John Byrne Barry has a thing for trash.
Barry lived in Berkeley for 30 years, served on the board of the Ecology Center, and wrote about recycling issues for local publications, including the East Bay Express. But he found the world of recycling so intriguing that he couldn’t get it out of his mind. The result is the recently published mystery (Barry dubs it “green noir”) Wasted, set among the cans, bottles and newspapers Berkeley residents set out on the curb.
In Wasted, Berkeley reporter Brian Hunter investigates the “recycling wars,” finds the body of his friend Doug crushed in an aluminum bale and hunts down the murderer, all the while trying to win the heart of Barb, Doug’s former lover, now a suspect in his murder. Part love triangle, part midlife crisis and part political satire, Wasted also explores themes of reinvention, transition and discarding that no longer serve us.
Barry has two upcoming readings from Wasted. He will be at Urban Ore at 900 Murray St. on Thursday, Oct. 22, at 7 p.m., and at Mo’Joe Cafe at 2517 Sacramento St. on Saturday, Oct. 24, at 3 p.m. Berkeleyside caught up with Barry, who now lives in Mill Valley, to ask a few questions.
Q: How did you come to write the book?
In the 1990s, while I served on the Ecology Center board of directors and worked at the Sierra Club as a writer and designer, I was also covering environmental issues for a variety of publications, including the East Bay Express, where I wrote a cover story called “The End of Garbage.”
I visited the Altamont Landfill, the San Leandro transfer station, Urban Ore and other salvage yards, and interviewed dozens of people. I had so much material that my first draft was like spaghetti, strands of pasta twisting all over the place.
Eventually, I distilled it into something suitable for print and got kudos for the story. Some folks suggested I turn it into a book.
Writing a book had long appealed to me, but I rarely read nonfiction books. I wanted to write the kind of book I like to read. Fiction. Fast-paced, with a dramatic story and compelling characters. Well-written, but not necessarily something you’d study in literature class.
I took a couple classes at UC Extension, one on mystery writing, another on writing a novel, and decided that a mystery set in the gritty and malodorous world of garbage and recycling might be fun to read and to write.
Once I completed Wasted, I sent out query letters to about 60 or 70 agents. I got about eight or nine nibbles, two who read the whole book, and one who I was sure was going to take me on, but didn’t. I put the book aside, got on with my life, and a few years later, wrote and published Bones in the Wash: Politics is Tough. Family is Tougher, a thriller set during the 2008 presidential campaign in New Mexico.
Though finding readers continues to be a challenge, response to Bones in the Wash has been heartening enough that I decided to go back and rework Wasted one more time and get it out onto the marketplace.
Q: How was it picking up something you’d written years ago?
I had an interesting experience last spring when I read my most recent draft for the first time in five years. I was about three-quarters of the way through the book, and it was lunchtime and I was hungry, but I couldn’t stop reading. The story was racing along, and I’d forgotten enough of the details that I couldn’t remember what happened next. That was a thrilling feeling — the only time I experienced Wasted as a reader and not as its author.
Of course, I also found some things I needed to make better, so I took another year to rewrite and prune. I’m convinced it’s at least 10 percent improved.
Q: How much of Wasted is true and how much is made up?
The murder mystery is all made up, though the universe is not. There were “recycling wars” in the 1990s, though I took plenty of liberties with the details. Other scenes I ripped from the headlines, transformed to suit my plot. The book includes several scenes where community activists come together to support Re-Be, the fictional recycling collective that is facing eviction from the city. Those scenes were informed by the protests at KPFA/Pacifica around that time, though again, that was more of a starting point. There was no Halloween night street party and sit-in at Sixth and University.
I do portray a bitterly divided Berkeley city council, which is obviously not made up, but in 1998, when the book takes place, the divide was more over rent control than recycling.
This past weekend, I received a review from Dan Knapp, co-founder and co-owner of Urban Ore, where I’ll be reading this Thursday evening. Knapp, a veteran of those recycling wars, says for fun, he made a list of all the direct parallels to the real story of Berkeley’s recycling. “So far there are more than 20,” he notes. (I can’t really remember what’s true and what’s fiction.)
Q: What are some of the issues involving recycling today? Some recent news stories argue that recycling is so economically inefficient it should be abandoned.
There’s no doubt that the virtue of recycling has been oversold. It’s the perfect “solution” for our consumer society. You can buy all the stuff you want, but if you recycle the cardboard packaging, you’re absolved.
But it was not the early advocates of recycling that did the overselling. For them, recycling is third on the resource conservation hierarchy. After reduce and reuse.
Corporate America didn’t want reduce and reuse, but did embrace recycling — there was a time it seemed like companies sent out press releases every time they recycled a piece of paper.
Wasted is set in 1998, when recycling, once a gangly wide-eyed youth, all arms and legs, was grown up and now facing those pesky problems that come with adulthood, like making money. And the big garbage companies that once sneered at recycling wanted to take over.
How does that expression go? First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, then you win. But it’s not clear that recycling won. It has gone mainstream, but the original focus on resource consumption has been watered down.
Wasted touches on these questions, but it’s not a recycling primer. It’s entertainment, first and foremost, and if you learn anything about recycling, that’s a fortuitous accident.
Q: Were you worried that setting a novel in the world of garbage would deter people from reading the book?
Maybe it’s just me, but garbage and recycling are fascinating. Consider how much you can learn from what someone throws away, recycles, or composts. It’s a window into how we live. And of course, garbage and recycling are wonderful metaphors for all sorts of things.
In addition, the recycling movement has followed an interesting trajectory — as one of my reviewers notes, there’s a point in popular movements when purists jump ship, corporate forces glom on to the cause and what was once clear becomes confusing and murky. That same dynamic is mirrored in other movements.
Q: Why did you decide to set the book in Berkeley?
Having lived in Berkeley for decades, I relished the opportunity to capture the Berkeley zeitgeist, and skewer, as well as honor, the flawed and sometimes delusional idealism of Berkeleyans.
And while Wasted is fiction, it is informed by pretty colorful real-life events, like city workers breaking into the 2nd and Gilman recycling facility at night and disabling the baler. It didn’t play out the way I portrayed it, but it really happened.
Q: What’s next?
I’m halfway through a new novel about a family facing end-of-life issues. The protagonist is a therapist whose father has cancer and dementia and wants his son to help him end his life.
At first he refuses, but then he does the deed, gets caught, and is accused of murder by his sister at their father’s memorial. This sets off a high-profile fight, pitting the death-with-dignity movement against the right-to-life movement, with each sibling an unwilling front person.
The challenge is to make the story entertaining and not morbid. I guess I like a challenge.
Learn more about Barry, his book, and his readings at greennoir.com.
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