–Interview by Jason R. Poole
Jeff Condran and I first met in his Intro to Fiction course at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh. We’ve kept in touch over the years, during which Jeff has co-founded Braddock Avenue Books, published a story collection, A Fingerprint Repeated, and also his debut novel, Prague Summer. Jeff now teaches Creative Writing at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.
Jason R. Poole: Both your short story collection and your novel share focal points in the post-9/11 intersection of Arab and American cultures. What drew you to this subject matter?
Jeff Condran: In the fall of 2001, I was teaching at La Roche College in suburban Pittsburgh. The college offered a scholarship program called Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth) by which students were brought from “conflict and post-conflict nations” to study in the United States. And so my classes were filled with 18-25 year old Arabs from all over the Middle East—Palestine, Jordan, Saudia Arabia, Yemen.
It was a life-changing experience to walk into class on that Tuesday in September and discover a group of what had been generally untroubled expatriate college students who were excited about being in America and see them utterly transformed. Now people saw them as the enemy or, if not, at least the sudden spokespeople for all of Arab and Islamic culture. It was a horrible position for them to find themselves in. The FBI came on to campus and interviewed many of my students, asking them questions like, “Is Osama bin Laden your uncle?” and, later, arresting and detaining those they perceived as having violated various aspects of the Patriot Act.
I felt I had to write about what I was seeing.
JRP: Prague Summer has its origin in one of the stories from your collection. What made you decide to explore the story at greater length? What was that process like?
JC: The first story in my collection, “Praha,” follows the lives of Mansour and Selma Al-Khateeb. Before I wrote that story, these characters had featured prominently in an earlier, failed novel that I’d written five years before. At the time the story was published in The Missouri Review, I was feeling pretty satisfied that I’d managed to salvage something from all that previous work. But when Steve Yarbrough selected “Praha” for the William Peden Prize, and the story began to get a wider readership, I began to hear the same thing over and over again: this story feels like a novel. My immediate thought, of course, was: “No shit.”
Eventually I got over the immediate satisfaction of having the story so well-published and began to once again take seriously that Mansour and Selma’s story was novel-worthy.
However, morphing a novel into a story and then back into a different novel was a strange experience. The whole process spanned nearly a decade, which I think turned out to be a good thing. When I wrote the manuscript that finally became Prague Summer, I was no longer the same person or the same writer that I had been. I’d had longer to process what was truly important about the Al-Khateeb’s story, I’d learned things about key differences in pacing between stories and novels, and I’d taken on new interests that informed the characters’ development as well as the larger themes of the book. Wendy Lesser in Why I Read: The Serious Pleasure of Books, argues (accurately, I think) that characters develop into their final forms only as they are written within the growing context of actions and environment in a narrative. Having to think and re-think my ideas about the Al-Khateebs through the process of writing three different manuscripts over such a length of time made them both well-known to me as a writer but also more perfectly themselves.
JRP: The novel’s protagonist, Henry Marten, leads an intensely literary life. Books are deeply connected to his character and provide thematic texture to Prague Summer’s plot. What led you to this approach?
JC: Suddenly then I had this wonderful opportunity to juxtapose ideas and action in my own novel with other literary texts. Some were obvious to me. Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer for instance immediately spoke to Prague Summer’s expatriate theme, but also to the desire to live a life that transcended typical ambitions, one that positions a character who wants to live a life that is both intellectually and culturally apart from his fellow citizens, all set against the shadow of global military conflict. What did it mean to write a novel in Paris while Europe armed itself for another war or, for my narrator, what did it mean to sell books in Prague while the Towers had been attacked and America fought wars in Afghanistan and Iraq—not forgetting the domestic “War on Terror” that has spread all over the Western world.
There were so many other books though that worked their way into the text: Sherlock Holmes stories and Agatha Christie’s Poirot mysteries that allowed me to play with that genre at the beginning of the novel. A.S. Byatt’s, Possession, that provided a literary love story doomed to failure, or…I could almost go on and on there are so many books, so many little moments. Writing these into Prague Summer was, without question, among the most engrossing and fulfilling literary experiences I’ve had.
JRP: Henry seems to have a special fondness for detectives. Why do you think this is?
JC: Detectives, especially the iconic figures, like Holmes or Poirot or Marlowe, almost always fashion themselves as outsiders—people who are in the world but not of it. They offer the reader a prolific intelligence about the world and what motivates people. They are seekers of “truth.” They are rarely, however, able to apply their knowledge or moral compass to their own lives—which are often dramatic. It’s a combination that makes detectives seem both heroic and very, very sad. They envision themselves as great actors on the world’s stage, but often this vision, despite their professional success, turns out to be hubris. It was this set of characteristics that I wanted to give to my narrator, Henry: someone who was a seeker of truth, who we could admire for his insight about people, but who ultimately overestimates his own place in the action. Or, at least, his ability to affect it.
JRP: Prague itself is a central character in the novel. What led you to this setting?
JC: In some ways, Prague was a happy accident. I found myself there in 2008 and immediately fell in love with the city. Partly for its beauty. Prague escaped the devastation that befell most European capitals during the World Wars, and then it was encased in a Communist time capsule for fifty years. It remains a truly striking urban landscape.
After the Velvet Revolution, Prague quickly became the capitalist heart of Central Europe, attracting people from all over the world. Over the last nearly 30 years Prague has taken on the feel of an “open” city—a place where it feels like anything could happen. I knew I wanted to write something set in Prague, but it soon struck me that such a place was the perfect environment for a story about post-9/11 global concerns and, of course, international literature.
Finally, though, there was Kafka whose name is almost synonymous with Prague. In Prague Summer, Mansour Al-Khateeb, a U.S. citizen, has been arrested without being charged and held by the FBI for 14 months—a bureaucratic wormhole from which his wife, Selma, is trying to save him. Nothing in recent American history could feel more Kafkaesque. And so, what could be more natural for the setting of the story than Prague?
Of course, the more I learned about Prague the more ideas could thread through the novel. The most significant of all is the city’s long history of defenestrations that becomes so important to Prague Summer’s plot.
JRP: The novel weaves the city’s culture and history into the narrative without feeling overly instructive. Was this a difficult balance to manage?
JC: My old writing professor, the Mississippi novelist Lewis Nordan, used to tell me that “place was everything.” If character, as so many argue, determines plot, what then determines character? Place. This aspect of narrative has its tentacles in almost every other that we conceive of when telling a story: language, socio-economic background, politics, food, ideas about love or how best to live. Because I believe this is true, even the moments in my novel where Prague is discussed openly are rooted in the character and situation, and so hopefully feel integral to the book rather than didactic as might be the case in a certain kind of nonfiction text about the city.
JRP: What are you working on now?
JC: I’ve been going back and forth between two manuscripts: a short story collection that explores modern conceptions of intimacy and a new novel. Though I’m in the “best-not-to-discuss-it-yet” stage with that project.
Jason R. Poole is a writer and artist originally from the Appalachian corner of Maryland. He is currently an MFA candidate at the University of Kansas. His short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in A cappella Zoo, The Fourth River, the 1001 Nights Podcast, and Devilfish Review. For more info, please check out his website: www.jasonrpoole.com.