A Conversation with Jedediah Berry
(Geoffrey Goodwin was last seen around these here parts when he interviewed Thomas Ligotti. I'm thrilled that he has now returned with an interview with Jedediah Berry, author of The Manual of Detection and of one of my favorite stories of recent years, "Minus, His Heart" (first published by Chicago Review and conveniently reprinted in Best American Fantasy 2008). Jed has worked for Conjunctions and Jubilat, and he is currently Wizard-of-Many-Things [my term] at Small Beer Press.)
Geoffrey H. Goodwin: You've worked in the field a long time. When did you last have a job outside of books and publishing?
Jedediah Berry: My first job out of college was with PEN, the non-profit writers’ organization, and before that I was doing a work study job with the literary journal Conjunctions. I would have to go back to my first year of college, when I was washing dishes and painting curbs yellow. (Laughs.) So it's been a very long time. I've done odd jobs, certainly, in between. House painting, web design. And once I was paid by an eccentric old man in my hometown to paddle around his pond and rake the weeds out of the water. That was a study in futility.
GHG: What was the first thing you ever had published?
JB: The first thing online was with a journal called La Petite Zine, which is still going, and it's a site that I visit often. They published a very short, weird story of mine which was not even a story. It was a bestiary, just prose poem descriptions of fantastical creatures. I think my first print publication was with 3rd Bed, a journal which sadly is no longer with us. The fiction editor, who was Tobin Anderson, took this very short two-page vampire story that I sent them. That was a thrill. I was very happy to be in 3rd Bed.
GHG: Where else has your short fiction appeared?
JB: It's been in the Chicago Reviewand Fairy Tale Review, and those stories were later picked up by the Best New American Voices and Best American Fantasy anthologies. I have a story coming out in Conjunctions, which for me is very exciting, because when I first saw Conjunctions in college, I didn't know there were literary journals. [ed. note: That story, "Ourselves, Multiplied" is now available in Conjunctions 52: Betwixt the Between edited by Bradford Morrow and Brian Evenson.] That was my introduction to the fact that there was this vibrant community of readers and writers out there, and that new work was being published several times a year in this very accessible format. (Laughs.) So having a story in there is something coming full circle for me. Otherwise, I’ve had stories in some anthologies edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling. That was the first time I was actually paid for my fiction, which came as a surprise at the time. I thought, "Oh, you're actually going to pay by the word? Amazing! Let me add a few!" (Laughs.)
GHG: So The Manual of Detection. You'd worked with Small Beer for a long time, so you knew a certain perspective that lots of writers don't have. Plenty of people write--and you'd done sort of the zine scene at conventions, so you had a bigger perspective than some...
JB:And yet the process still somehow caught me by surprise, I think partly because it started a bit earlier than I was expecting. Kelly Link had generously mentioned the novel to a couple of editors when I was maybe just halfway through it, so there was some interest in it that I didn't know how to field. I just kept that closed off for a while, because I needed to focus on finishing the book. And then I sent it out to a number of agents, and found one who I was so happy to find, Esmond Harmsworth. He sent me a copy of the Inspector Barlach novels by the Swiss writer Friedrich Dürrenmatt. I’d never read those books, and I was captivated by their strange and uneasy playfulness -- they were written in the 1950s but felt completely fresh. Furthermore, they were books I absolutely needed to read. That’s how I knew I was working with the right agent.
