Hoping everyone reading this in Nashville can make it to my reading at Davis Kidd, Tuesday night at 7 p.m.
There’s a terrific article about Mr. Peanut in this week’s Nashville Scene written by Jim Ridley, the paper’s editor-in-chief and nothing short of a local treasure. Jim, who over the years has been one of the most admired and influential writers in our fair city (his cover story, “Fade to Black,” single-handedly launched the effort to save our local indie film theater, The Belcourt, over a decade ago) is also a film critic without compare, and his elucidation of Mr. Peanut’s Hitchcockian themes are fantastic. You can read those here.
As well, there’s a brilliant article about the novel in the British magazine Aesthetica this month. It isn’t available online, though it is by subscription (it’s a beautiful publication), and I did a Q & A with the writer, Rachel Hazelwood, in the run-up to the piece. I’ve included it here because the questions were fantastic and many of the answers weren’t included in the piece. It follows below.
I’m just back from Chicago where I had the pleasure of meeting several of the city’s independent booksellers. I trekked out to Oak Park for lunch with Rachel and Jason Weaver, owners of the great store The Book Table. We talked about everything from Mr. Peanut to local and national politics. As much of treat as meeting them was, their store is perfect, one of those places book lovers worship, because you walk in and feel the same calm come over you as you might in a temple or a church, not to mention the fact that the store’s layout nurtures the most pleasurable thing about book buying: serendipity.
Later that night, I had dinner with a fantastic group of independent booksellers: Sue Boucher, from Lake Forest; Jeff Waxman and Alex Huston from Seminary CoOp; Javier Ramirez, from 57th Street; Syzy Takacs and Sarah Eagle from The Bookcellar; Andy Gleeson from Barbara’s; as well as John Hastie and Bridget Piekarz from Random House. Dinner was hosted by Laura Barratto from Random House, who, I learned, studied Hitchcock at Iowa with the great feminist critic, Tania Modleski, whose book I happened to bring with me on the trip. After a raucous dinner at Kiki’s Bistro (highly recommended) several of us went to a local dive to catch the end of the Lakers/Celtics game. Admittedly, I was pulling for the Celtics. (I love Kevin Garnett.)
The flight home was a nightmare. As my wife and I like to say, the Chaos Monkey was upon me. I left the hotel at 9:15 a.m., got on an airplane whose air-conditioning system wasn’t working. After taxiing to the runway, we returned to the terminal to have maintenance work on the plane, but to no avail. The flight was cancelled. Got re-routed through Dallas-Fort Worth at 2:45, but just before boarding, that flight was cancelled as well. Called my wife, an expert traveler, who advised I flee O’Hare for Midway. After an hour in traffic, caught a delayed flight to Nashville and was home by 10 p.m. God bless her, because if I’d taken the flight out of O’Hare, I wouldn’t have been home till past one a.m.
1. I’m intrigued by the ideas behind your story, how much of the novel was pre-planned and how much of the narrative developed as you wrote?
In the novel, Detective Sam Sheppard says, “Marriage is a long wait.” Well, writing Mr. Peanut was a long wait too, and it was brutally organic. The novel’s genesis came when my father told me a suspicious story about my cousin, who was morbidly obese, suffered from severe depression and nut allergies, and committed suicide, according to her husband—the only witness conveniently—by ingesting a handful of peanuts at their kitchen table on the heels of an argument. The story left me thunderstruck—I was sure he’d killed her—and, in a single sitting, I wrote three chapters that closely resemble what’s in the book now. But then I pulled up, because I’d written my way into something I didn’t understand yet. That was back in 1995.
To best answer your question though, let’s take this terribly tragic and ambiguous event and extrapolate from it the ideas of guilt and innocence as well as love and hatred in marriage. During that first frenzied drafting, I’d injected two detectives into the narrative, one of whom assumes all suspects to be guilty first, the other the opposite. It was too didactic, obviously, but it was a jumping-off point, along with the first two lines: “When David Pepin first dreamed of killing his wife, he didn’t kill her himself. He dreamed convenient acts of God.” My intent was to invert Thurber’s Walter Mitty story: take a man who wants to escape his marriage and rather than have him dream of heroism, I’d make his dreams more villainous, nightmarish, and morbid.
