The Salon Interview, Caleb Carr

Dwight Garner interviews Caleb Carr, the author of 'The Alienist' and 'The Angel of Darkness.'

Published October 4, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

"i was a pretty angry kid," says Caleb Carr, the bestselling author of "The Alienist." It's a steamy afternoon in late August, and we're sitting in Carr's tiny apartment, a fourth-floor walk-up in New York's East Village. More office than living space, the apartment is a jumbled assortment of maps, military histories, antiquated photographs. The 41-year-old Carr, who's wearing black Converse high-tops along with chinos, a white dress shirt and dark vest, clears off a chair so a visitor can plunk himself down.

We're talking about how, when Carr was a kid growing up in Manhattan, he vented his anger into the study of military tactics. It's a slightly unusual interest for any kid. But in Carr's family, it bordered on the bizarre. ("It reduced my mother to tears, literally," he says, "because she equated it with killing.") Keep in mind, however, that Caleb Carr didn't grow up in your typical American family.

Carr's father, Lucien Carr, was a seminal figure in the early years of the Beats. While he wasn't a writer himself, he introduced Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs to each other, and he remained friends with all three until their deaths. Lucien Carr was a kind of dark star in the Beat firmament. In 1944, he murdered a man named David Kammerer, who was so infatuated with Carr that he followed him to New York from their hometown of St. Louis. The details of that night are unclear (Kammerer may have tried to kiss Carr). But Carr later rolled the dead man into the Hudson River and, with Kerouac's help, hid the man's eyeglasses and the murder weapon. Kerouac was imprisoned for several days as an accomplice; Carr was out
after two years, having convinced the court that he was fighting off an
unwanted homosexual advance.

Carr's parents divorced when he was young, and he's never been particularly close to his father. In many ways his life and career can be viewed as a repudiation of the Beats. His two novels -- "The Alienist" (1994) and now its sequel, "The Angel of Darkness" -- are steeped in New York history. Long on plot and short on runaway emotion and intuition, they couldn't be less like the work of Kerouac, Ginsberg or Burroughs.

In "The Angel of Darkness" he brings back the cast of "The Alienist," including the eminent psychologist Dr. Laszlo Kreizler, to solve a new case, one that involves a woman who may or may not be murdering her children. Carr spoke with Salon about the new book, as well as his complicated feelings about such matters as his childhood, Hollywood and New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. He speaks loudly -- his voice carries just a hint of a barroom New Yawk accent -- and his intonations fill the room.

Some writers are able to compartmentalize their writing lives -- they work in the morning, and they pretty much manage to forget about it during the rest of the day. That doesn't seem to be the case for you.

It's true. I have no other life when I'm working on a book.

Do you consciously decide to immerse yourself this way? Or does it just happen?

I haven't always done things this way. It's the nature of the two books. They have been so consuming that I end up living inside them. But a certain amount of it is also the pressure of delivery, especially this last one. I was working on a TV project in L.A. for a long time and it got delayed and delayed and delayed. By the time I got back I really needed to get to work.

In the introduction to "Angel of Darkness" you describe the "disturbing physical and mental journeys" that this book took you on. What did you mean by that?

As disturbing as the last book was, the subject matter of this book is something that people really don't want to look at. People are disturbed enough by serial killers, but the whole notion of female violence, particularly maternal violence -- the idea of mothers who kill -- really unnerves people. I think you can see that in the way it's reported in the press. Serial killers get the play of athletes, but when mothers kill children, especially their own children, the story appears one day, it's gone, you never see it again. Susan Smith is probably the exception because she was so good at manipulating the press.

what is it about maternal violence that frightens people?

You want to believe that there's one relationship in life that's beyond betrayal. A relationship that's beyond that kind of hurt. And there isn't. The simple fact is, if the mothers that we see in the press are doing this kind of stuff, then the numbers who are actually doing it are probably much higher.

There's a feminist element to "Angel of Darkness." The woman who murders her children was driven to that point, at least in part, because she could not live up to the idealized vision of American motherhood.

That's what we find with a lot of the mothers who kill. There's this bottom line notion with women -- if I can't be a mother, then I can't do anything. That's the first and last thing you're expected to be able to do. It's supposed to be natural, and if you can't do it you're somehow the ultimate failure. For men it's different. If you choose not to have a family, or if you don't particularly like having a family, it's never considered particularly aberrant. There's a sense of societal context with this villain, more than (in the last book). I have to be very careful, however, because I have no intention of providing an excuse for this behavior. It's an attempt to explain how so many women come from backgrounds where the pressure to be a good mother is so severe that if they can't do it, something really snaps.

Much of the ensemble cast from "The Alienist" returns in this book. What made you decide to put them on a case about a female killer?

I was always going to do a series of books, each told by a different member of a group of people. This one sprang out of the fact that people are always saying to me, "How come it's always men that are serial killers and mass murderers and blah, blah, blah." And I'd say: It's really not. But it's men who get reported. Look around and you'll find that there are female killers, and the research I did totally supported that.

