Exclusive: Jedediah Berry Under the Influence

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Sarah Weinman pimped The Manual of Detection by Jedediah Berry in a Weekly Reader post a few weeks back and before that Hannah Tinti revealed that it was the last book that had kept her up all night long. If you’re in New York, you can catch the author this Thursday at KGB Bar along with Deb Olin Unferth as part of the Behind the Book reading series.

After the jump, Berry talks with us about influences, breaking the taboo against dreams in fiction, and what the New Yorker got wrong in its review of his book.

Flavorwire: This seems like the kind of book that would have very involved fans. Have you found that as you’ve started out on the reading circuit?

Jedediah Berry: [At the Harvard Book Store] everyone was very nice. It was a good reading, lots of good questions from the audience. It was a very engaged group of people who were there… this was one of the first times I was answering questions directly from readers, and I think not many people had read the book yet, they’re just getting it now, so I haven’t experienced too much of that. We’ll see.

FW: Tell us about your influences. It seems like there’s a whole lot at work here; the book has a relationship to a lot of other genres and tropes.

JB: When I started the book, I had been reading a lot of Kafka. And a lot of books for one reason or another that featured file clerks. And I found myself sort of obsessively tracing this, in stories like “Bartleby the Scrivner,” and some of Gogol’s stories, like “The Overcoat,” and decided that the file clerk was one of the best possible protagonists to have. They’re obsessive by nature, and they want to organize and arrange, and this was something I felt like I could identify with on some sort of personal level. That’s really where [the main character] Charles Unwin came from.

The other thing that I had on my mind at that time was surrealist painting, Rene Magritte and that kind of work. I knew I wanted to write something that would be concerned with dreams and dreaming. Somehow, the file clerk plus that was the equation for me.

The other side of it, of course, is the detective novel, and that I stumbled into almost completely by accident. I knew that the file clerk needed to work for some kind of large organization, but I didn’t know what the organization was for. I decided, well, they’re a mystery-solving organization. So without planning in advance, I had a detective appear in the first chapter and promote Unwin to the rank of detective. Then I needed to do a lot of research, because I wasn’t very familiar with the genre. That’s when I did a lot of reading.

I went back to G.K. Chesterton, because I loved his book The Man Who Was Thursday. I knew he had written all of these mystery stories, the Father Brown mysteries, so I read all of those and I worked my way up to the hard boiled writers, Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, who I really grew to adore in a way that I hadn’t expected. And I think those two worlds come together in the book. Unwin comes from this older tradition, this amateur sleuth who’s thrust into this strange situation, he’s dropped into this noir world. It was really the friction between those two worlds that drove a lot of the narrative to me.

FW: It seems like the novel is about the space between two concrete things… Unwin talks about excising facts from Detective Sivart’s case files, and Sivart’s version of events is excerpted within the text, but we never see the “official” version Unwin filed. It feels like it’s taking place in between two different versions of events.

JB: I hoped to create a sense of uncertainty about the text itself, how much can we trust this narrative, and I tried to layer that in as much as possible. You know that Unwin’s version of those reports exist in the archives, and then you have the Manual of Detection itself, which is supposed to guide him. And then [Unwin] meets the author of the Manual and he tells him to ignore it, it’s completely useless. That was something I was trying to play with, planting seeds of doubt about the veracity of any particular source, and that sort of weaves into the central mystery of the book, to the extent that there is a central mystery.

FW: Speaking of that central mystery, The New Yorker review said that it is a 9/11 allegory. When we saw the write up we wondered if that was your intent or if that was what the reviewer was bringing to the book. Certainly a city in chaos or under threat echoes that situation.

JB: I was surprised to see the 9/11 allegory there; it was not my intention to write an allegory of any kind. I have knowingly written something which hopefully allows for a good deal of interpretation. I hope people bring their own stories to it and find ways in which that matches up with the story in the novel. I think of it more as an extended fable than anything else. It’s a fable disguised as a detective novel.

