Monday, August 11, 2014

My First Time: Jeffrey Condran

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands.  Today’s guest is Jeffrey Condran, author of Prague Summer, a novel which has just been released from Counterpoint.  He is also the author of the story collection, A Fingerprint Repeated.  His fiction has appeared in journals such as The Kenyon Review, The Missouri Review, and Epoch, and has been awarded the 2010 William Peden Prize and Pushcart Prize nominations.  He is an Assistant Professor of English at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh and the Co-founder of Braddock Avenue Books.

My First Novel’s Journey From Here to There
(and Back Again)

Writing a first novel is supposed to be difficult, right?  An odyssey into the unknown where the writer will face challenges—discover his limits and then break through them—to find his way home.  Without being too silly about it, this is what my experience of writing my own first novel, Prague Summer, felt like.

At first, the novel didn’t have anything to do with Prague.  In the late summer of 2001, I was teaching at La Roche College in suburban Pittsburgh and my classes were filled with Arab scholarship students.  Walking into class on 9/11 was one of the most profound experiences of my life.  Here were these young Arabs who the day before were happily enjoying their expatriate college experience, driving Mustangs and eating cheeseburgers, but who were now suddenly public enemy number one—or, worse, asked to be the spokesman, the great explainer to the West, of all things Arab and Muslim.  I knew immediately I wanted to write about them.  Figuring out how to do it, however, took a while.

My first attempt was a novel, set in Pittsburgh, in which an American real estate agent rented the top floor of his house to a young Yemeni couple, Selma and Mansour Al-Khateeb.  The idea was to create a kind of literary Heisenberg Effect—you know—where the result of an experiment is altered simply by observing it.  The idea was to have my narrator, Henry Marten, observe the dissolution of their marriage.  The point though was also that this observation would affect the outcome.  I’d been reading Fredric Jameson and was all into the notion of political allegory.  I dutifully sent it out to agents who replied kindly but firmly.  The writing was nice, but the observational quality of the narrator hurt the story until he started to take a more active role about halfway through the book.  It’s an odd thing to be told that the middle of your book is the best part!  For a while I thought of how I might revise the manuscript, but everything I could think of ruined the central premise of the Heisenberg Effect.  And so, reluctantly, I put the novel in a box in the closet and tried not to think about it.

As a way to get over this failure, I started writing stories.  When a couple had been published, I thought, why not see if a story could be salvaged from the shipwreck of my novel?  I had just been in Prague and decided I’d take Henry Marten and the Al-Khateebs there, too.  Henry became a diplomat in the U.S. embassy and Selma and Mansour tourists who run into each other at the CafĂ© Franz Kafka.  The story was my first real success.  It was published in The Missouri Review and subsequently selected by Steve Yarbrough for TMR’s William Peden Prize.  Suddenly, I was feeling a lot better about my failed novel.  It was a little odd, putting these characters in a new place and changing their relationships to each other.  On the one hand, I knew the characters incredibly well, and the language just poured out.   On the other hand, moving the parts around—so to speak—was exciting and inspiring.  I felt like I was onto something.

Almost right away writers I knew and respected wrote to congratulate me on the story, but inevitably each said the same thing: Jeff, this could be a novel.  And of course I thought, “Well, no shit.”  But in truth their words got me thinking about these characters again and for the possibility of a novel.  I had no intention of trying to recycle the old book.  That moment had passed.  Still, the idea was in my head and while I finished my story collection, a book that would eventually be published by Press 53 as A Fingerprint Repeated, I let the mind do its mysterious work.

Finally, I found myself on sabbatical from the college where I teach and decided that the moment had arrived.  Of course, by now I had new interests.  I was worried about the fate of print books and wanted to write something that would show the world how much I loved them and how important I thought they were to the world and to my life.  And so Henry Marten made his final transformation from real estate agent, to diplomat, to English language bookseller living in Prague.  I wanted to take a cue from writers I admired like Richard Ford and Ian McEwan who wrote about work.  But I wasn’t ready to leave the Al-Khateebs behind.  In this new incarnation, Prague Summer, Mansour has been arrested by the FBI and Selma has come to Prague to seek the help of her friends.  Now suddenly the novel was about the fate of Arabs in America, but it was also about books, about globalization, and about the limits of friendship.

From novel to story and back to novel again.   I can’t say I’d recommend this writing process to anyone—it took more than ten years in total—but it’s worked for me.  Prague Summer is out this month from Counterpoint and my lifelong dream of being a published novelist has come true.  My ship is battered and damaged, my crew all dead, my past glories are looking a bit tarnished, but this particular odyssey is over, and I’ve found my way home.

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