Sunday, May 28, 2023

I.S. Berry

I.S. Berry spent six years as an operations officer for the CIA, serving in wartime Baghdad and elsewhere. She has lived and worked throughout Europe and the Middle East, including two years in Bahrain during the Arab Spring. She is a graduate of the University of Virginia School of Law and Haverford College. Raised in the suburbs of Washington, DC, she lives in Virginia with her husband and son.

Berry's new novel is The Peacock and the Sparrow.

My Q&A with the author:

How much work does your title do to take readers into the story?

A fair amount. I’m partial to titles with literary references, like For Whom the Bell Tolls or Tender is the Night—titles with layers of meaning that prompt the reader to think or do a bit of research. And I lean toward the poetic and oblique more than the literal and straightforward. Darkness at Noon, a reference to Stalin’s searing power juxtaposed against its black consequences, is one of my favorites.

My novel actually began with a different name, but another author happened to publish a book along the way with the same title! Luckily, I had a backup, which I ended up liking more than my original. The Peacock and the Sparrow is a reference to a parable in 1001 Arabian Nights: a sparrow ignores a peacock’s warning, strays from his path, and gets caught in a net. It’s about the futility of trying to outrun your destiny—one of my book’s themes—but there’s another, hidden meaning that readers won’t discover until the end.

My title doesn’t scream “spy novel,” but I do think it hints at an interesting, perhaps contentious, relationship between two people or sides.

An unexpected bonus: I’ve come to realize how many illustrious books have birds in their titles. To Kill a Mockingbird, The Falcon and the Snowman, Red Sparrow

What's in a name?

A lot. The most interesting name in my book, perhaps, is one I never reveal. Shane Collins, my protagonist, refers to his love interest as simply “Almaisa,” which he borrows from a portrait of the same name by artist Amedeo Modigliani. The character Almaisa is enigmatic and inscrutable, and I deliberately wanted her name (or lack thereof) to reflect this. Collins, looking back, observes, “It’s an apt moniker, I’ve come to believe, a name borrowed from a painting. Because she was, in many ways, the brushstrokes of my imagination: facets of her person, her self, that did not bridge the gap between reverie and reality, that were formed solely from my expectations and interpretations and reflections, my inner artist’s eye.”

Another character, the Admiral, commander of the U.S. Fifth Fleet, never gets a name. For me, he was a symbol of American military might, not a specific person.

Shane Collins’ name reflects his background: Irish ancestry, a childhood in a rough immigrant neighborhood. And CIA station chief Whitney Alden Mitchell’s middle name is a reference to Alden Pyle, the young spy in The Quiet American who represents American optimism, arrogance, and naivete.

How surprised would your teenage reader self be by your new novel?

Moderately surprised. I read a ton of classics and literary fiction in my youth. I was inspired by personal journeys like Pilgrim at Tinker Creek or On the Road (though I did have a soft spot for dark authors like Poe, Nabokov, Dostoevsky). I tried my hand at writing a novel several times, mostly stories of young women trying to find their way in the world or the “great American novel,” whatever that meant. I didn’t predict I’d someday write about a middle-aged, washed up, alcoholic male spy engaged in international espionage. Then again, I knew the stories I was attempting to write weren’t quite right for me. And I did anticipate that life experience would eventually inform my writing. When I became a spy for the CIA and lived in the Middle East, I finally had the right raw material. (And I’ve come to firmly believe that the terms “literary fiction” and “spy novel” aren’t mutually exclusive.)

Do you find it harder to write beginnings or endings? Which do you change more?

I found the ending and beginning of my novel about equally easy to write. I’d mapped out my book’s ending in my mind when I started writing, even the exact scene. The Peacock and the Sparrow is such a twisting, complex journey, I knew the ending would have to do justice to the story and leave readers satisfied and legitimately surprised. So this dictated a fairly specific finale. Also, when you fully  develop a character, his/her ending writes itself. Once I knew who Shane Collins was, his destiny became obvious.

On the other hand, the first sentence of my book also came naturally to me; I never changed it. The first line tells the reader that Collins hates the smell of his informant’s cigarettes—but at a pivotal point in the story, this changes; Collins goes so far as to buy his informant a pack of smokes. So those first words hold great weight and ripple through the pages.

Do you see much of yourself in your characters? Do they have any connection to your personality, or are they a world apart?

On the surface, my protagonist, Shane Collins, and I have nothing in common. He’s a jaded, divorced, cantankerous alcoholic man. But in writing, I realized how much we shared: weariness from the profession of spying; a sense of being battered and worn down from years of manipulating; an anguish from past decisions; a realization that ends don’t always justify means. The beauty of writing (and reading), in my view, is that you find connections to characters and people in unexpected, transcendent ways.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

International relations and politics definitely influence my writing. Living in Bahrain for two years during the Arab Spring sparked the idea for The Peacock and the Sparrow. My book also incorporates real-life events like the 2012 Adliya bombings in Manama or the 2011 assassination attempt against the Saudi ambassador in Washington, DC. And my travels inspire me: the uniqueness of each place—its local perfumes, the tint of its sunsets—becomes fertile soil for my writing.

Noirish and gritty but beautiful films like The Third Man or the Babylon Berlin series probably rattle around my subconscious when I’m envisioning and writing certain scenes. Clearly, art too influences me; I named my central female character after a painting! (Side note: after writing my book, I came across the real Almaisa painting in a museum in Vienna, Austria; no pictures were allowed, but I couldn’t resist snapping one… I’d written an entire character based on this painting!)

Leonard Cohen songs played in my head while writing The Peacock and the Sparrow. Cohen’s lyrics and melodies are so haunting and dark. The narrator I chose for my audiobook sounds like Cohen as well. It was a moment of serendipity: when I heard his voice, I knew he was the one.
Visit I.S. Berry's website.

--Marshal Zeringue