A Con­ver­sa­tion with Adam Ross

Q: Was there a par­tic­u­lar event or idea that first gave rise to Mr. Peanut?
A: Absolutely. In 1995, my father told me the strangest, most sus­pi­cious story about my cousin, who had severe peanut aller­gies and was also mor­bidly obese. Accord­ing to her hus­band, he arrived home to find her sit­ting at the kitchen table with a plate of peanuts in front of her, and upon see­ing him she stuffed a hand­ful into her mouth and then went into ana­phy­lac­tic shock. Her last words to him were, “Call 911.” Need­less to say, I was stunned and wildly curi­ous as to what could have hap­pened to pro­duce such a sce­nario. Almost imme­di­ately after­ward I wrote, in a sin­gle sit­ting, three chap­ters that closely resem­ble those that now open Mr. Peanut. But then things ground to a halt. I’d writ­ten myself into an explo­ration of mar­riage I didn’t under­stand just yet. I had enough wits about me to file those pages away and let them ges­tate. And there was one other really impor­tant ele­ment in the novel’s gen­e­sis. My wife, Beth, and I met when she was 19 and I was 24, and got engaged nine months later. We then spent fif­teen years together before hav­ing chil­dren. Now, that was great in many ways, because we grew up together with­out the addi­tional pres­sures that come with hav­ing kids. It was eas­ier for me to be a strug­gling writer, to work in fields that were related to my train­ing in cre­ative writ­ing pro­grams, like jour­nal­ism, teach­ing, and espe­cially bar­tend­ing. We were able to sur­vive her years in law school and then as a bud­ding attor­ney. There was a period there—it was like being trapped in Escher’s Ants on a Mobius Strip—when she and I were chug­ging along in our careers, doing the same thing day in and day out for, well, years. It was an odd stage of mar­i­tal pur­ga­tory that I wanted to write about, when there’s love but also the absence of any­thing new. To be really hon­est, I was think­ing about what mar­riage would con­tinue to be like with­out children.
Q: Mr. Peanut revolves around David Pepin, a man who might or might not have killed his wife. Her death is being inves­ti­gated by two detec­tives, both of whose mar­riages we come to see inti­mately through­out the novel. Did you know all along that you would depict three dif­fer­ent mar­riages and the ways in which they relate?
A: I like to say that Mr. Peanut is the story of three mar­riages that tell the story of one mar­riage – that is, the detec­tives’ mar­riages, Sam Sheppard’s and Ward Hastroll’s, telling the story of David and Alice’s and vice versa. Either way, like the Escher draw­ings that inspire the video games David designs for a liv­ing, they’re sup­posed to inter­lock to form another pat­tern, to be dynamic in their inter­ac­tion. As the novel pro­gresses, the reader should feel a more intense oscil­la­tion between the parts and the whole. Ini­tially, how­ever, I thought of the detec­tives merely as engines of the plot, present, as in a stan­dard police pro­ce­dural, to obtain and ana­lyze evi­dence and to keep the action mov­ing. So there was a great deal of trial and error, of leads chased down to nowhere over some thir­teen years of work that grew less and less spo­radic. And like the main char­ac­ter, Alice, the book grew and grew. Joseph Con­rad talks about the prob­lem of the swelling mid­dle of any mod­ern novel, some­thing I soon expe­ri­enced and then an aes­thetic obser­va­tion I tried to incor­po­rate into Mr. Peanut with respect to David and Alice’s mar­riage. So as I made my crooked way, char­ac­ters I thought would be ancil­lary increased in impor­tance, took on weight, demanded more space. At a point I can’t recall, prob­a­bly because I was a full-time jour­nal­ist and then a teacher and could work on the novel only in the early morn­ings or dur­ing the sum­mers, I stopped think­ing of the detec­tives as detec­tives and began instead to develop them into char­ac­ters who embod­ied both guilt and inno­cence with respect to their own marriages—and who in turn shed light on David and Alice’s. My hope is that read­ers expe­ri­ence a series of recog­ni­tions. That they read about each mar­riage and say, “Yes, I’ve been there.”
