Call it the Blurb Heard Round the World. Readers of Entertainment Weekly opened the Mar. 11 issue and found a capsule piece with the grabber headline "Stephen King: What I'm Reading Now." In it the dean of horror writers described a not-yet-released first novel he called "the most riveting look at the dark side of marriage since Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"
He gave a brief hint of the book's plot — three interwoven strands of real, fictitious and imagined crimes — along with a kind of drive-by review ("a stew that's sometimes a little too chewy but always fascinating"). But what stuck with most readers were the 12 words that adjourned the short paragraph: "And it induced nightmares, at least in this reader. No mean feat."
From the guy who wrote The Shining, this is like Tom Clancy telling the world that your first military novel made him decide to join the Marines. The quote rippled throughout the blogosphere. Perhaps more striking to Nashville readers, though, was the first line of King's short but resounding paragraph: "It's by Adam Ross."
Until two years ago, Ross was teaching English full time at Harpeth Hall — an echo of his undergrad years at Vassar and his graduate years at Hollins University, a women's college with a coed graduate program (which he described once in a P.O.V. magazine story). His situation changed shortly after the 2007 holidays, when Publishers Weekly reported that Ross had received a two-book deal from Alfred A. Knopf, the country's most revered major imprint for literary fiction.
At the time, Ross was virtually unknown as an author. The son of a New York stage and voice actor, he started as a child actor on TV and radio, making his preteen movie debut playing Alan Alda's son in the 1979 film The Seduction of Joe Tynan. He'd also written a short film called "Trickle" that played the festival circuit in 1998. In 1999, a few years after he and his wife Beth moved to Nashville, he got what heretofore hadn't been one of journalism's most coveted jobs — working at the Nashville Scene's front desk.
After months of leaking writing talent from every mundane task and plumbing memo, however, Ross got a shot at a column called "Mondo Nashville" detailing local oddities. By the time he left the paper in 2003, he was writing cover stories and editing special sections. All the while, he gave hints that he was working on something else, in between interviews with python owners and flamboyant wrestlers turned Jerry Springer ringers.
That something else turned out to be Mr. Peanut, a darkly funny, densely woven and deeply unnerving first novel, which arrives in stores next Tuesday after a wave of pre-publication buzz that has swelled since winter. That started in January when Publishers Weekly picked Ross' novel as one of the season's notable debuts, followed by starred reviews in Booklist and Kirkus Reviews. It continued as the Wall Street Journal highlighted Mr. Peanut in its summer reading preview and authors Richard Russo and Scott Smith echoed King's praise. Meanwhile, advance acclaim rolled in from litblogs such as Bookdwarf ("might be the best book I've read so far in 2010") and Three Guys One Book ("spectacular ... just mesmerizing"). NPR's Morning Edition has already come calling, as have overseas journalists: The book is to be published in nine languages and 12 countries.
"By any reckoning, if this earth exploded tomorrow," says Gary Fisketjon, Ross' editor, whose confidence in the novel is no small source of its buzz, "this book would be judged a huge success."
All that attention, however, has guaranteed that its happily married father-of-two author will spend the rest of the summer answering one nervously offered question: "So ... what does your wife think?"
A reader might well wonder.
"When David Pepin first dreamed of killing his wife, he didn't kill her himself," begins Ross' head-spinning quadruple helix of a novel. The hero, Pepin, a successful video-game designer, pictures all the ways his unhappy, weight-obsessed wife Alice might vanish from his life — first through no fault of his own, then in cautiously imagined homicide scenarios befitting a "Walter Mitty of murder." But for all their shared sorrows and vindictive clashes — "They'd been married to each other for 13 years," Ross writes in one swift, rueful sideswipe, "and still went for jugulars and balls" — does he really want her dead?
It's not an idle question. Alice turns up dead in the family kitchen, victim of a fatal peanut allergy, and the investigators eyeing David for foul play might have reason to sympathize if he did. The younger one, Ward Hastroll, goes home each night to a spouse who for reasons he cannot comprehend will not leave her bed. In a feat of imaginative re-creation, the older one is a time-traveling visitor from headlines past: Dr. Sam Sheppard, the convicted killer who was eventually cleared of his wife's all-too-real butchering.
For those of you keeping score at home, we have: a real suspected wife killer investigating a fictitious suspected wife killer, accompanied by a fictitious partner who certainly seems capable. Did I mention that "Ward Hastroll" is an anagram of "Lars Thorwald," the suspected wife killer Raymond Burr plays in Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window? Or that touchstones from the Hitchcockian universe — supporting actors, characters, locations — pop up throughout, like the Master's own winking appearances, only in drastically different configurations?