At the outset, I was simply dealing with characters and a situation: a woman, dead on her kitchen floor, whose husband claimed she committed suicide. It was only years into drafting that I became conscious of what was in the text thematically. For me, the process of writing is one of discovering what it is I’ve just put down on paper. It’s not efficient, but I hope that gives the narrative more drive.
2. How much did your experiences as a journalist inform your approach to the book? Was it an advantage when it came to tackling the research, for instance the story of Sam Sheppard?
Not as much as you might think since most of the material on the Dr. Sheppard murder case is nicely compiled in several very good books, though I did need to learn about the state of medicine in the Fifties, particularly vascular surgery. To be sure, my comfort with the process of interviewing sources made the time I spent with several doctors I consulted much more efficient while I was researching everything from the effect of endometriosis and thrombophilia on pregnancies, to complications related to bariatric surgery and the side effects of certain combinations of antidepressants.
Actually, having been a journalist came in most handy during the editing process because I’d had the experience many times of writing, say, a four– to six-thousand word story that my editor would return to me with changes that I’d need to make quickly, and that taught me by necessity not to hold too tightly to my own material. Of course it also helped that my editor at Knopf, Gary Fisketjon, and I were good friends before we worked together. I’d already learned to trust that the changes he proposed to something I’d worked on for so long and was so personal to me would only distil and sharpen the narrative. I really enjoyed that stage, and, as Gary likes to say, “It’s the best conversation there is.” I’d advise first-time writers going through it to keep their eyes wide open and check their egos at the door, not to mention the fact that it just speeds the plough. I’d read somewhere about David Foster Wallace’s multi-page exchanges with his editor regarding changes to Infinite Jest and I’m here to tell you, I couldn’t wage such a lengthy campaign over phrases, clauses, or the placement, here and there, of a comma. I concede from the get-go that I’m blind to my own excesses on the page and appreciate all the help, thanks.
3. With regards to the inclusion of Sam Sheppard, what motivated you to include his (and Marilyn’s) story within your novel?
So many things. As I said earlier, in my initial drafting the two detectives I’d started with were so obviously allegorical that I decided I needed a gray-area figure who embodied the whole continuum of guilt and innocence within marriage. I didn’t stumble onto Sheppard until I was watching the remake of The Fugitive, the movie with Harrison Ford, several years after I’d started. My dad’s an actor and he began talking about the original series, how great David Janssen was as Dr. Richard Kimball, and that it was based on an actual case. So I started poking around on the Internet and almost immediately realized I’d hit the mother lode. With the Sheppard story 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”—something we do all the time and quite cavalierly about other people’s marriages.
Then there’s the murder itself, the enduring mystery surrounding it, and the really terrifying fact—if you’re willing to concede that Sheppard is possibly innocent—that you can be going about your business quite pleasantly and then suddenly your life gets sucked down a wormhole. In one night, Sheppard’s wife was brutally murdered, his unborn child killed, his well-being stripped from him, not to mention his career as a doctor. He lost the company of his son for a decade as well as his freedom. At the same time, you learn about Sheppard’s marriage, his philandering, his atrociously destructive, humiliating behaviour toward his wife. You have to ask some fundamental questions about men and their capacity for literal and emotional fidelity. Add to that the dawning of the sexual and feminist revolution in the Fifties, with women not only experiencing the limits of homemaking but also enjoying their first major influx into the workforce, women grasping at financial and sexual independence but still understanding themselves largely in terms of the male gaze. It’s all simply fascinating.
At bottom, what you have with the Sheppard murder case is the thing that cuts to the centre of any discussion about marriage: its impenetrability from the outside looking in. Only the two people in a marriage can understand what keeps them together. As Sheppard says on the night his wife is murdered, “They had both held on, at times by means unbeknownst to the other that might not look to an outsider like holding on at all.” And Marilyn, in turn: “Everyone should be lucky enough to be loved for a long time. To know what that was like—to be loved and to change, to be privileged to suffer it, to remain.” Love’s endurance in marriage is, to me, a great mystery, case to case and couple to couple, and it makes, I think, for high drama. The Sheppard story seems to capture it all.
