One of my favorite books of the year so far – and a serious contender for my favorite read in 2010 – was Adam Ross’ debut novel Mr. Peanut. I rhapsodized about the labyrinthine book non-stop while I was reading it, and convinced my friend Rebecca Schinsky (The Book Lady’s Blog) to pick it up as well. Rebecca loved the book, and social media maven that she is, she corralled author Adam Ross into answering a few questions the two of us had about the novel. The result of our collaboration is a fascinating Q&A, and a great peek at what goes into a novel as complex as Mr. Peanut. This morning, Rebecca posted PART ONE of the interview on her blog. The second half is featured below.
A number of scenes in the book seem influenced by or, at points, directly pulled from, scenes and ideas in Hitchcock films. What’s the purpose of all this Hitchcock material in the novel?
Adam Ross: It’s part homage to a great artist, but in the Hastroll and Sheppard sections, the inclusion of all these allusions and, as you point out, actual scenes—not to mention costumes, locales, and characters—present a synthesis of my thinking about Hitchcock’s work, particularly with respect to intimacy in marriage: how we arrive at it, destroy it, or restore it. For instance, there’s a scene between Susan Hayes and Sam Sheppard in a hotel room that samples from a similar scene between Eva Marie Saint and Cary Grant in North by Northwest. I use this strategy throughout that section so that the alluded-to moments comment on each other, and there are scenes throughout that interlock with at least seven Hitchcock films. Again, in the spirit of cheat codes, I’d point to Vertigo, Shadow of a Doubt, Strangers on a Train, Marnie, Rear Window, Frenzy, and Psycho—though the truth is that there are a lot more. Notorious. The Birds. I’ll shut up now.
Of course, on a thematic level, Hitchcock is very interested in the way in which men idealize women and how this puts them at a distance from them, or does terrible violence to them, not to mention how men try to control or rebuff women who are perceived as threats to their freedom, or are viewed as objects of voyeuristic pleasure. I was very interested in exploring some of these ideas as they applied to couples who’ve been married for long periods of time.
The manuscript includes a third detective who breaks both legs pursuing a suspect and spends several weeks confined to a wheelchair, watching the people who live in the apartment building across from his, including the character who becomes Hastroll in the final copy. Why did you decide to remove this character and his storyline?
AR: In the original draft of the novel, there was a third detective who was a hybrid of L.B. Jefferies from Rear Window and “Scottie” Ferguson from Vertigo. I wanted to write about a couple that resembled Grace Kelly and Jimmy Stewart after the film Rear Window ended—did they live happily ever after? I wondered—because that film suggests that all relationships are cyclical, and I wanted this character to have suffered a tragic accident—in this case, a terrible fall—that he not only blamed his wife for but also saw as the inescapable result of patterns evident in their origins as a couple. In other words, I set out to write about the way we sometimes hold our partners responsible for our happiness or the lack thereof.
But here’s the thing: that section didn’t work. First of all, detectives work in pairs, not threes, so that was a violation of verisimilitude. Second, it was umbilicus. Those characters got me into the book, but their conflict didn’t add anything essential to the David/Alice narrative, so I cut it, and I’m happy I did, because the novel moves much faster as a result.
What was it about the Sam Sheppard story that pushed you to include Sheppard – or, at least Pepin’s version of Sheppard – as a character in the book, rather than starting with a completely “fresh” character? History is rife with men accused of murdering their wives. Out of all you could have chosen, why Sam Sheppard and not anyone else, or a composite?
AR: The short answer is this: the Sheppard case compellingly and tragically points to what I call moments of “terrible privacy” in marriage. Regardless of what Sheppard has said in his testimonies, only he knows what happened on the night Marilyn was murdered, whether he did it or not. If he didn’t—if he’s innocent—then a Mobius-type character came into his home and destroyed his life. If he did beat his pregnant wife’s head in, well, he’s residing in a cold place in hell.
As well, I was interested in when the Sheppard case occurred in American history with regard to gender politics because it portends all sorts of conflicts and tensions from which modern marriage suffers, not to mention the fact that during that same summer of 1954, Hitchcock’s Rear Window hit theaters, and the crazy coincidental ways that story interlocks with the Sheppard case are mindboggling to me.
Do you think readers’ marital/relationship status affects their perception of the novel, or does it have more to do with how honest readers can be with themselves about the things they think during their darkest moments?
AR: Well, I’ll hazard that people who are married have a more concrete understanding of some of the characters’ conflicts. Two experiences you can never appreciate until you go through them are being married and having children, in my opinion. On the other hand, two of my first readers, Kalen McNamara and Phoebe Carver, were a pair of very brilliant, unmarried women, and they got it, and also had numerous constructive things to say about the novel’s early drafts. That answers part one, I hope. As for part two of that question, people who are taken with the story have told me that it was as if I was revealing their innermost secrets with regard to certain moments in married life. Look, some—not all of us, but some of us—occasionally fantasize of what it would be like to be guiltlessly free of our partners. It’s a passing fancy, but what if it were to come true? It did for Sheppard, may the Lord have pity on his soul. Mr. Peanut turns this fantasy into a post-modern murder mystery.
As a married man with children, was it difficult to write David and Alice losing children? Was it difficult to write about men so unhappy with their marriages, or was it a good creative outlet?
AR: No to both questions. As Sir Laurence Olivier reminded Method-trained Dustin Hoffman during the filming of the root-canal scene in Marathon Man, “My dear, it’s only imagination.” That’s a way of saying that I reject the notion of the tortured artist (some days go badly, some go well, just like investment bankers or cops), not to mention the idea of writing as therapeutic. As David says in the novel, “Art was no exorcism, at least not for the artist.” I agree. The novel, as Carlos Fuentes says, imagines. Day after day, novelist Adam Ross did his dark imagining and then, when his day was done, went home and happily started dinner for his wife and kids.
Like any loving father, though, I can tell you that there’ve been many times when I’ve sat bolt upright in the wee hours of the morning and raced into my daughters’ room because I had a dream one of them was drowning or being kidnapped. The horror David and Alice suffer on their way to Hawaii is something I thank God to have been spared. “Making life,” as David says, “could utterly break your heart.” True—and may it not, by the grace of God, break mine.
Check out the first half of the interview at The Book Lady’s Blog.