JB: I was really unprepared to write a detective novel, so Hammett and Chandler were part of the homework that I assigned to myself, and I fell in love with Chandler’s work in ways that I didn't expect. It’s the voice that draws me back to his novels, and I think that probably shows in the parts of my book presented as case files from the missing detective, Travis Sivart. I read those books but I also watched a lot of film noir. The imagistic style of those films -- everything is cast in long shadows, so much obscured, everything unknown and potentially a threat -- that was something that I tried to work with in the book as well. But often from the outside in, because the main character, Charles Unwin, is a bumbling file clerk. He's not of that world at all. He knows it through these case files that he has been working on for years, but he finds himself dropped into that world and he has to navigate it. That world doesn't know how to handle him either. The criminals don't know who he is or what he's up to, which allows him to slip through where an experienced detective might now. That was one of the pleasures of writing the book: tracing this incongruity between the older, cozy mysteries and the gritty noir mysteries of later decades, and having this character who wants nothing to do with detective work stuck in the midst of it all. Hopefully that allows for a certain perspective whereby each world becomes a little more heightened. I tried to push that as far as possible.
GHG: Is this the first thing you've written with any noir feel?
JB: It was, really. I had written things that were inspired by fairy tale and fable, and to some extent I consider this book to be an extended fable that is disguised as a detective novel. There are the noir trappings, and they're very useful, because it's like having this symbolic order which is recognizable, it's a set of tools and a set of images that can be rearranged and shuffled. But that's very surface stuff for me. As with fairy tales, I think, you have so much going on that's on the surface, it's allsurface -- the substance is what the reader brings to it by interpreting the arrangement of these symbols. I like that kind of play in fiction.
GHG: I always hate to ask the sort of marketplace questions, so we'll do them in a clump. How long did it take you to write?
JB: It took me about four, four and a half years working on the book and then another year to a year and a half revising. I started it my first semester of grad school, finished the first draft, and that was my thesis. And then I rewrote and revised a lot in the year after that.
GHG: Somehow that's comforting. And so you chose noir, quite early on, in a sense, with where you are with your writing. What led to deciding to do that, since you hadn't before?
JB: Well, there were a number of things, and I didn’t really start with it. What came to me first was this organization called the Agency, which was a kind of Orwellian bureaucracy presiding over a number of secrets. But then I thought it would be fun to make it a mystery-solving outfit. So once I did that, and once I realized I had detectives, the noir thing just fell into place. That was a decision based partly on my sense of the genre in film, which I knew better than I knew the books. I watched the Howard Hawks version of The Big Sleepseveral times, as well as films like Gildaand The Big Combo.
But the other part is this file clerk protagonist. He is by nature a fastidious character whose sense of having things in order and classified properly I found compelling as a writer, if only because it’s akin to my process and my way of thinking. So then you pair that with a detective, who of course is also a seeker of some truth, which is what makes detective fiction such a wonderfully useful narrative. And that was the real convergence, when Unwin's need to have things correct both logically and factually matched up with this other darker, more mysterious world, which resists cataloguing and classification. Underlying things is this unsolvable crisis, and that's the lure of the noir, where getting to the truth usually just makes things worse.
GHG: Let's see. It sounds like you came to the detective idea very organically; the work was already in progress and it sort of ended up going that way. At least for me, that's helpful to know. Let's derail into Small Beer. So you started as an intern, you approached them and just said, "Hey, I'd like to intern?" while you were at Amherst. How many years ago?
JB: That would have been in 2004. I started in just the way you described: told them I wanted to volunteer. The office was in their house in Northampton at the time, so I would go there once a week, spend the day working on press releases, or shipping books, or proofreading, and in a few memorable cases retyping books we were putting back into print, but for which no digital file existed. It was a great experience for me because previous to that I had only worked on journals; it was my first time seeing how books were produced. And Kelly and Gavin make books so well, and with such style, so it was a great spot to be. I was very happy to be there and once I had been donating my time for a couple of years, they found a way to take me on as an employee. And since then we've moved the office out of the back of their house and into a nice old mill building loft space in nearby Easthampton, where we can let the books roam.
It was also wonderful to find a kind of haven at Small Beer while going to graduate school, because Small Beer occupies this kind of wonderful niche, as I think of it, between quote unquote literary fiction and quote unquote genre fiction. That was where my sensibilities were leading me as a writer. And as receptive as my teachers and fellow students at UMass were to that kind of genre play, it was really Kelly and Gavin who had been in that world for years, so they knew what I was up to and became important readers and mentors early on.