4. As well as the central theme of marriage, you deal with issues of obesity; depression; escapism; our own and other people’s expectations of ourselves; the question of otherness and knowing other people (especially within a marriage); desire (sexual and gluttony)…my list goes on! Did you set out to examine these issues or did they evolve as you wrote the story?
If readers feel like they’re figuring things out as they go along, well, I was too, but let’s take your list. You mention obesity, i.e., weight, and I became more conscious of the play on that word, weight and wait, and how, oftentimes, it seems that the more common approach to problems in relationships is to try and wait them out as opposed to taking action. Alice’s recurring issues with her weight point to the struggles we all deal with when we try to affect change in our own lives. Depression, to take the next item on your list, is obviously a form of psychological heaviness, but talk to people who suffer it, or those who are in relationships with people who struggle with it, and they’ll tell you it’s a voracious illness, mocking the meat it feeds on, gorging itself on happiness and joy, on life itself, not to mention its spiralling nature on the beloved and its whirlpool-effect on those close by—and so I incorporated that with respect to the work of Escher and David’s video games that are based on it, because Escher’s prints, like love, are disorienting—up is down and vice versa—feel inescapable, and his interlocked drawings and otherworldly environments are as strange as they are airless, like marriage at times.
5. I mention above the theme of escapism – this felt like a central part of your narrative, how we all, in different ways and to different degrees, try to create a life we would like to be living. For instance the absorption in a game where an avatar can be all that we are not, or by indulging in our fantasies. Can you tell me more about this?
That’s a terrific observation because to me, reading a novel—the aesthetic submersion and escapism in another sensibility—is the highest form of avatarism there is. As Ariel tells Prospero about the latter’s island captives in The Tempest, “Your charm so strongly works ‘em/That if you now beheld them your affections/Would become tender.” Prospero asks, “Dost thou think so, spirit?” and Ariel answers: “Mine would, sir, were I human.”
That saving use of the subjunctive mood—“Mine would if I were…”—is the safest, most soul-expanding form of moral exploration we have absent a Vulcan mind-meld. That’s the positive side of escapism, and I wanted to incorporate that idea into the novel with respect to marriage: that by empathy and imagination “we might prevent,” as Detective Hastroll says, “our own cruelties and crimes.” But then, of course, there’s the negative aspect, and this points to my own take on much of Hitchcock’s work. Escapism, usually figured forth as a kind of idleness in his films, is the straightest road to trouble and moral hazard, one that paradoxically leads to the exit from an untenable situation.
For instance, in Rear Window, L.B. Jefferies, stuck with a broken leg in his apartment and nearly insane with boredom, tells his editor, Gunnison, “Something better happen to me soon or I’ll go and get myself married.” He’s talking about his girlfriend Lisa, played by Grace Kelly, of course, and what follows is this crazy conjunction of his own projected fantasies of murdering her—precognitive thoughts that spring from his fear of commitment—onto what may or may not be a murder across his courtyard. Now interestingly, it’s both Jefferies’ escapist voyeurism and his unconscious fears that inform how he sees what’s happening across the courtyard from him, but they also have the potential to liberate him from his compulsions and possibly transform him into a man capable of love. And whether or not the jewellery salesman’s crime is real, it still forces Jefferies to deal with Lisa as a whole person during their week as amateur detectives, to reject the notion that she mortally threatens his freedom—though why any man should have a problem being Grace Kelly’s love slave, I have no idea. Still, idleness, and the escapism it engenders, are conjoined with detection.
I feel like so much of the time we have to smack ourselves and say, Snap out of it. Life is right in front of you. Egoism is our default mode of escape, and this is particularly true when it comes to those we’re sharing our lives with—wives, husbands, children. Sad, but true, and I wanted to explore that in the novel.
6. You write very convincingly about obesity and the heartache involved in trying to lose weight as well as confront the root cause of eating disorders. How did you approach this subject?
I was a wrestler from seventh grade until I was a senior in high school, and I spent my youth losing weight all the time. I wouldn’t trade the pain and sacrifice that sport requires for anything. Among other things, I learned discipline, but I also spent many nights sucking ice because I was so thirsty and couldn’t risk gaining the water weight. I’ve made myself puke and donned wet suits before jogging in saunas. I once dropped eleven pounds in twenty-four hours. One Christmas vacation, I gained twelve pounds in a week, which prompted my coach to smack me on the back of the head. I’m five foot eleven, the same height I was my senior year in high school except I’m thirty pounds heavier than when I wrestled that spring at Nationals. So when it came to weight loss and heartache in the novel, that stuff was purely autobiographical.
