Why Blake Crouch's Netflix-bound Recursion is his most personal (and trippy) novel yet
The future of book adaptations is looking bright — and, well, a little terrifying. Hollywood is hungry for speculative epics imagining alternate realities grim enough to shake your faith in humanity. How do we know? Some of this summer’s biggest genre titles have been in development for months, well before film and TV executives could even take a look at a finished copy.
The man behind this season’s splashiest screen-bound novel is experienced in this arena. Blake Crouch’s books were the inspiration for TNT’s Michelle Dockery vehicle Good Behavior and the M. Night Shyamalan-produced Wayward Pines. “But,” says Crouch, “I haven’t seen anything on par with the way people are responding to Recursion.”
A mind-bending thriller probing the power of memory as reality starts to (literally) crumble, Recursion (published today) was acquired in a huge deal last October: Netflix announced that Shonda Rhimes and Matt Reeves would jointly adapt it — as both a movie and a series. The novel centers on Barry Sutton, a New York City cop investigating the devastating phenomenon the media has dubbed False Memory Syndrome, and his opponent, Helena Smith, the brilliant neuroscientist behind the technology that could change humanity as we know it.
There’s lots to chew on here, of course. EW caught up with Crouch prior to the book’s publication on the hype behind Recursion, why it was such a personal project from him, and exactly what we can expect from the Netflix adaptation. The book is now available for purchase.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: The buzz on this book is crazy. Does it feel bigger to you than anything you’ve experienced?
BLAKE CROUCH: We really took a big swing three years ago with Dark Matter and garnered some good buzz. But I haven’t seen anything on par with the way people are responding to Recursion. It’s really gratifying because it’s a subject that’s really close to my heart, having studied it for the last three years — memories and how precious and defining they are to human identity.
Talk a little bit more about the idea behind the book.
Coming off of Dark Matter, which was probably my breakout book, there was a bit of pressure: “How do you top that? What do you say that you haven’t already said before?” I kept thinking about, what is the thing that’s fundamental to the human experience? The more research and the more time I spent studying, I kept coming back to memory, and the way that memory is even more than incredible than we think it is. It sounds very obvious to say that our memories make us who we are. It’s even more than that. It’s fundamental to the way that we experience reality.
So how did you want to play with that?
Here’s a thought experiment, if you’ll indulge me: Imagine we’re sitting across from each other. Wherever you are, you’d see my image coming to you at the speed of light, and you’d hear my words coming a lot slower — still very fast, 600 miles per hour. What our brain does it holds the image that you see of me until the words arrive, and then it would sync the visual and the audio at the same time. The upshot of this is it’s about a half-second delay — which means that we are living in memory. We never experience what we think of as the present moment. Even the present moment is just this tape-delay, half-second reconstruction of what the present was a half-second ago. We live in memory. We live in our working memory.
You mentioned this was project was really close to your heart. Why was it so personal? Did you find it challenging to execute? Was there any significant inspiration?
This was a really, really hard book. This is definitely the hardest book I’ve ever done. I wanted it to do things that no other book I’d read had managed to do — without getting into spoiler territory, in the back half of the book, reality actually begins to disintegrate for our characters. I wanted to dramatize what that looks like. Michael Crichton [is an influence] for sure. I feel like he’s always looking over my shoulder and I’m looking over his. The way he would pick a scientific topic, whether it’s Chaos Theory or DNA manipulation, in each book he did he was tackling a piece of science. I feel a lot of inspiration from his body of work.
Walk me through how you sketched out Barry. Given the personal nature of Recursion for you, is he close to you as a character?
He’s a cop and honestly, his profession was far less important to me than his emotional journey. We come into the book and Barry is very much this broken human being. He’s a few years out from a divorce and dealing with the trauma of his daughter’s death years before. It’s a reflection of where I was emotionally as I started writing the book. I was coming off a divorce and really trying to get my head around the idea of a big piece of my life having not worked out — that disappointment. How do I deal with the lingering nostalgia and regret of that period of my life, without letting it just subsume me in grief? I find often that my protagonists in my books — I don’t know it at the time, always, but as I get into the book and certainly towards the end, I realize that they’re at some level a reflection of me and where I am in the moments in my life. Which I guess means it’s some form of therapy for me.
What was your process with Recursion? How long did it take you to write?
It took 18 months from first idea to turning it in. For me, that’s a long time. A year ago, I thought I was finished with the book and I sat with it, and I realized, “This is good, it’s cool, I think people will like it,” but the back half of the book didn’t feel like it was fully delivering on the premise. It wasn’t doing all the things I wanted it to do. I hadn’t yet achieved this breaking down of reality and really burning it to pieces, and seeing what characters look like when they’re floating through that mess. I threw out 40,000 words, which is a little less than half the book, and tried again. Finally, I tapped into the big idea behind it, which is: Memory makes reality, so what happens if you start messing with memory? What does that do to the present moment?
I read this before the adaptation news was announced, but even so, I couldn’t help but see this fascinating world on the screen. Is that something you’re thinking of as you’re writing your books?
I really try not to. I wasn’t thinking about it for Dark Matter or Wayward Pines. I naturally tend towards a more cinematic style. Of course it’s there. It’s an opportunity — or a problem — to be addressed down the road. But when I’m writing the book itself, I’m really trying to be present in the moment, and create the scenes in such a visual way that I see them.
And of course, this is on the way to Netflix. It was announced as a major deal with Shonda Rhimes and Matt Reeves adapting the book into a movie and a series. What does that look like to you? What can you share about the development process so far?
When it did come time to think about selling it to Hollywood, I was like, “I don’t know how this is going to work. This is definitely not a two-hour movie, but it feels bigger than the small-screen, too.” I went into the process a little bit on edge — I was concerned that people wouldn’t see it the way I was seeing it. Remarkably, Shonda, Matt, and Netflix just stepped up like, “Hey, we know how to do this.” It’s very early days, in development, but I believe the plan is to launch it as a movie on Netflix, which can then spin off into multiple TV series. There are single sentences in the book that could be an entire season of television, that we just blow right past. The cool thing about a streamer like Netflix, which is breaking down the boundaries between film and television and what we can and can’t do, is it was sort of made for a book like this. Netflix was made for, “Let’s let the book be what it wants to be when it becomes a visual medium.” When they pitched it to me, they were like, “We’re envisioning this as a universe.” It’s exciting.