June 21, 2010
JR: I probably fell in love with Mr. Peanut around page 3, much earlier than I thought I would, when I noticed Adam Ross wasn’t there anymore, and it didn’t seem like writing to me. David Pepin wanted to kill his wife, I wanted him to kill his wife, and then I met his wife, and I really wanted to kill her, but I was only on page 3. At this point I noticed the seamless language and how brilliant it was to read. If you don’t believe me, read the first three pages. Then I didn’t realize how much I’d like David Pepin until he wasn’t around, and Ross introduced me to Ward Hastroll who is investigating David Pepin, because David’s wife Alice has taken a dirt nap. But Ward Hastroll’s wife won’t leave her bed. It was this section where I felt like the book launched itself into to another world, Ross delivers the details of a miserable marriage in ways that remind me of Carver, Cheever and the brilliant Revolutionary Road. And then, Dr. Sam Sheppard, the older investigator who works with Ward Hastroll, is imagined by Mr. Ross, imagined is the wrong word, Ross writes it like he’s standing right next to both Hastroll and Sheppard, and peering into both of their lives, for real. I’d be a fool to tell you how this turns out, or how Ward Hastroll relates to Raymond Burr, I’ll let you work that out for yourself, but lets just say, we never really know what’s happening in a marriage, even if we can see in through the bedroom window. One more thing, it really is that Dr. Sam Sheppard Ross writes about in Mr. Peanut, and it will send shivers up your spine when you figure it out. I’m just giving you broad strokes here, I can’t tell you more, well, okay, there is this trip to Hawaii that Alice and David take together, read it, you’ll see. Mr. Peanut will be a New York Times Top 10 of 2010, take it to the bank. Here is his contribution to the WWFIL series.
When We Fell in Love
From the youngest age my reading and writing were inextricably bound, and I don’t remember a desire to write so much as the act of regularly telling stories, the telling of these intertwined with everything I read, so really this is an exercise in tessellation, recursion, and echolalia. (A favorite book from my childhood is Remy Charlip’s Arm in Arm, a series of circular narratives: It was a dark and stormy night, we were standing on the deck, the ship was sinking, the captain said to me, “Tell me a story, my son,” and so I began. It was a dark and stormy night…the ragged copy of which I read with great pleasure to my daughters now.) The tales I wrote stole all the color, event, and gadgetry from Tom Swift, the intrigue from the Hardy Boys, and the teamwork and faux-science from the Doc Savage series, the narratives that grew out of these in turn amalgamations of movies, age-inappropriate films of action and adventure likeThe Guns of Navarone and The Magnificent Seven, sexy stuff like A Clockwork Orange and Logan’s Run, plus anything I could watch on Channel 11’s The 4 O’clock Movie before mom made it home (Planet of the Apes, The Omega Man, andDamnation Alley, to name a few). I stole the plots of horror films deemed too scary by my parents to watch but reported to me by my father, his re-telling of the ending of Don’t Look Now, with that horrific dwarf in the red raincoat driving a butcher knife into Donald Sutherland, trumped the film when I finally saw it. I confess a deep-seated love for Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, and from those ancient superheroes, I graduated to comic books: Chris Claremont and John Byrne’s Champions and Uncanny X-Men, Walt Simonson’s Thor, with its inspired re-telling of the Ragnarok myth—no primary source material for me—and Bill Sienkiewicz’s The New Mutants. Under the anxiety of those influences, I developed my own universe of superheroes and villains, material liberally hybridized with characters from the Marvel universe, cross-pollinated with Frank Herbert’s Dune series, and melded with Piers Anthony’s Magic of Xanth books. In middle and high school, I passed on nearly everything Trinity’s English curriculum had to offer, falling too far behind in To Kill a Mockingbird,Animal Farm, Brave New World, and The Catcher in the Rye ever to catch up, not even interested enough to purchase the Cliffs Notes—why read about reading that bored me in the first place?—though I dug Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, wept at the injustice of The Old Man and the Sea, and immersed myself in The Bible (my school’s reverend was beloved mentor), so that on the rare occasion our teachers let us write “creative” pieces, I did spinoffs of Old Testament stories, being partial, not surprisingly, to the Yahweh-anointed superheroes of Judges. In college, I didn’t fall in love again until I encountered the Romantics junioryear, Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience and The Marriage of Heaven and Hell comic books of a kind, Coleridge’s Xanadu in “Kubla Khan” like something out of Xanth, though I did get a kick out ofGulliver’s Travels, the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop, and the short stories of Raymond Carver. I was more of a philosophy nut, jazzed on the existentialists and their forefathers: Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Heidegger, Sartre, Levinas, and Foucault. It wasn’t until I was graduated and out in the world that, having decided to become a writer, I changed my reading habits entirely, not only to figure out just what being one required but also to bring a degree of order to all this chaos. I began to read authors in their entirety. Walker Percy was, memorably, the first; I read The Moviegoer and, after reading the last paragraph, started at the beginning again, ultimately making my way through all his work in chronological order. From there I moved on to Italo Calvino, Vladimir Nabokov, Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Isaac Babel, Don Dellilo, Donald Barthelme, Joseph Conrad, and Richard Ford, which led to a more systematic approach to writing, to routine—three hours at least in the morning, no matter how early it required me to get up, with rewriting done only at night. Flash forward two decades and, with my first novel, Mr. Peanut, publishing in June, I’m adding additional stories to my collection, Ladies and Gentlemen, while making my way through all of Alice Munro—though sometimes when it’s raining and I take my kids to the bookstore to play, I grab the bound edition of either Frank Miller’s Ronin or The Dark Knight graphic novel and read it front to back. All of which is to say, there’s no when to my love. The beginning is for me the end. Or, as the little boy on that boat recalls: It was a dark and stormy night, we were standing on the deck, the ship was sinking, the captain said to me, “Tell me a story, my son,” and so I began…