Reviews/Interviews Editor Ann Beman interviews Sean Bernard about Studies in the Hereafter, his debut novel in which Basque American culture, frustrated angels, golf, and kayaking all play crucial roles.
At the beginning of Studies in the Hereafter, Carmelo invokes three objects that hung in his father’s garage: sheep-shears, a red-stitched bota bag, and a fencepost wrapped in barbed wire. Were there any such items in your family’s possession? Are there significant objects you recall from your family home?
I love this question – well observed! The answer is yes: all throughout my childhood (and even now), my mom kept a set of what I’ve always assumed are my great-grandfather’s sheep-shears hanging on the wall as a sort of totemic reminder of his life. He was, to some extent, a successful version of Carmelo’s idealized self: a Basque immigrant who was, like many Basque immigrants, a sheep herder for many years, working in the eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains; while he was in the hills, his wife ran a Basque hotel in Carson City, Nevada. The bota bag and fencepost were fanciful add-ons, but the sheep-shears are the real deal.
What incited you to write Studies in the Hereafter?
It began with a (small) grant application at my university. These applications are due in February each year, and they’re for funds to be used no sooner than the following July – five months later. I rarely can predict what I’ll be working on five months in the future, so on this occasion, I just made something up about researching Basque immigrant culture (drawing my family background). The grant was approved, so then I actually had to go out and research Basque immigrant culture. And in collecting notes and experiences, I had to think about how to go about collating them into story, into character . . . and so Carmelo emerged . . . and then Tetty . . . and when that felt a little slow, the narrator/heaven plot came into being.
A very odd process for writing a novel: I felt my way into it. This is not something I’d recommend and it’s not an approach I take anymore. But I think – or least I hope – it worked.
What entities or experiences influenced your construct of heaven?
The construct of heaven in the novel is, I hope, a deviation from the ‘normal’ white Christian construct of heaven. That was the goal and my influence in creating the heaven in Studies in the Hereafter: I keep the angels and the wings, and there’s even singing. But I also exaggerate the logic of that ‘normal’ heaven: idyllic places get boring pretty quickly, so making that boredom a tension, and creating little absurdities like angelic traffic jams, was fun while also – I’d say – logical. Then adding the disappointing revelation that heaven is bureaucratic fit, I hope, that sense of bored disappointment.
Golf plays a key role in the hereafter you’ve constructed. How do you really feel about golf?
I think the narrator sums it up best. I’m terrible at golf. I haven’t golfed in decades. It’s a lovely game – the outdoorsiness, the pacing, and I even know some golfers who are quite good human beings. Jim Nantz gets a little breathy, though. The game seems like it’d be fun . . . if one had the time, patience, money, torque, etc, etc. But I do not have those things or, more accurately, choose not to deploy them in the name of golf.
Let’s talk about the Periodic Table of the Human Body that your wonk in the afterlife uses in his field studies of living subjects. At what point in writing the novel did that concept arise? What would you say your own elemental breakdown is?
I don’t know how that came about – terrible admission! – but since I don’t remember the moment of discovery, the table seems to me foreign, like something out of a dream, so I don’t feel embarrassed to say that I absolutely love the table. It’s funny and, I hope, tempting for readers – an absurd way to self-assess, to assess others.
I think my own breakdown would be something like Sk-Lg-Sa-Cp-Ex-Wo (Skeptical, Logical, Self-Aware, Competitive, Excitable, Awestruck). I skew very shallow. But I’m certainly not a gray file!
What is your definition of Americana? Does your novel fit into that definition? How?
I’d guess that I’d say it’s a gentle and embracing satirical representation of a non-existent past America. A kindly loving mockery of American nostalgia. (I’m picturing Twin Peaks here, minus the soap opera dread.) The Americana in my novel comes through in the character of Carmelo: he absolutely fits into the definition . . . in some ways. He’s very taken with objects of nostalgia – the sheep-shears, etc – and takes on the task of recreating a place that is pure Americana. But I’d argue that Carmelo isn’t nostalgic for a lost/past America so much as he’s love-lorn: the sheep-shears have meaning for him because they were in his house as much as for what they represent. And he takes on his Americana construction because he’s trying to win a girl; he wouldn’t do it if there were no Tetty to try to impress. Americana is a vehicle for him to get to Tetty – it’s absolutely the wrong vehicle, but it’s the only one he knows how to drive. (Poor Carmelo.)
What does it mean to be Basque American? Do you identify as such?