This sounds like the kind of gimmicky po-mo gamesmanship that can easily turn precious and self-impressed, and Ross dances that edge when he introduces the novel's most outré creation: a dwarf assassin named Mobius, who functions as a straight-faced parody of the Hannibal Lecter-style omniscient killer. As Mobius' name suggests, Ross is bold enough to underscore the themes and motifs of his looped-nightmare plot, as in a description of Pepin's videogame — derived from the self-perpetuating prints of M.C. Escher — that elegantly leads the reader into a world turned literally upside down.
What keeps this from unreeling off into the ether is Ross' anguished inquest into marriage — or more specifically, the shallows where modern marriages mire and die. Trapped by their own fundamental inability to understand the women they love, too diverted by their own dissatisfaction to realize how much they love those women, Ross' three male protagonists essentially become avatars in the video games of their wedded lives — empty figures performing the same mundane rituals over and over, mystified why the outcome never changes. The one variable of surprise, and what keeps the men from moving ahead, is the (to them) unsolvable mystery of the women's behavior.
Ross has already taken some heat for his women characters, who often come off as shrill, if not outright inscrutable. As the novel's knee-weakening resolution shows, though — without giving away Ross' elaborately engineered narrative trap — that says more about the empathetic limits of the observer. Small wonder Hitchcock figures so prominently in the book. In Ross' monitor bank of a world, the windows across the courtyard in Rear Window where James Stewart spies on the guilty and heartsick have been technologically upgraded. Each window is now its own Xbox level to be wandered and replayed, never to be mastered.
Yeah — as King says, it's chewy. But in keeping with the doubles and doppelgangers and mirrored themes rendered throughout the novel, Mr. Peanut is also a cannily divided commercial work: literary fiction written in the lingua franca of the potboiler. It's stoked with sex, murder, knife fights, breakneck reversals, and at least two show-stopping setpieces — David and Alice's harrowing Hawaiian vacation, which leads their marital impasse to a literal cliffhanger, and a tour de force re-creation of the Sheppard crime, cut itself among three tragically irreconcilable viewpoints.
The result is a rarity: a page turner that reveals something new from every angle — as Hitchcock criticism, as a scathing study of male delusion, as an experiment in applying the processes of gaming and electronic media to a print narrative. There's admittedly a lot to take in, and some of the early reader reviews have been confused, even hostile (especially on Amazon). But those willing to "take the ride," as Ross puts it, will likely find themselves immediately flipping back through the book — in order to figure out what just hit them.
The novel greatly impressed Fisketjon, the respected editor whose roster extends from Raymond Carver and Jay McInerney to Cormac McCarthy and Haruki Murakami. A vice president at Knopf and a part-time Middle Tennessee resident, he's also been a close friend of Ross for the better part of a decade. But he says that only made him more wary of reading the book, not less.
"The odds are stacked against someone I know writing a good book," Fisketjon says, stalking pinpoints of cell-phone coverage around his home one cloud-shrouded Friday in Williamson County. He explains that he knows people who meet almost all the requirements of good writers, except that they're not good writers: "They'd rather read the Great American Novel than write the damn thing."
Instead, he and Ross maintained a kind of don't-ask-don't-tell gentlemen's agreement over the years as Ross kept writing. The extent of his advice, he says, was to tell his friend he needed an agent. But when the book actually landed on his desk, he read it with growing excitement.
"Possibly because of that anxiety, when it works out [reading a friend's book], it's really wonderful," Fisketjon says. He handed it to "my boss" — that would be Knopf's legendary chief Sonny Mehta — and said, "Not only is this very good, this guy is a very close friend." After reading the book, Mehta returned not with brutal, withholding silence (which at least one profile suggests is his frequent response) but an enthusiastic verdict: "You've got to do this."
"I'd be hard pressed to cite a bunch of first novels that had immediate effects — [McInerney's] Bright Lights, Big City, [Donna Tartt's] The Secret History," Fisketjon says. "Something that seems entirely original but seen through — not glimmers of talent but fully developed. Structurally and aesthetically, it's really complex." Advance reading copies were sent out last spring with fanfare, including an accompanying letter by Fisketjon himself.
On Tuesday, June 22, at 7 p.m., Ross kicks off an international eight-city book tour with a reading and signing at Davis-Kidd. It's a sweet payoff to a 15-year process, which found him turning some of the happiest moments of his own life into the worst moments in David Pepin's. In advance of a summer with much attention coming his way, the Scene caught up with Ross for a wide-ranging talk about marriage, murder, movies and Mr. Peanut, not necessarily in that order.
