Arts & Literature

Art in Paradise: Second Time Around

Valley writer Jedediah Berry talks about life after his first novel, The Manual of Detection

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Friday, March 18, 2011

There's a name for what often happens after a brilliant artistic debut: the sophomore slump. It's the product of something well delineated by Elvis Costello, who is credited with saying musicians have their whole lives to craft a first album, then six months to make a second.

The pressures work on a different timeline in the publishing world, of course, but often the blank page can be a whistling arctic wilderness when it comes to writing anything. Make it a second novel after a successful debut, and the same sense of having to be brilliant on demand can come into play.

Northampton writer (and Small Beer Press "roaming editor") Jedediah Berry's first book, The Manual of Detection, defies easy shelving—it's a noirish, sort of detective story set in an imaginary city where the rain never stops and mysterious events abound. The protagonist is a dedicated, umbrella-wielding bicyclist turned reluctant detective in the strange bureaucracy for which he works. Things don't wrap up in the usual whodunit fashion, ending up instead in a headier resolution that owes more to Franz Kafka or Louis-Ferdinand Celine than to Dashiell Hammett.

Because of that unusual straddling of the usual lines, The Manual of Detection has, fortunately enough for Berry, appealed to readers in disparate camps. "The book won awards from the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts," says Berry, "and from the International Crime Writers Association."

Berry says much of the praise he received proved especially gratifying: "The people who I found out were reading it were writers who I've admired for a long time. It was like the completion of some sort of conversation for me that was really cool to have come about."

Specter of the sophomore slump or no, Berry seems well placed to avoid the second-book doldrums: "I'm looking forward to having a second book, because it will hopefully make more clear what I'm up to in a broad way. I think when people see that my next book won't have any sort of mystery novel aspects to it, then that will hopfully broaden the range of possibilities of what people might expect me to do. Other than that, I'm not really thinking about it."

All the same, he says, writing fiction remains a tough task. "I question myself so often, every step of the way. It's so much a part of my writing process that I'll come up with something and I will almost immediately consider other possible angles, other possible ways to approach it, and I can't help but do that," he says.

"It makes things take a long time, but I like to think that in the long run it also allows for layers to be built into the story that, if I were just hurrying along, I might miss having otherwise."

Berry has found some interesting ways around such questioning. On his book tour for The Manual of Detection, he embraced multiple possibilities as their own reward. The story he often read took an unusual form. "Every scene is on a card of its own and every time I read it," he says, "I would shuffle it and read it in a new order just to see what would happen. It was a really fun way to force myself into thinking about the possibilities that any story could take, and hopefully invite my readers into that process in an entertaining kind of way. It was terrifying and almost surprising to me what would happen each time."

Berry's editing role at Small Beer Press has become freelance, and, in order to make headway in his second novel, he's taken to the road lately, most recently becoming writer-in-residence at the James Merrill House in Stonington, Conn.

His second novel sounds especially intriguing, and he explains that it's "not a sequel so much as a companion novel" to Manual of Detection. "The working title for the book is The Something Tree, and it's an adventure novel and a love story set in the far future," says Berry. "The main character is a courier who has to contend with monsters, ghosts, superstitious villagers and corrupt government officials. And there are trains and flying machines."

For more on Berry, see www.manualofdetection.com.

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