Interviews · 02/25/2014

The Many Hats of Jeffrey Condran

I sat down with Jeffrey Condran this fall — me at a computer in Ogden, Utah, and Jeff at a computer in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania — to chat about this breakthrough moment in his career. Our conversation ranged from there to his travels through Eastern Europe and the inspiration he found there to the art of translating short stories into the longer format of the novel.

Jeff’s stories have appeared or are forthcoming from The Missouri Review, Blue Earth Review, Kenyon Review, and other journals. His work has been honored with several awards, including The Missouri Review’s 2010 William Peden Prize and Pushcart Prize nominations. Jeff earned his MFA from the University of Pittsburgh and is currently an Assistant Professor of English at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh. co-founder of Braddock Avenue Books. His first collection, A Fingerprint Repeated, was released by Press 53 on October 1, 2013 and his first novel, Prague Summer, is forthcoming from Counterpoint.

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I feel like I’m getting to interview you at a really exciting time: you’ve got two books coming out but neither is out yet. Readers who are not familiar with your work yet soon will be. I’m catching you right in the middle of crossing that terrifying boundary from “rising talent” to “published author of two books.” Tell us about this moment. How does it feel?

I have been knocking on the door, so to speak, for a long while. And so to suddenly have not just one but two books coming out in one twelve-month period is a little overwhelming. Of course it’s also a dream come true, and I find myself walking around with a sense of immense gratitude both to the publishers who had the faith to invest in my work, but also to the world in general. There’s so much to do, but it’s all the work of the “literary world,” work that I’ve spent years waiting to be given the opportunity to do. So, gratitude, absolutely, is what I’m feeling. And it doesn’t hurt that the books speak to each other. Both deal with the lives of Arabs and Muslims in Europe and the United States post-9/11. The novel, Prague Summer, is in fact based on the first story in the collection that Steve Yarbrough selected for The Missouri Review’s William Peden Prize.

That’s interesting — it makes me think of Karen Russell, and how her story “Ava Wrestles the Alligator” gave rise to Swamplandia! Do you see a larger trend here? Do you think it’s becoming more common for short stories to evolve into novels?

I think it depends on the nature of the story. Writing is so hard no matter what form it takes, and the demands of stories and novels are each serious. I know I was always one of those young writers who wrote stories about which people told me: that should be a novel. In fact, it took me a long time to understand the pacing of stories enough to publish them. It’s one of the dangers of MFA programs. People show up having read novels almost exclusively, then take graduate workshops where they are so often encouraged to write stories because of pedagogy of the course, and then graduate wanting very much to write novels because of market demands. It’s a kind of intellectual and stylistic whiplash. Truly, a problem that has engendered much new thinking on what it means to teach novel writing. In any case, for me, my story “Praha” was always praised by so many readers on its own merits, but then, quietly at first, trusted readers like William Lychack said, this could be a novel. They were seeing things in the characters and situation that I didn’t, and of course, when you receive enthusiastic praise, you wonder if there might not be something larger there.

Transitioning from the short to the long form can be a frustrating process. What work do you most want your writing to do? What brings you to the writing desk each day?

I think what I most want my writing to do is allow people to forget their day-to-day lives, not to escape from something, but to escape to something. To get so wrapped up in the story that the real world falls away and for at least a small space of time to allow them to think about something that’s important to them. What’s the C.S. Lewis line? “We read to know we’re not alone.” I want readers to see themselves in my characters and be comforted by them or engaged, or devastated. To watch the fictional lives unfold and begin to be able to “read” real life.

This sounds like a lovely idea, but it’s probably not enough to bring me to the writing desk every day. Instead, I think it’s just language itself. I’ve always thought, to some extent, that words were magic. I’m lucky enough to have some ability with them — good thing, too, as I’m not sure I have many other marketable talents. It makes me think of an anecdote that Anne Lamott makes in Bird by Bird about the film Chariots of Fire, about the Scottish runner Eric Liddle. He was part of the 1924 British Olympic team, but he was also a Christian missionary to China. His sister, also a missionary, hated the idea that Liddle’s training for the Olympics would interfere with his work for God. So Liddle has a talk with his sister, he says, “I believe that God made me for a purpose — for China. But he also made me fast, and when I run I can feel his pleasure.” I’ve always felt that way about writing. When the work is going well, I feel transcendent, fast, like a runner, pleasing the literary fancy of some divinity. It’s way to think, maybe, but it’s a beautiful feeling.