As befits a former high-school wrestler and lifelong film fanatic, who studied writing with novelists Richard Dillard, Stanley Elkin and William Gass, a conversation with Adam Ross is a roller derby of highbrow literary chat, hardcore movie geekery and hilarious locker-room confidance. Our conversation started over pizza at Manny's in The Arcade, with a detour to (where else?) The Peanut Shop. There, as if art-directed by fate, the author came face-to-face with the monocled mascot that gives his book its name — as well as an eerie all-purpose symbol encompassing birth, death and eternity. Funny how these things work out sometimes.
Q. When did you actually start the book?
I started the book in '95, after my father told me this story about a second cousin of mine who had massive problems with depression, lethal nut allergies and morbid obesity. According to her husband — who was conveniently the only witness to her suicide — he came home one afternoon and found her sitting at the table with a plate of peanuts. They got into an argument, and at its climax, she ingested them. Her last words to him were, "Call 911." She had hidden all her EpiPens, and she died right in front of him from anaphylactic shock after her esophagus swelled shut.
Now when I heard this story, it absolutely stopped me in my tracks. It just hit me to the core. And I sat down and wrote something that resembles the first three chapters. But then I stopped. I'd written myself into something I didn't understand. And this is where the creative process is horrifically inefficient and doesn't obey any rules of discipline, and I'm a pretty disciplined guy. That was the beginning of what turned out to be an enormously organic process.
Q. Did the novel change over time?
In the initial drafts, I had two detectives: one who thought everyone he interrogated was innocent, and the other who thought everyone he interrogated was guilty. But that was way too didactic. The novel was way too obviously allegorical and followed a kind of fanatic calculus you could see coming a mile away. It was like Lord of the Flies without the youthful violence and exuberance or the beautiful-island window dressing. Everyone was black and white.
I think one of the big turning points of the drafting was stumbling onto the Sheppard case — again, via a conversation with my father while we were watching the remake of The Fugitive with Harrison Ford and hearing that it was a real case. I'm one generation removed: I was born in '67 and the Sheppard case was in '54. What fascinated me about the Sheppard story, and why I seized upon him as kind of the ultimate gray-area figure in marriage — and the best possible detective in a way — was that in the Hollywood versions, he's the white knight of marriage: "Dammit, I'm going to clear my name and show them I was a good guy!" I wanted to dramatize him as the opposite, by examining the real story and re-imagining it.
The fascinating thing about the Sheppard story is it's such a nexus of tensions in the American marriage as we know it. You have the seeds of the sexual revolution; you have the first wave of women in the workforce enjoying a lessening of certain mores vis-à-vis being able to compete on the same playing field with men; you have women who are thus spending more time with men than their wives do, and all the concomitant sexual tensions. And then you have this Sheppard figure who basically claims in the research that he and his wife had an open relationship, because she had shut down about sex, and she essentially said to him, "You just go and do your thing." Well, to me that's a harbinger of all the moral hazards and pitfalls that ensued in our society. Look how this bears itself out in terms of American culture with respect to marriage and the institution's struggles. Here we are at a time when you've got a 50 percent divorce rate with gays wanting to marry. You've got a group of people dying to buy into the institution, whereas the people who've had it forever have been doing a great job of fucking it up royally.
Q. You imagine a much rosier alternate fate for Sheppard than what he really had: a short career as a pro wrestler, a second marriage to the half-sister of Joseph Goebbels' wife, alcoholism and early death. But he's still a shell of a man.
What strikes me most about the Sheppard story, if in fact Sheppard wasn't guilty, is that one night his life got sucked down a wormhole. His wife is brutally murdered. He loses his freedom and career. He loses access to his son. During the course of his trial, his mother kills herself, and his father dies of cancer. Then he spends 10 years in prison, dying four years later a broken man. I certainly would never presume to solve the case of whether he's guilty or innocent. But by casting Sheppard as a detective, I wanted to make use of those horrors and that experience. For if there's one message in Mr. Peanut I want every reader to come away with, it's that you should be careful what you wish for. Take care of your home base.
Q. That's why Hitchcock fits so well into the book — he understands that at a certain level, the viewer wants to vicariously experience the worst that can happen, while being let off the hook morally. The men in your book all fantasize how their lives would be different if they could experience "the worst that can happen" — and then they actually get it.
I would actually argue that Mr. Peanut is as pro-marriage a book as I could ever imagine being written, because that kind of investigation or confrontation — character to character, marriage to marriage — urges the reader to look at the here and now, and look hard.
Take, for instance, the character of Det. Ward Hastroll. He suffers with his wife while she's bedridden, but he himself is asleep to what's right in front of him. And that's the very thing I think that his wife is most terrified of, particularly given where they are in their marriage — which is, without spoilers, that stage where they have to destruct as a couple or move on to the next stage, or chapter. And so in that way, for me, Ward Hastroll and his wife are the heroes of the novel, because they're the only marriage that arrives at something like a happy ending without doing collateral damage.
