City of Big Shoulders

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.

Here’s that Q & A:

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.

12. What’s next? I’m sure any­one who reads Mr Peanut will be eager for more! Can you tell me, or give a hint, or what you’re writ­ing at the moment or what you plan to write?

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.