Adam Ross on Ladies and Gentlemen

Q:In 1995, your father told you a story about your cousin that inspired you to start writ­ing your first book, Mr. Peanut. Was there a par­tic­u­lar event or idea that inspired the sto­ries in Ladies and Gentlemen?
A:There wasn’t a sin­gle event that inspired me, though as I was writ­ing the col­lec­tion I was orbit­ing cer­tain themes—cruelty, the flight from self-awareness, role play­ing, and the rela­tion­ship between the sto­ry­teller and the lis­tener. How­ever, there absolutely were actual events, images, or anec­dotes that informed each story. “Futures,” for instance, was par­tially inspired by my brother’s girlfriend’s claim that she could read people’s auras, that she saw this nim­bus of color that she could inter­pret with tele­pathic accu­racy; she told me this with so much con­vic­tion and speci­ficity that it was hard not to believe her. “The Rest of It” arose from a macabre tale my close friend’s father told me about a grue­some expe­ri­ence he had answer­ing a dis­tress call while sail­ing in the Caribbean. “The Sui­cide Room” grew out of apoc­ryphal tales I’d heard at Vas­sar about cer­tain boarded up dorm rooms where stu­dents had sup­pos­edly taken their own lives. I could go on, but the seed is always some­thing very spe­cific and vivid that I’m not able to shake for one rea­son or another.
Q:The book’s epi­graph comes from George Eliot: “Cru­elty, like every other vice, requires no motive out­side of itself; it only requires oppor­tu­nity.” How does her obser­va­tion relate to the collection?
A:Nearly every char­ac­ter in Ladies and Gen­tle­men is pre­sented with the oppor­tu­nity to be cruel—to cause another per­son pain know­ingly, and even to enjoy that pain. Whether they seize that chance or not offers them the con­comi­tant oppor­tu­nity to gain con­trol of their lives, to know them­selves more fully, and hope­fully become bet­ter peo­ple because of it. The heroes in this col­lec­tion are the ones who either resist the temp­ta­tion to be cruel or rec­og­nize the chance to be good when it arises. They’re the char­ac­ters most in tune with them­selves, most “in the moment,” as the nar­ra­tor observes toward the end of “Mid­dle­man,” and their reward is a firmer sense of self. “For the first time in my life,” says the nar­ra­tor in ‘The Sui­cide Room,’ “I started to feel whole. Because from that night for­ward, as often as pos­si­ble, I began ask­ing myself: What are you doing? This isn’t to say I nec­es­sar­ily do the right thing. It just means that I can’t say I didn’t think about it.”
Q:How did you decide the order in which the sto­ries in Ladies and Gen­tle­men should appear? In what ways do the char­ac­ters in one story help us to under­stand or appre­ci­ate char­ac­ters in another?
A:I shuf­fled the order sev­eral times in the run-up to pub­li­ca­tion, to the exas­per­a­tion of my edi­tor, actu­ally. I think of col­lec­tions like albums, with the first story being like an over­ture. For me, “Futures” included all the themes I was think­ing about as I was writ­ing the col­lec­tion, but with a social/political dimen­sion that the other sto­ries explore in the pri­vate sphere. The book builds toward and ends with the title story, which has a cliff-hanging con­clu­sion. The pro­tag­o­nist is faced with a choice, and how she weighs her pos­si­ble deci­sions has less to do with what’s right. I think, than with our fraught rela­tion­ship to time in this hyper-frenetic age. In other words, the last story is like a mir­ror for the reader: What would you do if you were her? The answer should tell read­ers some­thing about themselves.
Q:There are so many inter­est­ing peo­ple in this book, rang­ing from a pro­fes­sor and a main­te­nance man, to adult broth­ers, to strangers who meet on a plane. Are there any char­ac­ters you are par­tic­u­larly fond of or had an espe­cially good (or dif­fi­cult) time writ­ing about?
A:I loved writ­ing about David Applelow, the job-seeker in “Futures,” because he so com­pletely embod­ies that dis­tinctly Amer­i­can belief that our future is bright, that it’s some­how insured or guar­an­teed, that bet­ter things are com­ing our way at a time when it’s nearly a sin, to para­phrase Saul Bel­low, to still believe so inno­cently that this is true. Sara, the jour­nal­ist in the title story, is bril­liant at get­ting peo­ple to divulge infor­ma­tion. I also loved the narrator’s voice in “Mid­dle­man,” whose dic­tion is half Jew­ish mod­ernist, half voice-over pitch­man, and had a gas with his love inter­est, Elsa, who drops SAT-words every chance she gets. Caleb, the nar­ra­tor of “When in Rome,” occa­sion­ally gives away his own self-interest, and work­ing with these lev­els of dra­matic irony are always the best part of writ­ing in the first per­son. Donato, the main­te­nance man in “The Rest of It,” is a great sto­ry­teller, as are Nicholas and Will, char­ac­ters who wres­tle for con­trol of the nar­ra­tives in “In the Base­ment” and “The Sui­cide Room,” respec­tively, and when writ­ing from their points of view I felt like I could range almost any­where. The truth is, I grew fond of them all once I fig­ured out how they talk, who they really are, and how to write about them. How­ever, the process of arriv­ing there can be miserable.