Q. In almost every interview I've read with you, someone asks how your wife feels about the book.
Q. What I was wondering is, were there sections you felt hesitant about writing because you knew she would read them? This book goes into some incredibly dark places.
Q. You are a very confident man, sir.
(laughs) Well, I'll tell you why absolutely not. First, she knows what's autobiographical and what isn't. Second, my wife and I have been together for nearly two decades, and we met really young. What's the darker side of me in the book? The darker side of me in the book — of us — is probably what my wife would say: that any couple who grows up together suffers growing pains together. And this isn't some, like, Bill and Hillary Clinton nudge-nudge-wink-wink. We suffered the usual changes that come with going through multiple stages of life as a couple: law school, my graduate school, moving to essentially a new place — to multiple new places. Very commonplace stuff, whereas the darker, more salacious aspects of the novel are all imagination.
Q. Is what happens to David when he’s writing his own book like your nightmare version of what you thought was going to happen to Adam Ross when he finished his?
That’s a really complicated question, so let me give the answer some context. I’d warn any reader here that there are spoilers that will really kill his or her enjoyment of the novel, so skip ahead if you want to avoid them.
When David is finishing his novel, Alice has already died. His novel is an act of recapturing lost time. His novel is a post-facto attempt to be more awake to his wife — in memory. It’s a kind of eulogy long after the funeral, really, as well as a self-investigation, and a cautionary tale as well. His anxiety about finishing his book is due to that fact that, once he’s finished, he fears he’ll lose his wife forever. He’ll finally arrive at the end of conjuring her and, in a way, mourning her passing. When his book is done, he will get his darkest wish: he’ll be alone. He’ll be free. And freedom experienced alone, the book argues, isn’t freedom at all. It’s solipsism.
For me, on the other hand, the nightmare version of finishing the book was, well, pretty commonplace. When it’s done, it can be judged. It can be accepted or rejected by, well, agents and publishers. It’s no longer a potential. It has a beginning, middle and end. It’s a sellable thing — or not. It confirms me in my ideal version of myself — shout out to Joseph Conrad — as someone who thought he had the talent to be a writer ... or not. All the time spent writing the novel can be affirmed by the world, or the world can reject it.
Answering this question, I find myself dreaming a story in the mode of Borges, a story of a writer writing a story that suffers from Zeno’s paradox: every time the writer gets halfway done he still has halfway more to go, ad infinitum. The story he is writing could be infinitely interesting. It could also be an endless attempt to dodge finishing, a nightmare version not of writer’s block, but of writer’s endless composition. Of formlessness. Of a life spent dodging judgment as to how he spent his time living.
Also known as blogging.
Q. In Rear Window, Jimmy Stewart sits at his window, watching his neighbors' unhappy lives in the apartment building across the courtyard like a man looking at a bank of TV sets. But in the videogame-influenced world you suggest in the novel, his passive voyeurism has turned into active voyeurism — you choose a character, and you paddle around in someone else's pain. You still don't feel it or experience it yourself.
Because it's not the experience. It's still a virtual prophylactic. (laughs) A virtual prophylactic, at its worst and at its best.
Q. The ingenious metaphor you hit upon is that a bad marriage is like a videogame. It's a Mobius strip of interactive alienation —you have a set path you follow, you have a limited number of responses that you mistake for freedom, when in truth the player dooms the avatar to make the same mistakes over and over.
To get to the exit.
On a strictly autobiographical level, my wife and I went to Hawaii together for two weeks. And it was one of the zeniths of our relationship together, because it was at a very happy point in our lives where, like Ward and Hannah Hastroll, we had broken through to new levels — personally, professionally, understanding each other better. We did part of that same hike David and Alice do. It was where we discovered that we were pregnant with our first daughter. Whereas for David and Alice, again without giving any spoilers, it's the beginning of the end of their relationship. On that Mobius environment of a hike — when I think about the hike that they're on, it's like a crazy Escher landscape — they lose each other at the same moment they save each other.
Part of the book's enterprise, and part of the wall it's trying to break down, is, can we sensitize ourselves more and more to the here and now, to that other person? So any suggestion of, like, "What's Sam Sheppard doing in this book?" or "What's Ward Hastroll doing in this book? How does it all come together?" — well, it comes together because they are David's most available in-depth vehicles for — not rescuing himself, because he's done for, but rescuing you. That's why one of the things I love about Knopf's cover is that when you look at it, you can see your reflection in the dots. That's what makes it such an art object. Readers should recognize aspects of themselves, as well as stages of their own marriages.