Q: Read­ers are going to be sur­prised, I think, to rec­og­nize the infa­mous Dr. Sam Shep­pard. What is going on here? Did you know from the start that Mr. Peanut would incor­po­rate aspects of the Sam Shep­pard mur­der case and also draw on themes from Alfred Hitchcock’s films?
A: Yes and no. I was obsessed with Hitch­cock when I started the novel, but at the out­set Dr. Sam Shep­pard wasn’t in the mix; it was Has­troll and another detec­tive who were inter­ro­gat­ing David. What I wanted to do ini­tially was incor­po­rate them as detec­tives who were prej­u­di­cial: Has­troll a char­ac­ter who sees every­one around him as guilty, the other one who sees every sus­pect as inno­cent. And I had a han­dle on Hastroll’s con­flict with his wife, Han­nah, because it’s tight and comic—can a cou­ple sur­vive when one mem­ber decides to go to bed indefinitely?—and also a great way to explore the absur­dity of mar­riage at times, the peri­ods of rut and impasse. And there’d be a recog­ni­tion there by the reader, because the closer you get to any mar­riage, the more you lose your equi­lib­rium with respect to nor­malcy and right and wrong. Most fun­da­men­tally, I wanted to explore the idea of whether mar­ried peo­ple are capa­ble of change, a theme that runs through the entire novel. I began to feel I needed a gray-area fig­ure, one who pow­er­fully embod­ied not only guilt and inno­cence but also marriage’s mys­te­ri­ous­ness, its impen­e­tra­bil­ity from the out­side. And then one after­noon my dad and I were watch­ing The Fugi­tive on tele­vi­sion, the remake with Har­ri­son Ford. My dad’s an actor and he starts talk­ing about the orig­i­nal series, how great David Janssen was as Dr. Richard Kim­ball, that it was based on a real case. So I started pok­ing around on the Inter­net and almost imme­di­ately real­ized I’d hit the mother lode, because with the Shep­pard case you have a mur­der mys­tery and a mar­riage that you can research till king­dom come but are still forced, in spite of all the evi­dence, to spec­u­late about Sheppard’s guilt or inno­cence, to make an imag­i­na­tive leap, as Detec­tive Has­troll says, into a moment of “ter­ri­ble privacy”—which is what we do all the time and quite cav­a­lierly about other people’s mar­riages, whether through the tabloids (Tiger Woods as a recent exam­ple) or on the drive home from a din­ner party.
Q: What were the chal­lenges of incor­po­rat­ing a real-life mur­der case into your novel?
A: They were legion, but the two great­est ones were first to make Shep­pard sym­pa­thetic, because the fact is that he was a bas­tard to his wife, a fla­grant wom­an­izer, so I had to get really close to him, really deep into his head, to make him seem like some­thing more than a destruc­tive ego­ist. Next was mak­ing the plot jibe with the evi­dence, with the tes­ti­monies and their incon­sis­ten­cies and the clues that, cob­bled together, paint a pic­ture of what hap­pened (or didn’t) on the night of Marilyn’s mur­der – but with­out bog­ging down the nar­ra­tive or over­whelm­ing the reader with infor­ma­tion. These were basic chal­lenges of sto­ry­telling, sure, but I also wanted to advance a new the­ory about the crime, to deflect sus­pi­cion from the usual sus­pects, while hon­or­ing the facts of the case as much as pos­si­ble. I also wanted to make Shep­pard an unre­li­able, albeit utterly con­vinc­ing, nar­ra­tor. And he does screw up in his telling, mak­ing one glar­ing and incrim­i­nat­ing mis­take, and I hope read­ers become inter­ested enough in the case to sniff it out.
Q: You must have done exten­sive research about the Sam Shep­pard case. Where did you begin and how did you go about your research? Is part of what’s still so tan­ta­liz­ing about his case the fact that we likely will never really know what hap­pened? Do you think he killed Mar­i­lyn Sheppard?
