Mike Bryan In Conversation With Ernest Hilbert
Ernest Hilbert: The Afterword (Pantheon, 2003) is a short novel, and it consists essentially of the "afterword" to an imaginary mega-bestseller titled The Deity Next Door, which spent 102 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. The Afterword has been described as "metafiction". What is your response to this classification?
Mike Bryan: I can't quarrel with it, but I'm not sure it means much. Any novel calls for a suspension of disbelief. In this case, I ask the reader to pretend that this little book is the afterword to a novel that doesn't really exist. This "metaphysical" factor is dispensed with immediately-the first paragraph-and then we're off to the races, as with any novel.
EH: If bookstores were to allot space to "metafiction" outside of the standard fiction area, what authors would we be likely to find there?
MB: Borges, for sure. Stanislaw Lem. Nabokov. Robert Coover-or so I understand. This admission about Coover leads me to a larger one: The Afterword came from out of the blue. I'm not a student nor a practitioner of this kind of stuff. I write non-fiction, mainly-and I probably read more non-fiction as well-but for some time I'd had the idea for a story about a new deity. I also had the title, and I'd made a few notes, but nothing was working. I couldn't get going, really, and I finally realized that the straightforward approach wasn't for me, because the relationship between this society and religious faith is anything but straightforward. There really is a culture war going on, it's a big mess out there, and I happen to share sympathies with both sides-all sides, because there are many. Okay, so what was the best way to dig into all this? I had no idea, and then one day up popped the idea to write the afterword to that book. Instantly I thought this could be a lot more fun. I like to have fun when I work. Otherwise, why bother?
EH: Is the reader meant to recognize that The Afterword is quite likely longer than The Deity Next Door? Aside from the striking irony of this, is it intended as a reflection on the relentless impulse toward commentary and "behind the scenes" exposés in the US today?
MB: I think the reader will feel that Deity is pretty short, yes, but I don't know how short. We also get the sense that it's straightforward, humorless, no irony anywhere-a modern-day gospel, in effect, and probably not nearly as much fun (I hope) to read as the afterword about it.
EH: What influence, if any, has Jorge Luis Borges's writing had on your choice of form and tone in the book?
MB: As I confessed-or at least implied-earlier, no book had any direct influence that I'm conscious of. Specifically, it's been many years since I've read Borges. Now, as it happens, I reread Pale Fire just last month. If I'd done so while working on The Afterword, it might have influenced me-and frustrated me, because it's such a brilliant book.
EH: In that you have sketched its themes and progress in some detail, do you feel that you have, in a sense, written The Deity Next Door after all?
MB: Yes, and this was the idea all along. With The Afterword, I thought I could have it both ways with Deity, indirectly or implicitly sketching enough of the plot and themes to satisfy the reader's desire (and need) to know what's going on, while also providing the commentary about that plot and those themes. I had a lot of fun coming up with ways to inform you, the reader, about the plot of Deity while pretending that you'd just read it. I knew that every reference to that action would have to be quick, oblique, and make sense in the context of an afterword. For example, the "lamp scene" deals with an early miracle in the career of this new deity. I thought I needed to go into some detail, but easier said than done without breaking the conceit that you've just read the lamp scene for yourself. I came up with the idea of pretending that I almost turned the novel into a play, because I thought the scene would work so well on stage. By describing the hypothetical stage version, I'm actually telling you about the prose version in Deity.
EH: Is there a particular strategy behind the decision to publish The Afterword as a pocket-sized hardcover? One is reminded, for instance, of Alan Lightman's Einstein's Dreams, which you mention early on in the novel.
MB: I guess Pantheon didn't have much choice about the size, because the book is short-32,000 words, something like that. Pocket-sized it is! But regarding the three different covers (orange, yellow, green), the matching endpaper and board, etc.-hats off to Pantheon. An incredible job. The review in The New Yorker Observer even remarked on the beautiful "package," as they sometimes say in the trade. That's rare-and well-deserved.
EH: Were you at any point tempted, so to speak, to go ahead and write Deity? Is it more alluring as it is now, an imaginary artifact and history?
MB: Actually, I've thought recently about writing Deity. I've also thought about turning the story into a play. I've even thought about a sequel, and I have the gimmick with which to get all the players back on stage. But will I proceed with plans A, B, or C? I doubt it. Enough's enough, I guess.
EH: What is your relationship with theology? Did you have call to study and think on theological subjects before you decided to write The Afterword?
MB: I had a leg up here, because some years ago I wrote a book about a Bible college in Dallas, Chapter and Verse: A Skeptic Revisits Christianity. That was my research. I even plagiarized from myself a couple of times. (I guess that's legal. I didn't even check.)
EH: Thank you for taking the time to answer some questions. I enjoyed the book and I wish you all success.
MB: Thank you. An oddball opus like this one lives on word of mouth.