There is this section of the book based on one of those case files, called The Man Who Stole November 12th. I had that title before I even knew what that was about. All of these mystery files in the book, I didn’t know at first they would be part of the story itself, I just kind of listed them off on a whim. The Man Who Stole November 12th was simply homage to Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday. So once I sat down and needed to create a story for that, I did find myself writing about a city where this day is irrevocably changed.

I was living in New York on 9/11, and I did use a bit of my experience in writing that particular section, where you’re in an office and you’re slowly realizing something has gone terribly wrong in the world outside. But it’s almost slapstick in the book. If it evokes that experience of 9/11 or any calamity of that kind, then I think that is fine and interesting. But to have it pinned down as allegory to any particular event is kind of sad for me. I would rather that it exist as a more free-floating kind of thing.

FW: The review also says something about Wes Anderson interpreting Kafka…

JB: I love that idea! I think Wes Anderson should begin adapting Kafka as soon as possible.

FW: And it’s a great compliment! You mentioned Kafka, so obviously they got that right. In terms of Wes Anderson, in your wildest dreams, what might the movie of this book look like?

JB: I did write it with certain filmic notions in mind. I think that’s part of how my storytelling process works at this point. I’m influence by film in a way I can’t completely detach myself from. The book for me has a kind of color scheme. I can see particular scenes with a particular kind of momentum to them. I love the French directors Caro and Jeunet who did The City of Lost Children. Movies where there’s a combination of comedy but also suspense and fable which are all coming about this cause-and-effect movement, where small things effect bigger things effect bigger things. I would love to see that kind of thing brought to this book… I love film noir as well: the long shadows and the rainy city streets and the way that particular visual set of the mystery and the sense of the unknown, the danger of the unknown.

FW: Can you talk a little bit about working at an independent publisher and then bringing out your book with a larger commercial house?

JB: One of the things I love about working for a small press is the degree of involvement we have with the writers. We’re really working together in so many cases to bring the book out into the world and get it to the right readers, and it’s a very exciting process. I had reached a point in the writing of this book when I wanted it out of my hands completely, because I’m usually so involved in the editorial process. I was ready to step away from that.

That said, I was actually pleasantly surprised to find that many aspects of working with Penguin Press specifically were more like what I have come to know about editing books. I had a very close relationship with my editor there, who was brilliant and very, very helpful in bringing the book to the final stages of revision. When I visited there, the imprint itself, even though they’re in a giant office, they have a very particular identity there. So some of it was really nice in that way. It’s interesting, I’ve been finding that in the larger houses, there seems to be a genuine support and recognition of the importance of the small press and what they bring to the table. They certainly are two very different worlds, there’s a good deal of co-existence that allows for a broader range of things to be happening.

It’s an interesting and scary time for both the small presses and the big houses — for everyone who cares about books. I think the role of the small press is crucial right now, and will be even more important with all the changes that are occurring in the publishing industry. I am by nature a small press person and so it is a little odd to have my book there in this very different way, but at the same time it allows me to afford to continue working for a small press and donating a lot of my time to that process. I think it’s worked out pretty nicely.

FW: In writing workshop 101, they tell you, “Don’t use adverbs.” “Don’t write dreams.” Certainly many, many writers have broken that rule. Do you have any favorite examples?

JB: Kelly Link is some one who I think does really wonderful things with dreams, often because she’s so overt about it. She’ll simply say, this person dreamed this, and just kind of drop it right into the page. I admire that. Who else? There are writers like Calvino, I can’t remember any dream sequences, who write with a dream-like quality, but with also a kind of precision which I really strove for. Those might be the biggest two. Angela Carter. So much of her prose is purple and grand and just luscious, and there’s a sense of kind of a dream life spilling over into the real world. When I first read Angela Carter, she rearranged some big part of my brain, and I’m always writing under her influence.