A: I started on the Inter­net, then read through all the books I could get my hands on, and there are plenty of them, some com­pletely fas­ci­nat­ing. Here you have a guy who was tried three times for his wife’s mur­der: found guilty in 1954; not guilty when he was re-tried in 1966; essen­tially retried yet again dur­ing his son’s civil suit against the State of Ohio in 2001, years after his death, and was found guilty again. Per­haps the most inter­est­ing book is James Neff’s The Wrong Man, which cov­ers every­thing from media his­tory to the impact of mod­ern foren­sic sci­ence on the case. There’s also Jack P. DeSario and William Mason’s Dr. Sam Shep­pard on Trial, the lat­ter being the lead pros­e­cu­tor of the civil trial. There’s Sam Reese Shep­pard and Cyn­thia Cooper’s Mock­ery of Jus­tice which focuses on house­keeper Dick Eberling’s role in the story. The reporter Paul Holmes’ The Shep­pard Mur­der Case, pub­lished in 1961, suf­fers from the hang­over of McCarthy­ism and is shot through with the sense that an inno­cent man had been rail­roaded. And there’s also Dr. Sam Sheppard’s auto­bi­og­ra­phy Endure and Con­quer, which is a pretty bad book, admit­tedly, but by then I’d become a full-on Shep­pard geek. Those sources, read together, made a true agnos­tic out of me. I don’t see how we’ll ever know what really hap­pened to Mar­i­lyn and I myself go back and forth, though my wife thinks Shep­pard did it. Then again, her hus­band spent years writ­ing a book about a guy who might have killed his wife. I do hope Mr. Peanut encour­ages peo­ple to read about the case, though, because it’s a cau­tion­ary tale. We’re a cul­ture enam­ored of superla­tives and catch­phrases like “Trial of the Cen­tury,” and the Shep­pard trial was not only that but also pre­fig­ured O.J. Simpson’s in so many ways, par­tic­u­larly because it occurred dur­ing the nexus of new and old media—the twice-daily news­pa­pers func­tion­ing as pop­ulist rags, as quasi-tabloids inter­sect­ing with the advent of tele­vi­sion, just as tabloid TV cul­ture and the advent of the Inter­net did with Simp­son. The Shep­pard drama played out in people’s liv­ing rooms and also inter­na­tion­ally, given the com­bi­na­tion of a beau­ti­ful wife and a mis­tress to match, not to men­tion lots of sex and bloody death. Yet iron­i­cally, and Escher-like, it was the inverse of the Simp­son case, because dur­ing Sheppard’s first trial very lit­tle, if any, decent evi­dence was pre­sented by the pros­e­cu­tion, though he was con­victed nonethe­less. Whereas with O.J. you had a moun­tain of incon­tro­vert­ible foren­sic evi­dence and a guy who got off scot free.
Q: There’s a strong Hitch­cock­ian ele­ment in the novel. How did your inter­est in Hitch­cock films begin? Did you, like David and Alice, take a film class in college?
A: I did, at Hollins Uni­ver­sity, a class taught by Richard Dil­lard, as first-rate a guide to Hitchcock’s work as you could ever want. While there is pre­cious lit­tle in this book that’s auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal, it’s a fact that my wife and I met in that class, just as David and Alice do. Still, the first film we watched together as a cou­ple was Mis­ery. But that was way back in 1991, and we’ve been hap­pily mar­ried ever since. My inter­est in Hitch­cock started there and endured. I’m a Shep­pard geek but a Hitch­cock nut, and another auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal detail in the book is that up until I walked into that class­room I hadn’t seen a sin­gle Hitch­cock film. Before long, though, their effect was so pow­er­ful and rev­e­la­tory and just flat-out fun that I was hooked. In some ways Mr. Peanut is both a paean to Hitch­cock and to that course and its impact on my think­ing about everything.
Q: What are the Hitch­cock movies that most inform Mr. Peanut, and do you see your novel as owing any of its struc­ture to Hitchcock’s films?
