The Rumpus Interview with Sean Bernard
There is so much going on in Sean Bernard’s debut novel Studies in the Hereafter that it is hard to know exactly how to introduce it. At its heart are Tetty, a Basque-American beauty, and Carmelo, an academic who is obsessed with understanding the Basque culture and with winning Tetty’s heart. But Carmelo isn’t the only one interested in her. There is also the narrator, the person conveying to us Tetty and Carmelo’s story. But the thing is: the narrator is dead. He is an angel in an Office Space version of heaven in which his tedious nine-to-five is to compile reports about the living so that when the living die they can be better placed into a bureaucratic dullery of their own. The novel unfolds as numbered narratives written by the narrator, who becomes more and more enthralled by Tetty, the woman he is supposed to be observing with detachment. Surrounding these narratives are chapters detailing what exactly goes on in this heaven of nine-to-fives, traffic jams, and interoffice politics. Oh: and angels have been mysteriously disappearing as of late.
Sean Bernard is the author of a collection of short stories, Desert Sonorous, which won the 2014 Juniper Prize, and his fiction has appeared in many journals. He teaches creative writing at the University of LaVerne in southern California. We caught up with him by phone to discuss Studies in the Hereafter.
The Rumpus: I’m curious about this novel’s origins. There are a lot of different threads intertwined throughout, and I’m curious which came first in writing Studies in the Hereafter?
Sean Bernard: The novel started with the slower aspects, specifically those related to the Basque culture. The reason it began there is due to a summer research grant I received from my university. When applying for these grants, I’ll turn in a proposal many months before I’ll be doing the actual work, so usually I guess at a project or just make something up on the form. Something with a Basque element had potential for me, mostly because it’s in my blood: my great-grandfather was a Basque immigrant sheepherder in the Lake Tahoe area. So on the application I said I’d be researching the Basque immigrant experience and Basque sheepherders in the American West. The grant was approved and that’s what I did in the early stages: read books on Basque immigrant culture, went up to Reno, visited sites with sheepherder carvings, went to a Basque festival, a lot of Basque restaurants, and so on.
From out of that nebulous research came Carmelo and Tetty, the two characters who represent the Basque elements of the novel. But as I wrote out their narrative, the story seemed a little slow, so I tried to think of a way to make them more situated, to surround them with a larger and more interesting context. That led to drafting odd scenes with a weird guy just watching them and writing about them. It’s funny to think now that I did that because I’ve done it more than once: add a voyeur or spy to create a bit of weird and detached tension to a narrative that might be lacking such a tension.
Rumpus: But this particular guy watching them comes from heaven, it turns out. And the heaven he comes from is in some ways similar to heaven as it’s popularly depicted, but it’s also filled with white collar banalities, sort of like a celestial Office Space. The guy watching Tetty and Carmelo, his nine-to-five is to write reports about people back on earth.
Bernard: Right. It’s a total shift from our usual conception of heaven. Instead of making it placid and happy, make it placid and annoying. Hence the bureaucratic elements. And those, too, were sort of bobbing through the media: The Office was on TV at the time and I’d read And Then We Came to the End a year or two prior. Combining those sorts of things with the work kicking around in my head seemed right; the tone fit the goal of where the novel had to go.
Rumpus: Anytime you write a novel you have to build a world, but I feel like the bar must have been really high when the world you’re building is heaven, because everyone has thought about the afterlife, at least a little bit.
Bernard: It’s tricky, right? Because you’re writing about something that most everybody has imagined. You’re competing with a thing that’s in people’s heads. I definitely wanted to integrate some aspects of popular depictions, like angels and wings, but I also wanted it be a more realistic setting. Which is also, because it’s heaven, unique. Mundane becomes fresh. That’s why the condominiums and traffic jams. And since I wanted this heaven to be a frustrating place, I tried to think of amusing and surprising frustrations. That’s where the veganism comes in. And the golf.
But I wanted to leave it a little vague, too. I didn’t want to get too detailed about how exactly the city of heaven is laid out, or how many people are there. Because the more you define something that people already have notions of, the more they can argue with it in their minds. I guess basically I didn’t want to over-define it. I wanted to define it just enough and then let the already existing imagination of most readers fill in the blanks.
Rumpus: The narrator’s job gets at something really interesting, and that’s that often times writers seem to go through life at a little bit of distance, as if instead of having experiences they experience experience, if that makes any sense.
Bernard: It does make sense. The narrator resembles Tetty in that way, in that in regard to the rest of the people around them, they both have this posture of removal. I don’t personally think that that’s something true of writers specifically, so much as it is just true of a lot people. I think we all feel like we want to push the world away just a little bit. At least from time to time. We all carry within us a nice healthy dose of misanthropy.
Rumpus: Following the narratives of Carmelo and Tetty, there are often these little lines of critique from other characters about the narrator’s writing. His boss takes him to task for slipping into the point of view of a sheep, for instance.
Bernard: This is a book about a guy who’s writing a story, so in some ways those asides about writing could be considered meta-fictional aspects. But I don’t really think it’s meta, not in the way we think of a playful author peeking out at the reader; I say that because writing is literally what the character’s job is. It’s natural that he’s going to be talking about the craft of writing. Maybe I indulge it a little bit at times, but I felt like I gave myself the chance to write about writing in a very natural-to-the-narrative way.
Rumpus: There also seemed to be a little bit of a critique of academia here. I’m thinking specifically of when Carmelo goes to that conference in Hawaii to present on his Basque research. He shares his research in an underwhelming way to a very small crowd, the other two presenters don’t even show up, and then everyone shuffles away. I’ve definitely noticed that even though some academics devote their lives to one really specific aspect of history or philosophy, there can still be a real lack of passion.
