An Interview with Adam Ross

December 16, 2010

"Mr. Peanut" author Adam Ross (Photo © Michael Lionstar)

Adam Ross has had quite a year.  Back in June, the Nashville-based author saw his powerful debut novel Mr. Peanut published to rave reviews after months of increasing word-of-mouth buzz.  Inventive and deeply moving, Mr. Peanut tells the unsettling tale of David Pepin, a video game designer and wannabe novelist who fantasizes continuously about killing his wife Alice.  When Alice turns up dead, David becomes the prime suspect of Det. Ward Hastroll and Det. Sam Sheppard, investigators who have personal experience with marital problems and murder.  As the mesmerizing mystery unfolds, Mr. Peanut deftly explores “the proximity of violence and love” in what Stephen King called the “most riveting look at the dark side of marriage since Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”  Named a 2010 NY Times Notable Book, Mr. Peanut was shortlisted for the Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize and has earned Mr. Ross praise as an eloquent and original new voice.  Mr. Ross recently spoke with us via email about the positive response to Mr. Peanut, Hitchcock films, the art of M.C. Escher, marriage, and his upcoming short story collection Ladies and Gentlemen.                   

Evanston Public Library:  First off, congratulations on the many honors Mr. Peanut has received this year including its selection as both a Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize finalist and a NY Times Notable Book.  What is your reaction to how well Mr. Peanut has been received?  How does it feel to have authors like Stephen King and Richard Russo singing the praises of your debut novel?

Adam Ross:  Who are Richard Russo and Stephen King?  Seriously, I felt a combination of humility and accomplishment.  The former because I was so blessed to get what one publisher I met called “gorgeous attention”; the latter because these men are virtuosos, and so I came away from their responses feeling like I’d succeeded at telling a complex story well enough to hold their attention.  No mean feat.

As to the novel’s broader reception, when you’re a debut novelist and you’re published by Knopf, you’re thrilled.  But when you end up on the cover of The New York Times Book Review, have a two-page review in The New Yorker with a cartoon of your mug, get covered in major publications around the world, get nominated for a first-novel award, end up on all these incredible year-end lists like The Economist and Bookpage, and also have the good fortune to be published all over Europe and beyond, your first thought—mine, at least—was, “This is completely unbelievable.”  By the way, this also becomes your second, third, and fourth thought.  Currently, I’m on my 5,341st.

I remember, actually, while I was on tour in Memphis.  Mr. Peanut had just been released, and I was staying at the Peabody Hotel.  I had the New York Times website up.  Michiko Kakutani had reviewed it that Tuesday, my face was on the front page of the Books Sunday Preview, and I was also in the books blog section.  My Blackberry was blowing up with congratulations from friends, relatives, and people I hadn’t heard from in years, and I had to lie down for a while and stare at the ceiling because I was so overwhelmed.  This kind of success, I know, is partially arbitrary, a brand of lottery winning.  You don’t aim for it while you’re writing, but it certainly doesn’t suck.  

EPL:  Could you give us a window into your writing process for Mr. Peanut?  Did your prior work as a journalist influence your methods?  Where did the idea for the novel originate? How much of the book was pre-planned, and how did it evolve over time?

AR:  None of the book was pre-planned.  In 1995, my father told me about the suspicious suicide of my second cousin—she died exactly like Alice does—and upon hearing it, I was thunderstruck.  I thought I’d heard about the perfect murder.  So I sat down and wrote three chapters that closely resemble those in the book.  But then I hit the brakes, because I’d written myself into something I didn’t understand yet, though it’s worth noting that I’d also immediately had the novel’s last line in my mind.  It was the middle that was long and hard.

Long story short, writing Mr. Peanut was a messy, organic process, during which time I also wrote a collection of short stories.  But I digress.  I began with two detectives and the suspect, David Pepin.  One detective thinks everyone he interrogates is innocent; the other that they’re all guilty.  But that was too didactic.  It just didn’t work.  Two years into drafting, however, I stumbled onto the Sam Sheppard murder case, and once again, I was thunderstruck, because after doing some research (and yes, here my journalism background paid off), I felt like I’d stumbled upon the perfect gray knight of marriage in the character of Dr. Sam.  So once again I was off to the races.

Still, it was very much a dialectical, inefficient process, and I wrote much of the book out of sequence—an approach, I was comforted to learn, one of my heroes, Vladimir Nabokov, also used.  As I was developing David’s character and I began exploring the work of M.C. Escher, I began to consciously use this strategy of tessellation, of interlocking figures, and decided that the novel had to take the form of a Mobius band, for plotting reasons and thematic ones.  Enter the character Mr. Mobius, and then I was able, in the last year and a half or so of drafting, to finally make outlines and identify points in the novel where I needed to create connective tissue.

