One of the great joys of reading is to be surprised—to encounter a sentence or a phrase or a moment that so uniquely characterizes some aspect of the human condition, that we pause. We rethink, we laugh, or react. It touches a nerve. Every great book has these moments. Or to put it another way, every writer strives to create them. Occasionally I encounter a book that goes further, that isn’t simply a collection of surprising moments but, as a whole, seems to readjust my entire way of thinking about storytelling. Mr. Peanut is one such book.
Adam Ross’s novel is a complex murder mystery, a funny, dark, and brilliant exploration of relationships housed in a cinematic landscape that evokes classic film noir. And, simply put, it’s the best book about marriage I’ve ever read. There is a line in Alan Bennett’s play, The History Boys, which goes something like this: “The best moments in reading are when you come across something—a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things—which you had thought special and particular to you. And now, here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met. And it is as if a hand has come out, and taken yours.” This is the feeling that I had while reading Mr. Peanut. And I encountered it again in Ross’s stunning new collection of stories, Ladies and Gentleman, which came out last month. Ladies and Gentleman demonstrates Ross’s fearless ability to confront the depths of human relationships and investigate the extraordinary circumstances that surround even the most ordinary of lives.
I asked Ross about his path to writing, his books and influences, and what life is like in Nashville. He strikes me as a thoughtful person, passionate about language, and intellectually curious, not only about stories, but about the process of writing itself. He grew up on New York’s Upper West Side and comes from an artistic family. His father was an actor who appeared in Broadway musicals and his mother was a former ballerina and an instructor at Carnegie Hall. Interestingly, Ross was a child actor, appearing in a variety of movies and television shows before pursuing a career in writing. Now settled in Nashville, he is married with two daughters.
The Rumpus: Tell me a bit about yourself and your background. You started out as an actor before you became a writer. What was that like?
Adam Ross: My brother and I both did stints as actors, starting when I was 10 and lasting until I was 16. I fell into the profession. ABC held an open casting call for an Afterschool Special at my elementary school, and my brother and I both auditioned, completely on a lark, and each got non-speaking roles. The episode was entitled “A Portrait of Grandpa Doc,” starring Melvyn Douglas, Barbara Rush, and a kid named Doug McKeon, who years later would go on to star in On Golden Pond with Henry and Jane Fonda and Katherine Hepburn—which I mention only because he and I both screen-tested for that role and, had I landed it, my life would’ve probably been very different.
As for “Grandpa Doc,” we shot for a week in Seaside Heights on the Jersey Shore. Randal Kleiser, of Grease fame, directed. My part turned into a small speaking role, and it immediately became clear that I had a knack for acting—at school I was already the class clown—a fearlessness and a lack of self-consciousness combined with a healthy dollop of precocity which made me, as I look back, an enormous pain in the ass.
After that shoot, I agented up, began regularly auditioning, and next landed the part as Alan Alda’s son in The Seduction of Joe Tynan, with Barbara Harris, Meryl Streep, Rip Torn, and Melvyn Douglas—the final movie of his career, in fact. This was 1977, I was in third grade, and I thought professional acting was the coolest thing ever because I got to miss a month of school, which best conveys the depth of my thinking about it. I landed other roles on television and radio soon after, doing numerous on-camera and radio commercials, and it was all perfectly fine but I should clarify that it wasn’t something I loved or approached as a craft. It was more of an afterschool activity, something I did with a shrug. I went through the motions, even when I found myself starring on an NBC or PBS television series or reading for director Arthur Hiller. It did, however, help pay my tuition at the Trinity school.
I write about this comically in Ladies and Gentlemen, in the story “Middleman,” which captures some of the strangeness of the profession—of auditioning, for instance—as well as the banality of it. People think acting is glamorous, but that wasn’t my experience at all, certainly film and television acting wasn’t. It can be fun, it’s a lot of play-pretend, but making a television show is an oddly fractured process, you’re a small cog in a big wheel, and you spend a lot of time indoors in very cold studios, waiting around. And children, as Marilynne Robinson says, suffer the passage of time. It could be really boring. It was also pretty lonely. And I also spent an inordinate number of my freshest hours with immature adults, something I’m writing about in my current novel.
