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Adam Ross Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Adam Ross
Photo © Michael Lionstar

Adam Ross

An interview with Adam Ross

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. 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.

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 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.”

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?
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.  

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 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.

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?
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.

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?
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.
Which Hitchcock films most inform Mr. Peanut, and do you see your novel as owing any of its structure to Hitchcock’s films?
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.  

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”?
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.

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 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.  

David Pepin’s 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 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.

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 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.

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?
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.

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?
I’m going to hedge my bets and say that it depends on the day. Today’s good. Marriage can save your life today.

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?
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.

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?
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.   

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 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 Kundera subtracts 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.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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All the books below are recommended as read-alikes for Adam Ross but some maybe more relevant to you than others depending on which books by the author you have read and enjoyed. So look for the suggested read-alikes by title linked on the right.
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