If the above paragraphs seem confusing or crazy—if it seems like I was just feeling my way around, I was—and to back myself up, I’ll quote Henry James: “We work in the dark.  We do what we can.  We give what we have.  Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task.  The rest is the madness of art.”

EPL:  What motivated you to include the real-life Sam Sheppard murder case in Mr. Peanut?  How much research into the crime did you do, and dare I ask, was your local library involved in the process?  What are your personal thoughts on Sheppard’s guilt or innocence?

AR:  Many local libraries were involved, from the East Hampton library on Long Island to my local branch here in Nashville.  I tracked down and read all the books I could get my hands on about the case, and they are legion.  Having read them all, I’ll say this: case not closed.  I think it would be disrespectful to Marilyn Sheppard to say we know for sure who did it.  Richard Eberling is certainly suspicious, but before he supposedly confessed to journalist James Neff he bragged to a girlfriend that Marilyn Sheppard bit him while he was killing her and, when Sheppard appeared in their room, he clobbered him with a pail.  Who brings a pail to a sex crime?  Meanwhile, so much of the evidence surrounding the doctor is contradictory and strange.  It’s an enduring mystery, sadly.

I stumbled onto the case after watching the movie The Fugitive with my father, who told me about the TV show and that it was based on a real crime.  I did some reading about it on the Internet and bingo.  So I must take my hat off to my dad, and to Harrison Ford.

EPL:  Hitchcock and his films figure prominently in Mr. Peanut and certainly invite multiple readings of the book.  How did your interest in Hitchcock’s films begin, and what are some his movies that most inform your novel?  How much is a Hitchcock novice going to be missing?

AR:  A Hitchcock novice won’t be missing anything.  Or, to put it another way, Mr. Peanut is designed so that someone reading it who doesn’t know Hitchcock’s work should have plenty of information to decode certain aspects of the novel based on Dr. Otto’s Hitchcock lecture toward the end.  But Mr. Peanut is a very intertextual work—meaning, it references multiple other works intentionally and substantively in order to set up a kind of thematic echo chamber.  The key Hitchcock movies referenced or that function as primary sources are the following: Young and Innocent, The 39 Steps, Strangers on a Train, Shadow of a Doubt, Notorious, Vertigo, North by Northwest, Rear Window, Marnie, The Birds, Psycho, and finally Frenzy.

Mr. Peanut consciously deploys classic Hitchcock storytelling strategies.  There’s a MacGuffin: Did David kill Alice?  There’s a sexually perverted murderer.  There’s a gorgeous blonde.  On a thematic level, though, Mr. Peanut has a similar obsession with male anxiety as it relates to the beloved.  Here’s my favorite example.  In Rear Window, Jimmy Stewart is being ardently pursued by the gorgeous, sexually-confident Grace Kelly, who desperately wants him to give up his life as a freelance photographer and marry her.  He’s so fearful of her, is so threatened by this looming commitment, that he becomes convinced that a jewelry salesman across his courtyard may have killed his wife.  He projects his inner turmoil onto real people.  Mr. Peanut is partially about the dangers of similar projections.

I’d studied Hitchcock intensively at Hollins University under the expert guidance of Richard Dillard.  The course changed my life, Hitchcock’s work has remained an enduring obsession, and on an autobiographical note, I met my wife in Dillard’s classroom.

EPL:  Can you discuss how the Mobius strip and M.C. Escher’s artwork influenced the narrative structure of your novel?

AR:  A Mobius strip is a non-orientable surface with one side and one edge, also known as the universal symbol for recycling.  It’s a one-sided surface that gives the appearance, when you put two figures on it, of two-sidedness. In other words, the perfect symbol for marriage on many levels, since couples are supposed to have wedded their lives together but sometimes feel as if they’re utterly separate, and going eternally around and around.

Escher loved Mobius strips, and on a formal and thematic level, I wanted the novel to make use of this surface.  Escher is also famous for his tessellated patterns.

Escher's "Encounter"

In the novel, each of the marriages—the Hastrolls, Sheppards, and Pepins—trace each others’ edges.  They’re similarly interlocked.  This isn’t some art-for-art’s sake strategy.  We live in a state of tessellation. How many of us walk around thinking, “By God, my marriage won’t be like my parents’ marriage?” and then we make every choice accordingly, thus revealing how interlocked our choices are with what we’d like to differentiate ourselves from.  Mr. Peanut plays with this idea on numerous levels, not to mention the fact that David’s most famous video games—he’s a successful game designer—are based on Escher prints.  I like to tell readers that the novel’s source code derives from his famous print “Encounter.”

On a macro and micro level, the novel repeats the above pattern, whether its between David and Mobius, David and Pepin, Hastroll and Mobius, or Sheppard and Mobius. 

EPL:  Marriage is clearly examined in great detail in your book, and you have an uncanny ability to capture the conflicting emotions of closeness and claustrophobia that many married couples eventually experience as well as the ways in which marriage can sometimes feel like a repetitive grind.  How did your own marriage influence your spot-on portrayal of holy matrimony?  Was this a novel you could have written as a newlywed?