A: Mr. Peanut alludes to scores of Hitch­cock films through­out in ways I hope read­ers find enjoy­able. Of all Hitch’s themes, how­ever, the book prob­a­bly deals most directly with the strug­gles of “fallen people”—think of Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman in Notorious—to over­come their fears about love in order to trust each other again, to move beyond this impasse. It also deals with my own under­stand­ing of Hitchcock’s inter­est in the pit­falls of idle­ness and our ten­dency in this state to project our com­pul­sions on oth­ers in order to affect change in our­selves. If I were to list pri­mary sources, though, I’d point out Rear Win­dow, but then there’s Strangers on a Train, Shadow of a Doubt (a per­sonal favorite) along with Ver­tigo, Marnie, Psy­cho, The Man Who Knew Too Much, The Birds (which becomes more and more aston­ish­ing each time I see it) and also Frenzy. I really could go on, but it’s how these movies are used the­mat­i­cally and allu­sively that I hope read­ers versed in his work will find inter­est­ing. At the same time, these are sec­ondary and ter­tiary lev­els of read­ing plea­sure. The more you know about Hitch­cock, the more you’ll find in the book. And if you know lit­tle to noth­ing about his movies, it doesn’t affect the story at all. As for Hitchcock’s influ­ence on the book’s struc­ture, well, there’s cer­tainly a MacGuf­fin: did David kill his wife or not? And as the film pro­fes­sor in Mr. Peanut explains, Hitch­cock liked to tell a com­pletely illog­i­cal story with inescapable logic, which I adopted as the book’s ethos. There’s also the funhouse-mirror way it plays with the favorite Hitch­cock plot of “an inno­cent man wrongly accused.” And like the final scenes in Ver­tigo or Sabo­teur or North by North­west, there’s a big chase through a famous place at the end. But struc­turally the book owes far more to the work of M.C. Escher than any­one else, because it works like one of his tes­sel­lated etch­ings, the three mar­riages inter­lock­ing and form­ing other pat­terns, pri­mar­ily a Mobius strip.
Q: While the inves­ti­ga­tion into Alice Pepin’s death fuels the action in the novel, each of the mar­riages you depict is a mys­tery in its own right and builds toward a poten­tial crime. What is it about the link between mar­riage and vio­lence that so intrigues you? Per­haps, as your char­ac­ter Mobius says, “it’s sim­ply the dual nature of mar­riage, the prox­im­ity of vio­lence and love”?
A: Just as Escher’s etch­ings con­tain forms inter­locked with oth­ers, so too is every marriage’s suc­cess inter­locked with its poten­tial destruc­tion. Time and cir­cum­stance and every other unfore­see­able thing can send the hap­pi­est cou­ples spi­ral­ing into mis­ery and, espe­cially in the novel, poten­tial vio­lence. All three mar­riages in this novel suf­fer from the instan­ta­neous loss of per­spec­tive you can expe­ri­ence by star­ing at an Escher draw­ing: they flip from moments of bliss and vital inti­macy to con­flict and betrayal. And as in Escher’s Encounter, each char­ac­ter has a dark dou­ble he or she is inter­locked with or split off from. But for a sec­ond, let’s not be high­brow about it: live with some­one for ten, twenty, thirty years and it can some­times feel like jail, what with the same habits and fights over and over again, the den­tal floss still float­ing unflushed in the toi­let, the sil­ver­ware all mixed up in the drawer—until you almost want to kill the per­son you’re shar­ing your life with, which would para­dox­i­cally break your heart. But maybe that’s just me.
Q: Tell us a lit­tle about the char­ac­ter Mobius and his role in the novel.
A: Well, small­ness is, to me, one of life’s great evils, and Mr. Mobius, the novel’s PI or gun-for-hire, lit­er­ally and fig­u­ra­tively embod­ies the dan­gers of both mean-spiritedness and cyn­i­cism in mar­riage. He’s also the cham­pion of self­ish­ness in the book, of affirm­ing only your ver­sion of things. As he says to David when they meet, “Tell me your side of the story.” This plays on the fact that a one-sided Mobius strip gives the appear­ance of two-sidedness—the ideal sym­bol of mar­riage in all of its absur­dity, resilience, recy­cling, and capac­ity for dis­ori­en­ta­tion and illu­sion. Mobius is also a small per­son, not a dwarf or midget but very short, and I’ll con­fess that in my life­time of film-watching and read­ing, it is often the lit­tle crea­tures and char­ac­ters who ter­rify me: that African doll, for instance, in Tril­ogy of Ter­ror, the goblin/dwarf in Don’t Look Now, or the hit-man John Cusack kills at his high school reunion in Grosse Pointe Blank. Peter Lorre almost always, but espe­cially in Fritz Lang’s M. There are John Tenniel’s draw­ings of strange lit­tle peo­ple in Alice in Won­der­land. And let’s not for­get Rumpel­stilt­skin.