Were your motivations and goals different for writing the novel than they were for your short stories?

In some ways, my motivations for writing are always the same: I feel happiest when I’m working. The stories, though, had a very specific genesis. On the day of the 9/11 attacks I was teaching at La Roche College. Like many, I remember that Tuesday morning vividly. The only difference between my experience and that of much of the rest of the country is that I spent 9/11 with several dozen young Arabs. At the time the college had an important scholarship program called Pacem In Terris that brought students from “conflict and post-conflict nations” to study in the United States, and so my classes were filled with Egyptians, Yemenis, Saudis, Jordanians, and Palestinians. Many of these students loved their adopted country: they were welcomed here, they enjoyed their classes, and they were excited about the adventure they had embarked upon. However, in one day, less, their experience in America turned from being a positive one to discovering that they were public enemy number one. It shocked them and it shocked me. The look of fear on their faces on those subsequent days and weeks changed my life and the direction of my career. I had to write about them. I was a writer in a privileged position — I knew these young Arabs, and someone needed to tell their stories. It has taken me a long time to understand how.

The better part of a decade, really. I wrote the first story in the fall of 2001 and the final story in the winter of 2011. I had been so disturbed and frightened by the reactions of people around me, almost all of them unthinkingly violent and mostly ignorant. And everywhere around me I was seeing Arabs and Muslims caricatured in the media. It felt important that a more nuanced portrait should be offered as a counterpoint to so many knee-jerk reactions.

By the time I started the novel, however, my motivations were, oddly, both broader and more focused. A novel requires multiple themes. In Prague Summer, I was interested in three things: 1) Books. The physical, sweet artifact of them. And so I made my protagonist an English language bookseller of rare and antiquarian books. As much as possible I tried to make the novel a love letter, an homage to books and the role they play in our lives. 2) Because I’d spent some time in the Czech Republic, I became immersed in the expatriate community there and began to think about why contemporary Americans choose to leave their country — in some cases completely reject it. What need or idea is being played out there? 3) Because the plot is based on the protagonist’s relationship with an Arab woman whose husband has been arrested by the FBI, I wanted to refocus my interest in the our lives since 9/11 by investigating the evolving role governments takes in them. And about our naiveté regarding power and how it works.

You’ve been involved in every side of fiction publication. As well as writing short stories and novels, you teach fiction writing, you’ve been a fiction editor at a journal, and you’ve co-founded Braddock Books. I imagine that these experiences have given you unique insights into contemporary American fiction writing. What’s the most surprising thing you’ve learned?

It’s true that I’ve been wearing many literary hats. You know that writing and publishing is intensely competitive, and for many years writers had reputations for not being very kind to each other. Recently, however, there has been much talk about “literary citizenship.” Ball State University writing professor, Cathy Day, was the first person to introduce the phrase to me. In fact, she teaches a course there that is completely devoted to the topic of how to live as a writer. Naturally, there’s much about building a platform for your work and making use of social media and that sort of thing. But mostly, it seems to me, it’s about being collegial. I have been overwhelmed by number of literary friends who have stepped forward to help with Braddock Avenue Books, with arranging readings, with writing reviews. It’s a nicer, kinder literary scene these days.

Yes! Absolutely. It seems like writers and publishers have always kept the humanity of our characters in mind, but now we’re getting better about carrying that humanity into our business dealings as well. Speaking of characters, I’m curious: Some writers flinch from telling stories from the point of view of younger characters. You don’t. What do you think separates a successful young point-of-view character from a less successful character? What keeps the writing “literary”?

This is such an interesting question and one that I’ve both given a lot of thought to and asked other writers about, including Hannah Tinti and Caitlin Horrocks.  I remember so vividly as an MFA student at the University of Pittsburgh being told by a writer that I greatly admired that children in stories were “fictional furniture.”  Something you sit on for a moment but ultimately not very interesting because of their lack of culpability.  What they demonstrated, the argument went, was something important about the adults in their lives.

