Adam Ross Reading Ladies & Gentlemen @ BookCourt
Adam Ross has a bit of Mel Brooks in him (but which part? Ba-dum-pssh!). Shining eyes that look small, set underneath a gentle curling dollop of sandy blonde hair. His almost cocky smile says he’s thinking of a joke I’d probably not get, and he’s probably right. Read his books, however, and you start to imagine a David Lynch or John Carpenter. Maybe that makes sense, describing an author by way of pop culture filmmakers: humor and psychological horror, with a dash of humanity.
The author of Mr. Peanut and now Ladies & Gentlemen is no stranger to dark humor. Peanut is confounding and at times brilliant, a grim (or any of the other “dismal” synonyms various reviewers have used, like “bleak,” “dark,” or “ominous“) and often fucked-up-funny portrayal of love, marriage, and ownership set within a detective novel’s framework set within another detective novel’s framework. Or something like that. I finished Peanut thinking I’d “figured it out,” but further examination and discussion revealed that the story’s plot twists and multiple characters and even the way Ross played with the very tropes and language of murder mystery novels were often beyond my understanding. “Frustrating, but I’m probably not quick enough… very worthwhile!” would be my blurb. Plus, Adam wrote a hell of a book and was one of my first insults, back in the day, so I’m looking forward to dissecting a more manageable frog in short story form.
The evening of the reading was fairly typical of July; Bookcourt’s prodigious air conditioners had an old woman pawing through her bag for a sweater or shawl. By the time I’d arrived, the usual beer and wine had been exhausted, despite the summer turnout. Something about New York at melting point scares away crowds, even to readings with wattage like Ross’s. No bother, more seats for we stalwart and sweaty.
Ross read a selection of “Middleman,” one of seven new short stories from his new collection. Our’s was the first reading for whom he’d read that particular selection, which maybe explained the whiff of discomfort in the opening minutes. The same woman who’d put on a sweater and had glared at my use of “fuck” in conversation (and subsequently re-seated herself further away from me and my friends) was happy in the glowing presence of Ross. If she had a problem with Ross’s language or subject material, she hid it well underneath her laughter.
But then again, I was no famous author. Ross was every bit the charming pensmith, a subtle performer at the lectern feeding off the audience’s laughter. He kept up a furious pace, a sustained burst of words that rushed out tripping over themselves yet still intelligible, speed only increasing as the crowd laughed. His face reddened with strain or stress. Alternating between an aggressive two-handed lean over the lectern and hiding a hand behind his cocked hip, he played a fierce Wild West gunfighter twitching to draw further howls from the crowd. His face turned a few shades redder, and then it was over. Ross smiled and humbly looked at Bookcourt’s “Travel” section as the crowd clapped. “I didn’t get to read my favorite part,” he said.
As a performer, Ross’s audience shouldn’t be surprised when he uses prepared lines to answer questions. In fact, I’d be surprised if the majority of authors don’t set out to prepare answers for the average Q&A session. Nonetheless, an audience question asking about his experience writing Mr. Peanut had Ross talking about how he’d known the “first line” and ending of the book, and the rest — everything in between — was about “connecting the alpha and omega.” Ross used similar language in his interview with the SF Gate.com:
“And I also had a strong idea of how ‘Mr. Peanut’ would end. It was the middle that was difficult. Short stories are a scaled-down version of that process. I usually start with an image that truly inspires me, and I have a pretty good idea of the ending. But connecting point alpha and point omega is always the challenge.”
I’d be interested to know how often authors stick with memorized, quotable lines to typical Q&A questions. The alpha/omega line had a number of us in the crowd scratching furiously. How many times can you answer the same question over and over before you fall back on a successful rote line? I’ve well established my dislike of the average Q&A session on this blog, so kudos to the authors who put up with them.
Then again, Q&A sessions can prompt some interesting answers, regardless of whether they’re off-the-cuff or memorized. A question about the lessons Ross’d learned from writing short stories vs. writing long-form fiction (Ross wrote the majority of Ladies & Gentlemen while taking breaks from writing Mr. Peanut) had Ross talking about the “proof of the existence of the unconscious,” or depths of meaning that carve themselves into stories without the author’s explicit intent. His example came from his mother, who’d just finished reading a portion of Peanut. Peppin, the lead character of the novel, is an amalgam of “Epi-Pen” (minus the extra E, of course). Brilliant, she said. Yet it happened by accident. Authors are “empty vessels” for the stories that flow underneath, says Ross. The editing process is going through and identifying these depths, making conscious these unconscious decisions.
In the end, Ross was gracious and claimed to remember writing one of the first ever insults to appear on IbA. He was watchful, maybe wary, but promised he’d stopped by the blog. I can’t recall if he’d said he’d enjoyed it. Ah well. I’ll pretend he did until I’m told otherwise.
The rest of the evening was spent being awkward and fidgety around powerful publishing women. Ah, the joys of feeling small and stinky in shorts and sweaty t-shirt alongside the preternaturally cool publishing powerhouses. It’s good to be back.