JB: I feel like I'm always trying to get caught up on science fiction. In my early days, I veered more towards the fantastic than science fiction. My mom had Tolkien on her bookshelf, and before I could read I remember taking those books down and looking at these bizarre geometric patterns on the covers -- I think they were supposed to be the rings -- and I thought, someday I will be able to read, and this is what I will read. (Laughs.) I loved Peter S. Beagle and I read a lot of Conan comic books. And I had a close friend in junior high school and high school, Shahrul Ladue, who was a voracious reader and who read so much more than I possibly could. He was a great resource for me, because he would give me these condensed versions of almost everything he read. He would tell me what was going on with the latest installment of The Wheel of Time, or with Piers Anthony and Xanth these days.
JB: But we were also reading Ursula Le Guin and Philip K. Dick. And the thing is, I remember reading certain books and stories in school -- Kafka, Poe, Lewis Carroll, and Ray Bradbury of course -- and thinking there's a line that's not being drawn here, between the stuff that I'm reading on my own and the stuff that is coming to me in school. There's a connection here that needs to be made. Then in college I read Angela Carter, Italo Calvino, and Jorge Luis Borges, and the connection became more clear for me. I think an important moment came with the publication of the New Wave Fabulists issue of Conjunctions. It's exciting to see the genre walls being broken down and connections being remade: a tracing back to shared roots, and it has nothing to do with the marketing of something, but rather about literary source and shared concerns.
GHG: You've known you wanted to write from a young age?
JB: I originally wanted to be a filmmaker, but I was writing from a pretty young age. My friends and I used to write skits and perform them, and I was writing a lot of poetry, and then in college I took a writing workshop and realized that that was what I needed to be doing, and I've stuck to writing seriously ever since.
GHG: Your undergrad degree was at Bard, what was your major?
JB: English--they call it Languages and Literature, at Bard College -- with an attached Creative Writing component. I wrote a messy, sprawling kind of Victorian fairy tale novel for my thesis that was inspired in large part by the Christina Rossetti poem "Goblin Market," and that still sits in some deep dark place in my file drawers.
GHG: What's next? You said you have the story in Conjunctions: 52 Betwixt the Between: Impossible Realism. Now what are you going to do with the rest of your life?
JB: I'm trying to decide between a couple of different projects. I'm doing research for one of them. I grew up in Upstate New York, and from a young age I've had the stories of Washington Irving rolling around in my head. I have something that I would really like to do with the Rip Van Winkle story that would be a kind of American historical folk tale. It's something that's been on my mind for a long time. I think I'm a little intimidated by it, because it feels like it would be a big project. But that's something I'm just beginning to work my brain back into. There are other things, too.
GHG: Such as?
JB: Such as the post-apocalyptic Alice's Adventures in Wonderland-on-a-train novel. (Laughs.)
GHG: Did you just come up with that right now?
JB: No, no, I actually do have some notes on that.
GHG: How do you do an apocalypse on a train?
JB: It's already happened, but the train is running, and there may be air pirates--well, I shouldn't actually talk about that too much, but visually I see it as a Miyazaki film. There are a lot of short stories I want to write. I've been gathering little ideas that I haven't been able to give any attention to while finishing and revising the novel. I'm looking forward to doing some shorter pieces.
GHG: This one's a little more complicated. Some would say that coming from the sort of DIY zine culture, even academic writing, getting an MFA, is radically different than the big gears of publishing. You, more than most, had your feet firmly planted ... and jumped into those grinding gears. What was the experience like?