And while this sounds harsh, there’s some truth to it — with regard to shining a light on the adults in their lives.  Yet what I’ve found is that there’s another dimension to this situation, that far too often, literary children are saddled with adult concerns.  And, for me, when that’s the case, child protagonists demonstrate something incredibly poignant about the human condition.  Built-in sympathy, perhaps, but also the ability to tell truths that adults can’t always be trusted to tell.

That’s a really smart distinction. I think you make an excellent case for why young characters can be much more than just furniture.

Your characters, young and old, are also strongly informed by the places they inhabit. You live in Pittsburgh. Did you grow up there? How does that place affect you and your writing, both directly or indirectly?

The same professor that said that children were “fictional furniture” also said that “geography was everything.”  That if character determines plot, then place determines character.  I believe that absolutely.  For my own writing this has meant two things: first, so much of my recent fiction as taken place in Prague, and forced me to think about expatriate issues, and the way that American behave when they’re abroad.  Other fiction has dealt with the American suburbs, a place that is plagued by the notion of being an “any-place,” generic or, rather, corporatized in terms of housing developments and strip malls, and sprawl.  And so, for me, place is always fascinating and never to be underestimated.  It is, if fiction, a kind of literary ground zero.

Absolutely! What you say about writing about Prague reminds me of a comment I once heard about Charlotte Brontë’s novel Villette, which is set in a fictional version of Brussels. Its central character, Lucy Snowe, seems pretty unusual when at home in England, but as soon as she leaves the country for Villette, she becomes identified by her nationality — that is, she goes from being a unique individual to being “British.” It is as if leaving our home country makes us more a part of that country, almost to the point that what’s individual in us gets subsumed by our nationality and that group identity. Did you find this to be true when writing about American characters in Prague?

Absolutely.  There’s a line in “Praha” that says, “it is strange but true that Americans abroad are so often drawn to the known, to the familiar, as if the purpose of their travels was not to discover a different, more ancient world but to seek out fragments of the one they left behind.”  Americans often take the opportunity of their travels to “find” or discover themselves, to reevaluate their lives — something that maybe comes into focus more clearly against a foreign backdrop.  And, as you say, the foreign observer often fails to see our individuality and we become “spokesmen” for our culture.  It has certainly played out in reverse as the young Arabs I’ve written about are constantly asked to explain or stand up for their culture — regardless of whether they’re prepared to do it or not.  It’s difficult.  Most importantly, for me, I want to make plain the global nature of our realities.  We carry the seeds of our dysfunction everywhere we go, and in an increasingly shrinking world, we go everywhere.

You work with a lot of young writers. When did you know you wanted to be a writer? Can you describe your own evolution? How did you get where you are now?

There was a moment when I was thirteen or so that I realized that books were wonderful and incredibly important in my life.  They were both an escape from a very quiet and lonely childhood and an escape to a future that I was beginning to envision for myself.  Somehow, being a reader translated into wanting to write.  It’s a funny thing but I have always wanted to write — I didn’t have the find-yourself-what-should-I-do-with-my-life period of anxiety and indecision.  Many people tried to turn me away from writing to pursue a life that would lead to more stable, middle class values, but every time I thought to give up writing something always happened to keep me at my desk.  I was lucky in that way.  Sometimes it was the right teacher at the right moment or some small success.  Mostly, though, I came from a very poor background and I felt, quite rightly, that I had very little to lose.

If you could give any tip to an aspiring writer, what advice would you give?

My advice to aspiring writers is to be a good literary citizen: buy books, review them, interview people, share your contacts, be generous.  Living a literary life is too difficult to be anything less than kind and fully engaged. Perhaps more importantly, though, don’t forget to live.  Your childhood will give you one story, maybe even a good one — though probably someone more talented has already written something similar.  Instead, go out into the world, work, travel, meet people.  There are many people who have a facility with words and language, and that’s wonderful, but it’s also useless without a story to tell.  This is the main thing.

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Siân Griffiths lives in Ogden, Utah, where she directs the Creative Writing Program at Weber State University. Her work has appeared in Ninth Letter, Quarterly West, Cave Wall, River Teeth, Versal, Court Green, and The Georgia Review, among many other publications. Versal nominated her story “What Is Solid” for a Pushcart Prize, and Janet Burroway included her poem, “Fistful,” in the third edition of Imaginative Writing. New Rivers Press released her first novel, Borrowed Horses, in October. She is currently finishing revisions on her second novel.