Traces of Adam Ross’s life appear in the pages of his latest book of stories, Ladies and Gentlemen. There’s the teenage boy attending Trinity School in Manhattan, a journalist traveling to interview a famous actress, and an English professor who is a vessel for other people’s stories. “I became a writer,” reflects one narrator. “This means I’m free to embellish, to treat memory as fact or shape it to suit whatever I’m working on. My primary responsibility, I suppose, is to set you dreaming.”
The stories in Ladies and Gentlemen are no exception. The book has received praise from reviewers and readers alike, a continuation of the success garnered by Adam’s dark, impressive debut, Mr. Peanut. Adam and I corresponded over email, discussing the dualistic nature of storytelling, the influence of teachers, and cruelty in its many forms.
The Rumpus: Why do you call Ladies and Gentlemen a “companion book” to Mr. Peanut?
Adam Ross: Because I wrote these stories during enforced breaks from the novel—idle, confusing periods, when I struggled to connect Mr. Peanut’s dots—just to get a taste of The End of something. Unfortunately, my writing process is often one of linking alpha and omega, so completion is an entirely different matter. I begin a story with a clear idea of the ending: it’s everything in between that I struggle with, that supplies the creative tension. So from 1995-2007, I had numerous incomplete narratives littering my desk that I finally finished, and presto: I arrived at the publishing world’s gates with two books instead of one. This is also a long way of saying that Mr. Peanut and Ladies and Gentlemen are both born of the same creative period.
Consequently, they share similar themes. True, Ladies and Gentlemen focuses on the revelatory nature of cruelty, but in these stories I’m exploring the tension between progress and cyclicality in relationships as well as our tendency to lose sight of those closest to us, and how we often come to know our best selves in retrospect. We cobble together our higher moral selves after we sin. They may not be as structurally complex as Mr. Peanut, but in my opinion, telling a riveting story with complex implications is no easy task, so I’m really proud of the ones in this book.
Rumpus: Characters burden each other with stories in Ladies and Gentlemen. Yet the title implies stories are entertainment, calling to mind an emcee in front of a red curtain. Can stories be both?
Ross: Stories we tell shield us from each other—they’re a form of defense—and expose us, revealing our failures and secrets, the roles we play, and so here you have the idea of showmanship and acting in the collection. Stories are also a form of seduction and enchantment, and if listeners strike the lure and suspend disbelief the storyteller can instruct them, provide existential comfort, or send them over a cliff if he or she chooses. Consider the great ruse of “Futures”: out of desperate necessity, Applelow buys the bill of goods his potential employers are selling only to find he’s trapped in a devious, humiliating narrative. In that same narrative, Marnie begrudgingly invites Applelow into the story of her struggling son. Jacob, the protagonist of “Middleman,” is burdened by the lack of a monolithic narrative organizing his life. The young narrator in “The Suicide Room” is lying to one-up his rival for a woman’s affections while bullshitting about the most serious matters. In the collection’s title story, the potentially saving power of the tales Sarah’s seatmate tells her on their short flight between Nashville and St. Louis give her pause before she makes what may be a life-altering decision. His story helps her gain equilibrium when she’s reeling.
So the answer is yes, stories can be both burdensome and entertaining, but there’s this vital exchange between teller and listener, an offering and an atonement, because each perhaps comes to understand something new and takes that knowledge with him and become a better person or an agent of evil afterward. We have the opportunity to become ladies and gentlemen thanks to narrative constructs, to a storyteller who lies like truth. I guess one of the questions I’m most interested in is the following: What do we do after we’ve arrived at The End?
Rumpus: “Futures” includes a Hitchcock reference, continuing an obsession from Mr. Peanut. The main character is struck by Hitchcock’s gift for the embedded hint. “Look at all the clues you missed, the director seemed to be saying.” On reading this, I felt like you were saying that to me as a reader. Since some of these stories have surprise endings, do you go back and add clues? Or do you discover them as you go, and this helps guide you through the story?