Bernard: There are a lot of very wide-ranging academic conferences, and that scene you mentioned is actually based on a real experience. There’s one specific conference centered on “the humanities” in Honolulu each year, and once I went and presented and hardly anyone showed to listen. Which made sense, as there was hardly any scholarly overlap at the conference. It’s nice to poke fun at academia. It’s poking fun at myself and my job. But that aside: hopefully the book is more of a critique of bureaucracies in general rather than academia in particular.
Rumpus: In the bureaucracy of your heaven there is this term “gray file,” which refers to people back on earth not interesting enough to be studied. And pretty much everyone falls into this category. That really flies in the face of something I always took to be an axiom, that everyone, if you take a close enough, is deep and complex.
Bernard: I’m concurrently optimistic and cynical about human nature, so I assume that everyone who reads this book will think, when they read about most people not being complex enough to go to heaven, Oh of course I’m not one of those gray file people. But in the novel, something like 99.999 percent of people are gray-filed. So basically every single one of us, at least in the novel’s world, is boring and shallow. That’s not my sense of reality, though. Your axiom is true. Everyone is very complex. At least if you’re patient enough to consider them. But almost all of us don’t believe that in day to day life because we don’t spend enough time around or with strangers to see the complexity. Instead we just see a guy who cut us off in traffic, so then it’s, To the gray files with him!
Rumpus: You’d previously published a collection of short stories as well as a chapbook. How was it different writing this, your first novel?
Bernard: I had written novels before. They failed. And by failed I mean they never saw the light of day. And by that I mean no more than about four other people read them. Usually less than four. One was a master’s thesis that got beat up during the defense. I did another one or two along the way but nope, I just wasn’t good at writing novels. I’ve been writing short stories for quite a while and it’s taken me a long time to better understand how to manage tension over a longer narrative. I think that the biggest challenge in writing a novel is keeping the situation interesting and meaningful and focused for sixty-, seventy-, eighty-thousand words.
I think this novel has a lot of short story qualities to it. For instance, I think that first narrative with Carmelo and the sheep drive could be its own standalone story. For me, breaking the novel into a lot of characters and storylines made it easier than writing eighty-thousand words of a single narrative. But that’s normal for novels. It is what people have been doing for hundreds of years. Lots of tensions, lots of characters. The work then becomes figuring out how to best fit the pieces together.
Rumpus: You mentioned a master’s thesis novel getting beat up. What lessons did you take away from what I’m sure was a bruising experience?
Bernard: It bruised but didn’t break. The main lesson I took away was that I didn’t know how to write novels and shouldn’t try for a very long time. It was three or four years until I tried to work on something long again. Later, around the time I started working on this novel, I was also lucky to be teaching primarily creative writing and literary journal classes, so my daily mind was more occupied with creating fiction rather than, say, freshman composition. By teaching fiction writing to students, my own writing became better.
Rumpus: Tell us more about that.
Bernard: It’s a great challenge to teach creative writing to students who often have only a little familiarity with literary fiction. It’s first a lesson of reading: to teach students not to read something the way they would in a basic high school English class or college literature class. In those classes (I’m going off my experiences here), students are taught to think about what a piece of writing means, or what a symbol means, or what lessons we’re supposed to take away from a work. I needed to figure out how to get students to think about what they’d read from a writer’s point of view, not a shrink’s. They need to think in terms of structural components, like types of characters and number of characters, how much time passes, how many scenes. Getting students to think about writing that way, by which I mean thinking about craftsmanship, got me much better at thinking about writing in that way. It’s the default way I read now: less for pleasure, more in order to learn.
Rumpus: Going back to your previous attempts at previous novels and how they were always essentially boring, I felt that Studies in the Hereafter put an incredibly high premium on being entertaining and not wasting the reader’s time. There is a lot of jumping from place to place and never did this book feel like it was lingering anywhere past the point of interest.
Bernard: That’s great. I think the heaven sections serve as the entertaining, tension-driven sections. That said, some of my favorite chapters are the ones that have nothing to with heaven. They’re the ones that are just about Tetty and Carmelo and their relationship. There’s not a lot of tension there but I hope that the characterization of Tetty, especially, is unique and deep and human, a stillness that the rest of the book swirls around in all its mania.
Rumpus: In addition to writing and teaching, you also work for two literary journals, The Los Angeles Review and Prism Review. How does being on the editorial side of things affect your writing?
Bernard: Prism Review is taught as a class where undergraduates serve as staffers and read submissions. They don’t read every submission because we get too many, and they’d have to read too much that isn’t fantastic, while I want them to be primarily exposed to great work. So I’m the slush pile reader. I read everything that’s submitted and cull it down to the better pieces that can be instructive for them as writers and critics. I’m also the sole reader for fiction for The Los Angeles Review. Those two things taken together, it means I’m reading a lot, which makes me impatient as a reader but also very excited when I see something distinct and new. I do think you can often tell from the first paragraph if something is well written; I mean this on the sentence level, not in terms of the situation of a story. You can quickly tell if thoughtfulness and craft have been put into a work. And I’ve become much more impatient with myself as a writer. I try to make myself write things that would get my own attention as a reader. Hopefully it shows in my fiction. And since we now live in a country with something like three billion literary journals, I like to imagine that everyone who is working on these journals is developing similar skills, and in five years, we’re all going to be reading a lot of great novels.