You've said elsewhere that you were attracted to violence from a very young age.

Not so much attracted as intrigued. I get in trouble when I say things like, "I'm attracted to violence." I was a pretty angry kid, and I got into military history largely as a way to vent my own anger. As I got older it narrowed down to a more specific focus on individual violence. I'm just trying to understand where it came from.

You told an interviewer once that if you'd have taken four or five steps in another direction, you could have been a serial killer yourself. The magazine, as I recall, played that quote up.

That was one that they seized on. If you read the whole quote, what I said was that all of us -- if our lives break certain ways -- could end up being terrible things. I had some formative experiences that some people like that have had. If my life had continued down that road ... But a lot of things have to happen for you to end up that extreme in personality. There were three or four more crucial things that would have had to happen to make me that way. I don't really think I'm three or four steps away, but I could have gone that direction if some horrible things had happened.

You're famous for doing huge amounts of historical research before you start writing. How do you get yourself into the mind frame you need to be in to write these books?

I've been there since I was a kid. I've always lived more in the past than I do in the present -- my aesthetic sense, my ethical sense. When I was a kid, we lived in a crazy environment. It wasn't one that held any stability for me. In rooting around for something to grab onto, I latched onto the past and people in the past who I felt were strong, actively ethical characters. One of the reasons I was so attracted to Theodore Roosevelt was that this guy was really true to the values he had as a child, and he followed them through when he became an adult. That kind of thing really appealed to me, and that's where I took a lot of my inspiration -- from people like that. So I always felt more comfortable with the past, and it isn't hard for me to put myself in that mind frame at all. The research that I do for the books themselves tends to be very specific -- whether it's specific locations, specific writings, whatever. But it doesn't require me to undergo any gut-wrenching transformations. It's something that's always been with me. I think that probably shows. I think you can tell when people are assuming a persona that isn't really rooted in an emotion, when it's intellectual rather than emotional. For me it's a very emotional thing.

You mentioned role models. There are a couple of books out this fall that view the Beat writers as role models. You grew up among the Beats -- your father was a good friend to many of them -- and you don't seem to view them that way.

Not at all. Some of them were very nice people. I've said this before and it's true, and it's not something I like to get into a lot of detail about because it wasn't my life. It was their life and they should discuss their own philosophy, those that are left. But the one thing that their lifestyle did not factor in was family. They were deliberately setting out to destroy the traditional concept of the family and to deconstruct it and put something else in its place. They never succeeded in that. As a result, for most of them who had children or families, those children and families, almost to a person, had pretty bad experiences.

How much did you see of the Beats -- Ginsberg, Burroughs?

A lot!

Your father remained close to them throughout their lives?

Yeah, right up until their ends, Ginsberg and Burroughs were close to him. This has been a very difficult period for him, the last couple of months, because of their deaths. Before my parents were divorced, they were in the house constantly. When we visited my father after my parents were divorced, we very often saw them. And like I say, they could be perfectly nice people one-to-one. Kerouac was a very nice man. Allen could be a very nice guy. Burroughs was a little strange for a child. [Laughs.] But they weren't children people. You needed to be grown-up to be around them if you wanted to not be terrified. What they were up to was not gonna make any child feel reassured. They were noisy, drunken people, living very alternative lifestyles. Some of which could be actually threatening to kids. They were very frightening people. Somebody in the New York Times said about "The Alienist" that it would be impossible to imagine a book that is less like the Beats. It was intended as an insult when it was written. But I certainly don't take it as an insult or a compliment. I just take it as a fact. They had nothing to offer me and ...

You didn't aspire to write because of them?

I wanted nothing less than to be a fiction writer when I was a kid. If you had told me I would be an artist or novelist when I grew up, I would have laughed in your face. And it wasn't until I found a way to write fiction, with these books, that was very different from what they did, that I began to be comfortable doing it.

Is your father's history one of the things that made you interested in the impulses that drive people to desperate acts?

Yeah, indirectly it couldn't help but be. When you grow up with somebody like that, you cannot help but wonder what motivates them. It's only natural. You find that a lot of murder writers have some kind of intimate connection with violent crime in their past. A lot more than people think.

Your books revere the rational mind. There's a sense that if you pay attention and add up the clues, you can figure any problem out. Are things really that cut and dried?

I am not always sure that that leads to a happy result, but I think that is the surest path to a result. It's not always going to be something that's going to be very pleasant, but it is going to shed the most light. I'm still a firm believer that we were definitely put here to use our minds, and that is what makes us different. And that that's the key. If there is anything that is going to stop mankind from being such a beastly, destructive creature, it is reason. That's not to say that reason can't be used for bad ends.

I bring up this hyper-rationality because it's the exact opposite of what the Beats did. Their books were about intuition and blind experience.