Ross: I do retro-fit and embed clues, I discover others, and yet you, the reader, still didn’t figure out the ending of “Futures,” I’ll bet. Or, like the MacGuffin in Hitchcock, the answer to the reveal, the mystery, has, I hope, completely diminished in importance over the course of the narrative. Plenty of people tell me they saw the end coming in, say, “When in Rome,” to which I say, so what? Caleb didn’t, and the reasons for his oversight are what I want the reader to examine. Or put another way: If the reader gets ahead of the end in someone else’s story, can he or she anticipate possible outcomes in his or her own? This directly correlates to Mr. Peanut. “We tell stories about other people’s marriages,” Detective Hastroll reflects, “but can we tell the stories of our own?”
It goes back to what I was saying in the previous question. We get caught up in a story, and we’re so enchanted we miss or ignore the warnings, the hints about danger. We hurry past harbingers in our titillated state. This, to me, has all sorts of social and political implications, by the way. In Applelow’s case in “Futures,” what’s important is that the horrors that befall him don’t neutralize his capacity for heroic goodness.
But look, here’s the deal with Hitchcock: He knew the viewer wanted to voyeuristically participate in evil, in turpitude, and then get off scot free when the lights came back on. In Ladies and Gentlemen, I wanted to write stories haunting enough that they held a mirror up to the reader. What does the reader do with the moral implications afterwards? The answer to that question indicates whether or not we really progress, whether consciousness delivers us from evil, or whether we willfully forget instruction or moments of self-examination and instead obey our immediate appetites.
Rumpus: The stories are split almost equally between first and third person, though (correct me if I’m wrong), I feel like your natural impulse is the third. Are you of the Cheever philosophy that a writer needs to “earn” the right to use first person?
Ross: I think that the reader reading a first-person narrative has to be very keen to dramatic irony, to what the speaker reveals about him or herself during the telling. Caleb, for instance, in “When in Rome,” is not the good guy he thinks he is, and that comes through subtly over the course of the story. Morally speaking, he and his brother are both sliding down a slippery slope. Caleb’s just a little higher up the ramp but sins by holding his brother’s circumstances against him. He’s still playing the game of fraternal one-upsmanship. “The Suicide Room’s” narrator is a story-thief and a nearly empty vessel, a cipher—he’s trying to put together a sense of self—right in front of you. And with regard to Cheever, one of his greatest, most affecting stories, “Goodbye, My Brother,” is written in first person. That’s not an earned point of view, in my opinion, but a necessary one, since the elder brother in that story is, among other things, an alcoholic in a state of denial and attacks his brother because the latter threatens the family’s fog of unknowing.
As for natural impulse, well, I don’t know. True, there’s expansiveness in the third person that first doesn’t always allow, unless, of course, you write, say, Augie March, Lolita, or Moby Dick. I make that choice from the gut. It just feels right or it doesn’t.
Rumpus: Before you begin writing, what makes a scene vivid to you? Is it a specific detail? Or the situation? What makes you jump to the keyboard?
Ross: I hear something I can’t shake. It’s like getting your imagination branded. I can’t describe it any better. I file it away and know I’ll probably use it down the road. It happens all the time and I don’t necessarily jump to the keyboard. I just let it sink in sometimes.
Rumpus: Reading your work, I pick up handy tips. Now that I’ve read “Middlemen,” I’ll never make the mistake of rinsing my razor blade with hot water. Mr. Peanut included advice on writing a novel. Do you think stories should provide instructions on living?
Ross: Sure, but with a healthy dose of irony. I’m no guru, and my characters who pose as such are revealed to have less admirable sides. You mentioned Mr. Duckworth in “Middleman” and although he has an appealing sense of honor, he’s pretty hard on his son, Kyle, partly because he wants his undivided attention, which he finds instead in his son’s best friend Jacob. Not a great quality in a father, even if he’s got useful information to impart.
Rumpus: Many of these stories contain elements of your life. How do you keep an objective distance with your characters and situations? Or is the point to be nonobjective and posit alternative outcomes to your own life?