Interestingly, though, I find acting relates to writing in that you similarly inhabit a character’s mind, at least I do. “I got in the moment,” the narrator Jacob says in “Middleman” about an instance when art and life collide. When I’m writing well, I’m there, it’s the best way I can say it, and my language reflects that.
Rumpus: How did you come to be a writer?
Ross: Through drawing first and then a comic book obsession—Marvel Comics, in particular. I invented a world of superheroes starting in third grade with my classmate, Wai-Kwan Wong. In a classroom of forty kids, let’s just say there was a lot of undirected time. But this was good because I was a dreamy boy.
Admittedly, I wasn’t a big reader early on. I went through some of the classics, Tom Swift and The Hardy Boys and then, in my early teens, was floored by Frank Herbert’s Dune and burned through those. There was the obligatory Piers Anthony obsession. I loved Homer—the Odyssey’s like a comic book; The Iliad, a war movie. Various works caught my interest: some Shakespeare, Crime and Punishment, A Tale of Two Cities. My junior and senior year of high school I was pretty taken with Biblical studies, the Old Testament in particular, and I was still carrying around this apocalyptic superhero narrative in my mind, which I sketched in class and at home.
But then I got to Vassar College and just full-on caught the literature and philosophy bug, which in turn led to applying to creative writing classes and reading too much phenomenology and existentialism and being around brilliant classmates. And lo and behold I began to think I could do this—make a life for myself as a writer, that is—which was so stupid it makes me shake my head now, because I’d unwittingly embarked on a two-decade journey.
I’ll add this: I had the great good fortune of attending both the Hollins College and Washington University writing programs, where I had fantastic teachers, too many to list here, but Stanley Elkin, William Gass, and Richard Dillard to name three, and I wouldn’t trade those experiences for anything. But far more important in terms of my development were the two years I spent before grad school, waking up at 5 a.m. before heading to work— literally and figuratively writing in the dark—on my own, just scribbling with no goal in sight, followed by the years I spent doing the same after grad school, with no book deal and no cheerleading squad—just me and the page. At some point anyone who really wants to write has to deal with themselves, on the page, for a long time. It’s that simple, that difficult, and there are still no guarantees.
Rumpus: Your novel, Mr. Peanut, is such a fascinating book. As a writer I was amazed at how complex it was, and as a reader I was surprised at how smoothly it flowed despite its many twists and turns. I imagine this book must have taken a lot of planning. How did the book evolve as you were writing it? Can you talk a bit about the structure, and how you thought of the story as a whole?
Ross: Looking back on Mr. Peanut’s genesis and drafting is a bit like trying to recall a blackout bender. What was I thinking putting four grams of mushrooms on my pizza slice? But I started that book agreeing with Italo Calvino about the following: “Overambitious projects may be objectionable in many fields, but not in literature. Literature remains alive only if we set ourselves immeasurable goals, far beyond all hope of achievement.” And I’m sure plenty of people reading this would chime in, “Cousin, you’re right, and you failed.”
However, you put your finger on what was, for me, my biggest challenge while writing Mr. Peanut, which was to keep the act moving, as it were, while also having multiple levels of reality and intertextuality at play as the novel progressed. To give you an example, take this scene from the Sheppard section. Dr. Sam Sheppard’s re-courting his mistress, Susan Hayes, who’s returned to Ohio after getting engaged and moving away with her fiancée for a couple of years:
[Sheppard] called [Susan] a week later. It gave him an odd sense of delight, her silence on the phone when she answered, the ease with which she broke down. “I’ll be at the Perkins motel in an hour,” he said. “If you’re not there, I understand.” He waited in the room, not even bothering to turn on the lights or the radio, lying on the bed with his suit still on, his hands clasped behind his head, making bets as to how long it would take her to arrive. When she knocked softly, he let her in and sat down as she stood beside the bed. Then he pulled her down next to him. She let him kiss her resignedly at first—her cheek, the edges of her lips, her mouth—and soon they returned to the place they always found…
Of course, Sheppard thought, she had more to lose this time.
