Gritty noir mixes violently with the paranormal in Adam Connell’s Lay Saints, a tale of two rival crews of telepaths seeking mental control of the New York City’s Council Speaker to ensure his vote on a key issue. Kirkus spoke with Connell about religion, crossing genres, the City and the self-publishing process.
Why title the book Lay Saints?
Late in the novel one of the characters says of the Church, “They have faith in miracles, and we perform little ones, don’t we?”
In Roman Catholicism, the anointment of sainthood is predicated in part on proof of miracles wrought. What the telepaths in Lay Saints can do is beyond human, without doubt. So that’s where the Saints come in.
But these are not saintly men and women; they are human and deeply flawed, all of them. That’s where the Lay comes in, as defined by “not having special training or knowledge; ordinary.”
Put them together and you get Lay Saints. Also, “lay” can be defined as “not of the clergy,” which adds more heft to my intention.
What role do the title and the other references to Catholicism play in the book?
All the religious imagery and terminology acts as a foil to the sinful actions of the characters. The title came to me before I started writing the book and it was a motif that I knew I could exploit as a unifying theme.
New York City is a religious place. Many hospitals have religious affiliations—Presbyterian, Beth Israel, Calvary, Lutheran, Interfaith. And if you’re looking for the word “Saint” or “St.” you’ll find it everywhere. Of course there are the city’s many, many churches and synagogues and mosques.
Typically in a supernatural noir novel, opposing forces tend to be battling over some kind of magical MacGuffin. Your characters are battling over…a City Council bill. Is that an important distinction and why?
These two crews aren’t fighting over the Amulet of Destiny or the Dingus of Allness. The distinction is very important; it’s what sets Lay Saints apart from other subgenres of SF/F. These are working men and women. They’re not astronauts nor Gandalfs; they’re more akin to construction workers in unions. The various jobs each character is assigned to in Lay Saints are even called “contracts.” And like construction workers, once their current job is finished, they move on to the next. These aren’t people with long goals.
The City Council bill, or intervening to get a rude neighbor tossed out, or obtaining a photo album from a vindictive ex-spouse—contracts like these anchor the drama in the real NYC. But that doesn’t mean there can’t be fascinating battles with fascinating soldiers.
The telepaths in Lay Saints, even the heads of each telepath crew, lead fairly unhappy, sordid lives. Given the immense power they have, why can’t they do better for themselves?
A few of the telepaths in the crew Calder joins would like to take advantage of the world, except that their leader, Sotto, has a strict moral code. His crew knows that he will not tolerate egregious contracts. Sotto is supposedly the strongest of them all and he prevents bad apples from profiting too much, while at the same time preventing them from leaving his control and watchful eye.
More than a few telepaths in the opposing crew would like to profit illegally, but they are kept in line by their boss. He has less scruples than Sotto but when it comes to overstepping legal and ethical boundaries, he is in many ways similar to Sotto, but for different reasons. The most important is that he won’t let any of his crew leave because they are making him money.
Less important, but still crucial, is that this other boss has a certain fear about all the telepaths being exposed. He knows that if they overreach and are outed, it would be a bad thing for them for a host of reasons. He knows it’s vital that they occupy the shadows and ply their trade quietly.
The book also has a grim view of New York City, and you yourself live in Westchester, outside (but not far outside) the city. What’s your own opinion of NYC, and why is the book’s take on it so dark?
I’ve always loved NYC. I went to college there, I lived there from 1991–2006. I still come into the city frequently for meetings, lunch with friends. Honestly, it’s the noise that pushed me away, especially after 9/11. The sirens of police cars, official vehicles, and fire trucks became nonstop, no matter the hour, so I decided to move, but I didn’t move so far away that it would be difficult to return when I wanted.
Some of the book’s grim, fatalistic view of the city comes from its characters, most of whom are themselves grim and fatalistic. I don’t think NYC is portrayed in Lay Saints as completely dark and dangerous, but neither do I think that it has in reality been cleaned up to the extent that some movies, commercials, and Mayor Mike falsely lead you to believe.
I did do a lot of geographical research that took me to some less friendly corners of the city. This was necessitated by the story because the telepaths in Lay Saints are working under the radar and by word of mouth. Lay Saints is not about celebrities living in SoHo.
Are there some kinds of stories that can’t be told without crossing genres?
Absolutely. Lay Saints is science fiction but if not for its alter ego—crime fiction—it just wouldn’t move, it would stall. My following novel, Total Succession, its engine is half speculative fiction and the other half is prison/crime fiction. If both halves of this engine didn’t work in tandem, the book would likewise stall. Yet the novel I’m working on now is undeniably SF, completely.
So my answer is that it depends entirely on the story, not the author. Of course, the book I’m writing now isn’t finished; another genre may creep in and who am I to stop it? In vain, I pompously consider myself an architect, but the truth is I’m really just a middleman between my subconscious and the page.