AR:  My wife and I have been together for nearly twenty years, and whenever she travels with me (not often, she’s a busy lawyer) people invariably ask her, “What do you think about the novel?” almost as if it were an accusation.  Her answer: “Marriage is a mixed bag.”

First and foremost, Mr. Peanut is a work of fiction.  True, I’m not a 1950’s osteopath, but I did stay at a Holiday Inn last night.  I think its uncanny quality points to its success as a work of prose.  And of course my wife and I have had our dark moments.  Haven’t we all?  Is there faith without doubt?

But here’s a nifty autobiographical tidbit: the novel’s darkest moments take place while David and Alice are traveling to, and then vacationing on, Kauai. Well, my wife and I took that same trip, made part of that same treacherous hike, but it was in Hawaii that we discovered we were pregnant with our first daughter and that trip marked a new chapter in our lives together, whereas for David and Alice it marks the beginning of the end of theirs.  In this way, art and life are interlocked like Escher figures.  I examined a bright moment of my marriage through a dark lens.

EPL:  Continuing with marriage, could you discuss the central theme of whether married people are capable of change?  How does Det. Hastroll’s idea that there’s “the you” in your mind and “the you” in the world and they’re not necessarily the same relate to this theme?

AR:  One of the things that amazes me about marriage is that your relationship with your spouse retards changes—is a force of inertia—and also begs for change if you’re to evolve as a couple.  However, as Detective Hastroll points out, the you in your mind isn’t the you in world.  We have terrible blind spots, and sometimes when we think we know what we’re doing or how we’re acting, our behavior is registering with our beloved in a completely different way.  This can be a terrific shock to an individual.  It can also lead to murderous rage.

EPL:  How do you respond to criticism that Mr. Peanut negatively portrays women as too meek, neurotic, or even obnoxious?

AR:  First, I’d say everyone is entitled to their own opinion.  Second, the book is from a predominantly male point of view (except for the part where Marilyn Sheppard takes over), and if some of the ladies would risk being flies on the wall during their husbands’ golf outings, they might hear similar frustrations voiced.  Why do women get Chick Lit and men nothing?  Why do ladies get Eat Pray Love without complaint from us? Thus, my offering: Eat Mr. Peanut Pray.  I also disagree that women are negatively portrayed in the novel.  Marilyn, Hannah Hastroll, and Alice all behave extremely; they also exhibit extraordinary forbearance and love.  Don’t we all?  Where is it written that characters in novels have to be equally good and bad?  Neurotic and healthy?

My real answer would contain spoilers, so I’ll say it this way. I like to say that Mr. Peanut is the story of one marriage that tells the story of three, and vice versa.  Mr. Peanut also tells the story of one woman who tells the story of three.  Alice is Hannah is Marilyn is Alice ad infinitum. Chew on that.

I’ll put it another way, and I apologize for being cryptic, but only the most careful readers get this.  Alice Pepin is an impossible person.  She is crippled psychologically and her husband fails to love these problems out of her, and then he fails himself morally in the process, and ultimately feels responsible for her death—unless, of course, he killed her.  I’m sure many people reading this have seen marriages founder on the rocks of depression.  Alice and David’s does, and that impacts his characterization of women in his novel, “Mr. Peanut.”

EPL:  Good news for Mr. Peanut fans was the announcement that your short story collection Ladies and Gentlemen is due out in June 2011.  Can you tell us a little about what to expect?  When did you start work on it?  How does the process of writing short stories differ from work on a novel?  Did you feel any added pressure after having such a well-received debut?

AR:  I don’t feel added pressure because nearly all the stories were done in some form or other before Mr. Peanut was released.  And it was, I’ll admit, an enormous relief to be working on another book during all this craziness.  During periods when I was stuck writing Mr. Peanut I’d take a short-story holiday and work on one, tinkering, drafting, etcetera.  As for the differences between forms, well, they’re legion.  With a short story, every word moves the narrative forward.  There’s no room for fat, not a single square foot of wasted space.  The novel, meanwhile, can be far more protean, digressive, and expansive.

It was nice to go back to the stories when I was stuck drafting the novel, a great comfort to finish something, to get to the end during the novel’s long haul.  Mr. Peanut and Ladies and Gentlemen represent my work as a writer from about 1998-2008.  Now that I’m writing full time, hopefully I can pick up the pace.

EPL:  Since this is the season of book lists, can you give us some of your personal favorites from 2010 assuming you’ve had any time to read?  Better yet, what was the one book you read this year that meant the most to you regardless of the year it was published?

AR:  I certainly didn’t have as much time to read this year as I would’ve liked, but I did read James Salter’s remarkable novel A Sport and a Pastime twice.  Nobody writes as beautifully as he does, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Interview by Russell J.


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