I’ll digress here, but thinkers like Heidegger and [Emmanuel] Lévinas really had an influence on me, and on Mr. Peanut, whether it’s Heidegger’s beautiful idea in Being and Time of The Everyman as a being-towards-death or Lévinas’s idea of the Other as an infinite. Those are two of the most simple and profound ideas, to me, in the school of Existentialism. To live authentically, you must recognize that you have a limited amount of time to become your own-most possibility, as Heidegger says. So you better do something to achieve that possibility. To live morally — and here I’m talking about Lévinas — your stance toward the other person before you is that she is an infinite being, that she is so beyond your objectifiying grasp, then you approach that person with humility.
Apply both these ideas to marriage, and I’d love to think that every day, we’d be awake to a bright, new beginning, that we’d be utterly respectful toward our spouses. But unfortunately, our day-in day-out existence takes a toll on our behavior. When it comes to married couples, or couples who’ve been together for a long time, our familiarity with each other can make us much less patient with our spouses as opposed to more so.
Look, I would love to think that we as couples resolve things in a fair and balanced way, where we sit down at tables and say, "Well, sweetie, I really think the girls should go to Camp X this summer," or, "This public school thing isn't working out." And your wife or husband says, "Gee, sweetie, you're right! And that's such a good thing for you to say over dinner right now, because I had been thinking about it myself! I'm so glad we solved that problem!" (laughs) That's almost never how it works! Actually, all the soft-spoken you-were-right-no-you-were-right happens after, like, the bomb sirens go off, the air raid, the mortar fire.
Q. "Thirteen years and they still went for balls and jugulars."
"Jugulars and balls." Sometimes it feels that way. I think we always look romantically at others. Look at the Gores. It's so funny thinking about the Gores. People are like, "They seemed like such a great couple. I can't believe they didn't last longer! Can you believe they didn't last as long as the Clintons?" It's like, do you fuckin' know these people? You don't know 'em! You've seen 'em on television! And now we're back to Rear Window. You just don't know who you're watching at all.
Q. It seems that, up to a point, Sheppard is worse than an avatar. He's like an avatar on auto-pilot, walking through these scenarios over and over again with his wife. It's almost like someone who's being operated by remote control.
As a progenitor of the sexual revolution and all its moral hazards and freedoms, Sheppard is in fact the most unfree of all the characters in the novel. It's only when he realizes Marilyn's importance to him, as well as her autonomy, that he is for the first time liberated to do the right thing. But with Sheppard’s character we again have echoes of Hitchcock, of characters driven by their compulsions. I’m thinking of Jimmy Stewart, for instance, in Rear Window and Vertigo.
It’s Marilyn, meanwhile, who seems far more conscious of her husband’s behavior than he is. It’s Marilyn who gives him the ironic warning when they’re in Los Angeles that directs him to the way out of his compulsive womanizing — to his Escher exit.
Q. “Don’t have too much fun,” she says.
Exactly. Sheppard doesn’t know what this means at first, but when he figures it out, he and his wife take their first steps toward (an albeit brief) salvation.
Q. Here comes another spoiler, but when you get to the end of the book, you figure out Sheppard is there because he's who David is going to have be for the rest of his life: the man who lost his wife at the moment he realized he wanted her. And David can inhabit the Sheppard avatar in that part of the story and see a possible way to live. But he's never going to feel exactly the same way. It's like being permanently confined to a bubble.
David’s lack of resolution, his remove from life, is permanent, an enduring condition: resolutionlessness.
Q. It's resolved that he's in a looped nightmare.
Yes. In a way, he’s permanently trapped in his own book. And again, that's yet another thing to me that's so compelling about the Sheppard story. If Sheppard was innocent, well, one day his life got sucked into that very same looped nightmare. We can all suffer that fate, and it’s pretty freaking scary. One night you’re having a dinner party with friends and the next morning you can find yourself in some kind of really bad Claude Rains picture.
Q. I keep meaning to see if that movie exists.
It does exist. It’s entitled Strange Holiday. It’s about a guy who goes camping in the wilderness and returns to discover America has been taken over by fascists. And it’s horrifyingly ironic that it was the movie Sheppard, Marilyn, and his guests, the Aherns, watched on the night his wife was brutally murdered. On that night, life imitated art and made tragic art.
Q. Did you actually diagram how these things were going to play out, like strands of DNA? Did you map out how they were going to weave together?