She stood before the mirror, replacing her earrings. When she was done, she rested her fingers on the bureau and looked at him in the reflection. “Sam,” she said. “I want you to do a favor for me.”
He couldn’t help but cross his arms and smile.
“A big, big favor.”
“I want you to leave, right now.” She was near tears. “Stay far away from me and don’t come near me again.” She wiped her eyes with her middle fingers: one, two. “There isn’t going to be anything more between us. So please, good-bye…good luck. No conversation. Just leave.”
“No questions asked?”
“No, I can’t do that.”
“I think you know.”
“Then say it.”
“You tell me.”
“I’m in love with Bob.”
He jumped up behind her, staring at her in the glass. “How can you be in love with Bob and be here with me?”
“How can you be in love with your wife and be here with me?”
“I guess you love Bob like I love my wife.”
In this scene, I first allude to Psycho, which, as you probably recall, begins with a couple who are having an affair. It’s their moral turpitude that will lead to more bad choices—as it will for Sheppard—specifically [Janet] Leigh’s theft of her boss’s deposit to pay for her paramour’s divorce. Of course, this ultimately gets her killed when she stops at the Bates motel. So that allusion also carries with it the idea of mental instability, which is central to the Sheppard section and embodied by the character Les Hoversten, as well as a mortal foreshadowing.
The conversation between Hayes and Sheppard that follows is lifted straight out of North by Northwest, even the blocking, in a scene where two characters, Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint, aren’t communicating honestly with each other because each is withholding vital information, which for Hitchcock is always an obstacle to authentic love, and contains all sorts of ironies applicable to Sheppard and Hayes given what happened to both. Next follows a verbatim exchange Susan Hayes offered the grand jury before the Sheppard murder trial.
So there you have it: three interlocked strands, or Escher tessellations, telling one story, just as the Pepin marriage tells the story of the Hastroll and Sheppard marriage—Mr. Peanut’s two detectives—and vice versa. My inspiration was Calvino’s Invisible Cities, where all the cities Marco Polo describes to Kublai Khan are actually some aspect of Venice.
This is probably a too long explanation of the fact that writing Mr. Peanut was a lot like playing three-dimensional chess. If you think it works, I can only say that none of my reverse engineering really explains to me how I did it at the time. I was in the throes of a Hitchcock, Escher, and Sam Sheppard obsession, and I wanted to write a literary murder mystery that functioned as a video game. That you, the reader, participated in and also watched unfold.
Rumpus: Film is referenced quite a bit in Mr. Peanut. Tell me about your interest in movies.
Ross: My love for films took a hit when my wife and I had our first child and now, six years in, I’m reduced to catching weeknight showings of Thor and The Avengers with a good buddy of mine who also has two kids. We’re so tired it’s all we can wrap our minds around and it’s pretty lame.
But I studied Hitchcock and Josef von Sternberg under Richard Dillard at Hollins, and that year under his tutelage just completely rewired my brain. Both directors combine moral seriousness with great artistry and, certainly in Hitchcock’s case, an enormous respect for plot, for its power to enthrall and delight. I’d actually argue for the necessity of a riveting plot in great fiction, because when we watch characters do things and make choices, when shit happens in such a way that we’re swept along, ultimately the narrative’s dream lingers longer because the pleasures are more manifold. And then we re-watch the film only to notice that its construction was far more artful than we’d expected, that its levels of meaning were far deeper than we’d realized. I set myself the same goal in Mr. Peanut. It should be a great read the first time through, something you whip through, but like all of Hitchcock’s movies, the second viewing is ten times more rewarding.
