Be careful what you wish for
Adam Ross' debut focuses on hidden desires
Born and raised on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, Adam Ross was a child actor who appeared in the 1979 film The Seduction of Joe Tynan with Alan Alda and Meryl Streep. After graduating from Vassar College with a degree in English, he completed an M.A. in creative writing at Hollins University, followed by an M.F.A. in creative writing at Washington University.
From 1999 to 2003, he was special projects editor and staff writer at Nashville’s alternative weekly newspaper, the Nashville Scene, and after his stint there, he taught English at the Harpeth Hall School, a private Nashville girls school.
Ross spent 13 years writing his first novel, Mr. Peanut, in which an apparently loving husband fantasizes about the death of his wife, only to see his horrific dreams come true. With its layered storyline and allusions that range from Hitchcock to Escher, Mr. Peanut is being hailed as one of the season’s best debuts. BookPage asked Ross to elaborate on the novel’s inspirations and themes.
The premise behind the book—a woman’s death at the hands of a peanut—is both absurdly comic and extremely tragic. Where did the idea come from?
In 1995, my father told me about the suspicious death of my second cousin, who was morbidly obese, struggled epically with depression, and also suffered from lethal nut allergies. According to her husband—who was, conveniently, the only witness to her “suicide”—he came home from work to find her sitting at the kitchen table with a plate of peanuts before her. They had an argument, which she interrupted by taking a fistful of nuts in her hand and eating them. She’d also hidden her Epi-pens, and died before his eyes from anaphylactic shock. I was stunned when I heard this story—I was sure she’d been murdered—and immediately afterward wrote three chapters in one sitting that closely resemble those that begin the novel now. But then I pulled up because I’d written myself into something I didn’t fully understand yet. Looking back, I think what’s so compelling about the situation is that it’s a moment of terrible privacy between a husband and wife. Maybe she was sick to death of her life, both on earth and with him; maybe he rammed the nuts down her throat. We’ll never know.
Readers often say they need likeable characters in order to connect with literature. Few, if any, of your characters are objectively likeable, yet Mr. Peanut is almost compulsively readable. Do you find your characters likeable and, if not, how do you at least bring enough humanity to them to make them real?
I find them terribly and, at times, hysterically recognizable, and I’d like to think that’s what makes the novel so readable. Numerous couples have told me that they’ve thought the very things these characters have about their spouses but were afraid to admit; that, and their marriages have been through versions of the same situations, both the ruts and redemptions. I think that part of what we’re drawn to when we read fiction is whether or not the characters bring us news about our world—spiritual, emotional, literal, or otherwise. Humbert Humbert, Nabokov’s famous pedophile, isn’t “likeable,” but the story he tells is enchanting and we’re certainly happy to follow him anywhere, no matter how perverse a place he takes us, because he writes so powerfully and believably about obsession. So it’s not, I think, a question of bringing enough humanity to make them real as much as what Keats demands: beauty and truth, no matter how dark.
Mr. Peanut incorporates a real story—the Sam Sheppard murder case of the 1950s—into its narrative. Was it always your intent to fictionalize this event and how did you negotiate the ‘cold facts’ with your imagining of what occurred?
No, he appeared several years into drafting, again a gift from my father. Initially, the book’s two detectives were allegorical constructs, one assuming all suspects guilty from the get-go, the other the opposite, and after a while I realized I needed a grey-area figure. After my dad and I watched The Fugitive and he told me a brief history of the case, so I read about it and, bingo, there’s my guy: I wanted to rescue the true story from the Hollywood version, because in the remake, Harrison Ford is the paladin knight of marriage, its redeemer in a struggle to regain his good name, whereas what I found so captivating about the Dr. Sam Sheppard murder case was its mystery and muck, what with Sheppard’s serial womanizing, his narcissism, and the way his relationship with his wife anticipated so many moral hazards of the sexual revolution, not to mention the fact that his guilt or innocence remains in question. It’s just a juicy, albeit tragic, mystery, and it required extensive research because I wanted to take Sheppard’s testimony and imagine it from the point of view of the primary suspects—Sheppard, Dr. Lester Hoversten, and window-washer Dick Eberling—as well as Marilyn, the victim. The cold facts are directly incorporated into the novel because you can’t get around them. They’re out there, and so I used them as the plot’s scaffolding.
Hitchcock figures heavily into both your plot and themes. So does Escher and, of course, the iconic wrong man detective story. What other writers and artists inspire you?
The writers who had the biggest impact on me while I was drafting were first Milan Kundera, whose novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being also has overlapping chronologies and is told from different points of view that, taken together, deliver a huge emotional charge at the story’s end. Italo Calvino, the great Italian fabulist, writes formally complex and wildly inventive narratives, like The Castle of Crossed Destinies, which he generated using tarot cards. When it comes to dark tales, I regularly returned to John Hawkes’s The Lime Twig, which is about very bad men and women doing very, very bad things, and you can’t put it down. As for artists, music-wise give me Beethoven’s heavy metal any day along with Miles Davis’s lightness; throw in Calder’s subtraction of weight from giant structures, Rothko’s emotionally super-charged color combinations, and the purity of Brancusi’s abstract sculptures.
In many ways, Mr. Peanut resists traditional chronology and narrative arc. Was this a conscious choice, or something that emerged naturally as you wrote?
It emerged naturally though I wish it were otherwise since it might not have taken so long to write, about 13 years of off-and-on work. I’ve got nothing against classic Aristotelian structure, though I believe you can achieve Aristotelian catharsis by countless other means, but the truth is this: the games the novel plays with chronology, arc, Hitchcock allusions, and names demand the reader be the detective, which I think we all have to be when it comes to identifying both the good and evil that lurk in our hearts.
What do you hope readers will take away from this book?
Husbands and wives of America: do good housekeeping! Take care of your spouse! Nurture your marriage and be very careful what you wish for when it comes to things like, oh, freedom from it: you might just get it, and the attendant tragedy, loneliness, and guilt that come with it—see Dr. Sheppard above or your neighbor’s recent divorce—are potentially horrible.
We have to ask: what does your wife think of all of this?
She read it for the first time last year and hasn’t spoken to me since. No, seriously, she was very moved by it because she hung tough while I labored to finish and recognizes moments in it from our marriage that make us both happy: like David and Alice in the novel, we met in a Hitchcock seminar at Hollins University and spent our first months together falling in love with his films and each other. Years into our marriage, we went to Kauai, again just like the main characters, but whereas that trip marks the beginning of the end of their relationship for us it was where we learned we were pregnant with our first daughter. Our life is the Escher-obverse of the book. Plus the Detective Hastroll section cracks her up. And sometimes she wants to kill me too.
What’s up next for you?
I’m adding several new stories to my collection entitled Ladies & Gentlemen, due out next summer, and they’re dark and comic too, but nearly all of them are traditionally chronological with classic narrative arcs. No more crazy outlines for me.
Review of Mr. Peanut.