An interview with Jeffrey Condran
In his new story collection, Claire, Wading Into the Danube By Night, Jeffrey Condran’s fiction once again shines a light on places where the personal meets the political in the age of anxiety, and where characters who feel battered by life have no choice but to look for hope in the small intimacies that sometimes blossom between people. In this way, the collection is truly a series of love stories — between romantic partners, family, and friends.
In the title story, a seemingly idyllic European vacation ends abruptly when a woman goes missing, leaving her lover to come to terms with the disappointingly minor role he’s played in her life. In “Gepetto’s Workshop” an American expatriate returns to the United States to help the daughter of his former lover open a business and, in the process, realizes his own emotional poverty. And “In Costume” follows the life of a Jane Austen reenactor whose sudden connection with Hollywood royalty opens up the possibility of a bigger career — but at what price?
Christine Shutt, the author of Pure Hollywood writes:
Seductive reveries of love and art are impossible to resist in Jeffrey Condran’s elegant story collection, Claire Wading Into The Danube By Night. Here are the well-read and well-traveled, intellects and writers, famous actors and aspirants, for all of whom love has proven problematic. Romance is a melancholy business; like a mist, it rises — even in the most alluring settings, yet in Condran’s stylish company we are enthralled.
Meghan Reed spoke to Jeffrey Condran about his development as a story writer, the influence of philosophy on his fiction, and his attraction to international settings and themes.
Meghan Reed: Claire, Wading Into the Danube by Night is your second story collection. How has your writing and your view of the short story developed since your debut collection, A Fingerprint Repeated?
Jeffrey Condran: The most important development is that the voice of these stories now feels like it is firmly my own. In the first collection, I was still trying on other peoples’ hats, so-to-speak. With Claire, each story is in a voice I recognize as mine, for better or worse. Maybe more importantly, I’ve become less afraid of “breaking rules” that in the past I worried would have alienated readers and editors. Now I trust both myself and others to meet the story where it lives rather than catering to a particular aesthetic. Specifically, I’ve played around with point-of-view in ways I couldn’t have imagined before, especially in a story like “Salt of the Earth,” where the narrative slides around from one restaurant worker to another with very little signaling of the shift to the reader. And I’ve enjoyed really overtly using philosophy in many of the stories, especially ideas from Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space. Maybe the best way to explain the development in my writing is I’ve finally allowed myself to fully follow my own mind and to play.
MR: In your work, you have always had an affinity for international settings and expatriate characters. What is the draw of this genre for you?
JC: My answer to this question has so many layers I almost don’t know where to begin. Much of my attraction to international stories is that I’ve fallen in love with particular places: Prague, Bath, and now because of my research into the life of Franz Kafka, Riva del Garda. In these cities I’ve had the experience of feeling like I’d arrived at a second home, one that knew I was coming and had been waiting for me. It’s as if the place truly has a voice and spoke to me directly in some shared language. That’s the spiritual or emotional side to my literary choices.
The intellectual side, however, is just as important. More than ever before, I’ve become convinced that the great project of the 21st century will be to develop the ability to negotiate differences between and among cultures. That liminal space where people meet, the “open city” to steal Teju Cole’s novel title, is a place where both characters and readers can see and re-see themselves in surprising ways. And I’m interested in what will be a growing group of Americans who will, for the first time in the nation’s history, believe that the pursuit of happiness can best be conducted on foreign shores.
MR: What concepts and philosophies have been influencing your writing as of late?
JC: Regarding style, I’ve been most interested in a kind of lyrical, minimalist exposition, such as you can find in the fiction of James Salter or Marguerite Duras. And as I’ve already mentioned, I’m really interested in Gaston Bachelard’s books, The Poetics of Space and The Poetics of Reverie. I think it really forces the writer to consider the way the deeply subjective can make real for the reader. For instance, Bachelard writes about how children experience spaces differently than adults do. Partly, they’re just smaller than we are, and the world often looms up before them in a way that really fixes environments in their memory. But they also simply inhabit spaces differently than adults, they find corners and nooks, sit behind couches and along window casements, all of which provides a different perspective. There’s a memorable scene in Vladimir Nabokov’s memoir, Speak, Memory, where as a child the most significant memory he has of a room filled with stately portraits, old books, and Greek-inspired statuary, is the color and pattern of the fabric of the sofa. Again, I’m fascinated by the ways the deeply subjective can be used to make meaning in a fiction.
MR: Several of these stories, “In Costume,” “Brigadoon,” and the title story, “Claire, Wading Into the Danube By Night,” center around characters realizing they weren’t as important in a significant other’s life as they believed or coming to terms with a relationship ending. What do you want your characters and readers to understand about these relationships?
JC: In many of my stories the romantic relationships are acting as foils for some other idea: the desire for fame, coming to terms with loss, the arduous, sometimes hopeless-seeming process of knowing ourselves. I’ve always found that seeing oneself refracted in the eyes of another person, especially someone we’ve decided to trust with our heart, provides a kind of “intimate distance.” A new perspective is revealed and has to be dealt with. We are often extremely uncomfortable because our lovers see the truth we hide from ourselves. Narratively, I’ve always found this to be pretty powerful, and getting the reader engaged with this kind of storyline opens them up to some other idea they’re less used to thinking about.
