When I read Todd Robert Petersen’s latest novel, It Needs to Look Like We Tried, earlier this year I knew it would be a Storied pick. Writing characters that are both believable and relatable is no easy task, but he manages to accomplish the task with an enviable grace. In addition to our live discussions, we’re always looking for ways to better connect Storied members with our monthly picks. And this month, Todd was kind enough to lend us his time by answering a few questions about his book and craft. —Collin Huber
For those who haven’t yet read It Needs to Look Like We Tried, could you tell us briefly about the plot of your book?
It Needs to Look Like We Tried is a novel built of stories. Recently, I’ve heard this kind of thing called a mosaic novel, which I like a lot better than a “novel in stories” or “linked stories.” The variety of structures in books of fiction far outstrips our vocabulary. The plot is a lot like a Rube Goldberg machine, or an arrangement of toppling dominoes. The book begins with a guy from Texas who takes a detour on the way to his father’s wedding. He runs into some trouble along the way and ends up bringing a new friend along. That chapter ends, and the next picks up with what appears to be a new storyline, but you learn that characters from the first chapter reappear as the characters in this story. The father’s fiancée intersects with a young couple trying to buy their first home from a crazed person whose brother is married to the host of a children’s science show whose life is falling apart. That story bleeds into the tale of a hoarder family whose lives are wrecked by their appearance on the second-rate show. Their daughter decides to escape her tiny town with the help of her boyfriend, who has a not-quite-legal plan to scrape together enough money to fund their departure. On their way across the country, these star-crossed lovers encounter the guy from the first chapter, bringing everything full circle.
Plot is a really weird thing in this book. Unlike a collection of stories, you have to read this in order to keep track of the progression of events and the arcs of the characters. I’m not sure that clarifies anything, but hopefully it creates some mystery.
What inspired you to write It Needs to Look Like We Tried? Why did you choose the specific characters and storylines within the novel?
The inspiration (or initial motivation) for the book came from Nat Sobel years before he was my agent. He passed on a short story collection I’d sent him, but he liked the story that ultimately became the “Impeccable Driver/Small World” storyline. He suggested I drop all the other pieces in that collection and try to use that material to create something more connected and integrated. I was intrigued by that idea, so I took some ideas I had in the Post-It phase and started thinking about how I could create connections or throughlines that felt like the real intersections that criss-cross people’s lives.
I’m a bit of a magpie. I like to pilfer things from the world around me for my fiction. For example, the old man who terrorizes the couple from the “Cape Cod Fear” storyline is based on this old lady who sold her house to my wife and me when we were just starting out. She used to come up to us in the store or in church and with her raspy voice say stuff like, “How do you like living in my house?” This is kind of where the mosaic thing comes in again. I have all these bits and pieces stored in my memory, notebooks, and phone that I draw from to build the larger picture. Once I have the big movements of the plot in place, I dip into my hoard and look for something to put in place.
All of the reality television stuff came from a realization that unscripted television programming has given us a new set of archetypes: the knowing uncle, the uberwife, the guy with tools, the jerk, the spirit guide, the person who isn’t what they seem, the person whose trials we laugh at, and so on. When I was writing this, I dug into what television is and tried to fashion a book version of all that. My subplot about the degeneration of children’s television comes from being a father who has watched kids television over the last fifteen years. It’s all so terrible now.
Which of the novel’s storylines means the most to you? And why?
That’s a hard one. For a long time I connected most with the “Cape Cod Fear” storyline because I was a young father trying to provide, and I kept feeling like the world was coming at me. Now, the “Providence” storyline has the most impact and meaning for me, because I feel like it’s the most redemptive. The very first version of that storyline was nothing at all like it is now. It was pretty crass and empty. I originally wrote it as a way to explore what it would be like to try to love and protect a child who was making the terrible choices. The father, Francis, was resentful of having to constantly bail his son out. I wanted him to be more loving but to still have the struggle to choose what’s right. This storyline is the closest to what I want fiction to do, which is let me feel grace. There’s an opposition in all things though. Grace is meaningless without a fall, and so I think good fiction has to show both. So, with “Providence” I think I was able to find a good balance of grace, humor, violence, and the weirdness of the world.
Flannery O’Connor is my guiding light for this kind of thing. I am awestruck by her work.
What was your writing process like for this book? Do you have go-to places and/or practices for writing?
I wrote early drafts of this book while my kids were little, so I wrote wherever and whenever I could, even on my phone. One of the greatest gifts my wife has ever given me is a pair of really nice Bose noise-cancelling headphones. I just found out that I have really good hearing, like off the charts, which is really a bummer, because I can become obsessed with noise. So, the burbly white noise of public places works well for me. I have an app that plays river noise. I also often write with the music of the jazz guitar player Bill Frisell as background. So it’s really the audio landscape that’s most important to me, though my physical surroundings matter too. I used to write in an unheated sunroom that was too hot in summer and too cold in winter. Sometimes, when I really had to get out I would write at the Dairy Queen, which I thought was weird until I read Larry McMurtry’s amazing long essay “Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen,” which is about how the Dairy Queen in Archer City, Texas, was that little town’s Third Place. I have a home office now in our new home, with a view of the mountains. It’s really bourgeois and comfy, but I still find myself slipping off to the DQ.
My process is a little transgressive. In graduate school, there was a lot of talk about not talking about your writing. People said you’ll give away your sacred fire or whatever. That is not how it works for me. I’m a spit-baller. I work out the very earliest part of a scene by following my wife around the house going, “What if I did this? Or what if she said that? What if a log falls off the pile and hits that guy on the head?” My wife is a big reader, much more than me, and her instincts are perfect. If she says it’s going to be cool, then I do it. If she says it isn’t going to be cool, then I get mad, then don’t do it. She’s batting 0.92 in this arena.