My cousin Gabriel Urza (also a novelist) and I had an exchange about this recently, and he made the great observation that “Basque American” culture is sort of like a dreamy reinterpretation of someone’s idea of what Basque Americans were like in the 1950s; that, in fact, it’s quite removed from actual Basque culture (which I know very little about). Basque American culture is closer to Western US culture. Lots of steak, french fries, and picon punches; not much squid ink. I guess that embracing that notion – welcoming and reaffirming that dream – is what it means to be Basque American. Since my grandfather was full-blooded Basque, I’m a quarter Basque (it’s the blood in my legs; my arms are my Irish blood; the rest I just don’t know). That said, I’m not sure I ‘identify’ as Basque American but I recognize and admit that I am.
Let’s talk research. Did you undertake the route that Carmelo followed with his sheep in the novel? Where did you visit to immerse yourself in Basque culture in America?
I did undertake the route that Carmelo followed – at least by looking at maps and reading a bit of Mary Austin. I read quite a bit about the Basque immigrant experience, and much of that was slowly whittled out of the book; it was in there because I’d done the research but ultimately it read too . . . researchy. But no way would I have taken Carmelo’s route – and certainly not with sheep! That’d be way too hot and dry and difficult. It’s more for Cheryl Strayed than for me.
I did, however, drive up and down Highway 395 several times, stopping at various places along the way – searching for tree carvings in aspen groves was particularly fun research. Basque restaurants were great resources, too: I certainly went to the J.T. in Gardnerville and the Hotel Noriega in Bakersfield. I went to a Basque exhibits and a festival in Reno (it wasn’t the year of Jaialdi, the huge festival that takes place every few years in Boise). And of course I spent a good portion of time in and around my great-grandfather’s old sheep camp, not far from Lake Tahoe.
Which authors influence your writing?
I think a few writers are always kicking around in my mind, at least a little – Nabokov, Barthelme. But I think I could only answer this accurately if I looked at it project by project, story by story. I feel like my fiction – at least recently – is frequently written as a response to a given work, or to a given author or authors, and those authors change. (To give examples: in recent projects I’ve been preoccupied variously with Diane Williams, with Roberto Bolaño, certainly with James Joyce. Among others.)
With Studies, since I blindly felt the narrative out more than created it with a clear intent, looking at influences now is a bit of guesswork. The bureaucratic elements are vaguely Joshua Ferris-y (Then We Came to the End), and the heaven definitely has echoes of a Meryl Streep and Albert Brooks movie (Defending Your Life) as well as the odd film A Life Less Ordinary. But the novel began with Carmelo, it began with Tetty, and for me, the two of them are unique – I wrote them without any conscious influence, at least that I recall.
What are your favorite books about Basque culture and Basque culture in America?
I’m going the family route here: I mentioned my cousin earlier: Gabriel Urza, who wrote a very fascinating debut novel (All That Followed) that came out this summer. It’s set in the Basque country and faintly deals with an ETA-like kidnapping/political killing.
And then, of course, Gabe’s grandfather and my great-uncle, Robert Laxalt, who basically *is* the author of Basque culture in America. He wrote many, many books, and Sweet Promised Land, about a character accompanying his father (a sheepherder) back to the Basque country is particularly gorgeous.
Do you have projects in the works? What’s next?
I have a couple finished manuscripts sitting on my desktop, but I’m unsure what’ll be done with them (time to talk to my agent!). Beyond that, I’m currently revising an odd and not particularly literary thriller that was a side-project – a way of giving my mind a rest – to a far more literary and complex novel. It’s unlike anything I’ve written, so it’s a bit of trial and error, but working out the kinks of plot and tension is an amusing and fun challenge.
Past that, I’ve got my mind mulling my next project even as I’m revising: I’m planning on working on what might be several tonally linked novellas that incorporate things such as mourning rituals and amateur astronomy. I love all aspects of the writing process but the pre-writing – the dreaming part of it – has become my favorite. Maybe it always was my favorite. Maybe it’s everyone’s favorite: the ideal form before the thing becomes flawed and real is always so perfect. That I’m in that stage right now is exciting.
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Sean Bernard lives and teaches creative writing at the University of La Verne. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in journals, including Crazyhorse, EPOCH, and Glimmer Train. His debut story collection, Desert sonorous, won the 2014 Juniper Prize. He’s won grants and awards from groups including Oregon Literary Arts, the University of Arizona Poetry Center, Poets & Writers, and, in 2012, a literary fellowship from the NEA.