Joshua Ferris' latest novel, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, is about baseball and religion and dentistry. And if those sound like disparate elements, rest assured: They combine in a complex but cohesive whole of a novel, which started, Ferris says, back in his dorm-room days in college. Ferris had a Jewish suitemate who became a best friend—the person to whom the novel is in fact dedicated.
“He takes me to my first seder and introduces me to his family,” Ferris says, “and at the same time, he’s the first Jew I’ve ever met, and I’m learning all of these things about Judaism and also contrasting his family life with my family life and his religious rituals with the paucity of my religious rituals.” The family bonds and traditions of his friend, Ferris says, were a “contrast to the great legacy of divorce that mars my family upbringing.
“So I’m really attracted to that, and I fall in love with that, and I want it for myself but can’t have it for myself, because I wasn’t born into that tradition,” he says. “And it does seem from my perspective, as a very young person, something that is not acquired, it’s nurtured. And that’s the germ of the novel—the outsider looking into a great tradition.”
But Ferris’ protagonist in To Rise Again at a Decent Hour is not a college student, nor a model of himself, but instead a true outsider: a dentist. “I wanted to write about an outsider and somebody who feels alienated from the world, and who better than a dentist?” Ferris says. “You don’t want to spend any time with your dentist. I saw this guy, this figure, the iconic outsider, and there’s nobody better to look into the possibility of this little-known ancient religion that might connect him to something larger than himself.”
Ferris’ fictional dentist, Paul O’Rourke, loves Red Sox baseball, hates technology and calls himself an atheist. But as the novel progresses, many things Paul always assumed were true about himself are called into question.
Through Paul’s voice, Ferris skillfully toes the sweet-sad-funny line here much as he did in And Then We Came to the End. Since the story feels so intrinsically like Paul's, it’s hard to believe that the novel didn’t originate with it. At first, Ferris explains, the voice was an entirely different first-person point of view. “I was juggling religious fact as well as religious fiction, and it wasn’t clear what the vessel should be for that,” he says. “Every first-person perspective is limited and marred by its own blindings, so the question was, to what person would it be best to give these mysteries in order to try to solve them?”
He played around with more objective points of view, including that of a detective on the trail of the religious mystery. “None of those were satisfying, in part because it was a colder approach,” Ferris explains. “So the voice was my attempt to put a lot of heat on the question not only of the validity of the religion, but why that religion might be necessary.”
To nail the details of the novel, his research stretched from the religious in nature to the practical nitty-gritty of dentistry. “It’s pretty amazing what you can watch on YouTube—there are a lot of really great dentistry videos,” Ferris laughs. “I’m not really sure who they’re for; you don’t want your dentist to be instructed solely by YouTube, but they’re there, presumably for existing professionals.”
He also read books about dentistry, though he explains some specifics were easier to find than others: Cosmetic dentistry offered up numerous resources, but if he was curious about what candidiasis or periodontal disease look or feel like, he had to look a little harder. “That was a little tougher to sort of make real in the book,” Ferris says. “I had to imagine how some of those diseases would operate in a patient.”
But he didn’t worry about cleaving to facts too much: After all, he was writing a novel. He does admit, though, that “the only people that are truly interested in reading the book”—dentists—“are all going to throw it across the room because it’ll get so many things wrong.”
He did take care with the religious facts he chose to include in the book, and with good reason. “I wanted to write a book about a religion and not a cult,” Ferris says. “The only real way you can write about a religion is by making it a part of the tradition. In fiction, I can create any number of cults sort of out of thin air, but if I want it to be taken seriously as a real religion, you have to root it in a pre-existing religion. This is what the Christians learned very early on, what the Muslims learned later. If you don’t have your foundational text, you’re going to be a laughingstock for many centuries.”
So Ferris went back to the Hebrew Bible. “I found what I thought was a good entry point for laying the foundation of this religion, which would then allow me to show how it evolved over time and came down through the centuries to my dentist.”
After making certain he had rooted his religion in something that already existed, he was then free to do what he does so evocatively: make up the details. “I had the foundation, and then I had the same fictional freedom that I imagine made Joseph Smith exhilarated when he was transcribing the plates.”
Jaime Netzer is a fiction writer living in Austin. Her stories have been published in Parcel, Human Parts and Twelve Stories and are forthcoming in Black Warrior Review. Find her on Twitter @jaimenetzer.