Sean Ferrell Interview: Under the Umbrella
I met Sean Ferrell (www.byseanferrell.com), author of Numb (Harper Perennial) at Old Town Bar on Eighteenth Street in Manhattan on a rainy Friday evening. It was noisy and crowded, though the crowds had not been drawn there, as I initially assumed, because two famous authors were going to be imbibing and possibly throwing down some rockstaresque property damage. As I turned the corner and located Ferrell sitting at a booth with a huge mound of chicken wings in front of him, I found we'd been joined by Dan Krokos, whose debut novel False Memory is due out from Disney-Hyperion in 2012. We all knew each other because we shared an agent, the fearsome Janet Reid of Fine Print Literary Agency.Sean said something around what appeared to be three or four chicken wings he was gnawing simultaneously. His face was smeared in the orange sauce. I couldn't understand a word.“No one told me he was going to be here when we negotiated this meeting,” I said unhappily, pointing at Krokos. “He's going to draw attention away from me. He's younger and has better muscle tone. Plus, he doesn't sweat in public as much as I do. I look better compared with Ferrell, who resembles some sort of rodent.”Ferrell gave me a sauce-covered thumb's up, continuing to gnaw on a chicken wing.There was a flash of purple light. When I lowered my arm from my eyes, our literary agent, Janet, had appeared standing on the table. She peered around owlishly.“Is one of my clients negotiating something without me? I'll kill them.” She blinked and looked down at us. “What are you two doing with Krokos? You'll ruin him with your middle-aged sadness. Wait, are those chicken wings?”Climbing down, Janet joined the table just as the waitress arrived. She waved her hand. “Drinks for everyone.”Alcohol secured, I brought out my recorder and set it up with as poor grace as possible. Doubt was expressed about whether the ambient noise of the bar would overwhelm the microphone, forcing me to just invent all of Ferrell's answers. There was another purple flash, and Janet had an umbrella in her hand. She opened it and held it at an angle, muting the noise of the bar. Krokos, Ferrell and I all stared up at it for a moment, then at Janet, and finally at each other. We were all convinced that our agent was about to beat us terribly, as she often did when we displeased her.“Old radio trick,” she said. “Blocks the noise.”“Ready?” I asked Ferrell. He wiped his hands on a napkin and nodded.“This reminds me,” Ferrell said, “of the leak that formed in the bathroom of my first apartment in New York, over the bathtub. The water was coming from the upstairs apartment's shower into my ceiling, and a huge beach-ball sized blister of water formed in the paint on the ceiling over the tub. So I climbed up there and popped it with a knife, and when the super came to work on it, he used a claw hammer and dug a huge hole into the ceiling over the tub, and from that time on, dirty water leaked out of that hole and I had to shower with an umbrella in the tub, over the shower head. It was like I was living in a Fellini film.”I stared at him. “Ready is not only not a question, it has nothing to do with umbrellas.” I sighed, trying to convey my immense disappointment. “I understand you've written a new book, which our dearest capitalist parasite Janet has sold for you?”“Yes—The Man in the Empty Suit. It is the story of a time traveler who finds his own body murdered, and the only suspect that makes sense is an older version of himself.”“That sounds insane,” I said, raging with jealousy that I had not thought of this fantastic premise myself. “How is it possible you wrote a novel like that?”“It was easy, considering it's based on my own life.”An awkward silence descended on us under the umbrella. No one knew what to say to this. We all finished our drinks quickly.I rallied, fueled, as usual, by booze. “The plotting sounds nightmarish—multiple versions of the main character, a twisty timeline—did you have the plot worked out in your head before you wrote, or did you work it out as you went along?”“I just started with the image of a man standing over his own dead body and I went from there. It's an exploration of a man taking his own personality apart, trying to figure out who he is and whether he has control over his own existence.”“Do you think that's a theme that runs through all of your work?”Ferrell nodded, sauce gleaming on his cheeks and nose. “I think it is, yes.”“Is that conscious, or is it just what bubbles up?”“It bubbles up, because that's what's driving me as a person, trying to understand my own decision making and my responsibility for the things that I do. Even if I tried to write something that had nothing but plot, no deeper thought, that would still be in it, because that's who I am. I think every writer brings a lot of baggage with them, you can't help but write about it.”“Do you think you're learning from your own books?”“Definitely. It's a form of therapy.”