April 2009

Michele Filgate


An Interview with Jedediah Berry

Jedediah Berry is the author of the highly entertaining literary mystery, called The Manual of Detection. In the book, Charles Unwin, a lowly clerk at an agency, finds himself unexpectedly promoted to the status of detective, and he must find out what happened to Detective Sivart, whose cases he worked on.

In the city of the book, dreams play a significant role and alarm clocks are stolen instead of jewels. There’s a noirish element to the novel, but also a playfulness that makes it very readable and definitely a page-turner.

I sat down with Jedediah recently when he came to Portsmouth, NH for a reading co-sponsored by RiverRun Bookstore, where I run the author events. We chatted about his literary influences, dreams, umbrellas, carnivals, and much more. Most of the interview was conducted in person, and then followed up via e-mail.

You’ve been compared in a lot of reviews of the book to writers like Kafka and George Orwell and Ray Bradbury and Michael Chabon and Jasper Fforde, and out of all of them, who do you feel you most relate to as a writer?

I was reading a lot of Kafka at the time that I started this book and certainly his portrayal of the kind of overbearing bureaucracy and the sort of mystery without a center was something that was very much on my mind. But I think the writer I actually have most looked to for many years is Italo Calvino. I think about him on the sentence level, certainly. Just trying to craft sentences that have a lightness about them, a precision about them. Also the way Calvino handled genre, form, whatever you want to call it; he had a way of taking hold of them in knowing and playful ways which I really admire. Though there are certainly aspects of the book which have that sort of Kafkaesque feel about them, and I do keep seeing his name again and again, which is of course thrilling, my hope is that it has a certain levity about it as well, which really comes from that other reading.

Going along with that, when you talk about that levity, one of the things that has really struck me is sort of a similarity to Douglas Adam’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy because there is a manual that is at the center of the book that is referenced throughout. I’m wondering if Adams has influenced you at all with his farcical elements; that sort of “yes, the book is cerebral but it actually has a lot of comical moments to it as well” style Adams was so good at.

I hadn’t thought about him until I was pretty far into the book actually, and I showed a draft to a friend who noted the kind of usefulness, especially in science fiction, of the book within a book, the guide book. I think I was doing it completely unconsciously. I found myself writing a mystery novel without any real knowledge of mystery novels at first so I didn’t know what I was doing. So it was almost this gesture which I think came from a frightened place to give my main character a manual of detection which he relies upon to guide him through the world, but also which is faulty and the source of which is questionable at best. And it also allowed me to do a personal commentary on the form even as I was figuring it out. So as I was observing things about how mystery works, in terms of just purely structure and plot, the manual within the manual kind of became this repository for my own little ruminations.

That’s interesting that you say that, because one of the things that really strikes me about this novel is that it contains the best of noir and mystery novels, but it’s also very literary, and in that sense I can see why it’s compared to authors like Michael Chabon and Yiddish Policemen’s Union. I’m wondering about this blending of genres. Have mystery novels influenced you, or is it more of a literary background that you’re coming from?

When I started reading mystery novels I found myself influenced in ways I didn’t really expect. Reading Raymond Chandler for the first time was a mind altering experience, especially in terms of voice. I looked for opportunities in this book to try to emulate this certain what I now identify as a sort of American burdened tough guy persona. And that comes about in the character of Travis Sivart, who is the detective that Unwin is trying to find. But more and more I don’t think of there being as much of a distinction between the genre and literary so much. There’s certainly form and shapes to things and there’s certainly story traditions that pop up and again, but in the end I think of genre as providing one of many possible structures for telling a story. What you can do within those guidelines is so expansive and so broad that it starts to become almost pointless to think of them as separate anymore... I’m very lucky, of course, to be preceded in this by some writers who have broken down those genre walls. Kelly Link, and certainly someone like Jonathan Lethem who himself started writing these science fiction novels inspired by Philip K. Dick, but has just broadened further and further out from there.

Even Calvino, like you mentioned.

Sure, Calivno, I mean in his time he was looking at comic books. He was really one of the first to see that even the structure of comic books had a deeper value and resonance. He thought about those kinds of things the same way that he thought about the realist forms like you see in If on a winter’s night a traveler. Almost any narrative approach can be assumed and turned on its head. I think that’s really liberating, to simultaneously give yourself those guidelines, but also acknowledge that you’re playing a game with them, and it’s a game you can let your reader in on at the same time.

