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Always on Display: An Interview with Joshua Ferris

May 19, 2014 | by

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Photo: Beowulf Sheehan/Hachette Brown Group

“The mouth is a weird place,” says the dentist-narrator of Joshua Ferris’s new novel, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour. “Not quite inside and not quite out, not skin and not organ, but something in between: dark, wet, admitting access to an interior most people would rather not contemplate—where cancer starts, where the heart is broken, where the soul may just fail to turn up.”

It’s not just dentists who peer into dark spaces. Fear that the soul may fail to turn up is everywhere in Ferris’s work. To date, he has explored the human search for soulfulness in the anonymizing ecosystem of an office (Then We Came to the End); in the repercussions of an isolating, untreatable disease (The Unnamed); and repeatedly in words themselves. A short story like “The Fragments,” published in The New Yorker last spring, is constructed from snippets of half-caught conversations. It takes as its subject the not-quite-bridgeable gap between overhearing and understanding, between the sound of a sentence and the meaning inside. To Rise Again at a Decent Hour turns this artistic interest in misunderstandings into an impressive investigation of faith and doubt. It’s a novel full of existential humor, and the laughs start before the book has even begun. Not many American writers, searching the Bible for an appropriate epigraph, would have found their eyes alighting on this one:

Ha, ha

—Job 39:25.

I met Ferris on a Friday afternoon in Brooklyn. We talked about his desire to shift his writing away from what he calls “the over-manufacture of the imagined” to a more “face value” approach. We also discussed the ways in which he envies the sense of belonging religion can offer, and why literary critics could afford to lighten up when it comes to funny fiction. “We don’t exist in the world solely to grow goatees and stroke them,” he told me. “We’re here also to make one another laugh.”

I heard that To Rise Again at a Decent Hour started its life as a detective novel called The Third Bishop. How did you find your way from that original idea into a novel about baseball and religion, narrated by a dentist?

Ten years ago, I was despairing of writing any book at all. I had about 250 pages of the novel that eventually became Then We Came to the End, and those pages were wanting. So I put them away and eventually gave myself over to a very different manuscript. It was about a kid who had been thoroughly indoctrinated into a cult and was convinced that his strange view was the worldview. I was interested in the borderland that exists between a cult and a religion, and especially fascinated by Joseph Smith and the evolution of Mormonism.

After Then We Came to the End and The Unnamed were published, I ended up coming back to that story of an indoctrinated kid. Slowly it evolved into the story of a private detective investigating a possibly ancient religion. In a way, the books you almost wrote on the way to finding the final novel will always be more interesting than the published version. They’re a more colorful record of the writer’s life. But with the help of my two editors I came to see that the private detective, who’s inherently a kind of mediating narrator, or a cipher, wasn’t working for me either. I needed a narrator right at the center of the novel, encountering the religion for himself. He eventually became a dentist because I need my characters to have jobs in order to feel real to me. People have to work. I thought, Why not make him a dentist? It doesn’t get any more real world than that. You’re getting in there every day and making shit bleed.Read More »

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Jumping Off a Cliff: An Interview with Kevin Barry

November 12, 2013 | by

Photo Credit:  Murdo Macleod

Photo credit: Murdo Macleod.

It is common, when assessing the achievements of a fiction writer, to consider how “well-rounded” his or her characters are. But one of the many pleasures of Kevin Barry’s work, and in particular of his most recent collection, Dark Lies The Island, is that it reminds us how—in fiction as in life—the most interesting people are often lopsided.

In a Barry story, people fuck up and then, after taking a breather, they fuck up some more. A guy walks out of a juvenile detention center and—fresh start!—concludes it’s a grand idea to start selling crystal meth. A boy on a rooftop thinks about kissing a girl, and keeps on thinking about it, and thinking about it, until hesitancy has nuked opportunity. In one of the collection’s most gnawingly memorable stories, “Ernestine and Kit,” the reader is presented with two chatty, unremarkable middle-aged women on a road-trip. The stage seems set for a warm story of female bonding. Only gradually, with slow dread, do we begin to read the cruel slant of their thoughts: they are predators planning to snatch a child.

Although he’s not averse to the occasional earnest moment of romance, Barry’s usual mode is laughter in the dark. Writers producing work in this vein are not, these days, a publisher’s dream. There is therefore something comforting in the way he’s finding an admiring, expanding audience both in his native Ireland and here in the U.S. After years of producing work he was unhappy with (“I wrote these great sententious sentences, clause after clause after clause under a black belly of fucking cloud”) his first major breakthrough came in 2007, when he won the Rooney Prize for Literature for There Are Little Kingdoms. That story collection had been released by a tiny Dublin literary press called The Stinging Fly. His first novel, City of Bohane, appeared in the UK in 2011 and went on to win the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. When Graywolf Press gave the book an American release it graced the cover of the New York Times Book Review and was hailed by the reviewer as a novel “full of marvels … marvels of language, invention, surprise.”

Ale is one of Barry’s enthusiasms. The interview which follows took place over pints at Flatbush Farm, a bar in Brooklyn. He’s a keen, wide-eyed talker who’s always pushing at the limits of what a curse word can do. He injects bright life into a conversation and occasionally ad-libs the kinds of observations you underline in his books. In Dark Lies The Island, breakfast involves “scraping an anti-death spread the colour of Van Gogh’s sunflowers onto a piece of nine-grain artisanal toast.” The summer staff at an old hotel include “a pack of energetic young Belarusians, fucking each other at all angles of the clock.” The sky at night “shucked the last of its evening grey” and “the buck in the kiosk at the clampers had a face on him like a dose of cancer.” Barry’s language drags you into a strange, darkly lyrical world, enacting his own definition of literature as a mode of transport. “It lifts you up out of whatever situation you’re in and it puts you down somewhere else,” he says below. “It fucking escapes you. That’s what literature is.” Read More »

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