For better or worse, Todd Robert Petersen is a product of a culture highly influenced by media. Studying film at the University of Oregon showed Petersen the ways in which film and television shape and form our perceptions of the world, but he ultimately realized a career in film was not for him. After reading a copy of “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” by Raymond Carver, he began to take seriously the idea of becoming a writer, but the influence of film never left. He then pursued an MA in English at Northern Arizona University and earned his PhD in English from Oklahoma State University.
His new novel “It Needs to Look Like We Tried” explores themes of home, broken dreams and unrealized goals in a series of cinematic and interconnected stories.
As Petersen makes his way back to his old stomping grounds in Flagstaff for an appearance at Bright Side Bookshop on June 26, the Arizona Daily Sun sat down with the author to talk about his new novel, the influence of cinema and what it means to find a home.
Arizona Daily Sun: In “It Needs to Look Like We Tried,” characters are either fighting to protect or fighting to flee their homes. Home acts like Dr. Science's magnets, pulling and attracting. What does home mean to these characters? Why is home such a powerful theme in their stories?
Petersen: I didn't set out to write a book with home as such a central theme. But during the time that I wrote this, I was in the process of settling into my new home in southern Utah after moving every few years from high school until I was in my early 30s. My sister is an architect, and we have had an ongoing series of conversations about what homes are, what it means to dig into a community and what value these buildings have for our sense of self. I was also trying to figure out what a home was for my kids and how to blend my ideas with those of my wife. We're lucky to agree on most things in this arena.
When I was looking for a way to create connective tissue for the different storylines in this book, the idea of home evolved from a sideline to something much more central. I wanted to be able to use the book to help me see home from many different perspectives. Television has really done a number on our sense of what a home should be and look like, and I wanted to explore that as well. After writing this book, I can't watch home shows anymore. It broke me.
A lot of this book takes on the idea of the geographical cure: if you've got trouble here, try somewhere else. This is another way I tried to think about the mythology of home.
The main catalyst in most of the novel's misfortunes (Barb Stein) only appears in one scene, though her shadow looms large over most of the stories. Why did you decide to leave her story out?
There's always somebody in our lives who can exert a lot of influence in a short amount of time and sometimes at a great distance. Catalyst is a great term: they can create reactions at lower energy states. Barb has influence because of her role as a television personality, but she doesn't have any day-to-day contact with the world she impacts. This happens so much in the world of celebrity, and it's going on right now in the White House. That said, I think Barb is a MacGuffin. She gets the plot moving in a certain direction and with a certain velocity, but I didn't really want to explain her. She's just another natural force. In the end, I wanted Barb to fall like Icarus and Daedalus do in that great old painting by Bruegel, just little tiny specks at the horizon.
Truth be told, I've had some daydreams recently about coming back to do a sequel of “INTLLWT,” or something like "season two," where I could pick things up and play with this world again. That would be a place to potentially dig into Barb Stein's life.
At what point did you know how you were going to link the stories together the way you did?
The idea to write a novel in stories came early in the process. That said, the first chapter of “INTLLWT” initially was part of a short story collection I was shopping around in 2003. I got some good advice to pull that story and build a linked collection around it. I knew that I was going to link them, but I didn't quite know how that was going to happen. That came over time and with a lot of iterations. After this book, I'm not even sure I could write a traditional collection. It's a great puzzle to work out all the connections.
You tweet a lot about comics and Hollywood, and your mentor is Brian Evenson, who writes literary and genre fiction (most famously, the "Dead Space" video game adaptions). Do you have genre aspirations as well?
I've always had genre aspirations, but it was hard to talk about that in graduate school, even with Evenson on hand to show the way. When I was working on my master's degree at NAU in the '90s, Allen Woodman was very encouraging about genre writing, and he let us have a pretty long leash. I wrote a screenplay for a “Hail Caesar”-style meta-Hollywood Western in one of his workshops.
From the beginning my reading has been all over the place. As a kid I read crazy post-Tolkien fantasy, like the Elric of Melniboné stuff from Michael Moorcock, as well as ‘70s and ‘80s X-Men comics, then I went on to Ernest Hemingway and Kurt Vonnegut. Eventually, I found my way into Raymond Carver, Flannery O'Connor and all the contemporary authors that make up the landscape. In graduate school Evenson used to keep us on our toes with unexpected reading. That was the one thing he talked about over and over: he wanted us to read widely and against the grain.
I've told my publicist, Megan, that I would love to write a graphic novel or a comic series. She has encouraged me, which is a good sign.
Your academic work focuses on film and television, and much of the novel feels cinematic. Do you think film and cinema played a role in the new novel?
For better or worse, I think I am very influenced by cinema. My undergraduate degree is in film, and one of the courses I teach now is called Screen Aesthetics, which is all about the language of cinema and television. I'm always thinking about "the shot" when I write. I ask myself how long a passage of prose should last and when I should cut to a long shot and when to come in close. Sometimes I even storyboard scenes or sequences. This probably contributes to the cinematic or televisual feel of things, but I've been thinking a lot lately about television (reality television in particular) and how it shapes our perceptions and our sense of story. If I've got any political or cultural thing to say with this book, it's that television might have too much power over our lives, and I say this as someone who loves “Fargo” and “Bob’s Burgers” with all of my heart.