Q&A: Stanford history lecturer Peter Mann is an undercover novelist

Feb. 13, 2022, 8:20 p.m.

Stanford history lecturer Peter Mann sat down with The Daily to discuss his debut novel, “The Torqued Man,” published by HarperCollins on Jan. 11. The novel follows Adrian de Groot, a reluctant member of the Nazi intelligensia, as his path intersects with Frank Pike, a former Irish Republican Army (IRA) fighter imprisoned in Spain who becomes his agent, friend and occasional lover. The novel is rich with historical intrigue thanks to Mann’s abiding interests in 20th century German, Spanish and Irish history and culture, and the interlocking perspectives of its two main characters create a propulsive mystery of an eminently literary caliber.

The Stanford Daily (TSD): Was “The Torqued Man” a pandemic book, or was it mostly finished when lockdown hit?

Peter Mann (PM): I started writing it in 2017 right after Trump was elected, so there was a certain atmosphere that I was drawing upon. It made me understand the complicity and powerlessness that people feel under regimes that they didn’t necessarily bring to power and don’t support, yet they still have to live normal lives day-to-day under those regimes. I was interested in what that was like for someone of Adrian’s mold, someone who is revolted by them and yet has very few options. I was actively teaching, at least part-time, when I was writing this book, and I finished it right before the pandemic hit. I ended up doing some revisions during the pandemic and extending the ending, so if you thought you detected a pandemic atmosphere in there, you’re right. It was just sheer fortuitous coincidence, if I can use that word, that living in the early stages of the pandemic also helped me get into that mindset of living in a bombed-out basement in Berlin.

TSD: I’d love to hear more about how you came across the historical documents that gave you the ideas for these two characters. How did you know that your interest in Pike and Adrian demanded a creative exploration?

PM: It was 2014 or 2015 when I had the initial idea, but I was still thinking about possible historical projects. I wrote my dissertation about Thomas Mann and the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset. So I was trying in a cumbersome way to wedge my two geographical interests of Spain and Germany together, as well as literature and philosophy, the whole drama of the early 20th century and what it meant to be an intellectual.

I had been reading about the Spanish Civil War, hunting around and waiting for something to take me by surprise. What it was was this guy Frank Ryan. As soon as I read about him, I thought, “what a fascinating figure in a fascinating predicament.” He was given this horrible choice, but also, what else could he possibly have chosen? Life in prison or get free and work for the people you hate?

But what really brought it to life for me then was going to the United Kingdom’s National Archives and getting ahold of those interrogation reports of the Adrian de Groot counterpart, whose real name was Kurt Haller. They were trying to press Haller for all the information they could about Frank Ryan. So I thought it would be interesting to tell Pike’s story through this person’s lens and have their relationship as the crux of the novel, playing with their two at-odds but overlapping perspectives.

TSD: I was wondering if there was a character that you felt like you connected with most in your book. For me, there is a lot to relate to in both Adrian and Pike. With Pike, I love how his life as a spy is his way of enchanting his reality, because everything that he’s doing has a second meaning that no one knows about but him. I also feel like that’s how you view yourself if you’re a writer because everything that you’re doing can serve this secret double purpose as material for your writing.

PM: Oh man, you’ve read me like a book. Part of what was really fun for me in writing a spy novel is that in some weird way I was narrating my experience, even though it has nothing to do with what I’m depicting on the surface level. For me, as a novelist who looks like I’m a scholar, it was particularly almost like being an undercover agent. I knew that being a scholar was not my identity, but I still found myself wanting to teach, and so I had to kind of have this cover while working on this other thing. I was semi-secret about it because writing a novel, until people actually see it in the world, feels like this fragile, almost ludicrous thing. Like, what am I doing?

It’s great that you identified with both characters! It’s definitely both for me, too. It was fun to bifurcate parts of me and then amplify them or tweak them. Adrian’s bookish sensibility, of course. His character flaw, but also what hopefully makes him a fun narrator, is how he’s quick to indignation and disdain. He finds most of modernity just vulgar and stupid, and he wants to be above it and aloof from it all and live in a symbolic world.

TSD: At the same time, he’s such a sensitive guy. He spends so much of the book moping around because Pike is not paying enough attention to him.

