An Interview with Todd Robert Petersen

The wheel of fortune is one of the most well-known images of fate. This wheel spins randomly, setting the course of destiny for the people and events it controls.

Northern Arizona University graduate and Thin Air founder Todd Robert Petersen’s It Needs to Look Like We Tried takes the idea of the wheel of fortune to its logical conclusion by not only letting fate bat its characters into the strangest of places, but in the book’s circular structure itself.

The a series of interlinked short-stories in which the results of one person’s misfortunes stretch out to affect people far away, begins and ends with a car accident. Both, while harmless to the passengers, serve as catalysts for much larger events. The actions of one story affect the next in profound ways, as life spirals out of control for each story’s characters. It Needs to Look Like We Tried combines the theory that all people are separated by only six degrees with the butterfly effect, in which even the smallest of actions can have monumental consequences later down the road

Thin Air’s own, Mark Alvarez, spoke with Petersen via email, discussing the difficulties in structuring these interwoven lives, the germination of his novel from inception to agent, the beginnings of Thin Air, religion in contemporary literature, and the state of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

You got the idea for the structure of INTLLWT from LOST. How so, and how difficult was it to translate that structure into novelistic form?

It’s a little embarrassing to admit that the idea for this structure came from LOST because I don’t think that show has any corner on the market for this way of connecting stories. I’m not sure it’s even any good, except for the pilot and the first season. This networked structure is also common in comic books and comic book films. I am fascinated by the idea of an extended universe where characters with different storylines all coexist in a single narrative space. LOST got me noticing that characters in one storyline were present in other storylines.

I eventually started keeping track of how they were drawn more closely together over the course of those narrative arcs. This idea made me tinker with a few existing stories until they began growing together and started to gel. I knew that over the course of the book I would want the connections to be less obvious at first and then become closer and closer until, at the end, it felt more like a proper novel. I was shooting for it to be a crossfade from a short story collection at the beginning and a novel by the end, with a hybrid of the two somewhere in the middle.

It is a little easier to create cameos and connections in a visual narrative because all you have to do is place the character in the scene and people will recognize that individual at a glance. Doing that same thing in prose requires dropping in key physical details and mannerisms so you’re not relying on the character’s name to do all the heavy lifting. If you look at something like the work of Dickens or Faulkner, you can see this kind of structure at play in their work, which features large casts of characters that a reader must recall. Each uses a different strategy.

You said that when you submitted INTLLWT to an agent, it was “done, but not finished.” How so? It sounds like you did a lot of work on revisions. How different is the novel in its finished state to how it was in the beginning?

The story was done when I sent this in at first. All the big parts were in place, but there was no polish. It was as rough as could be. I like to work in rapid passes, like finishing furniture. When my agent, Nat, asked for the manuscript, I knew it wasn’t up to the level I wanted, but I didn’t want to cop to that, so I just gave it a spit shine and sent it along. It was gut-wrenching to wait, but I ended up so surprised when Nat said he wanted to work with me. Even more surprised when he said, “And now start revising.” I didn’t realize that’s how it works.

The first three chapters are close to what they looked like in the earlier draft, “Unscripted,” and “Providence” are unidentifiable. They weren’t revised; they were rewritten from the ground up. The final chapter, “Small World,” underwent significant revisions to accommodate the rewrites from earlier in the book.

Did 32% of INTLLWT really come from a post-it note saying “Home Depot,” “Pool Chemicals,” and “TV studio?” How did those three words get there?

During the rewrites, I mentioned before I had to wrestle with the chapters: “Cape Cod Fear,” “Unscripted,” and “Providence.” I hadn’t integrated them well, and I felt like there was no structural integrity. I set a goal for myself to link the chapters in multiple ways: characters, locations, plot points, themes, and even in the imagery and metaphor, which is why I used so many pop culture references. I was trying to hold the cake together with the frosting.

The Post-It you’re referring to came from my attempts to create coherence from these storylines. While I was working on this problem, I had a massive epiphany at work where the clouds parted, but I wasn’t at a place where I could act on the insight. I did have post-its and a pen, so I tried to capture the ideas before they evaporated. These three key things gave me strange anchor points and gave me the confidence to move ahead.

You’ve won several awards for Mormon writing. While religion isn’t central to INTLLWT, many characters seem to struggle with faith in some way or another. What role does faith play in this novel?

I’m a person of faith, and during my Ph.D. work, I started writing fiction that attempted to explore that topic. I have a non-traditional relationship with religion, and I wanted to see if I could tackle that in a serious way without the problems that plague devotional storytelling. I didn’t want to preach, but I felt there must be some way to explore this common aspect of people’s lives. Marilyn Robinson has done it, Flannery O’Connor, Graham Greene, Denis Johnson and many others have tried to express this part of human experience. These writers gave me permission to try to find my own way to approach these issues.

The idea to try to write about religion and faith came to me in full force after I watched that strange and wonderful Robert Duvall movie from the 90s, THE APOSTLE. I must have gone back to see it three or four times. I wanted to try to write something authentic and gritty like that, full of faith and grit. This led me to start looking at my own faith, and after a publishing a couple of small books and some stories along those lines, I decided to try to write about religious people as part of a larger, more diverse world. I think I like that better. It’s more freeing than having a responsibility to any given denomination.

Contemporary fiction has, by and large, overlooked religion as a part of human experience. People don’t have to be church-goers to wonder about what’s going on in the world and beyond it. The story of faith and religion has always been about the struggle with faith. You can talk about grace or temptation, but I think the struggle to be decent and to do right by others and to think about how you fit into something larger than your immediate experience has been part of our stories since the beginning. Redemption without sin is boring, and never ever funny. Humor is important to what I’m trying to do, so I think I need to write about the people who don’t have it all figured out.