You talk about Calvino really influencing you. Which of his books have influeced you the most?

It’s hard to choose just because he’s influenced me on so many levels. My favorite books of his is probably Invisible Cities, but that’s also probably the closest thing I have to a spiritual guidebook. I love Cosmicomics for its humor and its weird reimagining... In that book he takes scientific theories and turns them into these fantastic allegories. It’s as though he’s looking for the most concrete thing imaginable and giving it a dream life. That to me is just completely inspiring. His Six Memos for the Next Millennium, just as a kind of book of advice for the writer and artist, has been extremely important for me.

You mention a “dream life,” and obviously dreams are such an important part of your book. I love books that center around dreams, and I was wondering if this is a theme that comes up in other stories you write?

Sometimes it almost feels like cheating to use dreams because they can be used as a sort of shortcut to the unconscious or the symbolic, but I do see dreams and dreaming as just a very useful metaphor for the storytelling process. I did start this book knowing that I wanted to write about dreams. I had a few surreal images in mind which I wanted to link together with a story of some kind. It really evolved because it wasn’t until I was pretty deep into the book that I realized that the organization at the center of the novel, the agency, actually has some sort of stake in the dreaming minds of the citizens, and thats what really broke the novel open for me, when I realized I could write about dreams but have them represent something of innate human value.

Certainly in a lot of my work I do write about dreams. I grew up in Catskill, NY and was told from a fairly early age that Rip Van Winkle was probably asleep in the mountains somewhere, and that always stuck with me, the idea of this kind of sleeping presence that might somehow represent the world around him. That image kind of always pops up in my work again and again.

You seem to bring up rules in the book a lot, and in the book Unwin has to follow these rules that might not always be reliable. I’m curious where your fascination with that comes in. Does that stem from earlier when you were talking about not really knowing how to write a mystery going into this; is it almost the author projecting himself into the novel, or is it something that you’re just interested in?

It is something I’m interested in. I do think of it in terms of games. Before I tried to write fiction in my youth I played a lot of games, board games, role playing games. Those for me were all about structure. They give you guidelines and then you’re supposed to fill in those spaces. That may just be my original sense of narrative form coming from that. In Unwin’s case of course it was fun to take a character who is necessarily obsessed with the rules and who is part of the system but then have the rules change on him, have him taken out of his element, and dropped into something completely strange where he has to adapt and change in order to survive. And also, in order to satisfy that part of him which he preserves. That part of him that does actually want to be accurately identified, which of course is the heart of the mystery tale, but in his case, also has a lot to do with paperwork!

Speaking of paperwork, in the beginning of the novel you talk about Unwin’s desk being supremely organized compared to the other clerks. Do you yourself have a clean desk?

Sometimes (laughs). My desk goes through phases, and it gradually builds up with clutter, and then I think of it as kind of a collecting phase that I go through where it’s postcards and books left open, and other books stacked on top of them, also open. I try to clear it off and have as empty a desk as possible. I do identify with Unwin in a lot of ways.

How do you identify with him?

I opened that one up, didn’t I! I think like Unwin, I often feel a certain degree of bewilderment at the world and in order to make sense of it, I need to catalogue and list and make narrative. Unwin to me kind of represents really a certain kind of artistic engagement with the world. Even though he’s terribly cloistered and stuck in a routine that restricts his freedom, he is an explorer on his own terms and is actually seeking sense of some kind. I identify with that. I think I purposefully jolted him out of his familiar existence in a way that I knew would challenge me as well as a writer. There’s a convergence there of some kind.

You work as an assistant editor at Small Beer Press. Can you talk about approaching novels from the editor viewpoint and the writer’s viewpoint?

I’ve worked as an editor for many years for various journals and now Small Beer Press. I find it a really invigorating work. It’s a way to be part of a broader conversation about books and about writing. Working with writers on their manuscripts is such an exciting process. Part of it of course is also completely mundane and I find some degree of comfort in that as well, because I can go and work on layout or work on a subscriber database and step away from that and go back into my own world. Most importantly, with Small Beer, it's been an experience of finding a community I never expected to find which has been so supportive and really broadened my horizons in terms of what people are out there doing.

What has your experience been like to be published by Penguin, a big publisher, when you’re so entrenched in the world of the small presses?