Yes. In the last two years of drafting, I had to bind the discrete narratives. I know, for instance — and understand that I'm not comparing my book to this book — but I know that one of the things Ralph Ellison really struggled with in Invisible Man was what he called the connective tissue between the discrete parts of that novel. Individually, I felt all three narratives in my novel had drive and were compelling. But what was the mechanism by which I brought those together? Again, you'd have to do a spoiler alert, but it was obviously with Escher — by using his one particular etching, Encounter, on both a thematic and plot level. The whole novel follows the logic of that drawing, character to character and marriage to marriage. Just like I, Adam Ross, wrote the nightmare version of some of the happiest times in my life, David is writing the nightmare version of some of the things that happened to him. Meanwhile, Pepin is writing the better version of some of the things that happened to him by way of his interlocked relationship to Ward Hastroll and Sam Sheppard and so on, ad infinitum. That, to quote from The Matrix, is something that’ll really bake your noodle once you read the novel that way.
But to answer your question simply, what I had to do was essentially some crazy diagramming where I took the respective story lines and, I would literally have “David 1” and “Pepin 1,” etc., and broke all the Sheppards' movements into individual chapters and all the Hastroll movements into individual chapters and all the David and Pepin movements into individual chapters, and tried to see them literally in a kind of helix-slash-Möbius strip way. And I had to ask myself not only where do they intersect, so that the reader could identify plot points A, B, C and D, but also so that the book circles around to the beginning.
I lost a lot of sleep over those puzzles. But once I found that mechanism, that's where I experienced what happened with David, which is that the drafting became unbelievably uninterrupted. My year at Harpeth Hall when I was the writer in residence, well, I was writing for eight hours a day. Like David toward the end of the novel, it was all downhill to the end. May I be so fortunate again in the future.
Q. Was it more difficult writing the Sheppard sections in which you are dealing with a lot of factual material, like real figures? I guess there would be legal issues involved also?
The Sheppard and Hastroll sections were a pleasure to write and unbelievably easy to draft. Particularly with the Sheppard section, once my research was done, which took a heck of a lot of time. Because for me, that's a way in which writing is a lot like acting. You have to know the role. You literally have to know the imaginative set. It was not uncommon for me — whether I was writing the Museum of Natural History section or whether I was writing the Sheppard section — to have floor plans of these spaces to know where “I” was and what “I” saw.
Q. Were you getting into character like an actor?
Q. I would think that would help you keep the various strands straight.
I don’t know about that, but it frees you from yourself and makes you much more daring imaginatively. That's what I strive for, to actually arrive at characters who are as far from me as possible, because I find that it's really liberating. That’s why I struggled the most with David and Alice. As I said, my wife and I vacationed in Hawaii as they did. I had to walk through that very pleasant space and re-imagine those memories with a veil of tragedy hanging over them. I had to relight those scenes.
Q. Do those memories alter once you've done that?
No. But interestingly, I know that, for me, writing this book and finishing it made me a better person.
Q. How so?
Because, particularly with Sheppard, and particularly with David and Alice, you have to really spend a lot of time thinking about the toll that egoism and blindness and compulsion inflict on your betrothed, your beloved. It's a permanent caution.
Q. One of the things that struck me most was when you start to find out all the many faceted things that "Mr. Peanut" represents. When I first started reading it, you find out there's a character named Mobius, you start to see the motifs like the figure-eight hotel pools. And the peanut, that's a clever Mobius strip/eternity symbol. Were you trying to think of something that encapsulated the mundane and the eternal at the same time?
I wouldn't want to nail down the symbol, but in the novel, marriage can kill you or save your life. When two people are married for a long time, they take comfort in the sameness of their partners — and are also repulsed by it. They love each other and experience something eternal by way of the mundane.
But I wasn't conscious of this at first. As I told you, when I began the story and I wrote those three chapters, I immediately called it Mr. Peanut. And for me, part of writing the book was becoming conscious of the things that were eminent in it. It's almost like art as Rorschach test, where you start to make connections about the very things that you've thrown out on the page. Now that might suggest a certain degree of randomness to it, but even Borges, in Dreamtigers, talks about how the writer over the course of his life writes these things, writes these things, writes these things, and slowly but surely they form a portrait.
Q. I'm not inclined to grant you a lot of accidents when the book has you name-checking Italo Calvino, who created some of the most dizzying game-playing narrative constructs ever.
True. "Once Mr. Peanut became self-aware, the fun of literary gaming began."
Q. But I was really taken with the idea of Mr. Peanut, something that's almost hidden in plain sight. The corporate logo mascot that's everywhere.
And it's creepy as shit.
Q. It is creepy. Any kind of food mascot that is begging you to eat it I find really disturbing.
Not to mention if you read the book looking for where he makes appearances it's another fun thing.
Q. He's everywhere. But not only is he everywhere as Mr. Peanut, but ... the moment when Alice refers to the child as Mr. Peanut I felt almost sick. For some reason I did not see that coming. But I remember seeing a sonogram and thinking that my daughter looked like a little peanut. That was one of the first things in the book that really disturbed me.