But, see, I saw how meaningless intuition can be. I heard a lot, when I was a kid. I saw a lot of screaming and yelling and venting of emotion that meant nothing. It really was sound and fury signifying nothing. It may signify something on the written page, but in their lives? I don't think there's one of them that you can look at who, in their intimate lives, didn't leave some kind of a path of destruction. And sometimes severe destruction.

Many of the characters in your books were actual historic figures. Roosevelt in the first novel, for example, and Clarence Darrow is a significant figure in this one. Are there dangers in doing this?

Not for me. I try to make those characters, as much as possible, speak with their own words -- with actual statements that they made at some points in their lives. I'm trying to represent them faithfully, not to make them pawns to prove a point that I want to prove. I'm not playing with them in the way that Gore Vidal plays with historical figures. Being a historian, I don't like to play those games.

You're not taking liberties with them.

No, I consider that to be really cheap. You're a novelist; you ought to be able to do something better than that. Invention is supposed to be what we're about. It's a much more Tolstoyian attitude in that sense. When Napoleon appears in "War and Peace," Napoleon is very true. There never was such an encounter, but Tolstoy's Napoleon is very true to who Napoleon was.

In the introduction to the book you mention "a quagmire on the other coast." I assume you mean a bad experience with a movie.

The quagmire was a television pilot that I did with Joe Dante, the director. We did a big science fiction pilot for Paramount and CBS. We spent a pile of money on it, and for reasons that may become clear someday, and which I think are largely political, it will never be seen.

I didn't realize science fiction was a passion of yours.

The future is just another place. I've always said to people about the show that we did: "It's just a period piece that happens to take place in the future." It's the same rules. Look, historical novels are always about the time they're written in. They're not really about the past. Science fiction is always about the time it's written in. It's not really about the future. They're all just dark, vague reflections of what you're going through now.

What's happening with the plan to make a movie of "The Alienist"?

It's dead. It's been a classic tale of futility.

What's the problem? Is it tough to bring a period movie to fruition?

I don't know that they really understood what book they were buying in a certain sense. It's a period piece, yes, but that's not hard. Period pieces are coming out all the time now. It doesn't have to be that expensive, either. But it's an ensemble piece that doesn't happen to involve a love story. And that's where they're really tripping. They're trying to make it a star vehicle with a love story. Well, that's not the book they bought.

There isn't much romance, or sex, in these novels.

No. That was deliberate, mostly because of the female character, Sarah. I wanted to write a book with a female character whose reasons for being in the story did not depend on her falling in love with somebody. Women are still being brought up to believe that they have to build their bodies and their minds toward relationships and not toward independent existences of their own choosing. And I wanted to show that women can do that. And I like writing ensemble pieces. I'm better with friendship than I am with relationships. Personally, it's a stronger suit for me.

It's clear from both books, too, that you're intrigued by the notion of insanity. People like the idea that criminals can be labeled insane, because it utterly distances their actions from us "sane" people. Why is this such a preoccupation with you?

I've always been attracted to the idea of the outsider. I was an oddball growing up because I wasn't into the Beat stuff. I was an oddball in school because I was a kid studying military history in a Quaker high school. I was strange in some way wherever I went, and I think I grew up wondering: Why is there this desperate need to put people on the outside? It's really a short step from being considered an oddball, especially in earlier centuries, to being institutionalized. In some cases it was no step at all. If you were different, you were institutionalized, or punished or ostracized. That was most dramatically true in the case of the mentally ill. There are a lot people in this world who are genuinely, severely troubled, physically troubled. But there are a lot of people who are just borderline, just different, that have been punished for it.

And yet the villains you've put in your novels don't really straddle that line. They've gone pretty far over it.

They have gone pretty far over the line. But what you discover is that the origin of their difference is something that most of us can look at and say, "I can sort of understand that." With the murderer in the first book, you had somebody who was tormented ruthlessly when he was a kid by his family and by children around him. In the case of the woman in this book, you have somebody who was implanted from an early age with the idea that nobody wants you to be a smart, clever woman. What they want is a good mother and a good wife, and if you can't do that you're a failure. These are things that most of us would understand. This notion of demonizing people really needs to be stopped. It's not helping anybody to be going around talking about some people being evil monsters. It's a useless discussion that just makes the ignorant members of society feel better.

How did your parents -- and their circle -- respond to your first book?

Allen was always very supportive. My family was very supportive. My father was reading the book and I talked to him on the phone one day and he said, "Geez, you had to do a lot of work to write this book. You had to do a lot of research. Everybody I knew just sat down and wrote." And I said, "I know, Dad, that's the difference. I'm trying to do something else." In other words, I don't know that they understand or understood what I was doing any more than I understood what they were doing. But there was, on a professional level, mutual respect.

By Dwight Garner

Dwight Garner is Salon's book review editor.

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