MR: I am always thrust into a specialized world with your work. In many stories, your characters are masters of a certain discipline or profession. I see this especially in your stories “Salt of the Earth” and “Geppetto’s Workshop” where the characters are culinary professionals — sous chefs, mixologists — or scholars and entrepreneurs. And this was also the case in your novel, Prague Summer, where the protagonist is an antiquarian book dealer and all-around bibliophile. What interests you in showing mastery — and all the details and processes of a certain discipline?
JC: I think it was Richard Ford who suggested it only made sense that American fiction should show characters at work. As much or more than any other culture I can think of, Americans build their personal identities around their professional lives. When meeting a new person, one of the first questions we ask is “What do you do for a living?” Much personal anxiety is felt in the acquiring of work and much anguish associated with the loss of a job. I think it can be argued that Americans spend more time working than we do any other single thing in our lives, more time than we spend with families or engaged in religious practices or exercise or hobbies. Because this is the case, I often don’t know how to tell a character’s story without considering their work.
Maybe more exciting though is my fascination with the details of certain professions. In “Salt of the Earth,” which is about a group of restaurant workers, even making a list of the menu items and their ingredients triggers the reader’s senses in this really wonderful way. There is a sensuality to food that can’t be ignored, and each item often possesses both the satisfactions of the familiar and the quickening of the exotic. And of course the metaphorical possibilities are almost limitless.
MR: No one story affects a reader in quite the same way and people connect with certain stories more than others. What stories in Claire did you expect to be popular, and did readership reaction meet or break your expectations?
JC: I think it’s generally true that writers can’t predict which stories will connect best with readers. Often we have these bizarrely idiosyncratic ties to certain stories that simply don’t translate to others. At the same time, we can stumble almost accidentally into something that strikes a popular chord. For example, “In Costume” is set in modern day Bath and examines the life of a young Jane Austen reenactor. I gave a reading of the story at an event in Jackson, Mississippi, in all innocence, and then was overwhelmed by the attention the story received because of how deep is the interest in Austen’s life and works. It was probably really dumb of me not to realize that I’d be tapping into the literary machine that is Jane Austen, but I didn’t. I’ve used authors or books as foils for my characters in the past, but never got a reaction like this before. The story was well-published and then became the feature of an NPR-affiliate radio program where I was interviewed about the story and professional actors were hired to bring some of the scenes to life. It was exciting but, as I say, totally unexpected.
Conversely, I thought the title story would receive a lot of attention. From my perspective, it pulls together so many of the ideas I thought were represented in the book as a whole, but it never resonated with editors and became the collection’s sole orphan. It’s gotten some nice attention recently, which makes me happy. The whole thing is exciting because it’s completely unpredictable.
MR: You’re the author of three works of fiction, a professor of creative writing at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, and the co-founder/publisher of the independent press, Braddock Avenue Books. What have each of these projects taught you and what challenges have you faced with each one?
JC: While some days all that work feels overwhelming and exhausting, it also never ceases to also feel like an incredible privilege. This is especially true of teaching, which is always wonderful. And all the old saws are true: You don’t know a thing so well as when you have to teach it to someone else and I do in fact learn as much from my students as they do from me. My mentor in college believed that the “teacher hasn’t taught until the student has learned.” And while that’s a high bar, it’s also a beautiful idea to always be reaching for. Maybe most importantly, the relationships I have with current and former students are a constant source of happiness, a true connection of minds. What can be more valuable than that, especially these days?
Acquiring and editing manuscripts for Braddock Avenue Books continues to be a joy. There is nothing better than telling someone you’re going to publish their book. It doesn’t matter if they’re 25 or 65, sharing in the project of literature is always brilliant. And of course editing other writers’ work both sharpens my understanding of craft and inspires me with an almost never-ending stream of new ideas. It’s really wonderful.
The best part of all is that each thing speaks to and enhances the other. I’m a better writer for teaching and editing. And a happier person.
MR: What’s next for Jeffrey Condran?
JC: I’ve spent the last two years researching the life of Franz Kafka. Partly it’s an organic development of my interest in Central Europe from Prague Summer and from Claire, but also Kafka is the perfect pandemic writer. Many know that he died of tuberculosis, but fewer know that during the same year he had his first major TB episode, 1918, he also contracted Influenza. At one point, his temperature was more that 105 degrees Fahrenheit and family members thought it likely he would die. He lived, and the equanimity he demonstrated during that time made me approach the COVID-19 pandemic with less anxiety that I might have.
Specifically, though, I’m interested in a trip that Kafka took in 1913, not long after completing his most famous work, The Metamorphosis. He traveled from Prague to Vienna to Trieste to Venice to Riva del Garda, where he stayed at the wellness sanatorium of Dr. Von Hartungen and engaged in a little known relationship with a woman he simply referred to in his letters and diary as “The Swiss Girl.” It’s a moment of relatively little interest to Kafka scholars, and so ripe for fiction. But I think it’s a time of great poignancy, the last year before the Great War, when so much changed in the world forever, and the new world, I would argue the Kafkaesque world, emerges to replace it.