DEATH WATCH: An Interview with Ari Berk

September 11, 2012

Book One of The Undertaken Trilogy

One of my favorite things to do is spend time wandering through various bookstores. I’m not much of a shopper, but books are the one thing I could spend a fortune on (and often do.) While wandering through Barnes & Noble in Chicago several months ago, my friend and fellow author Troy Taylor picked up the book Death Watch, read the inside of the jacket, and handed it to me to read:

They say the dead should rest in peace.
Not all the dead agree.

One night Silas Umber’s father, Amos, doesn’t come home. Devastated, Silas learns that his father was no mere mortician but an Undertaker, charged with bringing the Peace to the dead trapped in the Shadowlands. With Amos gone, Silas and his mother have to return to Lichport, the crumbling seaside town where Silas was born.

Silas quickly finds himself immersed in exploring Lichport’s many abandoned streets and overgrown cemeteries, certain that the town holds the key to his father’s disappearance. When his search leads him to his father’s old office, he comes across a powerful artifact: the Death Watch, an ancient Hadean clock that allows the owner to see the dead.

Death Watch in hand, Silas begins to unearth Lichport’s secret history – and discovers that he has taken on his father’s mantle as Lichport’s Undertaker. Now Silas must embark on a dangerous path into the Shadowlands to embrace his destiny and discover the truth about his father.

As I spend a great deal of my time reading for research purposes, novels haven’t been something I have often had the time to sit down and enjoy, but this one caught my attention, and I immediately downloaded the book onto my Kindle. I finished it in record time.

I found myself totally engrossed with the ‘spirit’ and heart of the story. What touched me the most was the profound reverence for the dead, and the connection the living characters had with those whose presence often crossed the barrier between this life and the next. The book was entertaining, but also enlightening. As a paranormal researcher, I found that while the story was fiction, the foundation beneath it was constructed out of something I believe to be inherently true… the spirits of those we’ve loved and grieved are never truly lost to us.

Author, Ari Berk

I invested so much in the characters and story line that I was inspired to reach out to and connect with the author himself. Dr. Ari Berk is an award-winning writer, folklorist, artist, and scholar of literature, iconography, and comparative myth. As a professor of English at Central Michigan University, he teaches courses in mythology, folklore, American Indian studies, and medieval literature. He also happens to be a genuinely nice guy who was kind enough to answer several questions for me.

Q:  On your website, in the ABOUT section, it states, “He has passed three times through a holed stone.” What is that in reference to?

A:  Long and ago, when I was studying in England, I visited Dartmoor for the first time. As it happens, on subsequent trips there, I made friends with many wonderful artists (Brian and Wendy Froud, Alan Lee, Terri Windling., to name a few) and so had good reason to keep going back for visits. I also love that landscape and I became very interested in its folklore and history. Dartmoor is rich with Neolithic and medieval ruins, so nearly everywhere you walk, the past is either looming before you or hidden beneath you. It’s the kind of place where the mind can ramble forwards and backwards in time. Dartmoor is just a marvelously haunted place. Well, out on the moor, near the ancient stone circle of Scorhill, the river Teign flows, and on its banks is a large rock with a hole that time and the river bore through it. When the river is high, the water flows over the rock and through the hole, but at other times, the rock is dry and hangs just above the river. Local lore holds that passing through the hole (hard to do without slipping and falling into the river) will cure a number of ailments. I have passed through the hole in that stone.

Q:  In your Acknowledgments you state, “The dead have also played their part in the making of Death Watch, lending me ideas, encouragement, inspiration, and occasionally their own words to light my way through the labyrinth of ghostly lore.” Who lent you their own words? Was it in the literature they had penned while living, or have you, on occasion, heard from them since they’ve passed?

A:  Primarily, the words lent to me came through the writings left behind by now deceased writers (John Donne, Robert Burton, Thomas Browne, George Herbert, Emmanuel Swedenborg, William Shakespeare, Lewes Lavater, John Aubrey, many, many others), but that is not to say I haven’t “spoken” with them. Reading the words of the dead, especially out loud, calls those writers back into the circle of the sun, I believe. And isn’t reading or speaking a kind of summons? When the words of others are spoken by us with intention, do we not share a space with them, with their enduring minds, or spirits? Ovid (in his Metamorphoses) claimed that, so long as his words were read, so long as “the Latin tongue held sway” his name and fame would endure, and he would live forever. It is in this sense I have “spoken” with the dead. The dead live through us, yes, even through our use of their good words, and when we speak (or use) those words well, the dead enjoy some portion of the living world again.

The Death Watch

Q:  How and when did the idea to write this book first manifest?

A:  When I saw the actual timepiece that was to become the death watch in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford (I went to school there) I began wondering about how it might appear in a story. I had the idea that when the watch was stopped, the dead could be seen. From there, the story seemed to fall into place rather quickly. I knew it had be a coming of age story, but one set in a place that would be both unsettlingly strange and also a little familiar. After I wrote the first short chapter, I made a map of the town and just kept adding to it as I wrote. Houses, streets, loci of lore all poured out over the map and it just sort of seemed that certain characters would inhabit particular types of places on the map and in the town. To me, now, it feels a bit like Lichport has always been there, and I had only forgotten it. Often, writing Death Watch seemed like an act of remembering.

