Adam Ross likes to put people in difficult situations. It’s what he specializes in actually. His debut novel, Mr. Peanut, revved up when main character David Pepin’s fingers, as well as several peanuts, find their way into his wife Alice’s mouth. She’s allergic. She reacts. She dies. But was it suicide or murder?
The protagonists in Ross’ latest, Ladies and Gentlemen, a collection of short stories he wrote while penning Mr. Peanut, often end up facing similarly interesting and questionable circumstances. Ross sees it as a great way to play with the reader, often throwing in a killer twist somewhere in the story. It’s also a chance for the author to indulge in his favorite thing—watching his “heroes” twist in the wind.
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I have to ask, do you hate your protagonists? You put them in some seriously bad situations that don’t always end well for them.
I’m an optimistic, happy guy, so I tend to image characters that are in situations that are in opposite of what I live on a day-to-day basis. An example is the story “The Rest of It,” about the professor who starts talking with the maintenance man. In some ways I was imaging an alternative vector of my own life where my wife and I didn’t survive her law degree and early career, and I ended up teaching in some awful place, separated from the person I love the most. It’s the nightmare possibility of the way my life would have turned out.
But I don’t hate my protagonists at all. If you think about the book as being about cruelty and people’s struggle not to be cruel to each other, then things make more sense. When the opportunity for cruelty presents itself it’s really revelatory about a person’s character. When you are presented a chance to be cruel to people you love, it really reveals parts about yourself—whether you decide to be self or cruel or not. We tell ourselves all sorts of little white lies so we can get away with things, but telling the truth is simpler and harder than we admit.
What’s a white lie you keep telling yourself?
Me personally or someone in the book?
Well, in a story like in “The Basement,” which is one of my favorites, toward the end of the story, the narrator sells another person up the river hopefully to preserve his relationship with his wife, and he probably doesn’t have to do that, but he’s afraid for his future and in some ways he fails that litmus test I described earlier. I think we face these conundrums all the time. A day doesn’t go by where you’re not presented with one to three of these choices. How you will relate to people in your life? Will you relate to them in self-interest or in empathy?
So you went from working as essentially a receptionist of the Nashville Scene to celebrated author. You have to get crazy amounts of fan mail from people either wanting your help or saying they want to be just like you. Do you empathize with them?
Yeah. Just this morning I sent comments to a guy I met out of the Internet ether that basically begged me to read his work, and with certain parameters I did…Having a narrative arch that I’ve had in my career, it’s like winning the lottery, but it took a long time to win that lottery. I do have a lot of people who say “Good on you.” But it was a lot of work.
It does seem like you’ve always been working toward this. You wrote a short film in the late ’90s called Tickle. You worked your way up the front desk to columnist at the Nashville Scene. You’ve built a career telling stories.I, biography-wise, went to the M.A. program at Hollins University with the express goal of being a fiction writer. I went to the Washington University M.F.A. program to continue my career and write more. And there were some good things about the failed novel I was writing at Hollins and Wash U. There were some failures too. I was trying some things that were really beyond what I could do. But everything I could do, though, was at the service of building momentum and prowess as a writer. It was a long apprenticeship—and the apprenticeship continues.
The Scene was a beautiful thing, though. I worked there when it was owned by two guys who really trusted their writers. You’re interested in writing about this porn king? Sure, go do it. And then you go off for a month and inevitably you come back with a great story. I’d put any of those cover stories up against anything else that I’ve done.
Most of these stories have been complete for a while, even before Mr. Peanut was finished. How do you see your voice, your sense of storytelling, developing in these stories?
There are a lot of the same themes. For example, a central theme in all my work is self-awareness. In “The Suicide Room” the narrator says, “For the first time in my life, I started to feel whole.” The narrator is acknowledging that from that moment forth he couldn’t say, “Oh I didn’t realize.” That’s a big moment. And it’s an issue that faces us constantly. Look at the mortgage crisis. There was a whole group of people who collectively closed their eyes to the numbers. Or look at Iraq. We do this all the time, collectively close our eyes to the evidence. So I think this book and Mr. Peanut both touch on these moral issues that happen to us all the time.
It makes sense that you wrote these short stories while writing Mr. Peanut. You were basically operating like a reporter handling multiple stories.
I think that’s a great observation. You better write what you can when you can. You can’t be a purest. Oh, I must devote all my time to my novel. No, it’s a craft. You work at it and do it as you can. And I wrote these short stories during interruptions. I didn’t write these under contract or under deadline. I was stuck, but I had to tell this story about this bartender and the crazy stories he told me, so out comes a piece.