Q:Even with all of their flaws, do you feel a cer­tain sym­pa­thy for the antag­o­nis­tic char­ac­ters like Zach from “Futures,” Nicholas from “In the Base­ment,” or Kevin from “When in Rome”?
A:To me, it’s not a ques­tion of sym­pa­thy but round­ed­ness. I’m try­ing to ren­der these char­ac­ters fully, how­ever unpalat­able their behav­ior might be at times. It’s been my expe­ri­ence that we rarely find peo­ple entirely unpleas­ant or antag­o­nis­tic, because we rec­og­nize aspects of our­selves in them. What’s inter­est­ing about the char­ac­ters you men­tioned is that each one has been wit­ness to, or is given the oppor­tu­nity to par­tic­i­pate in, betrayal. Nicholas’s past trans­gres­sions inform the story he’s telling his guests and make him vul­ner­a­ble to the narrator’s cru­elty at the end, and this is where the theme of sto­ry­telling comes in, because we some­times use sto­ries other peo­ple tell against them, pick­ing apart their sen­si­bil­i­ties or assump­tions to our own ben­e­fit. Kevin might not be a good guy, but he’s also very aware of the fact that his brother, Caleb, is no angel either—something the lat­ter has a nasty habit of for­get­ting. David Applelow, the pro­tag­o­nist in “Futures,” is try­ing to help Zach get his life on track by telling him about his own fail­ures, but strug­gles through­out to wash his hands of the boy, and part of the story’s sus­pense is built around this tension.
Q:Two of the main themes in Ladies and Gen­tle­men are trust and betrayal and the com­plex ways that they affect rela­tion­ships. Why is it that we always give peo­ple close to us “one more chance,” like Caleb does in “When in Rome”?
A:Maybe because we know we’re all sin­ners and hope some­body will give us one more chance when that truth is revealed. I’ll put it in another way: there’s a big dif­fer­ence between some­one think­ing, “I’m going to give that per­son another chance,” and say­ing, “I’m going to give you [or some­one else] another chance.” In the lat­ter case, things start to get slip­pery and inter­est­ing because the teller is either hyper-aware of his or her audi­ence or unwit­tingly reveal­ing some­thing. I try to explore that dif­fer­ence in all the stories.
Q:Jacob, the main char­ac­ter in “Mid­dle­man,” seems to have a few things in com­mon with you: you were both child actors who grew up on the Upper West Side and went to the Trin­ity School. How else are you and Jacob similar?
A:There are prob­a­bly more dis­sim­i­lar­i­ties. He’s much nicer than I am, first of all. Also, both of my best friends had beau­ti­ful older sis­ters, not just one, so my ado­les­cence was spent mov­ing through doomed love. I didn’t give a thought to my own reli­gious her­itage (or lack thereof) when I was that age, whereas Jacob is fix­ated on it. There were, how­ever, many kids at the Trin­ity School who were every bit as pre­co­cious as the char­ac­ter Abe. To this day, I remem­ber a story that J.M. Maas, son of Serpico-author Peter Maas, read aloud in seventh-grade Eng­lish, about a dying astro­naut adrift in his cap­sule, the ship run­ning out of oxy­gen, and it was utterly riv­et­ing. There was a poem that future screen­writer Zak Penn wrote called “Thought Takes a Walk” about a trip the Id, Ego, and Super-Ego take one day that ended with the mem­o­rable line: “Ego was always get­ting in the way.” Another class­mate had re-read Thomas Mann’s The Magic Moun­tain mul­ti­ple times by the age of ten. As a fresh­man, Pat McEn­roe had a back­hand that was the envy of any tour­ing pro. New York City can be as provin­cial as any hick town, but its pri­vate schools are cer­tainly hotbeds of ado­les­cent sophis­ti­ca­tion and over­size tal­ent, for bet­ter and for worse. Grow­ing up with a father who was an actor, and act­ing myself, I did have some really inter­est­ing expe­ri­ences, and it was fun to write about doing “The Eter­nal Light” radio pro­gram, for instance, because it’s a van­ished world that I was lucky enough to get to par­tic­i­pate in.
Q:What’s next for you?
A:I have two novel ideas that are locked in mor­tal com­bat. One will emerge victorious.