In his first novel, PhD candidate Dashiel Carrera explores 'what it means to reckon with memory'

Dashiel Carrera, a PhD student in computer science at U of T, explores the unreliability of memory in his debut novel The Deer, which will be available in Canada on Aug. 12 (photo by Dina Ginzburg/Dalkey Archive Press)

When you look back on events in your life, especially traumatic ones, did they really happen the way you remember them? Or have you altered your past slightly to make these experiences less upsetting or easier to accept?

Dashiel Carrera explores the unreliability of memory in his first novel – The Deer – a psychological thriller that will be available in Canada Aug. 12 from the Dalkey Archive Press.

For Carrera, who is completing his PhD with the department of computer science in the Faculty of Arts & Science, writing a novel is a departure from his other creative pursuits. In addition to being a writer, he is an accomplished human-computer interaction (HCI) researcher, media artist and musician.

He has released five records through 75OrLess Records, won awards for his tech-art experiments and taken part in technology research at the MIT Media Lab and Harvard University's metaLAB.

So why write a traditional novel?

“The novel lets me explore certain possibilities of language and consciousness which I'm really interested in,” says Carrera. “Also, I can move through how people think, get really in-depth with interior monologues and try and piece together what it means to reckon with memory, reckon with the past.”

The Deer’s main character and narrator, Henry Haverford, is a physicist who returns to his hometown for his father’s funeral. He hasn’t been back to his childhood home in years. Driving at night in the pouring rain, having had a few drinks, he hits what appears to be a deer. But the way the police speak and behave around him suggests there’s a possibility it was something else. A deer’s corpse is never found.

As Haverford travels from the scene of the accident to his family’s house, the stress of the event triggers long-forgotten memories of loss and abuse, and he wrestles with the idea that his past, and reality as he knows it, may not be entirely accurate.

The story was inspired by real-life events. Carrera himself was on a long drive at night on a country road and in the span of 30 minutes was pulled over by police for speeding and later passed by the scene of an accident, possibly a deer or another animal.

“I went by it quickly, so I saw little splices of images like red flashing lights, police officers waving people forward and the car that looked like it had flipped over,” he says.

“And in large part, constructing this book was trying to understand that moment and trying to piece it together. The more I thought about it, the more it lent itself to fiction and it gave me an opportunity to think through some of the themes I was really excited about.”

Carrera was equally excited about the writing process for The Deer, which was quite unconventional and heavily influenced by his being involved in music production and recording at the time.

“If you want to record a song, you hit record and it goes for three minutes – you do whatever you can,” he says. “If you want to do something different, you have to go back and hit record and do it all over again, which is very different from how we think about writing. If you write a paragraph, you go can always go back and tinker with each line or move things around. There's no strict time limit.”

So Carrera would give himself one – often writing in short, timed bursts and sometimes aiming for a specific word count within an allotted period.

“I became interested in this idea of writing something that occurs in real time and is almost improvisational,” he says. “So I was often writing with a timer next to me.

“It's similar to a technique used in the early 20th century in France called ‘surrealist automatism,’ where the attitude was just keep your pen moving – just keep going. And wherever your mind takes you, let it go that way. I think it lends a certain focus, which I find difficult to achieve otherwise. It gives the prose an urgency and a pressure which I think plays out in the book.”

Carrera would also experiment with writing during varying levels of consciousness: writing late at night, just on the verge of falling asleep or in those first moments upon waking up. “In this dreamlike, hallucinatory atmosphere, you're unsure of the world,” says Carrera. “There’s a little bit of unfamiliarity.”

And that’s exactly the tone he sets out to establish. He wants the reader to recognize that the narrator is unreliable – there’s a distinct element of uncertainty and unsettledness. In other words, Haverford shouldn’t be trusted.

Carrera believes this is a far more realistic way to tell a story. “Often you have a protagonist talking in first person, past tense, recalling exactly what occurred with complete perfection, which is impossible to replicate in reality,” he says.

Instead, Haverford relays what he thinks and recalls in short, choppy sentences and fragments of images and memories – a far more realistic approach to piecing together past events.

With The Deer set to hit bookshelves soon, Carrera is now focused on his research at U of T, including projects in the computer science department’s Dynamic Graphics Project lab.

“[The lab] is one of the most foremost in the world for doing human-computer interaction research,” he says. “Right now, my research focuses on what writing and reading is going to look like in the future, thinking about how digital mediums interact with that.”

He adds that, “the world is changing in how we piece together stories,” noting we spend so much time with fragments – of songs, texts and videos. “I’m thinking about the ways these fragments are shaping stories and what that means, and how it's shaping how we think.”

Yet, despite ever-evolving technologies, Carrera – who will attend a book launch at TYPE books on Queen Street West on Aug. 15 from 7 to 8:30 p.m. – says many still have an appetite to sit down with a good book.

“People still think in stories. Storytelling isn’t going anywhere.”

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