Interview with Jedediah Berry

By Marilyn Márquez

Your novel, The Manual of Detection is a mix of surrealism, fantasy and classic noir novels, and at the same time very literary. Where do you find inspiration for your writing?  

I draw inspiration from numerous sources. Sometimes its a bit of language, sometimes its an image, sometimes something will come out of a dream. But most often it comes out of my own reading. The stories I love most as a reader are those that feel like invitations to contribute to the broader realm of storytelling. With The Manual of Detection, there were some very specific inspirations: the hard-boiled detective novel classics, Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, as well as writers who play with genre and form, like Italo Calvino and Angela Carter. I also draw inspiration from film quite often, and I think that shows with The Manual of Detection, which was influenced by the film noir tradition.

You recently launched Ninepin Press, which is “…interested in bold storytelling, unusual voices, and experimental forms.” The first publication is “The Family Arcana,” a story you wrote in cards and that can be read in any order, and still holds a narrative arc. How did a story told in cards become the catalyst for the birth of an independent publisher?

“The Family Arcana” came to me unexpectedly in the middle of the night as a voice: I heard the voice of this family of children who were telling their story, and it came to me in weirdly complete sentences. I started writing the little bits of the story out on index cards, limiting myself to that span, that space, and jumping from subject to subject, card to card. As I did that, I realized that I had also stumbled upon a structure for the piece, that it should, in fact, be modular and non-linear, where any of these bits of the narrative could precede any other. It's about what they form as a whole, rather than the order they come in. As I worked on it, I realized that, eventually, I could have enough cards to fill out a full deck. I wasnt sure that I would be able to find a publisher to take on this strange project. But every time I read it in public, at least one writer would come up to me afterwards, and say, “You know, Id love to do something like this.” So, when we did finally publish the cards ourselves, I wanted to do it in such a way that I would be able to publish other writers’ works, who were excited about experimenting with form and finding new ways to tell stories. So that led to the birth of Ninepin Press

What do you think is the most important quality for a writer, the one thing that makes you go “Yes, this is the one.”? What do you look for when you are reviewing a manuscript? 

I think that the quality that I often first notice—its a little hard to quantify—but its when I feel, at the level of the sentence, that the writer is taking real joy in the writing process. Its something that you can pick up on right away. When a writer is having fun on the page, then the prose is fun to read. I think thats what I look for. It often shows itself as a willingness to experiment, a willingness to take risks, and to stretch what a voice can do on the page, and those things, even if the story isnt there yet, or the structure hasnt been found, or there are surface-level issues with grammar or whatever—that stuff can always be addressed later. But when theres that spark on the level of the words and of the sentence, you can feel it.

Youve worked as an editor, and also taught in several places and for different programs over the years. What is the most important thing youve learned about working with writers throughout the years? How have these experiences influenced your work?

The most important thing that I try to keep in mind is that every writer is different. There are literary traditions that we engage in, there are shared beliefs and shared practices, but when it comes down to it, I look at each writer as a unique code. The code isn’t necessarily for me to uncrack, but collaboratively I hope that, with my students, as well as with the writers with whom I work as an editor, well uncrack this thing together. Coming to understand a writer’s intentions is key, both for me and for them, and I try as best Im able to get myself into that same point of view and see what that intention might be, and then do everything I can to draw it out and to give it as strong a voice as possible.

How do you approach the group dynamics in a workshop setting?

I start every workshop that I teach with a collaborative exercise. I like for my writers to have a sense for one another and to be open to a sense of playfulness. A workshop is a serious space in which we explore matters of craft and study them in a professional way, but I feel that if we lose that playfulness, then the workshop can become dry. My hope is to create a space in which we don’t just tell each other our opinions, but in which the conversation goes beyond the expectations that we bring to the table. And for that to work, I think I think we need to know when to laugh as well as when to apply the sincere deliberations of fellow practitioners of the art.

How do you approach the mentoring process?

So, to start, I think its about providing a lot of time and space to explore common ground. I try not to launch into conversations about my students’ work right away, but instead, we talk about books. I think our lives as readers are the foundations for our lives as writers, so I like to work from the ground up with my students. Its a big leap for someone to choose to become a student, to open themselves up to this kind of mentorship. I encourage my students to surprise me. I want them to do things that I wont expect. And I think and hope that they see that from the moment we begin talking, that Im really providing a context within which they are going to explore their own work and their own creative process, and I just hope to make that thrive as much as possible.

What piece of advice would you give to someone who is thinking about becoming a writer, someone willing to make the commitment to work on a program as intense as this one, for two years? 

My advice is, simply, to anticipate everything being a lot harder than you expect it to be, and a lot more rewarding than you expect it to be. The life of the writer is demanding in ways that you can never anticipate because it connects the personal with the artistic in countless, quiet ways. But I think, too, that it is a path to a very full life that is also something like having a double vision of the world. And that double vision can feel like a burden sometimes, because everything youre seeing and doing, youre aware of it as being potential material. But it also means that you can live your life mindfully. Its a practice in consciousness, which I think is always a virtue.