Rumpus: Ladies and Gentleman is such a lovely collection of stories. There are seven in all, and I read the book over the course of a week, one story each evening. It was the perfect antidote to a stressful day. Each story felt like it was contained within its own world, and yet I felt a lot of connections throughout the book. What connections do you see in the collection?
Ross: Their connections are entirely thematic. They’re about characters that seize the opportunity to be cruel to each other, or refrain from doing so. I’m often pigeonholed as being a dark writer and I think I get mischaracterized. I’m interested in the limits of personality, in the possibility of change, and the saving power of art. Do powerful works of art raise our consciousness to such a degree that we refrain from sliding into moral hazard? Do we take note? Or are we doomed to repetition? By examining characters lighting the way to hell, as it were, are readers spared iniquity? Are stories a heeded warning, or merely an entertainment? Each story in the collection tries to wrestle with these questions.
Rumpus: What do you think are the limitations of the short story? What can you do in a story that you can’t do in a novel?
Ross: Simply put, you can read a story in a single sitting and hold it all in your mind. You can experience all of its rhythms, beginning to end, during that span. Consequently it has, I think, greater emotional power than a novel because of this real-time effect. Stories can stun you. I’ll never forget reading Chekhov’s “A Doctor’s Visit” on a train to Hawthorne, New York, and I got to the end—the scene where the patient says goodbye to the doctor and she puts a flower in her hair as a kind of thank you to him—and I felt like a cowboy shot from a canyon’s top. This is a different experience from reading a novel, I think. The emotional effect is cumulative. Let’s just hope market forces don’t send short fiction the way of the dinosaur, because their sales are paltry compared to the novel and this is truly unfortunate.
Rumpus: Were there any particular writers or books that inspired you along the way? Who inspires you now?
Ross: Sure, I mean, like I said, I was bedazzled by everyone from Frank Herbert to Frank Miller. I loved Hemingway as a teen, was all puddled at the end of The Old Man and the Sea. Raymond Carver had taken over the world when I was at Vassar and for a while he took over mine. My Shakespeare class my sophomore year shook me to the core. I remember being rocked by the end of Richard II: “I’ve wasted time and now doth time waste me.” Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Heidegger’s Poetry Language Thought and Basic Writings. The hits just keep on coming. And who can forget…? After graduating, when I moved back to New York, I remember reading all of Walker Percy, each of his novels, twice. (His books on semiotics are great, by the way.) There was a long bout with Joseph Conrad. I began a ten-year streak of re-reading Homer’s Odyssey annually. And then I found Bellow and Roth and all the Jewish modernists, and then Calvino and Barthelme. And DeLillo—every newly published novel of his was an event. I remember exactly where I was when I read Pafko at the Wall.
Everything I read inspired me and that hasn’t changed. What’s floored me recently? James Salter’s Light Years, Burning the Days, and A Sport and a Pastime. He is a giant. I just read Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead. It’s tremendous. Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk was wonderful.
I can’t imagine turning into one of those codgers who no longer reads fiction. I’m regularly stirred by it and suffer no anxiety of influence. Influence me! That was my credo then, as I was developing and learning, and remains so now, as I’m developing and learning.
Rumpus: You live in Nashville, a city that I’ve always thought of as having a really vibrant music scene. I’m curious about the writing scene. What’s it like there?
Ross: I see Ann Patchett sometimes at her bookstore, Parnassus. She’s always trying to sell me new releases, and she has great writers roll through. I have a journalist friend with whom I play tennis and talk shop. My movie buddy I mentioned is a voracious reader, especially of history, and he schools me. The Southern Festival of Books is killer, and I’ve attended coming on three years in a row. Vanderbilt regularly has great authors in town. So does our Salon@615 program at the downtown library. Otherwise the Nashville writing scene happens in my study, at my desk, after my kids leave for school and before they get home, which is the job description, really. Anything else is just a scene.