JB: It's been an interesting thing. I wouldn't call it a jump because I do still feel very much in the small press world, and that's where I intend to remain -- most of my brain lives there. When I was starting to realize that I could actually publish this book, and considered smaller presses, I knew that the one I worked for would have been the obvious home for it. But also at that point I desperately wanted the book out of my hands; I had been working with it for so long, the editors at Small Beer had been readers, and I needed a different perspective. I also needed to not be conscious of its production. I do so much in my daily life to make books happen, which is work that I love, but I somehow couldn't imagine being involved in that process with my book anymore. So I did let it go, to some extent. That said, I was pleasantly surprised--and I may be lucky in this regard -- that I found an agent and an editor who were willing to work closely with me and were really smart about what I was up to. The imprint I’m with, The Penguin Press, is a relatively new one, and when I visited their office the first time I was struck by the energy and the sense of camaraderie there. I immediately felt at ease.
But right now we have all these crises in the publishing world, and the small press is going to be even more vital than it has been, and that's where the important things are going to be happening. So I'm trying to keep a foot in each world, and I'd like to think also that the worlds are not as separate as they sometimes seem. My editor at Penguin is a huge fan of Kelly Link's, and he knew Small Beer Press and is a fan of what we do. And I think because of that he better understood what I was up to with my book, and how I would want it to be handled.
GHG: What else do you do? You make beer, don't you?
JB: Oh, no, that's my colleague Michael J. DeLuca at Small Beer. He's an excellent brewer—and writer, for that matter.
GHG: OK. I know less and less about beer every day. What else do you do?
JB: What else do I do ... I drink his beer. (Laughs.) It doesn't seem like there is much else outside of the books that I'm reading or writing or reviewing, most of the time. I play board games--sitting here in the basement of Pandemonium Books is particularly appropriate because for years I played role-playing games and I still love strategy games like Settlers of Catan and Mystery of the Abbey. Have you ever played Mystery of the Abbey? It's kind of like The Name of the Rose: The Board Game. What else? I have a Chihuahua named Milton who demands a lot of attention, and I ride my bicycle.
GHG: Which role-playing games, specifically?
JB: Well, I grew up in the town of Catskill, New York, a place which I loved in many ways, but at least when I was growing up there, certain things were not present. There was one creaky old used bookstore, and it closed at some point, so naturally there were no hobby shops. I’m not even sure where we managed to find the dice we needed. A twenty-sided die was a mythical object then. I remember my parents and I were on vacation in Florida, and I bought, at a dollar store, some old board game called Heroes of Olympus that was supposed to have a twenty-sided die in it. But the die was missing.
In any case, my friends and I, though we were aware of gaming as something that was going on somewhere, we didn't have access to any of it: we were geeks in a desert. So we made up our own games, our own worlds, for years. I’m thankful for that now. You asked when I knew I wanted to be a writer, and those games were an important part of that puzzle because there we were making up stories, making up characters. I would spend days inventing imaginary worlds for my friends to inhabit, and the cooperative storytelling process really honed my sense of how to put together a narrative.
GHG: You mentioned comic books earlier.
JB: The first two comics I bought were an issue of Detective Comics starring Batman, and an issue of Conan the Barbarian, and I became devoted to both. I've been thinking a lot about the Batman comics recently, because--and some of my early readers noted this when they were looking at my book--I have a kind of Rogue's Gallery of strange villains. One of them is a former carnival magician, the nefarious biloquist Enoch Hoffmann, who is the nemesis of Detective Travis Sivart. I wasn't aware of it at the time, but looking back I see how important those Batman comics were, especially in the sense of creating these heightened personas. They were so themselves, so thoroughly and sometimes so viciously. It’s a kind of myth-making, and it’s really informed my writing process. Of course a lot of comics writers have gone in and explored the psyches and the subtleties more thoroughly, but in their pure form, those characters are absolute symbols of themselves, and that allows for a kind of storytelling which is more like mythology or fable than anything else.
GHG: And there's a direct correlation between that and role-playing characters, because that tends to be the heightened emotional peaks of the experience that tend to play out.
GHG: What comics recently?