“You famously wrote several novels longhand on the New York City subway while commuting to and from work—your first book, Numb, was written that way. Is this one of the books you wrote on the subway?”“It is one of the books I wrote on the subway—it's the first one I wrote directly into a computer.”“So you literally wrote it while sitting on a subway car with a computer on your lap.”“Yes—babies crying, women giving birth had to stand while I'm working—‘You're delivering, but so am I!'”Ferrell looked around as if waiting for the rim shot and applause. Krokos and I exchanged world-weary looks, and then I returned to my notes. “Who are your favorite writers?”“Present company included—”Janet snorted in disbelief. I ignored her.“—Kurt Vonnegut, Thomas Pynchon, Philip K. Dick, Camus, Beckett.”“Present company excluded,” I said, “any living authors—aside from Pynchon, of course, but otherwise your list is pretty heavy on the dead folks.”“Of course—I'm a huge fan of Evan Mandery—”At this point the waitress ducked under the umbrella as if it was the most normal thing in the world to have four people at a booth drinking whiskey under an umbrella in a bar. Maybe it was. I'm not as continental and worldly as I'd like to be. She checked on our drinks, we ordered more and offered nervous jokes about the umbrella, which she ignored.As I returned my attention to Ferrell, I realized he had not stopped speaking even as he ordered another drink.“—Colson Whitehead, Marcy Dermansky, just to name a few.”I decided to dig a little deeper into the literary influences end of things. “While you were working on The Man in the Empty Suit, did any of these authors directly inspire you?”Ferrell's eyes lit up. “There's a book called The Hundred Brothers by Donald Antrim, who is another author that I admire. His book is about a family of brothers that's having a family reunion—and there's a hundred of them—in this hotel having a huge party; the difference is that mine is about one man who is focused on himself, where his was a clash of a hundred personalities and mine was a clash of one personality against itself. His work definitely resonated with me, and started a lot of wheels spinning.”“I think of Philip K. Dick often while reading your work; Not so much the style, for example, of The Man in the Empty Suit, but the premise: I get a strong post-stroke, 1970s Dick vibe in that book. Would you agree with that?”“Definitely. I've read so many of his novels—I don't even know how many. Or how many there are.”“No one knows. The number seems to change constantly.”“Right! Without a doubt, the themes of personal responsibility and activity leading towards self-destruction played a part in my story. One of his themes—what does it mean to be human, in a certain way that's one of the questions that I have, going back to the idea of personal responsibility and control of your own life: What does it mean to be human?”Ferrell had picked up another chicken wing and was holding it threateningly; I thought it might be time to move things towards a finale. “Okay, time for the speed round!” I announced.“Excellent! I intend to score many points.”“There are no points. If you had your choice, would you handwrite or type your novels?”“I would Handwrite, definitely.”Our agent, Janet, who has personally keyboarded some of Sean's early handwritten novels, burst into tears. We ignored her as best we could.“Would you consider The Man in the Empty Suit science fiction?”“I never think about genre.”“MTV or VH1?”“Used to be MTV, but now that they have nothing to do with music whatsoever I would have to go with CNN.”“Two words: Who is Dan Krokos?”“I don't know.”“That's three words.”“I don't.”“Okay; If you could have any superpower, what would it be?”“The ability to be Dan Krokos.”Janet suddenly lunged across the table. “If you could be Jeff Somers, would you?”Ferrell looked aghast. “Oh my god.”I struggled to cover up my hurt and disappointment. “Say no more. Final question: Are you wearing pants right now?”I knew the answer. He grinned, wagging the chicken wing at me. “No!”The umbrella was put aside and more drinks were ordered. We turned to say something to Janet but she had vanished, leaving only a small stuffed toy shark in her place. The evening turned maudlin and was lost to several ill-advised rounds of liquor we had to pay for ourselves, since our agent had left the scene. When time came to leave we each excused ourselves to the bathroom and wriggled out the tiny window, landing safely in a dumpster out back and fleeing the scene, leaving a bar bill roughly the size of Greenland.When I got home, I discovered I'd never turned the recorder on, and would have to invent all of Ferrell's answers anyway. “Well played, Ferrell,” I slurred, falling asleep. “Well played.” Sean Ferrell's story "Building an Elephant" won the Fulton Prize from The Adirondack Review; his short stories have appeared in Bossa Nova Ink, WORDS, Uber, and The Cafe Irreal. He lives with his family in Brooklyn, New York. Numb is his first novel.