7. I’m curious about your manipulation of the narrative arc – there are clear references to a Mobius strip and Escher, as well as echoes of Calvino and Murakami — can you tell me more about the structure of your novel?
I intentionally shaped the novel as a Mobius band, having it loop back on itself, since marriage, like that oddly shaped figure, is an institution where two people are supposed to be walking on the same side of the street, but oftentimes appear to be on completely opposite sides. There is, after all, a hit-man in the book named Mobius who specializes in getting rid of wives. His first words to David when they meet, “Tell me your side of the story,” are not only a play on a Mobius strip’s one-sidedness but also the beginning of the end of any relationship—when you only affirm your point of view. I said that the writing was a painfully organic process and giving the narrative its forward drive was integrally related to shaping it as such—something I didn’t figure out until I was well along and had done a great deal of obsessive outlining. How to link up these several narratives?
On the level of character, meanwhile, you have David, whose video games are inspired by Escher’s seemingly inescapable environments, which is also like marriage—you feel trapped in it, in the best and worst ways—not to mention Escher’s compositional strategy of tessellation, of figures that interlock and recur the way the detective’s lives are interlocked with their wives, with David’s life, and with the murder of Alice. All of these things were in my head on the level of plotting and motif, but you’re right to point out the influence of both Calvino and Murakami, the former because books like Invisible Cities, The Castle of Crossed Destinies, and If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller take formal principles—like the nautilus’s spiral or the tarot card—and make them integral to content. No one writing today destabilizes reality like Murakami, gets you to effortlessly buy the idea that a man can, say, be looking in an alley for his cat, slip down a well, and be transported into a completely different reality. I wanted to use a similar effect with regard to avatars in the novel. If it worked anywhere near as well it did in Sputnik Sweetheart, for instance, or The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, then I couldn’t be more pleased.
8. You clearly admire Hitchcock and his films, how much of an influence was he or his films on how you approached your novel?
His influence was immense. Mr. Peanut abounds with allusions to Hitchcock’s films, thematically it includes my ideas on idleness that I discussed above, as well as the favourite Hitchcock plot of “a man wrongly accused”—which is so reminiscent not only of the Sheppard murder case but also the television and movie spinoffs of The Fugitive. There’s a MacGuffin too: did David kill his wife?—which, by the way, was the first thing Otto Graham’s wife asked her famous American football-star husband when he told her Marilyn Sheppard had been murdered: “Did Sam do it?” There’s the theme of doubling from Shadow of a Doubt, Strangers on a Train, and Psycho, and the motif of mirrors that’s rampant in Hitchcock as well. And after Young and Innocent there’s Hitch’s obsession with fallen characters and their struggles to summon the courage to love each other—Notorious, Marnie, The Birds, Rear Window, and North by Northwest immediately come to mind.
When I studied Hitchcock, I was struck by his working method, his storyboarding of everything before he filmed—his level of intentionality is astonishing, and it’s what makes re-watching a Hitchcock movie so enjoyable. I’ve easily seen Rear Window a hundred times and I still pick up new things every time I watch it. Similarly, in writing Mr. Peanut, I tried to construct a text that would also reward re-reading.
9. You give far more attention to Sam/Marilyn and David /Alice, as opposed to Ward and Hannah – was that always your intention or is that how the novel developed?
It’s really a question of the mode of telling. To me, Ward and Hannah Hastroll’s relationship has a predominantly comic dimension and consequently the situation between them—her self-imposed internment in bed and his attempts to get her out—didn’t require the same narrative space to resolve. Because it’s so much tighter, it’s needed a different kind of treatment. I very much had Calvino’s idea of Lightness from Six Memos for the Next Millennium in mind when I wrote it—this approach of subtracting weight from a situation or story, flensing it of the requirements of social realism, so that it becomes more mythic, more symbolic; whereas the Sheppard section is a combination of psychological thriller and true-crime noir. David and Alice, well, they’re all brutal realism until the very end when things take a Wind-Up Bird turn. It was a shorter, more comic way of looking at marriage’s ruts and impasses—couples’ crazy Mexican standoffs. To my mind, Ward and Hannah are the heroes of the novel because they manage to work out their problems without collateral damage.