JB: Recently I’ve really enjoyed Bryan Lee O'Malley’s Scott Pilgrim series. I've also been going back and reading Miyazaki's work--I love his films, and reading the manga of Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, for example, has been rewarding. And I did dig up the Conan comics after I saw somewhere that Barack Obama has an impressive Conan collection. It’s comforting to know that our President has a bit of a geek side.
GHG: What are some of the weirder questions you've been asked so far? Or is there anything I should ask?
JB: I need a good weird question. Hit me with something really strange!
GHG: How do your parents feel about your work?
JB: (Laughs.) I think my mom is really happy. She read those cozy British mysteries, and got me to read some Agatha Christie when I was young, so I think she sees that the course I’ve taken can be traced back to her. She’s an amazing storyteller, and from her I learned how to withhold the important pieces of information as long as you can. I still listen to the way she tells a story -- it can become so convoluted, yet she draws it all together in the end. She read my book and--she's a very careful reader -- she noticed a consistency error involving one character’s hat. She’s a tough reader, but proud of course.
GHG: Milton the Chihuahua is named after Milton the writer?
JB: Actually, he was adopted from Louisiana, and he came with the name Milton. At first I tried calling him by a different name--I was going to call him Grendel because he looks like a strange little creature and is kind of gargoyle-esque. But Grendel just didn't stick. I went back to Milton, and realized it was a perfectly respectable name, not only because of the poet but also because he--the Chihuahua--acts a bit like he’s your long-lost eccentric uncle, and I like the idea of Uncle Milton, which is how he's often referred to. Milton found his way into a scene in the novel. He's been in a few pieces of mine, actually. He appears in a short story called "The Other Labyrinth" which was in a Datlow/Windling anthology for young adults, The Coyote Road. One of the really satisfying things about publishing that story was that Charles Vess did an illustration for it, and I love Charles Vess's work. I had described Milton clearly enough, I guess, that his drawing of the dog in the story looks pretty much like my dog. It’s hanging on my wall now.
GHG: What other fantasy writers in the past few years, since Amherst, have you enjoyed?
JB: Just recently I've been reading Gene Wolfe, and I'm absolutely enthralled by his work. I've been reading his short stories, and I'm now preparing to get into the novels. I read a section from Wizard or Knight, one of those two books -- I think it's a diptych -- and my first impression of that was of Beckett writing epic fantasy. So I'm looking forward to reading more of his stuff.
GHG: It was turned in as one book, and they forced him to split it.
JB: Oh, is that right? Interesting.
GHG: And I've only read the first half, so I feel like it's their fault that I only got my hands on half of it. Needs to be rectified, at least on my end. And you've mentioned some writers, I'll just list them off: Borges, Calvino, Slattery...
JB: Yes, Liberation I thought was such a wonderful novel. Smart politically, and in its storytelling. I think Brian Slattery has the ability to take an idea and pack it so full -- he stretches things to their utmost in a way that is absolutely compelling. It's a book that's spilling over with ideas, just dizzyingly impressive. Calvino -- that’s going much further back—became important to me not only for the ways he worked from fable and folk tale, but also for his sentences. The clarity and precision of Calvino's writing is something I admire deeply. That, and the fact that he maintains a sense of levity at the same time. His Six Memos for the Next Millennium is the closest thing I have to a guidebook for writing.
GHG: Five speeches and one memo. Yeah, I had a workshop with Rikki Ducornet inspired by Six Memos.
JB: I loved her story collection, which I read around the same time.
GHG: Three short story collections that you would love to press into people's hands. That you think people should read?
JB: There are so many that I’d like to recommend. I could easily pick three just from the Small Beer list. But if I’m trying not to seem too biased? The Voice Imitator by Thomas Bernhard, Cosmicomics by Italo Calvino, The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter. But those are slightly older books; how about I add in three more recent collections? Farewell Navigator by Leni Zumas, Black Juice by Margo Lanagan, and The Baum Plan for Financial Independence by John Kessel. Sorry, that last one is a Small Beer book. I cheated.
GHG: Thank you for doing this, Jedediah.