A few weeks ago, I sat in the Fresh Side in Amherst, ruminating over the tea choices. Local author and professor of creative writing at Bard College, Jedediah Berry, was meeting me there to talk about writing and his very successful novel The Manual of Detection. I am not a tea aficionado, but Berry had suggested the place, and I had to admit the jazz music, low lighting, and artificial flora created a pleasant atmosphere to talk writing. Eventually, I settled on the “gunpowder green” because it sounded like the manliest of brewed-and-steeped concoctions. When I ordered it, I secretly wished that the waiter would have asked me warily, “Are you sure, sir?” or commented loudly, “That’ll really put some hair on your chest!” Neither happened.
Berry was running late, and it occurred to me that this would have been uncharacteristic of Charles Unwin, the main character in his book The Manual of Detection. See, Charles Unwin is a meticulous and prompt man, and from what I had gathered from other interviews of Berry, Unwin would be an approximation of his creator. When Berry arrived, only slightly behind schedule, his overall cleanliness and well-manicured presentation proved my suspicion was right – Jedediah Berry was indeed Charles Unwin-esque. While his lack of punctuality was uncharacteristic of Unwin, his presentation and welcoming demeanor were on queue. And so began my interview with local author Jedediah Berry.
“I actually wanted to be a filmmaker,” Berry said to me while enjoying some gunpowder green of his own. “That is what I was originally in school for.”
Berry found his way into writing, however, after taking a creative writing course as an undergraduate at Bard where he now teaches. He soon abandoned the idea of being a filmmaker and pursued writing.
“I wouldn’t want to have to do the big production a film requires now,” Berry quipped.
Certainly, if you consider how meticulous Charles Unwin is in The Manual of Detection, you might think a big production would never be finished, but only tinkered with ad infinitum. However, writing is its own arduous task, but one that Berry seems very comfortable with. Even though the plot in Manual of Detection is intricate, the voice is very natural, as if no struggle had existed between the author and the blank page.
The same could not be said, though, for Charles Unwin.
“[I wanted to put] Charles Unwin into situations beyond his capabilities. I wanted to put him in ever more dangerous and strange situations; set him against his preference for order and meticulousness. The plot thrives on this conflict.”
The conflicts worked and so does Berry’s storytelling. Manual of Detection won the 2009 Hammett Prize and is now published in a dozen languages. Berry has also been fortunate enough to be welcomed overseas across Europe, most notably to Italy and Germany. Still, the overseas adulation has not shaken this local writer’s humility.
“Every time a new foreign edition comes in the mail, it is a very surreal experience. It is humbling to know that this little story I started with reaches that far. It is mind-blowing.”
Jedediah Berry was born in Randolph, Vermont, but by the time he turned one, his family had moved to his mother’s hometown of Catskill, New York. There, Berry developed a fondness and a knack for creating stories.
“The first time I wrote something as the writer I identify with today was late in high school. I wrote a very short story which had the character of the White Rabbit as a really old man living alone in his house. The moment I created something strange from something familiar to me was the start of my writing life.”
Still hooked on film, though, he set off to college. Once he found his calling at Bard writing fiction, he made his way to western Massachusetts where he began his master’s studies at UMass-Amherst. While at UMass, he was taken in by a Northampton publishing company called Small Beer Press, which specializes in unusual and innovative fiction. After his internship, he was hired as an editor there, where he had his first experience with book publishing.
“Working at Small Beer gave me a sense of how publishing works. It didn’t find me a publisher, but it did give me an idea of the relationship between the writer and the editor and how to go about promoting a book.”
This experience gave him insight and preparation for what was in store for his novel, still in its nascent stage at this point. After reworking the style and tone of the book into a noir-fantasy, Berry and his literary agent, who he found through one of his professors, took the manuscript and searched for the best publisher.
“Once it was ready, my agent sent it to a lot of publishers. I was lucky to have a handful of bidders for the book.”
From there, Berry and his agent went through a back-and-forth with the various bidders, trying to find who was best suited to publish the work while also acknowledging that the publishers had their own motives for having the book.
“It is a two-way interview really. If you find an editor that connects with your work, it is amazing and important because he or she will be the one who is presenting your work to the world. On the one hand, you want to find someone you can click with, but on the other hand, the editor needs to make money.”
Of course, while in his opinion, Mr. Berry feels he was assisted by luck, you still have to be inspired and write an excellent story. Often writers become lost when writing; “writer’s block” and other distractions can keep writers from staying focused and inspired.
When asked what advice he could give to writers starting out, Berry said, “There are two arguments: writing what you know and writing what you don’t know. It is a combination of them. You write what you know on a human level, what you understand about yourself and others, but you need to write beyond yourself. Writing what you don’t know is key; use it as a mode of exploration. If you don’t explore, then it is dead on the page.”
This is where Berry confesses that while Charles Unwin is in some ways Berry himself, the exploration comes from placing Unwin in difficult circumstances, thus exploring the unknown.
“In some ways I wanted to subject Unwin to these situations and predicaments because I wanted to see what I would do in these situations,” Berry said about the character.
After Manual of Detection’s success and many translations, as well as Jedediah Berry’s burgeoning academic career, he is busy writing another novel. He was rather secretive about the story, but was willing to give up this little bit: “It is a novel set in the far future where language has been lost and the main character is involved with a guild that is reintroducing words. It is kind of science fiction, but it is also a spy novel.”
I suppose writing what you know is sometimes just too good to pass up. Luckily for fans of fiction, Jedediah Berry has not lost language.