It's funny, because I had a similar moment. There's that sonogram scene in the book, and I had an exactly similar moment when my wife and I saw sonograms of our first daughter. Again, very much in the spirit of the book, I didn't find that experience to be a moment where I cried and said, "Oh, it's so beautiful!" There's something horribly liquid and reptilian and almost bestial about the fetus. Several years ago I went to one of those designer kids' stores and there was a little kid's shirt that said "Mr. Peanut" and it was the little infant. So I had, for reasons unknown to me at the time, called this thing Mr. Peanut, and that set off an associative chain.
One of my favorite Eschers, that runs through Mr. Peanut, has ants on a Möbius strip. It looks like a peanut. The strip itself has the corrugated texture of a peanut. And a peanut, like you said, has that same kind of infinite shape. And so once again, we're back to how marriage is like a Möbius strip. Well, in marriage, you're supposed to be on the same side, but a lot of times it feels like you're on completely opposite sides. The amazing thing about a Möbius strip as a symbol is, it sure looks like you're on opposite sides, even though you're not. And sometimes you can't help but ask: Are we ever going to get off this thing? And if we do, are we saved or do we fall into the void?
Q. The scenes between the killer, Mobius, and David, and between Mobius and Sheppard, are the ones that sound the most like the conversations in videogames that are meant to advance the exposition, the parts that you would skip with the remote before you start playing.
Mobius is the ultimate devil, the ultimate African killer doll, the ultimate red-raincoat-wearing dwarf of marriage, the guy who walks in and affirms only your side of the equation. That's the beginning of the end of any marriage. If you look at every character's behavior, that's what leads to the greatest destruction, when it's only my side.
When I was writing those scenes, I also had in mind the Hannibal/Starling conversations. It's become a fixture now, one in need of having the air let out of it — the all-knowing superkiller. Which is why Mobius' size to me is what makes him scary and ridiculous. When I think of Mobius I think of the assassin in Grosse Pointe Blank whom John Cusack kills in his high school's hallway. Not a true midget, but someone who's small enough to be just fucking creepy, because he's so hard to hit.
Q. I'm sure you've been asked this a million times, but was it really discomforting to give the book to Gary Fisketjon?
Well, yes. Gary and I were friends long before. We've been friends since 2000. I think venal people would think the fact that he and I were such close friends was some kind of great assist to me.
Q. I would imagine he has lots of friends and he doesn't publish all their novels.
He has lots of friends and he doesn't publish probably any of his friends' novels. The people he has published have maybe become his friends. But if you spend any time with Gary, what you learn immediately is that his sense of honor with respect to art, his sense of integrity with respect to art, is not something he'd ever expend or lose or risk for a friend. And I say that with nothing but admiration.
But yes, when my agent took the novel to Gary, I will tell you that I was one seriously nervous Nelly. Gary, to me — not to everybody, but to me — he was the Yankees. And you only get one chance to try out for the Yankees. And if the Yankees say, "Bye-bye Adam, thanks for taking batting practice" — well, then, you didn't make the Yankees. And I also knew that he was going to be really honest.
Q. It sounds like so far, you've had a much different experience from a lot of people publishing their first novels. The publishing industry has never been more difficult to get into, at least if you want to be taken seriously. It's easy if you want to go to a vanity press or something. What is that process like once you've finished your book?
For me, the hardest part of the process was finishing. That, to me, was the titanic struggle. It wasn't the classic struggle, "And then I sent it out, and got rejection letter after rejection letter." That part of it, in a sort of weird Escher obverse world, that part which is supposed to be hard was easy, and the part that you wish would have been easier was very, very hard.
Now I get to talk to people about something I spent a lot of time alone with, and it's really wonderful. It's wonderful talking to independent booksellers who read a lot, the ones who have really powerful experiences reading your work, who let you know how powerful that experience is, and who want to hand-sell that thing. And it's been wonderful talking about the book with strangers, family and friends who think of it as something I made and something apart from me.
Q. Are independent booksellers and bloggers pretty much the people who make books now?
I think that in our big-box-slash-virtual-ebook world they are very much imperiled but all the more necessary, given just how much stuff there is out there. And although I see the place of things like Amazon and Barnes & Noble, I would also hope that the public realizes that if you find yourself wanting a book that Davis-Kidd doesn’t have in stock, just say to your friendly representative there, “Order this for me,” and it will be there just as quick as Amazon. Not to your door, sure, but hey: Support your local business, you know?
No diss on the big guys, but for the independent booksellers, books are a calling and a mission, and it’s personal. If you’ve ever walked into an independent bookstore that you really love, and you watch a bookstore owner interact with their clientele and see them have a discussion about books, well that’s probably why you got into this whole gig in the first place — writing, I mean — because you both love books.