Ross: Both. I bend autobiography, misshape it, to the point where it’s unrecognizable or strange enough to invent with it. Memory lies first of all, but there’s this point beyond memory where you’re just making shit up, and that’s fiction. Autobiography is merely a jumping off point.
But on an autobiographical note, in “The Rest of It,” the story about professor Roddy Thane and his precarious friendship with the college’s raconteur maintenance man, I was imagining how horrible it would be if my wife and I divorced and then she went on to remarry and have a life without me. In other words, I was taking dictation from my own nightmare. In that story, the phone conversation Thane has with his wife Ashley is the part of the story I’m proudest of because I was pleased with how emotionally wrenching it was—again, to me, but hopefully to the reader as well.
Rumpus: On Twitter, you wrote of a terrifying incident. “Held up at double gun point in East Nashville tonight, in a restaurant. What do they say? Stories happen to people who can tell them.” Can you elaborate on that?
Ross: Last winter, some friends from New York came to Nashville to see a Predators game. They invited us to dinner afterward at a joint called the Holland House. East Nashville, no punches pulled, isn’t the safest part of the city, and upon parking my wife joked, “Let’s hurry inside before we get shot.”
Well, we’re sitting in a booth near the entrance and halfway through our meal two thugs enter, one carrying a sawed-off shotgun, the other a .38, and the former points his weapon in my wife’s face. They make everyone lie on the floor and calmly rob the place. Bizarrely, they walked over to my table and left our friend’s wallet there, but stole my BlackBerry instead, which was a bummer for me, because I had some great pictures of my kids on it. I guess I should’ve asked them for the Sim card. Anyway, they split thirty seconds before the police arrived, which was a blessing, obviously, because no one was hurt but certainly could’ve been in a standoff or ensuing shootout.
It’s the third time I’ve been held up at gunpoint. I used experiences from the second time—a long and very harrowing story—to describe the mugging that occurs in “When in Rome.” Imagination is great, it really is, but when Caleb has a pistol pointed at his face and says, “I could see the torpedo-glint of the bullet tips in the cylinder. They looked like snakes peering out of a pit,” well, I can’t describe it better and I also redeemed a violent episode by using it somewhere. The difference between the holdup I just described in detail and the experience I used in “When in Rome” is that I retrofit the latter into a narrative, into an aesthetic framework. It sounds highfalutin but all I’m saying is that storytellers take senseless acts and try to give them meaning. There, I said something only three million people have said before me.
Rumpus: Your teachers include William Gass and Stanley Elkin, yet experimental or satiric impulses are not at the surface in your stories. Why?
Ross: Both teachers certainly had an influence. Hearing Gass talk about sustaining pressure in sentences has had a lasting effect on my writing, though I’m very wary of writing that calls attention to itself as Good Writing. The line between tour de force and showboating is a fine one. Still, Gass’s teaching made me read all my work aloud, and when I do write long, complex sentences, I apply the Roberto Bolano Rule: if I lose the thread of meaning, I restructure. Or my editor, Gary Fisketjon, crosses the shit out and writes, “Ugh” in the margin.
As for Elkin, well, “Futures” threatens to veer off into the surreal but no, I’m not quite as confident in that mode of, what, satiric surrealism? Still, you can learn a whole lot about being funny from stories like Elkin’s “The Guest,” “A Poetics for Bullies,” some of the set pieces in “The Dick Gibson Show,” or his novellas, “The Franchiser” or “The Making of Ashenden,” which are, along with “The Living End,” maybe the funniest narratives I’ve ever read. Elkin believed all comedy derived from powerlessness and I often use that strategy in my stories. In my opinion, it’s what makes some of the interview scenes in “Futures” chuckle-worthy.
Rumpus: You wrote Mr. Peanut and the stories in Ladies and Gentlemen over the course of fifteen years. How did your writing change in that time?
Ross: No one will know until I’m dead, but suffice it to say, I grew a lot as a writer. There were thirteen stories in Ladies and Gentlemen’s original manuscript. Seven made the cut. So as a writer, I’m batting a little over five hundred. Still won’t earn me a single year of Derek Jeter’s salary, but writers shouldn’t go into the literary fiction business to make bling.