Do you still have any of the art you submitted to Marvel? As an 80s X-Men fan, what do you think of the Marvel film landscape?

I just found some of my old comic art, and it’s so embarrassing, gloriously so. I worked for years on this self-indulgent comic about an assassin who learns that he’s the heir to the throne of a magic kingdom in an alternate universe. Thinking about who I was then is helping me connect with my two older kids, both of whom are really good artists. My daughter is much more advanced than I ever was, and my middle son has a great pop art style, but neither of them makes comics or tell stories with their work. It’s so interesting to me.

I have mixed feelings about the Marvel movies. Love seeing them and sharing them with my kids. But something has always felt off about these films except for the ridiculous THOR: RAGNAROK (which felt so much like the Walter Simonsen-era Thor comics I used to love) and the true-to-the source SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING (which is the best representation of Spidey ever). I feel like the X-Men films (except FIRST CLASS) have all completely missed what the X-men comics were about in the end, and that is being different.

Strangely, I loved ANT-MAN, and I can’t get most people to join me at this party. Comics are supposed to be absurd, and most of the Marvel films are trying to be something else. Don’t get me started about DC films, I’ll just lose my cool.

You talk a lot about other arts, especially music, film, television, and painting. How do you draw from the other arts in your writing (especially music, which outside of lyrics is non-representational)?

I’ve always found it difficult to pull ideas and techniques straight from another writer. It’s easier to transform the mood of a painting or the tone of a passage of music into prose. I think it’s about looking at the common feeling that can be found between different works. It also interesting to consider how a technique in one art might have an analog in another. For example, I like to think about the prose equivalent of short brushstrokes or how punctuation works like rests in music.

Finishing graduate school was freeing in a way because I no longer had the obligation to focus so much on literature. Now that I’m married to an art teacher, it’s great. We get to talk about everything.

You did a lot with critical theory during your Ph.D. Does it influence your writing at all? If so, how?

I’m going to have to give the short answer for this. Studying critical theory was a game changer. Jane Armstrong started me down this path, years ago in a class at NAU, and I picked it up again during my Ph.D.

The deeper I got into it, critical theory started becoming more like the philosophy of literature. It helped me think more about what language does and how we can use it for making fiction. It seems impossible to be able to do that, and I wanted to try to understand how that happens. I wanted to know more about the persona of the narrator, and who the author really is. Are they the person who writes, or is that a construct? (I say yes.) These kinds of questions come up for me while I’m trying to tell a story. A lot of the concepts about time and narrative have come from my reading in narratology. It so important to know what it means to write and critical theory has deepened and challenged my thinking on this.

Advice for people studying creative writing at the master’s level.

It’s been so long since I was in that space, but I remember it as a turning point, where I made a commitment to myself and my work. The path I took seems so inevitable now that I have trouble imagining any other life.

Students should use their classes as an opportunity to read against your normal tastes and interests. Don’t think about depth at this point. It’ll come. Take an ecological view.

It’s also important to be reflective. If you don’t have a practice of keeping regular, perhaps even daily, journal writing, try to develop one now. It’s going to be over so quickly, and it’ll be a blur. I had so many moments of insight that evaporated on me because I was so caught up in other pressing things. By my second year at NAU, I was regularly reflecting on my work and life. It seemed so precious at the time, but I treasure that now, even if it is all a little cringeworthy.

I’d suggest you spend time thinking about what kind of life you want to have when you’re out of graduate school. There are so many things to do in the world when you can write and edit, research and teach. Not all of them are in universities. Writing fiction is a rotten way to make a living, impossible for most. It’s crucial to find a money gig that allows you the mental and emotional time to write. The time to think about that is while you’re in school.

Most of all, get a squad. I’m still in touch with a handful of people I went to school with at NAU. The conversations we had over meals and in the hallways were in many ways more important than what I learned in the classroom. We helped each other out. We cheered for each other, and we still do it now.

There’s a rumor you were one of the founding members of Thin Air. Any stories?

It’s true. In the 90s a few of us wanted to roll our sleeves up and try to get some editorial experience, so we met a few times, and we got a good head of steam going. Over the next few months, we sat in many an office on campus and were told no, no, and no.

The chair at the time even said to us, “Literary magazine are like mushrooms. They come and they go.” I guess he thought he was the Caterpillar from Alice in Wonderland or something.

We didn’t accept that answer, and in the end, we had great faculty support, then decided to do some fundraising. We had a benefit reading and got help from Chuck Bowden and Ron Carlson (who blurbed INTLLWT, by the way). When we started divvying up the jobs, I ended up as the managing editor because I knew how to use InDesign (PageMaker at the time) and I could keep information in a spreadsheet, which was a big deal in 1995.

I am thrilled to know that Thin Air is still going, on the inside that makes me sneer at the mushroom comment. It’s great to know that the idea was a good one and folks have so much with it.

When we were deciding on the name of the journal, we narrowed it down to Thin Air or 66. I was a strong proponent for 66. Thin Air was probably the best choice. Now the covers don’t look like a pamphlet for a gas station.

What are the best comedies of all time?

In no particular order:

AS I LAY DYING I’m coming up short on novels, sadly.
STRAIGHT MAN by Richard Russo
Some episodes of I LOVE LUCY are still amazing.

Todd Robert Petersen’s new novel, It Needs to Look Like We Tried, ‘explores the ways in which our failures work on the lives of others, weaving an intricate web of interconnected stories.’ It is available through Counterpoint Press.

Petersen, an graduate of NAU’s Masters in Creative Writing program and a founding member of Thin Air Magazine (!!) will be reading from It Needs to Look Like We Tried on Tuesday, June 26, from 6:30-8 pm at Brightside Bookshop, in Flagstaff, AZ.