Q. Has there been any talk about a movie version?
Yeah, sure. I might turn the question around and ask you this: Can you see this as a movie?
Q. Oh hell yes.
I think that what has to happen with a movie version is the same thing that happened with a book like The English Patient or The Unbearable Lightness of Being, both of which are fantastic movies that took essentially unfilmable books, and where you had very smart screenwriters and directors. There's a very clear three-act structure that you can extrapolate from the book. If I were the one writing it I would have to be willing to kill a lot of darlings, but to achieve different effects. It would be awesome, for instance, if someone like either a Spike Jonze or a Charlie Kaufman did it, or I'll tell you who I think would be amazing is the guy who did Michael Clayton and Duplicity [Tony Gilroy]. ...
To make it right, however, you need someone who understands one of my favorite quotes by Quentin Tarantino, which is that most movie audiences are so familiar with movie tropes and genre that it's like a roller coaster they've ridden a hundred times. They're leaning to the left before the left turn. They're leaning to the right before the right turn. I would like to think that for those who buy in with Mr. Peanut, its power is that the readers never saw those turns coming.http://adam-ross.com
Many thanks to Jack Silverman for transcription.
When David Pepin first dreamed of killing his wife, he didn't kill her himself. He dreamed convenient acts of God. At a picnic on the beach, a storm front moved in. David and Alice collected their chairs, blankets, and booze, and when the lightning flashed, David imagined his wife lit up, her skeleton distinctly visible as in a children's cartoon, Alice then collapsing into a smoking pile of ash. He watched her walk quickly across the sand, the tallest object in the wide-open space. She even stopped to observe the piling clouds. "Some storm," she said. He tempted fate by hubris. In his mind he declared: I, David Pepin, am wiser and more knowing than God, and I, David Pepin, know that God shall not, at this very moment, on this very beach, Jones Beach, strike my wife down. God did not. David knew more. And in their van, when the rain came so densely it seemed they were in a car wash, he boasted of his godliness to Alice, asked rhetorically if a penis this large and this erect (thus exposed) could be anything but divine, and he made love to his wife angrily and passionately right in the front seat, hidden by the heavy weather.
He dreamed unconsciously and he dreamed sporadically. His fantasies simply welled up. If she called from work, he asked, "Did something happen?" If she was late coming home, he began to worry too soon. He began to dream according to her schedule. "Taking the train today?" David asked in the morning. "Taking the train," Alice said. It was a block west to Lexington where she'd pick up the subway down to 42nd Street. At Grand Central, she'd take Metro-North thirty minutes to Hawthorne, where she taught emotionally disturbed and occasionally dangerous children. Anything could happen between here and there. On the edge of the platform, two boys were roughhousing. The train came barreling into the station. An accidental push. Alice, spun round, did a crazy backstroke before she fell. And it was over. David winced. The things that went through his mind! From their window, he watched Alice walk up the street. A helicopter passed overhead. On Lexington, at the building under construction, a single girder was winched into the sky. And David imagined this was the last time he would ever see his wife — that this was the last image he'd have of her — and he felt the sadness well up and had the smallest taste of his loss, like the wish when you're young that your parents would die.
There could be no violence. It was a strange ethics attending his fantasy. He dreamed the crane tumbling, the helicopter spiraling out of control, but he edited out all the terror and pain. There was Alice, underneath the wreckage, killed instantly or sometimes David was there, by her side, inserted just before the fatal moment. He held her hand, they exchanged last words, and he eased her into death.
"David," Alice said, "I love you."
"Alice," David said, "I love you too."
Her eyes glassed over. There could be no violence. But occasionally David became a Walter Mitty of murder. He dreamed his own agency. He did it. He shot Alice, he bludgeoned her, he suffocated her with a pillow. But these fantasies were truncated; they flashed in his mind, then he cut them off before the terminal moment because he never surprised her in time. He saw her recognize him as he came round the corner with knife, bat, or gun, felt her hand grip the arm that held the pillow over her face — and it was all too terrible to contemplate.
"Whale!" he screamed at her, because she was enormous. "Goddamn blue whale!" (She'd struggled mightily with depression but was now back on meds.)
When they argued, they were ferocious. They'd been married to each other for thirteen years and still went for jugulars and balls.
"Genius," she said. That drove him nuts. He was a lead designer and president of Spellbound, a small, extremely successful video game company. People in the industry called him a genius all the time, but during moments of doubt David confessed to her that the games they produced were inane at best, mind-killing — to his and to the kids who played them — at worst.
"I wish you were dead!" David screamed.
"I wish you were dead too!"
But this was a relief. The desire was mutual. He wasn't alone.
Excerpt courtesy of Alfred A. Knopf.
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