With my own book I found myself in a somewhat strange position. I don’t think I could have imagined having it at any small press other than the one I was working for, but I was also at a point with the novel that I really wanted it out of my hands. I was so exhausted by the writing of it that I couldn’t imagine then actually putting it into production myself. I needed to take a step back from it. If it had been with another small press I probably would have tried to get involved too much anyway. Having it at Penguin has been a surprisingly positive experience. The group of people at Penguin Press, they have their own identity within Penguin as a whole, and they’ve been so supportive and wonderful about the book. And I think I’ve been very lucky too because they knew what Small Beer Press was. They knew what I was up to. In a sense the work I had been doing at Small Beer and others had been doing at other independent presses had really made it possible for this kind of work to reach another audience, which is certainly exciting.

Umbrellas play such a part in this book. Is that a personal favorite object of yours?

I do love umbrellas. I love Edward Gorey’s umbrellas. There’s that one Edward Gorey story which is about a dog trying to find his master’s umbrella and every once in a while it cuts to an umbrella shop where this man is trying out umbrellas, until at last the whole store is full of umbrellas he has not accepted, and he leaves saying none of these umbrellas will do! The clerk is swooning with her hand against her forehead. It’s just hilarious. I mean for me, I did put a lot of umbrellas into the book and it was purely gestural, but I’ve been thinking about them more now, what the symbolic life of an umbrella is. In a way it’s this amazing complex tool but it’s also so simple to employ. It creates a personal space in the midst of crowds. Unwin of course finds other uses for his umbrella as well.

In a way, the umbrella becomes a character itself.

Right, absolutely. I don’t know exactly what Unwin looks likes but I know his hat, and I know his umbrella, his briefcase, and his bicycle. Those are almost the Homeric epithets.

Alarm clocks play a big part in the novel. While reading the book, I couldn't help but think of Alice in Wonderland. Unwin seems to go down a rabbit hole in a sense and discover this whole new part of the agency. Would you say you were influenced by Lewis Carroll at all, and what was the significance of the clocks?

I’ve always loved the playfulness of the Alice books: the puzzles, the language tricks, the dream-logic and looking-glass doubles. And despite all of Lewis Carroll’s game-playing, there’s something undeniably heartbreaking about his work. Unwin is certainly like Alice, in that he falls into a strange world which repeatedly defies his expectations. But he’s a bit of a white rabbit too: always checking his watch, worried about being late for things. Something about that habit, and the sheer absurdity of it in the Wonderland context, is what really draws me back to the Alice books. They’re free-wheeling the way dreams are, but circumscribed by a meticulous logic. I’ve tried to create a world like that one in The Manual of Detection.

As for the clocks, their significance is maybe obvious at first, since they represent the very ordered, regimented life that Unwin leads at the Agency. But the book is partly about time and memory, and the illusive qualities of these things, so it’s no mistake that an evil magician steals all the alarm clocks, and then they keep showing up in strange places. Their reliability in the face of human error (or just plain humanness) is thrown into question, for Unwin especially. And I hadn’t thought about it before, but you’re right to bring up Lewis Carroll here. There’s a scene which, without giving away too much, is a lot like the March Hare dunking his watch into a cup of tea, but on a grand scale.

I'm intrigued by the carnival you present in the book; a dilapidated place that also turns up in character's dreams. There's something very similar between carnivals and the dream-world. Do you feel that way at all?

There was a traveling carnival that would come to my hometown in upstate New York every summer when I was little. It would set itself up in a big parking lot, and I’d always go at least once. There was something about the place that felt dangerous and exciting. Suddenly there were people in town who I’d never seen before: kids from other schools, the carnival employees, others who came from who-knows-where. And you knew the rides had just been unpacked and bolted together, so really, how safe could the whole thing be? Add to that the haunted house and the hall of mirrors, and yes, you have something with all the strange potency of a dream.

But what I remember most clearly were the nights when I wasn’t at the carnival. With my window open, I could hear the sounds of it: the rides rattling, and people shouting, and the music. I would wonder if any of my friends were there that night, whether they were winning any prizes. And I’d fall asleep with the sounds of it all in my head. That was the carnival I wanted in this book. The one that comes in and possesses your imagination, bending all your thoughts to it like some kind of fever. It was the heart of the town while it was there, and it made everything strange and beautiful for a while.

Signed copies of The Manual of Detection at the RiverRun Bookstore website.