Q: David Pepin’s day job is design­ing Escher-like video games, he is also secretly hard at work on a novel of his that reflects, in curi­ous ways, the action of your novel. Cer­tainly Mr. Peanut is chock full of sto­ries within sto­ries, of puz­zles that give way to fur­ther puz­zles. Did you set out to con­struct a novel that is in many ways like an Escher draw­ing? Or might we say like a Mobius strip…
A: Not ini­tially, no. The Escher theme emerged as I began to develop David’s char­ac­ter, but then I real­ized I was onto some­thing with the inter­locked nar­ra­tives and the dis­ori­en­ta­tion and move­ment they can cre­ate, so I began to incor­po­rate Escher’s work explic­itly and struc­turally. That
it worked out the way I’d hoped it would— the nar­ra­tive loop­ing and reloop­ing with­out an entry or exit point, like cer­tain Escher draw­ings or Mobius strips—is some­thing I’m very proud of. But let me tell you, things got obses­sive there for a while and I had charts and out­lines and note­books in my office and by my bed as I puz­zled things out that cost me a lot of sleep over the years of writing.
Q: You are very adept at cap­tur­ing the daily rit­u­als, the often painful same­ness and repet­i­tive motions every cou­ple expe­ri­ences in a mar­riage. And at one point you write: “Mur­der, Shep­pard reflected fur­ther, is an inter­rup­tion of habit, or its cul­mi­na­tion.” What does he/ you mean by that?
A: I don’t want to explain that quote too much, thanks, but in holy mat­ri­mony we like to remind our part­ners of the lit­tle things they do over and over again, as much as the larger, utterly intol­er­a­ble prob­lems we have as mis­er­able human beings. These habits can lead to mur­der, or mur­der can inter­rupt them. Think about it. We’re going about our day nor­mally. Cof­fee, news­pa­per, work, lunch, fol­lowed by “Honey, I’m home,” or, “Sweet­heart, I’m leav­ing you for the mail­man.” And then, bang, you’re dead.
Q: You write: “We tell sto­ries of other people’s mar­riages, Detec­tive Has­troll thought. We are experts in their para­bles and parabo­las. But can we tell the story of our own? If we could, there might be no mur­ders.” How so?
A: When Shep­pard is telling Mobius the story of his wife’s mur­der, he says he doesn’t believe in an ani­mat­ing spirit of evil like the Devil, but instead in con­scious­ness. I believe that too. If we are more con­scious of our own ten­den­cies, we become more tol­er­ant of and more sym­pa­thetic toward our part­ners. That’s the chal­lenge; easy in the­ory but hard in prac­tice, it’s the clos­est thing there is in life to change. It’s also ten times eas­ier to study and pass judg­ment on other cou­ples than it is to ana­lyze and deal with our­selves, because we have pre­cious lit­tle infor­ma­tion in that regard, or only our own biased, sub­jec­tive, cor­rupted infor­ma­tion and evi­dence. That’s why Has­troll loves the one-way glass of the inter­ro­ga­tion room: it promises to grant you secret knowl­edge of a per­son, and also the pos­si­bil­ity that you could have it of your­self. This is why it’s shock­ing, delight­ful, and unnerv­ing to see a pic­ture of your­self in the back­ground of a crowd —you can’t even rec­og­nize your­self at first—or to have those rare dreams where you see your­self as if you’re some­one else. As Has­troll says, you real­ize that there’s “the you” in your mind and “the you” in the world, and they’re not nec­es­sar­ily the same.
Q: One of your char­ac­ters asks, “Can mar­riage save your life, or is it just the begin­ning of a long dou­ble homi­cide?” So what do you think?