10. With regards to the portrayal of women in your novel, I can’t help but feel that it isn’t a particularly positive representation of women, especially how Alice and Hannah behave. They seem to veer between obstinacy and/or silence and extreme outbursts, with very little attempt at real communication in-between. Admittedly Marilyn presents an alternative point of view, but as the long-suffering wife, which isn’t a particularly life-affirming representation of womanhood either. Was this to serve the purpose of the novel, i.e. the exploration of marriages in crisis? (This will make a great book club choice, by the way, I can hear the heated discussions on the validity of the three women’s actions!)
I’m chuckling at this question for several reasons. First of all because a former colleague said Mr. Peanut would be great for a husband/wife book club—which sounds like a fight waiting to happen to me—and second because this same person told me that after reading a description of the novel with her husband, he laughed at the first line, they started to talk about the novel’s plot, and nearly came to blows during the fight that ensued.
But I’m going to take issue—not umbrage, but issue—with the question. No writer, male or female, has a responsibility to “positively represent” anyone, and I think this criticism sometimes gets levelled at male writers a bit irresponsibly if their women characters display unpalatable behaviour. Are the men in Mr. Peanut so admirable? I’ll bet no one will have a problem with their characterization.
Now I’d absolutely concede I’m dealing with marriage in crisis, but at the same time, I’d turn the question around: is it your experience that women—and men, for that matter—more often than not sit down and work things out rationally, quietly, and maturely with their spouses, or, on the rare occasion, project their anger, inflict passive-aggressive punishment, cheat out of spite, or make absurd compromises that seem, from the outside, like jail? If your answer is “Yes, we are quite pacific in our dealings with each other and almost always attempt ‘real communication’, I am begging you: please come to America and help us with our fifty-plus percent divorce rate. I promise you’ll make a fortune.
I’ll say this about the women in the novel: each shows great courage and faith in her relationship and her spouse, in spite of his absolutely negative behaviour. Alice, who suffers many terrible setbacks, both physical and psychological, is willing, after everything she and David have gone through, to attempt something very radical to restore their lives together—it’s David who balks. Hannah Hastroll confines herself to bed for the same reason, in a desperate attempt to force her husband to recalibrate his views about their present and future, and once he realizes the purposes of her gambit she’s there to welcome him back to her with open arms. And as a woman dealing with a very narcissistic, cruel man, Marilyn Sheppard—whose behaviour must be contextualized—shows a real willingness to wait for him to come around, if we’re to believe that she and Sheppard were happy before she was murdered. To my mind, it’s the women in the book who are the most admirable. True, they don’t arrive at these qualities pleasantly, but as a guy who’s been with his wife for twenty years, I can only say that giving birth to our better selves hasn’t always been pretty—much as we love each other.
11. Who are your influences? Who are the writers you admire, both past and present?
I’m an omnivorous reader and I really wish sometimes that I had one great influence like a Bellow, Dostoyevsky. Once I find a writer I love, I read everything they’ve written, and writers such as Nabokov, Bellow, Roth, Babel and Chekhov have had huge influences on me, but so too have Calvino, Delillo, Elizabeth Bishop, and Charlotte Bronte. I’m going through a heavy Alice Munro phase right now—her work slays me. My two secret favourite books of all time, up there with Lolita, Herzog, Homer’s Odyssey, A Sport and a Pastime, and One Hundred Years of Solitude, are probably Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree and John Hawkes’s The Lime Twig. When I was writing Mr. Peanut, I regularly re-read The Unbearable Lightness of Being, not only because of the ease with which Kundera interweaves and overlaps his narratives but also because I admire his use of lightness and his humour and playfulness when it comes to philosophical concepts.
I have a collection of short stories titled Ladies and Gentlemen coming out next summer and then a big project planned that I’ve already started researching entitled Death’s Door. Its point of departure is the Divine Comedy but it’s a horizontal as opposed to vertical tour, if that makes any sense. That’s all I’m willing to say about it at this point, because like Mr. Peanut when I started, I don’t understand it yet and I can’t wait to start.