PM: Yeah, and what he’s really doing is being a cog in an industrial killing machine. It’s interesting how he can be all those things at once. Pike has cheery cynicism that I feel like I share and just amplified in him. I feel like in my ideal fantasy life, I’ll be reborn an Irishman. Frank’s voice was this really gratifying way that I could pretend and craft sentences with an ear towards them being said in an Irish accent. 

TSD: The two voices in this novel are so rich and distinct. What inspired these voices, especially Pike’s very unique lexicon — all the place names, people names and metaphors that are particular to his chapters?

PM: It was really fun to try to distinguish those two voices. Part of it was drawing on different sources. For Adrian’s, I was drawing on a certain sensibility and diction of Thomas Mann — “Doctor Faustus” in particular. It was written during WWII, and it’s basically the life of a German composer named Adrian Leverkühn as told by his friend. There’s also this dimension of unrequited love to it, though never on the surface. I was interested in that kind of conceit for telling a life story. I used Adrian as kind of a nod to that book.

For Pike, I was drawn to a few different works. One of them was a 1939 novel by Irish writer Flan O’Brien called “At Swim-Two-Birds.” One of the characters is this version of the Celtic folk hero Finn McCool. O’Brien does this mock-epic, mock-heroic language to describe Finn McCool — his back is as broad as six handball courts and shit like that. So that was one part. The Irish epics that book is playing with are narrated in this crazy diction. The Taìn, this Irish epic about a cattle raid in Ulster, features this larger-than-life hero named Cú Chulainn. When he was in the grips of his battle frenzy, he would undergo a torquing. The way the Tain describes it is like all of his parts are rearranged. In any event, I was drawing on that stuff too.

TSD: When you tell people you wrote a book called “The Torqued Man,” do they ever ask you, “What does that mean?”

PM: The way it usually goes is they ask “What is your book called?” And I go, “The Torqued Man.” And they go, “The what man?” “The Torqued Man.” “The what man?” It’s hard for me to give people a quick answer, because I’m trying to play with the different meanings, as well as which one of them is the Torqued Man. In Finn’s narrative, he calls Adrian “the Torqued Man.” But there’s also a sense in which Pike is similarly torqued, in that he’s this double agent. He has to assume this other identity of working for the people that he is explicitly against. So there’s a kind of torquing necessary for all the characters, not just when Pike actually undergoes this crazy physical reconfiguration of his parts.

TSD: You dedicated this book to your mom and dad. What do they think when they read such sentences as, “The smell of fresh, beefy shit hung thick in the air. Finn was astonished that such a basso profundo of stink could have come out of such a tight young ass?”

PM: That’s hilarious. I should ask them specifically. They’re definitely not surprised. They’re not like that, but I’ve always been like that — deeply into potty humor since I was a kid, filth-minded. It would maybe come out most when I was playing a round of Balderdash with the family — you know that game where you make up definitions to words? I used to never try to win. I’d never write a plausible definition that people might guess is the real one. I would write the most ludicrous, vulgar definition I could think of.

TSD: You should write for Cards Against Humanity.

PM: That was actually a job I applied for when my first Structured Liberal Education tenure came to an end! So yeah, my parents knew what they were getting into. I’ve had some fun conversations with my mom recently because her book club is now reading it. My mom is kind of distraught like, what are they gonna think? I’ll have to let you know.

TSD: Did you ever consider telling this story in a different medium than the novel? Personally, I would kill to see this made into a movie.

PM: Well, I can tell you that we’ve optioned the film rights. We’ll see. I think as far as I understand this world, it’s still a bit of a long shot whether it actually gets made, but there’s a chance now. To answer your original question, I never really envisioned it as anything other than a novel.

TSD: So what’s next for you in your creative life?

PM: Well, I just finished another novel and sent it to my editor, so fingers crossed that there’s another one coming down the pipe soon. This one is a western set in 1859, Kansas to California. It circles around the explorer John Fremont, after whom all sorts of shit in California is named. He’s kind of the dark heart from which all the blood flows.

This transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Carly Taylor '22 is a Managing Editor of Arts & Life. She studies comparative literature and creative writing. On campus, you can find her organizing concerts and practicing martial arts. Contact her at ctaylor ‘at’ stanforddaily.com.

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