if a wife, a father, a child, does not react to a so-called "loved relative" in trouble, perhaps on his or her deathbed? Indifference to such an event is surely a prime example of someone not caring. In this case, Oliver thought he was going to die, so if his wife cared wouldn't she rush to be at his side in his hour of need? It is an important plot point to illustrate how little the wife really cares for her husband. She does not give a crap whether he lives or dies.

The War of the Roses is a novel obsessed with material possessions, through which the characters "commune with all the ghosts of times past" and "step into someone else's life." Do you see your novels as the enduring things that you will leave to the world? How much are all writers motivated by this need to outlive themselves?

The War of the Roses is all about how possessions can take over people's lives. In the end Oliver and Barbara are killed by their possessions when they are crushed by their lovely chandelier. As for your other question, I cannot speak for other writers. For me, I wish my work will endure beyond my lifetime. All artists probably feel this urge for immortality. Unfortunately, they will never know if the urge is fulfilled.

The murderer in American Quartet acts on behalf of a vengeful "cosmic judge." What is this judge, and how did you come to conceive of it?

Many of us live in the belief that we are being judged by some entity in the cosmos, or the heavens above. Those of us brought up with a belief in this entity, in God, feel certain that our every thought and action is being carefully judged and evaluated to determine if we are fit for the rewards of an afterlife in some imagined paradise. Hence the expression "cosmic judge." Many hope we get a thumbs-up evaluation based on a moral code articulated by this entity. Those that don't believe this instead follow a moral code conceived by humans who believe that our rewards come only in our individual lifespan.

Fiona experiences a lot of sexism in the Fiona Fitzgerald series. Men resent her, even "consider her an aberration" just for being a cop. Do you see this as a portrayal of reality, or a provocation to the reader?

Fiona is an aberration. She is the daughter of a senator and has attended fancy schools; she is a society girl in the elite crowd in the nation's capitol. And yet she is also a cop. Have you ever heard of anyone like this? She sounds too good to be true, but in fact I drew inspiration from actual people to create the Fiona Fitzgerald character. I casted around for a knowledgeable member of the force who could give me some insight into the inner workings of the DC homicide department, as well as her own psyche. I was lucky to find an experienced female homicide detective who happened to be no stranger to attending glittery dinner parties with a revolver tucked in her evening bag. Her name was Judy Roberts and she led me deep into the entrails of the mindset and procedure of police work. The fact is, Fiona's background gives me wide latitude to tell many stories from her point of view. I adore her. She creates her own destiny. I can relate to that.

The gender power relations in American Quartet -- from the Fiona Fitzgerald series -- are really clearly drawn. You write that the male division chief only "plays take-charge," while Fiona is really in control. Why did you want to depict a strong female character?

Why not? I find strong woman enormously interesting. I seem to have created an army of very strong women, be that physically, sexually, intellectually, or in any other facet of life. I think it began seriously when I wrote Natural Enemies, a book about being lost in the wilderness, where the woman is stronger than the man. The strength of women is also apparent in Barbara Rose. In a strange way, my female characters are historic since they exactly parallel the rise of women in the last fifty-odd years. Another odd fact is that my second novel dealt with the coming to terms of a father who discovers his son is homosexual, long before that issue came more alive in the American consciousness. I am definitely not into gender clichés; I definitely am into constantly exploration of what makes us "us."

Do you think of yourself as a feminist?

No. I'm a humanist.

A lot of your male protagonists have mother issues: idealizing their absent or deceased mother, turning to her for imagined guidance, or being sexually stimulated by the thought of her. I'm most interested in one of your murderers (Tad, from American Quartet) who, when he feels his mother's "presence," is "overcome with an ecstatic happiness he had never known." Why is the role of mother important to you and your characters?

A mother is a nurturer, and her role in our lives is crucial. I never overanalyze my creations. They flow through my inner emotional rivers and help my imaginative characters live their own stories and create their own destinies. I never know how a story will end, and leave it to my characters to interact and create "what happens next." Actually, if I knew how a story would end, I wouldn't write it.