Brad Stevens is a hell of a film critic. I should know, as I devoured two of his books on unfairly marginalized filmmakers, Monte Hellman and Abel Ferrara, in one sitting each. I also shamefacedly add that while I well knew he was the world’s recognized go-to-guy on Ferrara (on whom I’m working on an article that will pale in comparison to all that Stevens has written on him), I actually didn’t realize he was the same fella who had written the book on Hellman I read religiously a year earlier before adding it to my overstuffed reference library.
But he is not only the author of 'Monte Hellman: His Life and Films' (McFarland, 2003) and 'Abel Ferrara: The Moral Vision' (FAB Press, 2004), he also writes regularly for Sight & Sound: his 'Bradlands' column appears monthly on the magazine's website. His work has appeared in Cahiers du Cinema and Video Watchdog and he has written many pieces for DVD releases, recorded multiple commentary tracks, while contributing regularly to many online film discussion sites, which is where I first came into contact with him.
He is also, as of 2014, a published novelist, with his futuristic thinking-person’s dystopian sci-fi thriller The Hunt released early this year (and a sequel promised for October). On the surface a cross of The Hunger Games and Fifty Shades of Grey, Stevens novel seemed a perfect extra-credit assignment for my Intro to Literature course at Queensborough Community College, The City University of New York. The genre trappings seemed a sensible lure to entice students , and the novel’s scope and ambition would likely encourage them to think. We were coming off a unit focusing on allegory where we had reviewed John Cheever’s “The Swimmer,” John Carpenter’s They Live, and Samuel Fuller’s White Dog, the students engaging with artistic endeavors that had both literal life and secondary meaning, and in the case of Carpenter and Fuller the use of “pulp” genre for political and social commentary. Having discussed authors and their inspirations throughout the semester, it seemed a fresh approach to have them read a newly published work by an author they had informal access to; the class worked up a series of questions for Stevens, and then as a group discussed which five questions they felt would make for a lively and revealing interview. Of course, in looking for five, they settled on six. The following is the results of the class-generated interview, along with a link to two student reviews of Stevens’ novel, The Hunt.
Why did a critic decide to become a novelist? Why this book as your first book?
I previously had no real interest in writing fiction, but last August, I read an article about THE HUNGER GAMES and FIFTY SHADES OF GREY which pointed out that the US bestseller lists for 2012 were dominated by these two trilogies. The person who wrote the article mentioned how odd it was that these series should have been so popular at around the same time, given they had nothing in common: they were in different genres, aimed at different audiences, etc. But it seemed to me these books did have things in common. They were both about young women coerced into participating in painful or dangerous activities which required them to surrender their free will. Once I'd noticed this connection, I started to wonder if this was a theme that particularly spoke to people these days. On some level, I guess it must be. While thinking along these lines, I had an idea: Wouldn't it be interesting to write a novel that was THE HUNGER GAMES meets FIFTY SHADES OF GREY? I immediately sat down and started writing. I didn't make any notes or anything like that, I just began with the first paragraph, and I think I wrote the entire opening chapter in one sitting. The whole structure came to me in a flash. I initially planned to publish the book under a pseudonym, since it seemed completely separate from my work as a critic. But it soon became obvious that I was exploring many of the same themes and concerns I tended to focus on in my criticism. There now seems to me a clear continuity between the two.
This novel has a message to it. How do you attempt to keep the message from overwhelming the drama and vice versa?
I always knew it was going to be a book in which the 'message' was to the fore. I'm at the opposite end of the political spectrum from Ayn Rand, but I rather liked the way she had her characters directly state the central themes of her novels, so I decided to do something similar. The sequel, A CAUTION TO RATTLESNAKES, which will be published in October, goes even further in this direction.
What are some of your other favorite “genre” works? Why were you drawn to write something that takes place in the future?
I think my main influences were 70s horror directors such as George Romero (Dawn of the Dead) and Larry Cohen (It’s Alive, The Stuff), who used popular genres to explore political themes. The world of THE HUNT is our own world viewed in a distorting mirror. The futuristic aspects aren't supposed to be taken too literally - this isn't intended to be a believable future society - and I deliberately minimized references to technological and cultural developments. All the books and films mentioned in the text are those of our time, or the past.
As a critic, do you find yourself having respect for any negative responses you read? Or do you hate them like most novelists?
Some reviewers claimed I went too far with the torture scenes, while others claimed I didn't go far enough. I take this as suggesting that I got it about right.
What was your process for writing this book? Did you write daily?
I wrote pretty much every day, and at an (for me) incredible speed; sometimes 5000 or 6000 words a day. I found writing fiction much easier than writing criticism. I didn't even have to do any research!
If there were a film version, who would you picture making the film and starring in it?
It would be fun to have Dario Argento (Suspiria, The Stendahl Syndrome) visit London and shoot a Giallo-style adaptation. Argento's tendency to identify with his female protagonists would certainly serve him well here.