What is heaven like? The inscrutable nature of the afterlife is at the heart of Sean Bernard’s debut novel Studies In The Hereafter, due out from Pasadena’s Red Hen Press on August 15. The professor of creative writing at University of La Verne and recipient of a 2012 NEA grant has deep roots in the literary West: His great-uncle was the Basque-American author Robert Laxalt, whose work celebrated the lives of immigrant sheepherders. Bernard grew up in Tucson, where his first book, the short fiction collection Desert Sonorous, is set. His SoCal bona fides are strong—Bernard edits at both Prism Review and The Los Angeles Review—but the writer says his new novel is hardly at all about place. “It’s more a lightly thrilling speculative romance.”
The story of star-crossed lovers Carmelo and Tetty, Studies in the Hereafter offers a frustrating and idiosyncratic heaven populated by characters as complicated and lovable as their Earthbound corollaries and a transfixing and mysterious frontispiece: a table of the elements of The Body, about which Bernard says: “I hope that readers look at it and even wonder how they might classify people, what personalities they’d be inclined to consider, weigh, value.”
We spoke to Bernard about the southern California literary scene and whether or not L.A. is heaven.
In Studies in the Hereafter, you write, “No, it’s certainly not how any of us expected this place to be—we were all hoping for something a bit grander, aglow with effervescence and luminescent wonder.” Where did the idea for an afterlife so close in character to regular life come from?
I think it’s arguable that heaven is more thrilling than the narrative set in reality.” I hope so, at least, because I wanted heaven to have that extra narrative excitement both as a balance against the slower movement of reality and also because heaven really is the present moment of the story: life in ‘reality’ informs the excitement of all that happens in heaven . . . not vice versa. So heaven’s where things start, where things end, where the action takes place.
That said, for me, the “real” life of the book—especially Tetty’s—is the most . . . human, I guess. The most complex and real. Heaven is far more plot-driven. It’s the thriller. Reality anchors it down. As reality should, I think.
Is there a link between your experiences at the University of La Verne and the world of your novel?
There are a few moments in the book where Carmelo, an academic, has interactions with his students—they sort of pass through his life like bright stars, moving onto grander and more exciting dreams, while he stays fixed in his office. (Though of course he strikes out on his own at times, too.) Those moments are the only parts that directly echo the way I relate to students: they appear, they shine, they grow brighter and brighter, and then they’re gone. Which is tremendously great, on the one hand, and a little sad on the other.
I wrote the first draft several years ago, and the bureaucratic elements do somewhat resemble specific aspects of my school, but more generally I hope that they echo the frustrating aspects of any bureaucracy. Here’s the weird thing: Without getting into too much detail, this spring, there was an attempt made to force a departmental merger onto the academic department I reside in. So here I am going through the proofs of the novel—which features a forced merger—and, though of course I’d written it several years prior, it read like I was writing it in real-time, about real events.
What are your thoughts on the state of literature in Southern California?
There’s a lot happening. Much of it good! And I’m definitely part of the community, or at least near the community—in addition to teaching and serving as an editor for the journals, my wife Vieve Kaplan helps run a monthly poetry series in Claremont, I bring out writers to my school each semester, we go to readings every month or so, etc. Venues like The Last Bookstore, Skylight, and Vroman’s are all great at letting authors do book events. Poets & Writers has an office out here that helps fund readings—they’ve directly supported me in that way and other ways, which has been tremendous. And AWP is coming this year! And there are many great journals—aside from the ones I work on, Joyland, Santa Monica Review, Faultline, and Black Clock all come to mind. On paper, it’s a great scene.
But given all that, I don’t feel a tremendous sense of community in L.A.—and to be very, very clear, that’s not a complaint; it’s just an observation. I have friends in Chicago talk about the poetry scene there and make it sound more like how grad school was for me: close, enthusiastic, messy, always happening, unfocused and alive. Here—at least for me and again, because of distance, personality, and time—it’s more surgical: go here. Next month: there. An hour drive home? Well, best leave after instead of mingle.
Which is all perfectly okay with me. I think that Cormac McCarthy said something like, “I went into writing so I wouldn’t have to work with other people.” I’m not nearly that much a misanthrope but I do lean a little that way, so not having a community to influence me—it’s good by me! Ultimately my main role in the writing community is as it is for all of us: alone. Alone reading, alone writing. Which isn’t alone at all—but absolutely is.
Given that many people consider southern California a kind of heaven, how did living here influence the one you created in your novel?
Oh, I live thirty miles east of downtown L.A., on the fringe of the Inland Empire. Lots of 4×4 trucks and beer drinking—meaning it’s not so deeply healthy out here as it might be in Santa Monica or Brentwood. And while there are certainly California-specific aspects in the novel, since parts are set in California—Basque diners in Bakersfield, an apartment near the Claremont colleges—the setting of heaven is, or at least I hope it is, a blurred version of a very general and anodyne urban center. L.A. has much, much better food than the heaven in my book. Thankfully.
Catch Sean Bernard at the Studies In The Hereafter launch party at Claremont Craft Ales on Saturday, August 22, from 4-6 p.m., and reading with Percival Everett at the Boston Court Performing Arts Center in Pasadena on October 21.