Q:  While you undoubtedly have a special relationship with each of your characters, would it be safe to assume that Silas Umber is the character you most connect with?

A:  Yes and no. He is the character most like I was when I was his age. Some of the things he does (hanging out in cemeteries, for example) I did. But as the protagonist, he is always a work in progress, for the reader follows him, learns what he learns, sees what he sees. So he has to be limited, or the reader knows too much too soon. In that sense, he challenges me constantly in terms of how he assimilates and uses what he encounters. I spend the most time trying to get his dialogue right. As he sees more of the world he’s exploring, he gets a bit more forward and I like writing for him as he gains experience. However, for sheer pleasure, I find writing the three women of the Sewing Circle to be the easiest, the fastest, the most natural to me. Their dialogue just flies out. I can’t type quickly enough when I’m writing their scenes. This is probably because they are pedants, smart-asses, and their tone can be a little shirty, a little impatient, as the tone of the almost-all-knowing must be. I’m not saying those are the types of voices that come most naturally to me (though some might disagree), but I do love writing their dialogue.

(Read more about the Sewing Circle in CHAPTER 33 – IN STITCHES, which is available online here.)

I also feel very close to Silas’s great-grandfather. I strive (but don’t always succeed) to take the long view of things in life, and so am fascinated with this character who endures, and yet is not sure what that endurance means, or how it works, who just feels in his guts that more life is better than less.

I suspect all the characters of the books are auto-biographical to some extent. I can tell you that when I read the final book for the first time, when it had all been polished and was ready to publish, I panicked just slightly. I thought “I’ve told too much!” There is a great deal in the first book that is intensely personal to me, although it might not be evident in the story itself. Some of Silas’s experiences, particularly in the first part of the book, are culled from events and/or feelings in my own life. My own perceptions of mortality and parental anxieties flavor the book throughout. But I think it couldn’t be any other way. Let’s face it, it’s a strange book. My hope is that even though it is set in a world of gothic fantasy, of myth and lore, that people will find that in some sense, it is also simply true in the way it describes our shared human feelings about death and loss. The characters in the book, living and dead, all have problems, all have things about their lives that they cling to and also regret. For me, in the end, it’s a book about both holding on and letting go, two things we as humans tend to have some trouble with, both during our lives and at the time of our deaths.

Q:  I’m sure a lot of your own personal beliefs weave themselves into the story along with actual history and ghost lore, but I am curious… how do you see the afterlife? Do you believe in ghosts?

A:  Being alive, of course, I do not yet “see the afterlife” very clearly, so, it may be some time before I can answer this with anything like the voice of experience. But to answer the second part of your question: I do believe in ghosts. But the real question, I think, is not whether or not someone believes in ghosts, but what it is they think a ghost is or isn’t. I try to keep it simple. I believe that people leave their mark upon the world. Some through their actions. Some through words. Some through their joy. Some through their pain. I also believe that when people are peaceful at the end of their lives, their transitions from the world of the living, into the world of…shall we say Memory, is an easy and natural one. After that, they live on in the hearts of those people who remember them with love. I believe that. But when lives are cut short, conversations left unfinished, or terrible events occur, well, I think the matter becomes more complicated. People get lost. People become trapped in thoughts and events from the lives they once occupied. Places have memories as well and can hold onto events long beyond their historical occurrences. All this means is that I believe that people and events don’t really end, don’t really die in the conventional sense. They continue to exist, like a veil of gauze, sometimes just behind, sometimes just in front, of the world we see around us all the time. For me, ghosts are a kind of conversation that we can have with the past of place. But, if you’ve read the book (and, April, I know you have), you have a pretty good idea about what I think about ghosts and limbo, and the various ways in which human memories endure in the world. On some levels, writing Death Watch was a way for me to come to terms with the subject, to explore it, and to subject some of my ideas about death and ghosts to the light of day. For me, my ideas about ghosts make up an ongoing conversation.

Q:  Do you have a passage in the book that is a particular favorite?

A:  I would have to say it’s not a favorite passage, but a favorite chapter. I don’t want to spoil it for anyone, so let me just say a minor character dies and there is a wake over which Silas has to preside as Undertaker. I think that’s my favorite chapter. There is a great deal of funereal lore in there, and I enjoyed researching and remembering it, deciding which bits seemed best for a proper and traditional Lichport funeral. I had also been to a funeral of a close family member during the time I was writing that portion of the book and it had a very considerable effect on the chapter and the book as a whole. So, that chapter also feels very immediate, very true to me.

Many thanks to Dr. Berk for sharing his talent, wisdom, and personal insights. This series will always be among my favorites. Be sure to read CHAPTER 1 – HOME here, and then grab your own copy of DEATH WATCH at Amazon.com!

Book Two of The Undertaken Trilogy is expected to release in February of 2013.

For more information about Dr. Ari Berk
and his various projects, please visit his Official Website.