A: I’m going to hedge my bets and say that it depends on the day. Today’s good. Mar­riage can save your life today.
Q: When asked what the human heart feels like, Sam Shep­pard says “Like a ten­nis ball … it’s harder than you think. It springs back to shape now mat­ter how hard you squeeze it.” In a way this novel, though filled with decep­tion, betray­als and thoughts of mur­der, is also about the resilience of love. Was it dif­fi­cult to cap­ture all of these ele­ments? To por­tray this deep love along­side such ugly thoughts?
A: Did I cap­ture them? That’s good, because it’s what I’ve experienced—the prox­im­ity of these emo­tions. Not the desire to kill my wife but the fact I’ve some­times thought, “Hmm, if her plane to San Fran­cisco went down today, would I call Pene­lope Cruz imme­di­ately or wait a year?” fol­lowed by the hor­rific recoil of this Wal­ter Mitty moment and the heart­break it would bring to my life. I think lots of mar­ried cou­ples have these fan­tasies. A close friend of ours jokes she wishes her hus­band would die for two weeks so she could get her house really clean and then he could come back to life. It’s also what makes the Shep­pard case such a cau­tion­ary tale, because he got what he acted like he wanted. But yes, it was hard to cap­ture these ele­ments, because the reader has to rec­og­nize the con­flict in each mar­riage, in what­ever stage each is in, and some of the more repug­nant things the char­ac­ters express have to be made palat­able along the lines of both com­edy and tragedy, which is why it took so long to write.
Q: We have to ask—as this is a novel in which all the char­ac­ters con­tem­plate killing their wives, and some maybe do—what does your wife think of the book?
A: Some­times she wants to kill me too. Hon­estly, she was really moved by it and hung tough wait­ing for me to fin­ish it. In a lot of ways it’s the Escher-obverse of our own mar­riage. I men­tioned how long we’ve been together, but I’ll give you a more per­sonal exam­ple. Dur­ing our eleventh year of mar­riage, we did go to Hawaii like David and Alice do in the book. But we had a glo­ri­ous two weeks on Kauai and Oahu and it was there that we found out we were going to have our first child and this marked a won­der­ful new chap­ter in our mar­riage, whereas David and Alice’s trip is hor­rif­i­cally tragic and marks the begin­ning of the end of theirs.
Q: What are some of the books that have most influ­enced you as a writer and what is next for you?
A: The book I returned to over and over as I was writ­ing Mr. Peanut was Milan Kundera’s The Unbear­able Light­ness of Being, an all-time favorite, not only because of its for­mal ele­gance and suc­cess at inter­weav­ing nar­ra­tives but also the way in which Kun­dera­sub­tracts weight from char­ac­ters, makes them rec­og­niz­able with­out being bogged down by the demands of social realism—not much dif­fer­ently, really, from Hitch­cock. And he writes about inti­macy as beau­ti­fully and wryly as he does about philo­soph­i­cal con­cepts. Calvino’s work, in par­tic­u­lar Invis­i­ble Cities and The Cas­tle of Crossed Des­tinies, for their insis­tence that form deter­mines con­tent and vice versa, along with Nabokov’s Lolita and his use of inter­tex­tu­al­ity and, as in Sheppard’s case, nar­ra­tive unre­li­a­bil­ity. Broadly speak­ing, I’m an omniv­o­rous reader, a huge fan of Roth and Bel­low, DeLillo and Babel, Con­rad and Murakami, but I reg­u­larly return to John Hawkes’s The Lime Twig, another all-time favorite, and Cor­mac McCarthy’s Sut­tree, and Homer’s Odyssey. Right now I’m going through a heavy Alice Munro phase. Her work sim­ply amazes me. Next up I have two com­pletely dif­fer­ent novel ideas tug­ging at me—one real­is­tic, the other fabular—and each will require a good bit of research, so in the mean­time I might add a few sto­ries to my short story col­lec­tion, Ladies & Gen­tle­man. Career-wise, it’s nice to have two bul­lets in the cham­ber. If I just sat around the house after fin­ish­ing Mr. Peanut, I think my wife would kill me.