Adam Ross discusses the many sources of inspiration he used in his first book, Mr. Peanut, including his own marriage, actual murder cases, Alfred Hitchcock, and more.
Was there a particular event or idea that first gave rise to Mr. Peanut?
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. Id written myself into an exploration of marriage I didnt 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 novels 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 thereit was like being trapped in Eschers Ants on a Mobius Stripwhen 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 theres 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.
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?
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 Sheppards and Ward Hastrolls, telling the story of David and Alices and vice versa. Either way, like the Escher drawings that inspire the video games David designs for a living, theyre 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 Alices 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 cant 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 marriagesand who in turn shed light on David and Alices. My hope is that readers experience a series of recognitions. That they read about each marriage and say, Yes, Ive been there.
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 Hitchcocks films?
Yes and no. I was obsessed with Hitchcock when I started the novel, but at the outset Dr. Sam Sheppard wasnt 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 Hastrolls conflict with his wife, Hannah, because its tight and comiccan 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 thered 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 marriages 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 dads 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 Id 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 Sheppards guilt or innocence, to make an imaginative leap, as Detective Hastroll says, into a moment of terrible privacywhich is what we do all the time and quite cavalierly about other peoples marriages, whether through the tabloids (Tiger Woods as a recent example) or on the drive home from a dinner party.
What were the challenges of incorporating a real-life murder case into your novel?
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 didnt) on the night of Marilyns 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.
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 whats still so tantalizing about his case the fact that we likely will never really know what happened? Do you think he killed Marilyn Sheppard?
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 wifes murder: found guilty in 1954; not guilty when he was re-tried in 1966; essentially retried yet again during his sons 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 Neffs The Wrong Man, which covers everything from media history to the impact of modern forensic science on the case. Theres also Jack P. DeSario and William Masons Dr. Sam Sheppard on Trial, the latter being the lead prosecutor of the civil trial. Theres Sam Reese Sheppard and Cynthia Coopers Mockery of Justice which focuses on housekeeper Dick Eberlings 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 theres also Dr. Sam Sheppards autobiography Endure and Conquer, which is a pretty bad book, admittedly, but by then Id become a full-on Sheppard geek. Those sources, read together, made a true agnostic out of me. I dont see how well 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 its a cautionary tale. Were 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. Simpsons in so many ways, particularly because it occurred during the nexus of new and old mediathe 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 peoples 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 Sheppards 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.
Theres 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?
I did, at Hollins University, a class taught by Richard Dillard, as first-rate a guide to Hitchcocks work as you could ever want. While there is precious little in this book thats autobiographical, its 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 weve been happily married ever since.
My interest in Hitchcock started there and endured. Im a Sheppard geek but a Hitchcock nut, and another autobiographical detail in the book is that up until I walked into that classroom I hadnt 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.
Which Hitchcock films most inform Mr. Peanut, and do you see your novel as owing any of its structure to Hitchcocks films?
Mr. Peanut alludes to scores of Hitchcock films throughout in ways I hope readers find enjoyable. Of all Hitchs themes, however, the book probably deals most directly with the struggles of fallen peoplethink of Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman in Notoriousto 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 Hitchcocks 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, Id point out Rear Window, but then theres 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 its 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 youll find in the book. And if you know little to nothing about his movies, it doesnt affect the story at all.
As for Hitchcocks influence on the books structure, well, theres 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 books ethos. Theres 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, theres 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.
While the investigation into Alice Pepins 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, its simply the dual nature of marriage, the proximity of violence and love?
Just as Eschers etchings contain forms interlocked with others, so too is every marriages 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 Eschers Encounter, each character has a dark double he or she is interlocked with or split off from. But for a second, lets 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 draweruntil you almost want to kill the person youre sharing your life with, which would paradoxically break your heart. But maybe thats just me.
Tell us a little about the character Mobius and his role in the novel.
Well, smallness (of mind and heart) is, to me, one of lifes great evils, and Mr. Mobius, the novels PI or gun-for-hire, literally and figuratively embodies the dangers of both mean-spiritedness and cynicism in marriage. Hes 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-sidednessthe 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 Ill 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 Dont 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 Langs M. There are John Tenniels drawings of strange little people in Alice in Wonderland. And lets not forget Rumpelstiltskin.
David Pepins day job is designing Escher-like video games, he is also secretly hard at work on a novel 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...
Not initially, no. The Escher theme emerged as I began to develop Davids 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 Eschers work explicitly and structurally. That it worked out the way Id hoped it wouldthe narrative looping and relooping without an entry or exit point, like certain Escher drawings or Mobius stripsis something Im 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.
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?
I dont 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. Were going about our day normally. Coffee, newspaper, work, lunch, followed by Honey, Im home, or, Sweetheart, Im leaving you for the mailman. And then, bang, youre dead.
You write: We tell stories of other peoples 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?
When Sheppard is telling Mobius the story of his wifes murder, he says he doesnt 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. Thats the challenge; easy in theory but hard in practice, its the closest thing there is in life to change. Its 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. Thats 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 its shocking, delightful, and unnerving to see a picture of yourself in the background of a crowdyou cant even recognize yourself at firstor to have those rare dreams where you see yourself as if youre someone else. As Hastroll says, you realize that theres the you in your mind and the you in the world, and theyre not necessarily the same.
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?
Im going to hedge my bets and say that it depends on the day. Todays good. Marriage can save your life today.
When asked what the human heart feels like, Sam Sheppard says Like a tennis ball . . . its 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?
Did I capture them? Thats good, because its what Ive experiencedthe proximity of these emotions. Not the desire to kill my wife but the fact Ive 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. Its 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.
We have to askas this is a novel in which all the characters contemplate killing their wives, and some maybe dowhat does your wife think of the book?
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 its the Escher-obverse of our own marriage. I mentioned how long weve been together, but Ill 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 Alices trip is horrifically tragic and marks the beginning of the end of theirs.
What are some of the books that have most influenced you as a writer and what is next for you?
The book I returned to over and over as I was writing Mr. Peanut was Milan Kunderas 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 Kundera subtracts weight from characters, makes them recognizable without being bogged down by the demands of social realismnot much differently, really, from Hitchcock. And he writes about intimacy as beautifully and wryly as he does about philosophical concepts. Calvinos work, in particular Invisible Cities and The Castle of Crossed Destinies, for their insistence that form determines content and vice versa, along with Nabokovs Lolita and his use of intertextuality and, as in Sheppards case, narrative unreliability. Broadly speaking, Im an omnivorous reader, a huge fan of Roth and Bellow, DeLillo and Babel, Conrad and Murakami, but I regularly return to John Hawkess The Lime Twig, another all-time favorite, and Cormac McCarthys Suttree, and Homers Odyssey. Right now Im going through a heavy Alice Munro phase. Her work simply amazes me. Next up I have two completely different novel ideas tugging at meone realistic, the other fabularand 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, its 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.