I write stuff in passes. The first time through is to get a basic pathway, then I go back over for depth, then for clarity, then for polish. I try to get the first draft down as quickly as possible, then take some time away from the work and come back to make another quick pass. Sometimes an entire necessary scene drops from the sky, like that Coke bottle in the great old South African film The Gods Must Be Crazy. That doesn’t happen often, but I like to be ready for it when it does.
Were you always interested in writing? How did you decide to pursue it both educationally and professionally?
I was not always interested in writing. I started out wanting to be an illustrator, then a graphic designer, then a filmmaker, then I wanted to work in advertising, then I thought I’d become an environmental educator, then a couple of years out of college, I just started writing all the time. I was living in Seattle. I was cleaning banks, and once I was done cleaning, I started writing in the drive through window on an old IBM Selectric typewriter they had there. I was so broke, but it was the best, most pure artistic time in my life. That time convinced me to change directions one more time and head back to graduate school. But school wasn’t to help with the writing; it was to help me teach at the university level. I love teaching, and a lot of my career now is dedicated to program and curriculum development. I help colleagues develop ideas and implement them, which is richly rewarding and challenging.
I’m getting a late start at national publishing, but it’s really the best time for me. I did a couple of small books and literary journal publications over the years, but I needed time to get my family up and going. I’ve watched some writers and other professionals invert those priorities, and you just can’t get that time back. Now that I have older kids, writing can take a bigger role. I also think living life has changed how I think about things, and those changes have helped me become more of the kind of writer I always wanted to be but didn’t quite know how to become.
Who or what are some of the biggest inspirations for your work?
Flannery O’Connor is one of my deepest influences, especially her knack for dialogue, and the way she unflinchingly looks into our sins and smallnesses. I love Lydia Davis’s ability to distill a moment in language. I have been deeply influenced by the Coen Brothers, especially their sense of humor which is so dark but ultimately human. I am also taken by their ability to use pauses expressively. I am always stealing from them. Recently, I’ve realized that two of my biggest inspirations are photographers: Diane Arbus and William Eggleston. Arbus has the uncanny ability to humanize the grotesque, and Eggleston does the same thing with the banal. I am always re-checking out their books from the library. One day I’ll have to just lay down some cash and get copies of my own.
Dune is my all-time favorite novel, but it really makes no sense when you look at It Needs to Look Like We Tried. When my Harry Potter-loving students ask what house I think I’m in, I say House Atreides. I get confused looks over that one, then I just say Slytherin, even though I don’t really know what that means. My kids told me which one to say.
Looking back on your career, what are some of the lessons you’ve learned along the way that you wish you knew starting out?
This first one has nothing to do with writing: don’t try to win arguments in meetings. It never works. If someone presents a bad idea just ask them to walk you through it, and then it usually all falls apart on its own.
As far as writing goes, I wish I would have known that people really, truly want to find books they can fall in love with and fight for. It’s not about good writing vs. bad writing. It’s about getting your work in front of the person who says, “I want to be your champion.” So, in this way it’s not about competition; it’s about connection. My agent, editor, and publicist connected with this book and that’s how the relationship was established. It’s a much more humane and decent process than I ever thought it would be.
I also wish I would have understood the profound difference between being a writer and being an author. A friend of mine named Elaine Vickers (she’s an amazing middle grade writer) helped me see that distinction. Writers write. Anyone who writes is a writer. Authors sell books. And not every writer sells books. At some point in the future, I might not sell books anymore, and I’ll go back to being a writer. I might even just be a guy who listens to Miles Davis while the cats sleep on my lap. That will all be okay.
What do you hope readers will take away from your book?
That there’s hope. I know that’s so cheesy, but we’re living in an age where people’s hearts are failing them. I wanted this book to be funny and heartbreaking in equal measures because humor is the only thing sometimes that keeps me from the abyss. I wanted to write a book about people trying so hard to do the right thing, because that’s what we’re all doing in our day-to-day. The title is the key to the whole thing, and it’s been fantastic to learn from my book tour and from social media that people are drawn to that title. I also have a slim hope that this book could inspire writers who want to write about grace, hope, and all that other cheesy stuff. There’s a way to do it, probably many ways to do it. It’s hard because for now we do see through a glass darkly. Good writing can be a remedy for that. Oh, man. It’s all so lofty though. There are so many things in this world to read. It’s amazing to have anyone give a few hours of their time to something you’ve made. I mean, that’s really remarkable on its own.
If you could offer a word of advice to aspiring writers, what would it be?
Kidding . . . not kidding.
Life before publishing is a little Edenic. Once you make that switch from being a writer to being an author, you’ve turned a corner, and some of your innocence is lost. Without this fall, it’s difficult, maybe even impossible to grow. So, if you get lucky and find your champions, it’s important to remember why you wanted to do this thing in the first place. Releasing a book is not at all like you expect it to be. In the end it’s not about the book, but the people who read it. So, you’ve got to remember that. Creativity flows outward.
I’ve also noticed a certain narrowness in some writers who are just starting. They’re kind of like picky eaters with their reading. Sometimes all they want is “butter noodles,” so I’d tell them that there’s a kaleidoscopic world out there, and writers need to be sure they don’t miss it. I really think it’s a good idea to break your own habits, try new things, go to work or school by a different route, make new friends, buy a shirt that isn’t your go-to color. Talk to people you’ve never met. Like Questlove from the Roots once said, you have to watch out because grooves can become ruts.